The magic of Øya, the world’s greenest music festival
“Oh, green world/ Don’t desert me now/ Bring me back to fallen town/ Where someone is still alive…” Never have these words felt more fitting than when belted out by Damon Albarn during a rallying rendition of Gorillaz’ 2005 hit “O Green World” at Norway’s Øya Festival. The music event – back in Oslo this year after a three-year hiatus – is the greenest in the world.
Øya, which earned that accolade at the 2020 A Greener Festival Awards, is a trailblazer. It has been running on renewable energy for over a decade. More than 90 per cent of all food served on the site is organic, and almost 40 per cent of it is meat-free. All meals are served in compostable packaging – some of the plates are even edible – and all waste is hand-sorted, with more than 60 per cent of it being recycled.
Guilt-free partying only scrapes the surface of what Øya has to offer. Taking place in Oslo’s tree-filled Tøyenparken, it is minutes away from deep, navy-blue fjords that shock away the clingiest of hangovers. Portable wooden saunas, sailed by uniformed captains, float along the water, inviting you to sweat out the sins of the night before. In the distance, islands – or øyer in Norwegian – mushroom up along the horizon, dotted with red and green summer houses. Within the site, the loos are not a living hell (UK festivals, this is possible), and nobody is throwing beer, either – it’s far too expensive to waste.
Every year, the line-up is superb – and it’s got a 50/50 gender split. Norwegian folk duo Kings of Convenience are one of the first bands to play this year, on the Wednesday. Mixing twinkly acoustic guitars and charming, boyish lyrics, they draw a sweet, swaying crowd on the crest of a hill, under dappled sunlight. Brenn, a youthful rock group that look and sound like they’re straight out of School of Rock (a good thing), thrash their way through a lively set, while New Zealand’s sonic shapeshifter Aldous Harding plays an eccentric show that climaxes with a slowly swelling live version of “Leathery Whip”.
Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s imaginary cartoon quartet Gorillaz, who have been on a worldwide tour since April, are the first headliners. Their set, perfected after so many months on the road, swings between the more mournful – “On Melancholy Hill” – and the pulsing hits like “Feel Good” and “Clint Eastwood”. Albarn wades through the rapt crowd and tells us stories about surreal daydreams he’s had and Viking ancestors.
On Thursday, Dublin post-punk outfit Fontaines DC play a loose, frantic set – frontman Grian Chatten is itchy, agitated, pacing. He seems to convulse with the music. He’s wearing an Outkast t-shirt, and his Adidas trackies with green stripes are a nod to Ireland. His bandmates, one in a Slipknot top, seem subdued in comparison. British soul singer Michael Kiwanuka switches the tempo with his anguished “Solid Ground” and the soaring “Love & Hate”, his warm, gritty voice clashing beautifully with Michael Jablonka’s slicing electric guitar.
Headlining the main stage are Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – heart-rending with “O Children”, defiant with “Jubilee Street”, playful with “Red Right Hand”. Warren Ellis, with his curly, shell-white beard, looks like he’s been plucked from the bottom of a fjord. The nimble, besuited Cave cannot stop reaching out to clutch the hands of those in the front row, as though he’s searching for connection. He dashes back to his piano just in time to be ensconced in a singalong to the gorgeous, plaintive “Into My Arms”.
Equally majestic the following day is Florence + the Machine, Welch spinning across the stage with her bare feet and Rapunzel-length red hair. The bewitching south London singer treats the crowd to many of the hits from her multi-platinum debut album Lungs. More than a decade since its release, songs like the skittish “Kiss with a Fist” to the triumphant “Dog Days are Over” feel as fresh as ever. Before she howls power ballad “Never Let Me Go”, she tells the crowd she had vowed never to perform it again because it filled her with shame. “I haven’t sung this in a long time because, when I wrote it, I was very young and very drunk and very sad,” the singer, a recovering alcoholic, says. “But we’ve started playing it again as a thank you to all of you who held my water-logged heart for so long.”
On the final day, London DJ and one of the world’s best crowd puppeteers Ben UFO delivers an exuberant, sweaty set to whistles of approval on the clubbing stage. He flits gingerly between crunchy house, smooth garage and murky techno. Later, British rap’s leading woman Little Simz – whose latest record, 2021’s Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, was called “the most thrilling album of the year” by The Independent– gives a decidedly extrovert performance. Bouncing across the stage, she delivers a set that seals her status as one of the most exciting performers of her generation: monumental stamina and flows so fast they’d leave Twista in the dust. Norway’s sweetheart Aurora closes out the festival with an angelic performance, singing in front of a giant pink moon. “Tusen takk,” she gushes, over and over, to her adoring fans. And I can only say the same to Øya. A thousand thanks.