Independent festival Brainchild crafted a unique atmosphere with a variety of performances in a dreamy field…

Walking from the shipping crate cocktail bar to the campsite, I weaved my way around several groups of people. The first were playing with an invisible Frisbee, leaping into the air. The second were sprawled in the shade of a structure of elephantine intestines made of cushions. A pillow was oozing its stuffing, curled around their heads like fluffy sheep. They chatted solemnly. Another group was cocooned in hammocks, two or three bodies in each, foreheads and boots peeping above the coloured fabric.

The walk took one minute. It’s one of most attractive points of Sussex’s Brainchild Festival – it’s small. Capped at 3,000 capacity, 250 more than last year, you can walk the full site, within the grounds of the Bentley Wildfowl and Motor Museum in Sussex, in under 15 minutes. This year, I chose Brainchild over Glastonbury for the rowing boat pace. My decision was vindicated by friends who went to both: according to a couple of them, Brainchild was more fun.

The three-day event took place over a balmy July weekend. Since the maiden voyage as a gathering in a field that sold just 150 tickets, Brainchild has gradually expanded each year. The 2019 programme of around 300 performances covered music, theatre and talks. Events that celebrate ‘emerging artists’ can often culminate in a crowd who don’t care who is on the line-up, and performances can be hit and miss. But big names are not why we attend Brainchild, and there were far more hits than misses.

Closing the mainstage (Brainstage) on the Sunday, an artist that people did come to see was Alice Phoebe Lou, a South African singer whose music resides in the dusky realm where folk meets blues. Her raw, wistful voice was an apt soundtrack for lolling in the ankle-deep grass — Brainchild’s most popular pastime. Like many others on the line-up, Alice Phoebe Lou played a dreamy set of jazz-infused tunes.

The most memorable performance was in the Kite Bar marquee, where Parasang played as the sun began to dip on Saturday evening. Led by Iranian artist Pouya Ehsaei, the improv group enlisted artists from across the Brainchild roster for a one-off gig that tied together a range of instruments, played at an electric pace, with an acid-leaning DJ. Musicians swapped in and out throughout the 90-minute show, with instruments ranging from a saxophone to a kora (a West African 21-string lute-bridge-harp). The result was a sound of relentless foot-stomping beats that whirled the crowd into a frenzy.

Besides the live music, there was a variety of electronic acts at The Shack, a stage in the woods that featured primarily UK artists. This was perhaps the most notable area at the festival for the production, in a tree-shaded oasis just a short walk away from the rest of the site. The Untriumphal Arch, a bus-sized industrial cage that housed the DJ booth in previous years, was replaced by a gentler structure — the black and gold cauldron-like flower coined Khloris in the Woods, designed by artists Eg & Sonia.

Opening at 5pm every day, the line-up at The Shack jumped between disparate sounds and styles, from the genre-hopping originality of Josey Rebelle to the breaks-influenced selections of NTS resident Fauzia. femme culture co-founder Elkka was a highlight, delivering a set coloured by rich melodies and dynamic cuts. She benefited from playing on the Sunday, when three days of Brainchild had marinated the crowd into a convivial soup.

Central though the music is to Brainchild, it isn’t the main focus of the festival. Nor are the talks, performances, or art installations — which this year focused loosely on the theme of endings — though each element contributes to the overall vibe and energy. One in three attendees was a volunteer, and everyone seemed to be friends with someone who was “running the festival.” The result was the atmosphere of an extended family gathering. There is a cheesiness to this but, like all good cheese, it feels authentic. Brainchild’s focus is on creating a collaborative space, where many hands have pulled threads to tie a single cloth.

Photo credits:
Lead, yoga – Flore Diamant
Kaleidoscope, Josey Rebelle – Jordan Matyka 

Find out more about  Brainchild Festival here.