The ukulele has arguably been the most sought after acoustic instrument of the last decade, remaining popular with enthusiasts and professional players around the world.
There’s a uke’club in every city, town, village or hamlet. I regularly walk the dogs past the village hall on a Tuesday evening to the thrum of squadrons of humming ukes thrashing out songs from all genres of music, from the original jumping flea era to the Sex Pistols, Queen to Bach.
Hailing from Green Bay Wisconsin USA, singer songwriter Victoria Vox is taking the ukulele to the next level and beyond, incorporating digital technology and an old school analogue effect that will blow you away.
“I get so many people say to me afterwards that they were dragged along to one of my shows by a friend, not really wanting to go to a uke concert,” laughs Victoria in her strong Wisconsin drawl. “There are always so many cool comments about how the show was nothing like they thought it was going to be. They forget I’m playing a ukulele within 30 seconds as I’m being so creative with the floor effects, incorporating loops, beats, bass lines and vocal harmonies.”
Victoria has the ability to effortlessly rub her tummy and pat her head at the same time. In a musical perspective that means, not only does she have a stunning ukulele playing style, a voice that can effortlessly adapt to any musical genre, operate a pedal board with precision...she still has a secret weapon... the mouth trumpet.
Victoria has perfected a vocal technique that imitates the sound of a trumpet by blowing air through her lips, an incredible effect that at first raises a smile from the audience, often ending up with a standing ovation.
“It’s certainly the head turner of my set, especially if you haven’t seen me before. Sometimes I’ll take the first mouth trumpet solo about three songs into the set, or I may hit the audience with it right from the top.
It’s funny to see the expression on their faces as they look around to see if anyone has walked on stage with a trumpet, but it gets even better when they finally figure out that this authentic brass horn sound is coming from my lips. I can use this effect as a texture within the songs or as a solo instrument.
I started doing this in the car about 11 years ago, thinking, “that doesn’t sound too bad”. I decided that if I was going to do it on stage, and risk sounding goofy, I had to get better at it. I would mouth jam whilst driving around learning solos from some of the best horn players out there, including the American jazz trumpeter Chuck Baker. There I was, in the car, learning his horn solos without a horn. I rehearsed to perfection and it‘s been received very well all over the world,” she laughs.
I played trumpet in high school, so I already understood its limitations: how the sound changes with the valves, and how you approach slurs, staccato and long notes. I really have to concentrate on stage and be that trumpet in my mind. It goes quite deep, almost Zen-like. I’m using my voice to get there, it’s almost another personality.”
Victoria also plays with a jazz band which incorporates a real horn player, to confuse the audience even more, as she explains,
“When I perform with the Unified Jazz Ensemble, I play all my own music with the band backing me up. There’s an audience reaction here as well, as they note that I have a horn player, but eyebrows are raised when I harmonise my mouth trumpet with the horn player. They can’t tell the difference who is who, which is super cool.
I’ve played mouth trumpet on a few of my albums, although the best example of it is on the album, Vox Ukulele Cello. I stripped it all back for this one and the blend with the uke and a cello was something special. It should be noted that on a few of my albums (Chameleon, Exact Change, and Key) I also played the real trumpet. But I’ll be going back to using mouth trumpet a lot on my new album, which has the working title of Colourful Heart set for release January 2018.
I have pre-released a track on the new album called Same Dirt, where I use my mouth trumpet played through a bass octave pedal to create bass lines. I’m really excited about this album, which will be emotional and inspiring, whilst following the path I’ve been on throughout my career”, says Victoria, “As for pre-releasing this song, I felt I had to get it out. The message is that people are sensitive and can be hurt, and that we need to get along and figure it out. The video has footage of me playing with people around the world.
One clip is from when I was in India and I walked up to play mouth trumpet with the street musicians. Another clip is from when I performed in New Zealand, where I sang one of my tracks called The Bird Song along with over two thousand kids for the New Zealand Ukulele Trust, who have been using that song to teach kids ukulele. Singing with so many children was definitely one of my career highlights.
