WOMEN IN BUSINESS: Emma Twamley & Merryn Albon – Heart & Soul
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Culture isn’t simply a ‘doing’. Rather, it is a ‘being’. This means that you are more likely to feel or perceive it in other people before you necessarily see it.
And so, when I first met Emma Twamley and her team at our ‘100 Most Influential Women’ celebration event in February, I instantly felt a connection and could just tell that their team culture (and, indeed, that of their magical Glas-Denbury Music & Arts Festival) was rich, genuine and incredibly positive. I was impressed, not only because Emma had been selected as one of our #100WomenExeter, but that she had made it to the celebration event despite being in excruciating back pain.
I couldn’t resist spending some further time with the Glas-Denbury Crew, so I got in touch and a hilarious chain of communication started, mainly comprised of irreverent GIFs and YouTube links. I knew that these were ‘my types of people’ and that I had found some new friends. I also had a funny feeling that most people who meet them probably feel the same way.
So, a date was set, instructions were given to wear colourful clothes and bring props and, with genuine excitement, I met with Emma, along with her Production Manager Merryn Albon and a colourful, loud and hilarious bunch of the Glas-Denbury crew who she had brought along with her. I was in for one of the most fun interviews I have done to date and, more importantly, with some of the most wonderful people I have met since working for Grow.
For those of you that haven’t yet had the pleasure of coming across Glas-Denbury, it is an annual music and arts festival which takes place over a weekend in July, attracts about 6000 revellers and is based in the beautiful village of Denbury, which is about twenty minutes south-west of Exeter. It is the brain-child of Emma Twamley (mother-of-five, Director of the festival and owner of Quiet Dream Productions) and is as much a celebration of community collaboration as it is a festival of arts. The festival is not a commercial venture, so has no paid staff and is powered by the love, sweat and elbow-grease of a team of dedicated, loyal and passionate volunteers.
Merryn Albon, who joined me and Emma for our chat, is one of these incredible people and has volunteered on the festival team since the age of fifteen, where she has enjoyed opportunities that a person aspiring to work in the arts could only dream of. One such opportunity saw Merryn becoming the festival’s main Artist Liaison at the unbelievably young age of 17. This meant her sourcing, booking and communicating directly with all the acts as well as discussing contracts, negotiating the acts’ positions on the line-up and making sure that everything was going to plan when the artists were onsite.
Also joining Emma and Merryn were some other members of the team, including Ben Malley (also a Production Manager and the only other male present), some of Emma’s daughters (who came tooled up with cameras and Instagram at the ready) and Sharmilla Phillips (from a company called Pluma UK who had provided colourful feather headdresses for the day).
Neither Sharmilla or I had ever spent any real time with the Glas-Denbury crew but the very fact that we felt completely at home with them just goes to show the extent to which their culture and values permeate everything they do. Honesty, fun and self-expression sit at the heart of everything that Glas-Denbury get up to and, come to think of it, it really wouldn’t be a misuse of the word to describe the Glas-Denbury team (or ‘The Misfits’ as they affectionately refer to themselves) as a big family.
As we got in a round of drinks and settled into our comfy armchairs, I felt completely at ease and able to be myself. Emma effortlessly recalled a quote by Margaret Mead, an American cultural anthropologist, that has inspired and informed her over the years:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
And the story of how Glas-Denbury started mirrors that exact philosophy. After what she describes as an “incredible childhood” in Stortford, Hertfordshire and with a background in the travel industry, Emma moved to Devon. It was around her kitchen table that she had a ‘quiet dream’ of what a festival should be and, ever since, has gone about making this dream a reality. With family, positivity and passion at the very heart of everything the festival stands for, Emma has been the visionary figurehead who has pushed things forward, but she has simultaneously done an expert job of gathering like-minded and skilled people around her along the way.
In fact, many of the growing Glas-Denbury team are contacts or lifelong friends of Emma’s who have relocated to Denbury to become a part of the feel-good story that she is creating. Although a very simple concept (“a gathering of people in a field once a year to make the world a happier place” as Emma put it) its impact and reach are significant. The ‘Glas-Denbury family’ have organically grown over the years and it is very commonplace that, once someone has got involved, they tend to return every year thereafter, usually along with more friends who they feel would enjoy being a part of such a feel-good team.
