In just a decade, Vivid Sydney has become an essential, sprawling, multidisciplinary arts festival, drawing millions to the city with its ever-evolving and ambitious programming.

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on March 20, 2019

The festival takes in large-scale light shows, an ideas program and Vivid Music, which this year features the iconic likes of The Cure and Herbie Hancock as well niche and fast-rising acts from across the musical spectrum.

There’s the spidery avant-R&B and slinky trip-hop of FKA Twigs, the tempestuous instrumental racket of The Dirty Three, critically adored singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten and Australian icon Paul Kelly collaborating with Alice Keath and piano trio Seraphim on a new work celebrating birds. There are also literally dozens more acts on the bill and Stephen Ferris says that curating the program was a lengthy and complex process with many moving parts.

Touch Sensitive
Above: Vivid artist Touch Sensitive. Photo credit: Cybele Malinowski

Vivid Music takes place everywhere from The Sydney Opera House to tiny dive bars

“The Opera House is the key to both the music and the visuals at Vivid,” he explains. “Ben Marshall (Vivid LIVE Curator) does an incredible job putting that together. I think this year…it’s quite interesting and challenging. There’s a whole lot of things on where people probably aren’t even aware of who they are, so it’s quite cutting edge.”

Along with Sydney’s most famous venue, Vivid’s music programming sprawls across a small bar that can squeeze in just fifty punters, a brewery, a pop-up cabaret spot, a hairdressing salon and the gorgeous and acoustically pristine St. Stephen’s Uniting Church. One of the shows Ferris is most proud of scheduling features the pioneering drag queen Carlotta and will take place at the Hollywood Hotel, an out of time gem.

Vivid Sydney 2019 team

Above: Vivid Music Curator Stephen Ferris (L) with the team at the program launch. Photo credit: Dallas Kilponen

Ferris’ enthusiasm for Vivid Music is palpable as he flies through the many highlights of the program. He is especially enthused about bands he has watched build a platform through the festival over the years, often progressing from playing unique nooks and crannies in the city to headlining the marquee venues.

“We like to have popular pioneering acts, so we’ve had Bjork, Grace Jones and The Pet Shop Boys in the past. But we also have great Australian acts that are just hitting their stride like Hayden James, Set Mo, Touch Sensitive and Mallrat , who are playing at Curve Ball. It wouldn’t surprise me if all that sells out pretty quickly because it’s so now.”

Ferris is also counting down the days to Herbie Hancock’s Sydney Opera House show. “Anyone who knows me knows I love my soul, funk and jazz, so I think (Hancock’s show) is going to be an amazing thing,” he says. “He has been right at the forefront of fusion, where jazz meets rock, electronica and soul.”

Above: Vivid artist Mallrat. Photo credit: Michelle Pitiris

Many artists doing special one-off shows for Vivid 2019

Ferris says that the artists are often approached to do something boutique and curated for the festival to justify coming across the world for just one or two shows. “There’s a certain amount of creativity and ingenuity to match the artists to the program,” he says. “The program has always been a bit askew anyway, it’s a bit outside of mainstream thinking, for lack of a better term.”

Jonathan Zwartz, described by Ferris as “one of the great bass players in this country”, is just one act doing a high concept show this year. His event, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, will see him imagining the contents of the cassette tape taken by astronauts on the Apollo 11 flight a half-century after it gripped the world. Expect songs from the likes of David Bowie, Air and Kraftwerk.

The enduring influence of The Cure and memories of a grumpy Lou Reed

One of the centrepiece acts on this year’s bill is The Cure, who will play their evergreen 1989 record Disintegration in full at the Sydney Opera House. Ferris says the band hold a unique place in contemporary music.

“Someone told me yesterday the last time they saw (The Cure), there were three different generations of fans standing and enjoying it together. Very few bands can say that.

“The art of being outsiders but having pop hit records is a very difficult tightrope to walk. You could name a dozen or more Cure songs or more that everyone can sing along to, they cut across a very wide demographic. They’re extraordinary.”

A Zelig-like figure in the Sydney music scene, Ferris has been involved in the industry for decades as a singer, DJ, broadcaster and promoter. His CV includes a stint as Lou Reed’s house DJ for the 2010 Vivid festival and he offers a wry memory of his time working with the icon. Revered for exploding the possibilities of popular music with The Velvet Underground and his solo work, Reed was also one of music’s most notorious curmudgeons.

“I’m gonna tell the truth here – he was (at Vivid) with Laurie Anderson, who was also his curating partner,” Ferris recalls. “She was a joy, an absolute delight, she went round and shook hands with everybody, made us feel like we were all part of the one team. Lou Reed, though, I don’t think he said a single word to me the whole time he was here. Maybe he was in poor health, but he was a cranky individual.”

At one point, Ferris presented Reed with a photo he had taken of him at the Hordern Pavilion. Reed looked at it, unimpressed, and then silently gave it back, every bit the grouch of rock lore.

“I think that only serves to enhance his legend even more,” Ferris laughs.

Header image credit: Josh Bis