‘When Florence Welch walks on she’ll be the biggest star in the world’
Emily Eavis, who runs the Glastonbury Festival with her father Michael, tells Jamie Merrill that despite accusations of selling out, the world’s biggest music event has lost none of its soul
The sky above Glastonbury is deep, clear blue and the woman who holds the power at Worthy Farm can feel the excitement building.
The setting up of the vast 1,000-acre site at Worthy Farm is complete. The 1,300 eco-friendly composting lavatories and the dozens of temporary stages are all in place, but, as she speaks, the Vale of Avalon is still awaiting the sea of tents and 135,000 soon-to-be sunburned (or mud-caked) ticket holders, most of whom will have descended upon it by today.
“It’s just the finishing touches now,” says Emily Eavis, who has run the world-famous festival with her father, Michael, since 1999.
Those finishing touches mean that a fleet of Land Rovers is constantly scurrying back and forth across the site and an army of workers are painting the last of the festival’s trademark decorated bins and erecting the banners.
It also meant that Eavis, along with her husband, Nick Dewey, who helps her to run the day-to-day business of booking bands and supervise the construction of a temporary city, had some last-minute “rejigging” of the Saturday night line-up to oversee.
This saw Florence and the Machine boosted to a headline slot, replacing the Foo Fighters after frontman Dave Grohl broke his leg.
“It’s going to be great. I’m so excited about Florence,” she says. “The fact is that when we sell our tickets in October people don’t know who is playing as we don’t announce it until the spring. They had a window to return their tickets [in April], but this year fewer people than last year took us up on that, which was amazing.”
There’s also the fact, she is quick to add, that “Florence is massive” and well deserving of her new headliner slot. “I think personally that when she walks on the stage she’ll be the biggest star in the world. She’s amazing live. She has all the right ingredients.
“We book bands here on those reasons, on the ingredients of a great performance, not on their record sales. But as it happens, Florence has been number one across the Atlantic and here. She’s an amazing star and a massive performer. We’ve had much more risky headliners.”
For Eavis, though, Glastonbury is about more than the “headliners and bands, bands, bands”. It has a turnover of more than stg£35m (€49m) and a seasonal crew of 50,000, enabling her and her father to donate stg£2m (€2.8m) to charity each year.
By yesterday lunchtime, as many as 90pc of ticket holders were expected to have arrived, a full day before the music actually starts.
This loyalty doesn’t stop the yearly controversies, though, including a tax protest against U2 in 2011. This year the inevitable saga has been a 130,000-signature petition to prevent rapper Kanye West from performing at the festival. “We try not to feed the [online] frenzy,” she says carefully.
“That petition was started by a guy called Neil who had never been to Glastonbury. He’s coming now. I’m not going to meet him, but he’s very welcome and he can make a decision after the show. I think Kanye is going to be fantastic.”
It’s clear Eavis is somewhat bored of the faux outrage every time she and Dewey book a group that isn’t four white men with guitars.
“Complaining about Kanye at Glastonbury is like going to London as saying you are appalled that Miss Saigon is playing,” she says. “In that case, go to Les Misérables instead...or the thousands of other shows.”
There’s also the question of Kanye West’s lyrics, which are hardly what you’d describe as feminist-friendly. “Oh God,” says Eavis. “If we censored the lyrics and views of people who performed we wouldn’t have anyone. We wouldn’t have had the Rolling Stones, or pretty much any of the headliners from the last 20 years.”
Not everyone will agree, but Eavis says she and her husband don’t take a band’s politics or lyrics into account. “It’s rock and roll,” she says. “The important thing is that they deliver the goods by making the crowd feel like they are part of something really spectacularly special.”
Glastonbury is certainly a special experience, but each year some complain that with its vast security fence, celebrities in Hunter wellies and colonies of expensive yurts, it has lost some of its soul, the so-called Glastonbury spirit.
This year the latest (unofficial) wheeze is a private jet service offering rides to the festival for stg£600 (€843), a development that Eavis says she would find funny if it didn’t threaten to drown out Glastonbury’s real message.
“I hadn’t even heard about that,” she responds.
“It’s like that hammering board game my boys have got. Things like this are popping up all the time, they have nothing to do with us and we try to knock them down. Corporations keep coming up with these things, but we are not interested in them in the slightest.”
In truth, the festival does have corporate tie-ins but Eavis says deals only get the “go ahead” if they help fund Glastonbury’s donations to Water Aid, Oxfam and Greenpeace. “We give as close to stg£2m to charity as we can every year. That is our utmost priority,” she says.
Eavis has been helping her father run the festival since her mother died in 1999. In reality, though, she’s had “full control” of the reins for a decade and her father, Michael, is taking an increasingly smaller role.
Earlier this year, Michael said his daughter was “cunning” in how she runs the festival, and keeps it true to its founding ethos. She laughs at this, but as if to prove her father’s take on her, she quickly confirms that all three headliners for Glastonbury 2016 are already booked.
Are they guitar bands? “I can’t answer that. It would give it away,” she laughs.
She’s right to be secretive; the last thing she wants this weekend is another online petition on her hands.