Interview: Gill Tee, co-founder of the Black Deer Festival

Gill Tee is one of the co-founders of the Black Deer Festival which takes place at Eridge Park in Kent between the 21st and 23rd of June. This year’s line up includes Band of Horses, The Shires, John Butler Trio and Kris Kristofferson.

Gill left Capital Radio in 1998 to start her own production business – Entertee – with her business partner Deborah Shilling, the other co-founder of Black Deer. Last year they celebrated Entertee’s 20th anniversary. In its first year, Black Deer proved hugely successful and it managed to make off with the accolade for ‘Best New Festival on the Block’ at the Independent Festival Awards and also won the National Outdoor Events Association (NOEA) ‘Event Organiser of the Year’ award. After such a momentous first year excitement is building for what the second year of Black Deer might hold in store. Mark Underwood of Americana-UK sat down with Gill to reflect on year 1, discuss what’s in store for attendees of this year’s festival, and to talk in more depth about her background.

Hi Gill, you must be incredibly proud of all the awards the festival won in your first year. If you ever wondered about the wisdom of putting on Black Deer this must surely be all the vindication you and the team needed for all your hard efforts. In an already crowded market place what do you think set Black Deer Festival apart?
I think the love and care that Debs, my business partner and I have put into the festival has been a very important factor in our successful year one. Since the very start when Black Deer was just an idea, it stemmed from a love of the music. I had grown up listening to Americana and it seemed the most natural decision for us to follow this route when producing our very own festival – a love of the music and all the great things that come with it; a close-knit community, a simple way of life and the great outdoors – once we had decided on the festival location in Eridge Park, everything just fell into place and we had the perfect setting. We were told after year one that the festival had a unique feeling of warmth and everyone no matter their age, was made to feel welcome. One person commented that Black Deer was like walking into a “great big hug” and this really made it for me.

Although you’re an experienced festival promoter, last year must still have been a steep learning curve. Are you making any changes to the running and organisation of the festival following last year?
I am actually a very experienced Festival and event organiser, but have never promoted my own festival before. My background gave me a great understanding of what is required to produce a well-organised event, however, producing and promoting the festival was taking it to another level. Debs concentrated on the brand marketing, while I concentrated on building the world. We won several awards off the back of last year which was a huge honour and we are so appreciative of the recognition that Black Deer received within the industry, so we must have done something right.

We have made some really positive changes to the festival which we know our audience will love, we have not added lots of different experiences, but have enhanced what we did last year. We wanted people to come back to the festival this year and feel familiar with the layout and setting especially as it worked so well in year one.

On our travels we have been fortunate to have met some incredible people who champion the two genres we represent, Americana and Country, and we are really excited to be collaborating with so many of them on Black Deer to develop some of the amazing content we will share with our audience this year.

More collaborations for 2019 include Desertscene who are curating the Roadhouse stage – they are bringing a low and slow desert rock vibe to the Roadhouse this year which has really come into its own and will be a fantastic place to see some new bands, custom bikes and enjoy the outdoor acoustic stage we have there.

Who really stood out for you at the festival last year?
There was so much great music at every part of the festival, that I was truly amazed at the talent. I could not single one out, as in reality, I only grabbed small amounts of time to actually watch some of the great artists at work.  Jason Isbell, was a definite one I wanted to see, but unfortunately I was dragged away for an interview, so I didn’t manage to get to see his set!

You’ve already announced some exciting acts this year. Is there anyone you’re particularly looking forward to seeing this time round?
I am so proud of our line-up this year. It’s hard to choose but I’m really excited to see Yola who will be playing on the main stage just before the sun sets – such a magical part of the day. And of course Band of Horses, Kris Kristofferson & The Strangers and The Dead South we know will all put on an amazing show.

I’m also really looking forward to supporting some of our emerging, local artists who are playing The Yard (campsite) stage this year – we have collaborated with some key local curators who have pulled together a programme of brilliant, up and coming talent – it’s really important to me that we help move new, emerging artists up the bill as much as we can.

Kris Kristofferson will be celebrating his 83rd birthday over the weekend of Black Deer. Getting a legend like him must feel like a real coup.
Absolutely!  We have had such great feedback and excitement over social media in the lead up and Kris is right at the forefront. I have no doubt he will put on an incredible show, and what better way to celebrate his 83rd birthday.

