Featured Artist Victoria Vox
Photo credit Philip Edward Laubner
Victoria Vox is quite simply a pleasure to listen to with her infectious smile, moving lyrics and breathtaking harmonies. Victoria's upbeat rhythms and talented song writing most definitely take the humble ukulele to another level. Variety is just one of Victoria's strengths, add to that her skill at playing the “mouth trumpet” and occasionally singing in French. You can see why Victoria's music delights audiences of all ages. We caught up with her most recently at this year's Grand Northern Ukulele Festival where she teamed up with husband and fellow musician Jack Maher to give another stunning performance.
What was it like to be headlining at this year's GNUF? (A Grand Northern Ukulele Festival)
I’d heard so much about GNUF, I was really happy it worked out that we could be a part of the festival this year. The English UKE scene is something else! So much fun! It’s an honor to have been on the bill with such wonderful artists from all over the world, each bringing something special to the ukulele.
How did you first become interested in playing the ukulele?
In 1999 I was handed a ukulele at a gas station in eastern Canada. I remember not understanding the tuning (as I was thinking it was like a bass, not a 4-string guitar). I handed it back, discouraged, but not unaffected. Then, in 2003, when I was in the thick of covering “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on guitar (inspired by Bruddah IZ), and I was given a ukulele to keep… as it was suggested that I learn that song on the uke instead. I decided it might be a good idea to really learn how to play the ukulele, so I bought a beginner ukulele book and was immediately inspired by its sweet tone and rhythmic potential. Before learning IZ’s tune, I penned my own songs. I practiced at home, but never played it publicly. My mother urged me to perform with it, and , after giving her every excuse in the book why I shouldn't, she then bought me a uke (with a pick-up for amplification) and there was nothing else I could say. I began performing 2 - 3 ukulele songs during my set. From the first strum, the room would lighten up and everyone was smiling. Eventually, people started asking about a ukulele album. I recorded my first uke album in 2005: Victoria Vox and her Jumping Flea, which was half covers and half originals. I then remembered the *thought* that I had back in 1999 which was, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a serious singer/songwriter using the uke as their main instrument? Not comedy. Not a joke. Just real (original) music.”
How did you first get together with Jack and what is like to work together?
Jack and I met in 1998 when we were both studying Songwriting at the Berklee School Of Music. We hadn’t kept in touch since we left Boston, but we ran into each other at the NAMM convention (in California) in January 2016 and it was basically love at first sight, 18 years later. We hung out one night after the conference and ended up playing music back at his place. He (insanely) proposed to me after jamming on one of his new songs — we hadn’t even kissed yet, but I immediately said “yes”. We have a deep musical connection, which to us was completely obvious, and getting hitched was a bit of a no-brainer. We both perform separately a lot — as I tour solo — and Jack has his band, “Feed the Kitty”. It’s always a treat to get to play together. His harmonies and tasteful guitar playing are a wonderful addition to my songs.
What or who has influenced you most?
As a kid, both the physical sensation of singing, and being moved emotionally with song, were the reasons why I wanted to make music. My parents weren’t particularly musical, so I mostly listened to Top 40 radio; however, the B-sides of Cyndi Lauper and Paul Simon albums reeled me in. I also had the opportunity to attend several Laurie Anderson concerts by the time I was 12. This female solo act was quirky, smart, and lyrical. Without too much stylistic influence, she proved to me that I could make it happen as a lone woman on stage. I wasn’t a musical prodigy of any sort, but I wanted to be a part of music so badly that I would practice in my room for hours and hours every night. I would stay up so late singing that I’d have to get up early to finish my homework before school. Since then, I was influenced by French music and the language (during a year abroad when I was 16), jazz music (during my time at Berklee), and the folk scene (as I toured the U.S. after college playing coffeehouses and thrift stores).
What is your favourite style of music?
I like a lot of styles of music… As a songwriter, I pay more attention to the song than the production and style. Honestly though, I have a soft spot for the 80’s Top 40.
How did your time living in France influence your music?
