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Twisterella: How Middlesbrough’s award-winning music festival came to be

Co-promoter Henry Carden talks the festival that's become an essential part of Middlesbrough's music scene, his background, and why so many artists are flying the flag for our region

Henry Carden is smiling – or so it sounds like over the phone – as he describes himself as a megalomaniac numerous times during our chat.

Music fans in Middlesbrough and across Teesside might appreciate that.

As the seventh version of the award-winning Twisterella went so smoothly last month, those attending might not have understood the strength the legs had been kicking underwater to ensure the festival played out serenely at the surface.

It’s renowned across the UK for booking the best up-and-coming bands and artists.

Many on the line-up, booked by Henry and co-promoters Andy Carr and Phil Carey at the Kids are Solid Gold, were originally tied down back in April 2020.

By then, Covid had hit and Teessiders were locked down in their homes, and the live music industry ground to a halt.

“Some of the acts we booked for 2020 have really taken off in the past year, with artists like The Howl & The Hum, Dream Nails and Jordan Mackampa releasing amazing albums” said Henry.

“The last 18 months have been really hard for us all – for the artists, management, promoters, and for everyone who just loves going out and watching bands, but I guess one positive was that it gave some of the line-up more time to build and develop.”

Lauran Hibberd at Twisterella
Pic: Victoria Wai

As it made its big return in 2021, Covid was a factor – preparation was as thorough as it could be and cautious about capacity, Teesside University’s Students Union stage was moved to the larger ‘Hub’ which meant there was a less-crowded, roomy space for those who felt more comfortable.

The festival – a full day of live music on five stages across four different venues – has gained an enviable reputation since launching in 2014.

Along with the work of a host of other promoters, the festival has helped maintain Middlesbrough as a destination for cutting edge live music.

That’s important, acknowledges Henry, as the demise of Middlesbrough Music Live and its replacement, Intro Festival, in 2011, left Middlesbrough in danger of slipping off artists’ touring schedules.

MarthaGunn at Twisterella
Pic: Victoria Wai

“We didn’t want to try and recreate Music Live, we wanted to do something unique that played to our strengths. We decided we needed to focus on emerging artists, and create something here that was held in high regard,” continued Henry.

“Over the past seven years, Andy and I have become good mates. Music fans here have always been knowledgeable, and I think over time, they’ve come to really trust us with the events we put on.”

The Howl and the Hum at Twisterella
Pic: Victoria Wai

And Henry is encouraged by how far the local music scene has come – crediting artists, promoters and the presenters of the BBC Tees Introducing show, formerly Bob Fischer and now Rianne Thompson, for supporting new music.

“There’s so much on – whether it’s at the Westgarth, Base Camp, the Empire, or in Stockton or elsewhere – especially as we’re still catching up with gigs that had been cancelled due to Covid, there’s sometimes clashes where two excellent gigs are on on the same night,” continued Henry.

Growing up in Guisborough, Henry played in DARTZ! In the mid 00s, earning an international record deal and flying the flag for Teesside music with numerous Radio 1 sessions and videos on MTV.

“It sometimes felt there was an awful lot of pressure for us to make it,” he continued.

“There’s always been someone flying that flag (for Teesside), be it the Chapman Family or Young Rebel Set or Cattle & Cane.

“But at the moment, I think we’ve got 10 to 12 new-ish artists on Teesside who are already establishing themselves nationally.

“Whether they’re getting played on Radio 1 or 6 Music, or performing at festivals across the country, it feels like there’s a lot of artists making waves beyond a TS postcode.

“We’ve never really had that and I think it shows how healthy the grassroots are around here.”

Twisterella certainly helps. Its (Un)Conference, hosted by Henry and the team before the festival proper gets underway, gives young artists a chance to speak to music industry professionals in their home town, in a relaxed and informal way.

“We were conscious that a lot of artists might not know where to start – and even if they did, it’s not always as easy as it should be to get in touch and speak to the right people,” Henry continued.

“It’s about developing those relationships over a coffee and trying to make sure it’s not stuffy.”

When he’s not booking festivals or gigs, Henry manages a number of local artists – including Jodie Nicholson, who he first met at (Un)Conference 2019, Mt. Misery and Cattle & Cane.

He also works with organisations like Middlesbrough Town Hall, Tees Music Alliance and Generator doing artist development and mentoring.

With his experience in DARTZ!, helping the next generation of musicians grow is important to Henry, who now lives in Norton after living in Linthorpe for a number of years.

Henry Carden

After his time in the band ended, Henry worked in PR and for a record label in London before moving home and immediately moving back into the local music scene.

Did he feel any pressure to keep that going when he came back to Teesside?

“I wouldn’t say it was pressure. I think with the band, I was a bit of a megalomaniac and we managed everything ourselves.

“I was 21 when we signed a record deal. I was working for Santander doing mortgages and I’d used up all my holidays, so the deal left me with no option but to quit my day job,” Henry continued.

“We toured all over Europe and we had a brilliant time, and when it was winding down I’d done enough to know I wanted to stay in music.

“We had offers from managers of some pretty big artists, and I guess it could have been interesting to see what might have happened if we’d gone down that route.”

Now, a clutch of Teesside artists are finding out where they can go with that type of help.

 

We are words: Mike Brown

We are pictures: Victoria Wai (pictures from Twisterella)

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