Seeing as neither Capital radio or Party in the Park are particularly renowned for Americana music, tell us about the evolution of your own musical interests?
As a kid growing up, our home was filled with Americana and Country music. Sadly this stopped when my 19 year old brother was murdered and our world fell apart overnight. The music came to a halt in our house, and it was years before I was able to sit and listen to some of the incredible music I would hear my brother play on his guitar, and listen to. Black Deer for me is bursting with heart and soul, and my brother and his love of Americana and Country music plays a huge part in this. Haley’s bar at Black Deer, is dedicated to him, so it makes it really special to see people having fun there, listening to the kind of music Chris would have loved.

I also had the honour of producing the Hop Farm Festival for 5 years, which featured some of my favourite artists, so that certainly gave me another reminder of the kind of music I wanted to be involved with. Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and so many more. It was a great time for me, not only being amongst those great artists, but learning so many lessons on running festivals.

What’s the most complicated thing about running an event such as Black Deer?
I couldn’t choose a more perfect location for Black Deer than Eridge Park. Having worked at the estate previously on other events, it has a special place in my heart and I knew it was where Black Deer had to be. However, it is not an easy landscape to manage – there is no water or power and the land itself is hugely undulated, so it certainly has its challenges as far as the build goes.

By carefully choosing a solid, experienced team to work with me, we put all our energy into finding solutions to these challenges year on year and our audience would be none the wiser! The breath-taking scenery more than makes up for the hard work.

The other biggest challenge is getting the right investors involved who also believe in our vision. It costs a lot of money to produce a festival to the standard I was happy with. It would have been impossible to achieve this on a first-year festival, in a genre that is not mainstream, without the forward thinking of our investors, who have taken Black Deer into their hearts. It makes for a great team, who have all pooled their resources to assist in any way they can to get public attention for Black Deer.

You recently appeared as a panellist at the Americana Music Association UK (AMA-UK) conference in a session titled “Oh Sister, Where Art Thou: Women In Americana Music. What was that like?
I felt very proud to be asked to be on the panel. Debs and I are relatively newbies in this circle. A year prior to being on the panel, I was sat in the audience watching other people speaking on different subjects, with Black Deer firmly in mind, listening with great interest to the words of wisdom and passion emulating from this community. To now be welcomed into it with open arms, with an acceptance that with Black Deer is another platform for the amazing artists to be showcased to a wider audience, is truly exciting.

You’re obviously close to AMA-UK and helping to nurture and support AMA-UK artists by inviting members to play at Black Deer. Given some of the barriers faced by women in the music business, was any thought given to having a stage dedicated to female artists only?
Debs and I work very closely with our booker Bev Burton, and really try hard to support and champion female artists. Last year we managed to get a good balance. This year has been a little trickier, due to a lot of the female artists we approached not being available on those dates. It was not through the lack of trying! It also comes down to talent too, and being the right artist for Black Deer. I am sure no female artist would want to be booked just because they are female.

For me, a festival is about discovering new bands and artists that you didn’t know existed, but also having the best weekend listening to bands who you have championed for years – a real mixture of the two makes for a special weekend and I think keeping a mix of artists across our stages, gives the variety that our audience enjoy so much.

What advice would you give anyone who was starting out and wanted to put on a festival for the first time?
Working with great investors and a solid team is the absolute key. I wouldn’t be doing what I do without either of those things, so my advice would be to ensure you have good people around you who share the same ethos and are just as determined as you to grow the festival and be proud of what you are delivering. It does take mix of a lot of courage, and being just plain stupid, but the feeling you get when you see the smiling faces, and people enjoying themselves, and you have played a big part in that, certainly makes up for all the sleepless nights.

Do you see Black Deer as a long term project or are you taking it one year at a time?
In the world of festivals, you have to take everything one year at a time unfortunately! However, the belief that the team and I have in this festival is huge and I feel in my bones that Black Deer has a long, happy life ahead of it.  Much of that is down to the support we have received from our festival attendees who have been incredible from the very start, and the Americana and Country community who have helped make Black Deer feel so welcome.  We hope we are here to stay!

Deborah Shilling and Gill Tee photographed by Alun Callender

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