A little more mystery is added to Victoria’s set, as she occasionally sings in a foreign language,
“I also sing in French,” explains Victoria, “as I was a foreign exchange student in France when I was 16. This is also where I bought my first guitar. I felt so isolated and I wanted to talk to people, but I couldn’t speak the language. Every time I tried, it turned into a 3 hour dictionary party,” she laughs. “So the guitar became a way to express myself and I learnt French at the same time. Around 4 years later, I was back home in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and the University asked me to perform a French concert. I expanded my repertoire to include an hour of French music (both originals and covers), and it went on from there.
In regards to writing in French, I find that I have to think about the sense of the words, how they rhyme, but also, how a French person would conversationally say it. Looking ahead, I’d love to record a full French album. Another dream project includes a Chet Baker tribute album, where I could sing his tunes, and mouth trumpet his solos.
I started songwriting when I was 10, on a Casio keyboard. I heard pop music on the radio and thought, “I can do this, I can make up stuff”. Early on I was influenced by Abba, Cyndi Lauper, and Madonna, but later went through “The Doors phase”. A little later, when I started playing the guitar, I then got into all kinds of female singer/songwriters like Ani DiFranco, Dar Williams, the Indigo Girls, and Juliana Hatfield. I went through darker musical phases, but after graduating from the Berklee College of Music (with a Songwriting degree), growing up a bit, and discovering the ukulele in 2003, all of that changed.
Now, I’ve been writing exclusively on it since 2007. Most of my songs evolve from a riff or are harmonically driven which, in turn, will normally influence a melody line followed by lyrics. The music and the lyrics go very much hand in hand. Occasionally, I’ll write a whole song without lyrics, which is a different kind of challenge. But I love it all.
Through 32 years of singing and 28 years writing, it’s been an exploration of finding myself, and a steady evolution as I discovered other musicians. On my recordings, I might do a folk song then switch to a rock song, then a heart-warming ballad. I write in all styles, and I think the ukulele has helped with that. It’s a very versatile instrument which helps with my creative process.”
Victoria can make any ukulele sound so sweet, for her own personal taste she takes a keen interest in the exotic tonewoods used for their construction.
“For me personally, it depends on the style of the ukulele and how I want it to sound. Koa, for example is a beautiful tonewood which I’ll use for a ukulele tuned to a high G only, as the response can be a little muddy tuned to a low G. I use my Mya-Moe uke a lot, constructed from myrtle which grows in the Pacific North West. Kala Brand Ukulele is building me a uke here in the USA, which will be made from black limba. I’m excited to hear how that will sound.
I like to travel with three ukes, two tenors and a baritone, however, I usually simplify down to one tenor and a baritone. I can do the full show with just a tenor, but this is where I rely more on the looping pedal and effects. When I need a bass line I’ll drop it down a couple of octaves for an authentic ostinato bass line. I’m lucky to be working with such great companies, including Fusion. I carry a lot of gear with me, and the Fusion gig bags have helped me immensely, with carrying my ukes, especially when I’m touring. Their bags are amazing.
I have the Urban Double Baritone ukulele case, which also fits my Kala U-Bass 2 and I also have a single Urban Baritione with the Fuse-On system. These extra packs allow me to have my laptop, pens, CD’s, leads and all the accessories I need, all in one bag. The backpack straps not only leave me hands free, they’re so comfortable. This is ideal when I’m walking around a festival.
As there’s so much room, I’ve been able to down size the amount of bags I used to carry. I get around more comfortably at the airport now. I’m super happy with these bags.
You have fans of all ages around the globe, especially children who love the ukulele, do you cater for them when playing live?
“My music in general, is very family friendly and the kids love it. I remember watching a female performer when I was a little girl and I thought if she can do that, so can I. I hope I’m a role model for children all over the world who want to follow a dream but are constantly told that they can’t. There’s always going to be a road block, it’s never easy. You have to be passionate, true to yourself, and do it with heart.
I came from a small town in the middle of nowhere. I was far from a child musical prodigy, but I had drive and motivation, and I wanted to do it. I worked hard at making a career out of my voice, which has allowed me to see the world in a way that I could never have dreamt of.
Hey Fusion, can you design me a cool gig bag for my mouth trumpet?... ha ha!”
Victoria Vox official website: http://www.victoriavox.com/
Victoria Vox on Facebook: Facebook.com/victoriavoxlovesyou
Follow this link for a cool video of Victoria demonstrating the mouth trumpet: