It was quite some time ago now that I first hooked up with Katy Vernon online. The British born, US resident singer songwriter and I first started chatting about the time she first started out with the ukulele many moons ago.
|Credit - Randy Vanderwood|
I was therefore delighted to learn that this year she is playing her first UK ukulele festivals, opening with a slot at the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival in Huddersfield. I therefore thought it was high time that we did a proper feature on the site and I caught up with her to discuss ukuleles and more.
I've always thought that Katy is one of those ukulele artists that I think we need more of. She pens her own tunes, but also plays more than just ukulele and isn't afraid to mix her ukulele up with a wider, non-ukulele, backing band. I've always enjoyed seeing her video perfomances from the US, helped by her wonderful singing voice and am looking forward to her show in Huddersfield.
So, the Minnesota musician who is actually a Londoner! What’s the story behind your transatlantic shift?
I left for love! I was Interrailing around Europe as a college student and met an American serviceman. He was based in the UK for 18 more months so we dated and I decided to take the leap at 21 and marry him. Plus, his name is Randy, so we basically had to leave the UK : )
Ha ha, I can see that! So where did you start out with music?
I have always sung. It’s my absolute favourite thing to do. As a kid I would spend hours putting on endless musicals with my Sindy dolls in my room. I went on to do plays at school and then sang in the church choir and with any bands in college that needed a singer. I had a few lessons in my teens, but I wouldn’t say I’m trained. It was only after I moved to the States that I realized I could try out for bands and pursue it more seriously.
So is the singing the main part of music for you, or is it a mix with other instruments?
Singing is always the starting point but I love playing around on the ukulele to find new chords and new ways of playing. I also love being in a band and expanding the sound of a song. My main goal when I write is to not repeat myself and always push myself musically and lyrically.
And where did you first encounter the ukulele?
A friend had recommended the ukulele to me ages ago, but at that time it didn't appeal to me. Tiny Tim is very well known here in Minnesota and that type of performing put me off. It wasn’t until I saw a singer songwriter playing her Tenor Uke that I realized the appeal of it. That was almost 6 years ago. I had been the front person in a band for a long time, but was never confident playing my guitar in that band. I wanted to find a way I could perform solo and trying out new instrument was the perfect vehicle to find my stage confidence.
We have something similar in the UK with George Formby. I think a lot of non-ukulele people don’t take it seriously because George and Tim are what they think of first. Do you get any resistance towards the ukulele from people who don’t think it’s serious? Was there resistance from bands you were in?
Yes, having grown up in London, I used to feel the same way about George. There is less and less resistance. Some people think it’s a cutesy instrument, but that seems to be lessening. That’s partly why I love fronting a band with it. It completely changes the way people view it. My band is mindful to compliment the uke though, and my voice, and not try to overpower them.
What’s your view on ukulele as a performance instrument – do you see it fitting in with a band, and what do you think of those people who think it should ONLY be ukulele?
I’m not a big fan of the word ‘should’ in any context. That just makes me want to rebel : ) I think its lovely to honor the history and tradition of an instrument, but it is also a tool to serve the song in my mind. I play with a 5 piece rock band and that is a ton of fun. I also feel like every song should be strong enough to stand alone with just the uke and my voice. I play as a band, trio, or solo performer depending on the venue. I also just started a jazz duo and I’m looking forward to playing standards.
So you are not just a performer, you are a songwriter too, tell me about that process and how it works for you?
I am always writing. I scribble notes, and I record melodies into my phone. Usually it’s a phrase someone says, or that I read that sticks in my mind. It’s harder for me to have the discipline to expand upon those and I have to make time for that. Sitting down with my ukulele and trying to match chords to what I have in my head works well, but I will also play around with new chords and just see what happens.
|Credit - Randy Vanderwood|
I think it’s always important to play some songs people know. I always thank an audience for listening to originals, especially if it’s a new venue, as I think it’s a lot to ask of an audiences attention span. I love to play Patsy Cline, The Beatles, and throw in a little ‘Ring Of Fire’ I guess my guiltiest pleasure would be singing a little Taylor Swift! (I am a mum after all)
Tell me about your highlight live music performance?
Performing at the Garrison Keillor show (Prairie Home Companion) was a thrill. The theatre is gorgeous and he’s kind of Minnesota royalty (Apologies to Prince) and the sound was amazing. Any show that has good sound is a winner in my book. I would also say that both of my CD release shows were highlights. Packing out a venue with so many people invested in what you’ve created and cheering you on is an amazing feeling.
And you’ve been part of arranging a local ukulele festival haven’t you?
Yes. I was asked 6 years ago (Just shortly after taking up the uke) to play a ‘Uke Fest’ here in Minnesota. I was chuffed to be asked and it was a fun night. The following year the venue wanted to host it again but the booker was too busy. I was asked to take it on and felt like the only way that would work for me on top of my own band schedule was if I made it a charitable show. I am fond of a disability charity here (Arc GTC) and wanted to support that. I am mindful that it’s not a true ‘Fest’, more like a ukulele variety night. I plan to add more of an open jam this year, and find other ways to make it not just a showcase, but more inclusive. The good news is that it sells out every year and has gone a long way to raising the profile of the ukulele.
So, back to UK this year to play at the likes of GNUF and the Ukulele Festival of Great Britain. How often have you been back to England?
I used to try and always come back every 2-3 years. Now I am actually legal deputy for my oldest brother. He has severe mental and physical disabilities, and our parents passed away when we were kids, so I now visit every year.
Do you think you will try to play more shows in the UK when you come back in future years?
Yes. I plan to play every year! I already visit yearly to see my brother but this is my first time playing. I’m really jumping in with this tour and playing 12 shows including the two festivals. I am excited to find out more about venues, bands, and audiences and make plans for follow up visits. London will always feel like home to me and I’m looking forward to travelling around the country too.
Do you think UK audiences will differ from those in the US?
I’m excited to find out! I have toured the Midwest a little, but I’m mostly used to playing to my home town crowd. I also don’t play a ukulele circuit here. I play rock clubs, music festivals, art galleries, theatres etc. I have no idea what it will be like to jump into the UK scene.
Tell me about your ukulele instrument choices – which are you playing at the moment?
I will be traveling with my black Lanakai Tenor. It’s my only instrument with a pickup! So it’s my gigging uke. I have a few others but it’s my only tenor. That’s my favourite size of ukulele. I’m packing light!
The question I ask everyone.. what is your best tip for those either starting out with ukulele / songwriting / performing?
Just do it. Jump in. I think finding your own sound is key. Too many people try to do what other people are doing. Play around with your instrument, your voice, your song ideas. Go out and see musicians in your town and get inspired. Attend song circles, open mics etc. Then hunker down and practice. My goals are still to become a better player.
You can catch Katy in the UK at a number of venues and events listed below, but to whet your appetite, scroll down for a video of Katy and her band playing one of her originals. And do visit her website at http://katyvernon.com
|Credit - Randy Vanderwood|
May 5-7 G.N.U.F Huddersfield
May 13 Three Graces, Hove
May 18 George Payne with LUSH, Hove
May 20 House concert, Reading
May 25 Unplugthewood
May 27 Royal Hospital, Putney
May 28 Half Moon, Putney
May 29 Looking Glass, Hackney
June 11 Stramash, Edinburgh
June 13 Tricity Vogue, Kings Cross
June 14. Off The Cuff, Herne Hill
June 16/18 Ukulele Festival of Great Britain
© Barry Maz