Last weekend, the sleepy Tuscan hamlet of Casole d’Elsa awoke to a very unfamiliar feeling of excitement. A large sound stage was erected in the small piazza, neighbouring a salumeria and an unfussy bar, and the adjacent Romanesque edifice of the Santa Maria Assunta oversaw a crowd of new faces swarming in. On the calendar, it marked the Summer Solstice. But more importantly for both visitors and locals, it was the first time Rick Rubin’s mysterious The Festival of the Sun came to town. 

Rubin is one of the most enigmatic figures in pop culture; a spiritual sono-guru from the New York suburbs who was influential in the development of so many musical genres and artists. He spends some of his time here in Italy, away from Shangri-La, the studio where he works as a producer and self-styled researcher (really—Rubin is responsible for maintaining the archives of the most fascinating and rare books, music and paraphernalia). “I wish I had come to this part of Italy earlier in my life,” he tells me, “It’s just so beautiful and inspiring.” Today, we’re standing in the church’s courtyard, which is used as the festival’s communal hub. It is an enchanting Tuscan stone-walled scene populated by glamorous people mingling beside slender antique columns. A generous buffet is presented on a single long table, composed of produce from local farmers and other Italian classics. There is a keen anticipation to know who will perform in the church and on the stage in front of the Casolei. Italian actors like Riccardo Scamarcio are there, as is rapper Ghali (whose unannounced presence elicits furor from the local teenagers) and filmmaker Damien Chazelle. The Festival of the Sun is La dolce vita as told by Rick Rubin—a celebration of the good life spent with cool people. But there’s a reason you might not have heard of it yet.

Jack Dorsey Rick Rubin
Ghali, Jack Dorsey and Rick Rubin at Festival of The Sun. Italy, 2024. By Luke Georgiades.
Ghali Jovanotti
Ghali and Jovanotti at Festival of The Sun. Italy, 2024. By Luke Georgiades.

“Last year, I went to visit [filmmaker] Terry Gilliam, who runs the Umbria Film Festival. He’s been doing it for 28 years, but I hadn’t heard of it. It’s just 200 people and the coolest thing,” he says. It’s important for Rubin to involve the townspeople as much as possible, and that means keeping the festival intimate. Even more surprising is how there’s no VIP section. Rubin is as accessible as anyone. “I want it to feel like a community,” he adds. After attending Gilliam’s festival, he immediately thought about Casole d’Elsa. “It’s a beautiful little town not too far from where I spend my summers, and it felt like a pleasant thing to do.” It began life as a music festival but it also includes screenings with Andrew Dominik, meditation sessions, and culinary events with locally-sourced meats, cheeses, and speciality dishes “… I realised I love film and the arts, craftsmanship and food and I wanted to combine all of them—even involving the traditional cheese makers from the area. So many things switch on the senses out here and I thought it would be nice to have a gathering where people can come together to experience that.”

I ask about the festival line-up. Rubin can call on anyone; some of the biggest stars he’s worked with include Jay Z and Tyler the Creator. But that’s not his, or his team’s, intention. The festival is not about spectacle, but a fine curation of sound and setting, and how they combine in a meaningful way. Rubin invited James Blake, Arcade Fire, Italian star Jovanotti, and Gossip to perform. “It’s as special for James Blake to be here as it is for the people in the town,” he tells me. “It’s not every day they get to perform in an Italian church, in front of people who don’t know who they are, let alone their songs. It’s challenging, but that’s what I like. They have a sense of taking chances. This isn’t a big concert everyone paid to see. It’s experimental. The whole thing is really an experiment.” When we go inside the church to watch the performers, Rubin is among us, often near the front (there’s no hierarchical VIP section here) nodding his head backward and forward, left and right, soaking up the music with his eyes closed. Observing him react is a spectacle in itself. He’s like a monk who taps into an inner vibrational channel; an antenna that receives sound, as he describes, “without distraction”. Live shows, he mentions, can be lost on him. “I can’t look around the room and see what’s happening and feel it in the same way.” 

James Blake festival of the sun
James Blake performing in a church at Festival of The Sun. Italy, 2024. By Luke Georgiades.
James Blake festival of the sun
James Blake at Festival of The Sun. Italy, 2024. By Luke Georgiades.

I wonder at this point, because Rubin has heard and discovered thousands of artists in his life, what it feels like when the music clicks. What is he looking for? “There’s no intellectual answer,” he tells me, with a grin (obviously, I want to hear that his frontal cortex shifts and develops into a kaleidoscope dreamscape of sounds and colours). “You either like it or you don’t. It’s immediate, like when you taste food.” He describes the first time he heard James Blake, after receiving a playlist filled with electronic music around the time of his first album and Blake has since become one of his favourite artists (quite the accolade). “With Gossip, I was at a conference ten years ago in Rome. 99 of the 100 bands that played made no impact on me, but Gossip did. So, what we’re presenting here is really some of my favourite music.” Both are now here at the first edition of The Festival of the Sun.

Jovanotti festival of the sun
Jovanotti at Festival of The Sun. Italy, 2024. By Luke Georgiades.

Rubin has a famous sense of intuition. As a teenager, he started out in the punk band Hose and pioneered hip-hop as a producer in the nineties, attracted to its similar raw DIY ethos. But are there any real punks these days? “I probably listen to more classical than anything else,” he replies. “It’s so new to me. My whole life I’ve essentially been listening to mainstream music. Classical is a new language.” Rubin is at his most animated when we discuss fresh musical trends. I mention Herbert, a social media platform that spotlights neo-classical artists, and Habibi Funk, a record collector who preserves lost Arabic vinyl, and he immediately whips out his phone to find out more. His curiosity to learn is as unwavering as his desire to share. “We have a website called tetragrammaton.com where we share a piece of art each day, and it’s also about curation,” he explains, listing a series of cool things he’s discovered and wants to talk about: “There’s a radio station that’s really great—all 60s, out of print music that you’ve never heard before. It’s so much fun to listen to, and there’s television channels, weird old movies… I’m interested in everything. It’s the only thing to do.”

The Festival of the Sun is, in many ways, a rare curation of the things Rick Rubin is interested in sharing at that moment, set in the most picturesque location. It feels like a gift to us, the visitors, the town of Casole d’Elsa, and just as importantly, to himself. “It is all absolutely my taste,” he agrees. “I look for any ability to connect with something beautiful. I love to fall in love. Fall in love with music. Fall in love with art. Or just fall in love,” he says, as our conversation is about to wrap up, and as he prepares to join us all for the rare experience of seeing world-famous Arcade Fire in a small Italian church. He admits he is already considering next year’s event. It will remain a small, low-key affair. “I’m ecstatic this feels as good as it does. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect and it has surpassed any expectations, and it’s beautiful for the community. I walk around and see everyone happy and I think that’s good,” he adds with a smile. “This festival is a nice thing for the world.”