When I was 16, I lived abroad in France with a French family who didn’t speak any English. I bought my first guitar while I lived there, and singing / song writing became a therapeutic way to communicate, even if no one could understand what I was saying. I was able to express myself through my music. A few years after returning to the U.S., I began performing French music at high schools and universities (french programs) as well as writing my own French songs. Writing in French is challenging in that 1) the literal translation won’t sound good and 2) it must be “conversational”. I have to ask myself not “how would this translate” but, “how would it sound”.
Do you ever collaborate with other artists?
Collaborating with other artists is one of my favourite ways to make music. For 8 years, I’ve participated in the Steel Bridge Songfest in Sturgeon Bay WI. It’s a festival celebrating the songwriter and the goal is to create new music. Every night, the 60 attending songwriters “Spin the Bottle” for a trio of song writing partners. The mix of artists there is amazing and no one can predict what song is going to be born. I also love playing with instrumentalists who can play my songs in new ways, or perhaps it’s me who can add a mouth trumpet solo on someone else’s tune.
People may not be aware that you are a talented mouth trumpet player, which sounds awesome alongside the ukulele by the way!
Ha! It’s funny, the Wall Street Journal did a piece on the “unlikely return of the lost art of the mouth trumpet” and featured me! The mouth trumpet resurgence sort of went hand in hand with the ukulele resurgence… especially when people would play “old time” music. I guess the thing that stuck out to the WSJ was that my use of this Jazz Era vocal technique was used in a more contemporary musical setting. I love the mouth trumpet and I’ve worked at it relentlessly, now for 11 years. Chet Baker is a huge inspiration, and I've memorized scores of his trumpet solos and do my best to match his tone and vibrato. When I play the mouth trumpet, I honestly consider it as its own instrument. It’s a way for me to improvise vocally, without words, or having to scat, but be able to contribute musically as a different instrument entirely. If I’m ever jamming with anyone, my go-to instrument is my mouth trumpet!
How did you first develop this skill and how often do you 'play' the mouth trumpet?
I first starting playing the mouth trumpet in my car in June 2005. It was a long drive to Indianapolis and I starting writing a song behind the wheel. (Yes, I USED to “Uke and Drive” — but I’ve given that up these days!). The ukulele easily lent itself to AABA (jazz type) song structures. This left room for a “solo” over the verse. As I was writing the tune, “My Darlin’ Beau”, I began to think about what I could do during the solo so I wouldn’t just be standing there and strumming. When I tried making another sound, I got lucky and my “horn” was the first thing that came out of my mouth. Once I got over the fact that I might be making a funny face in the process, I decided to keep it up. It took about 4 years to get to a point where other artists would invite me up on stage to do a “horn” solo, and that’s also when I got attention from the Jay Leno Show. Both of these things were a huge boost of confidence. I honed in on Chet Baker and would memorize his solos. My mouth trumpet originally got the response of, “That’s cute!”, but then changed to “OMG, She sounds like a trumpet!”. As strange as it sounds, when I mouth trumpet, I believe that I am a trumpet. “I am trumpet”. Therefore, I have to think as a trumpet (or trumpet player). I love the challenge and it’s something I practice everyday. When performing, I play the mouth trumpet much more in a solo set than when I'm playing with other musicians. I have even performed with a jazz band where I use my mouth trumpet to harmonize with the brass section.
Where have you travelled? Most memorable experience?
This is a tough one, as I have been so fortunate to travel the world — either thanks to the ukulele, mouth trumpet, or because of my artistic mother. The most memorable trip I’ve taken was to India. I was able to use some of the footage from that trip in my latest music video “Same Dirt”.
What are you currently working on? Plans for the future?
I'm currently working on my 10th ukulele album. At this point, the title is unknown … but I’m really proud of this batch of songs. I’m hoping to release it in September 2017 and continue to tour.
Finally, what advice do you have for people who want to make playing the ukulele into more than a hobby?
The best advice I have for ukulele players, or anyone wanting to take the plunge into performing full time, is a lyric from a song I wrote, which will be on the new album:
A new beginning, starting now.
The fear of failure has no sound.
So I’ll be louder than I think I can.
Juice up the volume,
This isn’t the time to Kick it, Kick it, Kick It Back
A complacent man won’t stand a chance
finish what you start, do it with heart.
Photo credit Daniel Bedell