And, likewise, the story of how Merryn and Ben came to be a part of the Glas-Denbury team mirrors this trend. At the tender age of fifteen, Merryn came across the festival via her boyfriend at the time, who was doing some graphic design for Emma. When recounting these early formative stages of their relationship, Merryn said,
“I remember it as clear as day. We were sat in your kitchen with your Dad (GanGan) and one of his friends doing impressions. It was your twins’ birthdays, so we were all having a laugh and I just felt at home instantly. I knew that I was able to be myself and I think that was really important to have right at the beginning of our friendship.”
In a moment of genuine sweetness, Emma looked at Merryn with an affectionate, misty-eyed gaze and added
“I think of Merryn as my daughter. Since the very first time I met her, I had a very special connection with her and can’t imagine life without her now. The same with Ben. He was a friend of a friend and he started out as a sound engineer on one of our stages. It has been an absolute joy to see him come out of his shell over the years. He’s had to become a strong character too – what with being surrounded by such strong women 24/7!”
This brief but meaningful exchange within our wider dialogue really stood out to me and perfectly captured a recurring conversational theme – that Emma believes firmly in identifying and investing in the younger generations. It seems to have been a clear choice and preference for her to try and achieve success and grow the festival each year by using the passion, energy and creativity of young people.
It was also crystal clear during my time with Emma that she highly values empowering others and allowing them to gain confidence and experience in areas which they may have never considered doing. She recounts multiple stories of this happening, including local chimney sweeps becoming Site Managers and Denbury residents starting to run cocktail bars and food trucks at the festival. Whilst expanding on the culture and feel of the festival, Emma remarked, “If you are kind, genuine, honest and transparent, you will always find people who are willing to work with you and play their part in achieving your overall vision”.
And what an exciting festival Emma and her team have created! Although seemingly impossible, each year’s festival seems to somehow top the last. For example, take this year’s festival, which is themed around rainbows and disco. Thanks in huge part to the positive reputation and ethos of the festival, Emma shared with me how they have managed to secure Martha Reeves and the Vandellas to play the headline slot on the opening night. Martha is often referred to as ‘The Queen of Motown’ and, in a career spanning more than 50 years, has been responsible for some of the biggest hits in Motown and R&B, including ‘Dancing in the Streets’ and ‘Heat Wave’.
Such is the impact of the group’s work, that several members of the group have been inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame and the group have been included in Rolling Stones magazines’ ‘Immortal Artists’ list. The group is flying over from Los Angeles especially for this one performance and have expressed their support and approval of the approach and vision of the festival.
As Emma spoke about Martha, she became visibly excited and even a little awestruck. With a glint in her eye, Emma shared how Motown and Soul music have a very special place in her heart and how she is counting down the days; not only until she gets to see one of her favourite artists but, even better, playing at her festival in the village that she lives in and loves!
Also joining Martha Reeves and the Vandellas this year are a host of local, regional and national acts. Stand-out acts include Bristol-based nu-reggae outfit Backbeat Soundsystem (I challenge you to find a band who make you feel more Summery and happy) and Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer (an irreverent banjolele aficionado and the founding father of ‘Chap-Hop’ – a perfect blend of UK rap and song themes such as cricket, pipe-smoking and high society). Also joining the varied and impressive bill are disco-legends The Real Thing and the inimitable Basil Brush (yes, that’s right, THE Basil Brush…… BOOM BOOM!).
As the minutes ticked by and our conversation meandered seamlessly between our personal and professional lives, I caught myself wondering how much time had actually elapsed since we first arrived at the hotel where we were meeting. It was as if I had entered that wonderfully unexplainable ‘social Bermuda triangle’ that occasionally occurs; where you lose track of time, your worries seem to seep away into the far reaches of your mind and you experience a rare but pure essence of happiness.
This, I believe, is part of the core D.N.A of Glas-Denbury (but more importantly of Emma and her amazing team). Time spent with them is time spent in the presence of beautifully unhindered and liberated people. Coming away from my time with them, I felt as if the cultural values that they carry had somehow rubbed off on me and that I was now walking to my next meeting with a spring in my step, a lightness in my soul and a refreshed belief in the positive power of humanity.
To put it simply, Emma is making the world a happier place, one festival at a time. So, ladies and gentlemen, I introduce to you, the wonderful; the marvellous; the magical Glas-Denbury Music & Arts Festival!
This year, Glas-Denbury takes place on the 6th and 7th of July and is jam-packed with music, poetry, crafts, locally produced food & drink and so much more. For more information on the festival, or to book your tickets, please download Zappar and scan here, or visit www.glas-denbury.co.uk
Follow the magic of Glas-Denbury on Twitter @GlasdenburyFest or on Instagram @glas_denbury