For centuries, some of the finest songs, poems and books have been written by authors who have taken to the hills for inspiration as they wander ‘lonely as cloud’ or watch the mist role in from the ‘Mull of Kyntyre’.
Scotland’s Galloway Hills and surrounding coastline is indeed the landscape from where award winning nu-folk singer-songwriter and musician, Zoë Bestel draws motivation and creativity.
“I live on a farm in a pretty remote area with forests and mountain views from my windows”, says Zoë, “So a lot of my songs are themed about nature. I’m also close to the coast here and I’ve written a lot of songs about the sea which features on my new album set for release around the Spring of 2017”.
With a soft and airy quality, Zoë’s vocals have been described as ethereal and haunting, they’re also the rhythmic engine for her songs, whilst her fingers flutter on the ukulele in way that has been recognised and accepted by other music genres including the folk scene. Zoë explains.
“I went against a lot of the traditions when I was learning ukulele. Whilst it’s such a happy instrument and people always have a great time either playing or going to gigs, there are still debates about whether you should use a plectrum or play with a capo on the neck or even play using a strap...all of which I do.
There shouldn’t be any boundaries, you wouldn’t tell guitar players what they should or shouldn’t do. There are players out there now playing lap-ukulele with a bottle neck.
I’m breaking through a lot of traditional boundaries with my electric ukuleles fed through a TC-Helicon VoiceLive 3 multi-effects processor using reverbs and multiple delays for an effect that has been described as harp-like by the media. It works really well and a perfect blend with my voice, ‘Reading Over Words’ a track from one of my albums called Sir Lucas And The Moon, is a fine example. Sure, the uke is steeped in tradition which I adore, but I want to be creative and innovative and help take it to the next level. This is something I’m very passionate about. I can’t believe I still have to explain to people that this instrument is not something that’s given as a present to a three year old and called a toy guitar.
It’s certainly getting better and now involved within the pop culture, the winner of Americas Got Talent played a uke, although she didn’t show off what the instrument can do. I’ve met so many amazing musicians who actually choose to play the uke instead of a guitar as they have recognised how versatile it can be.
I grew up in Liverpool listening to my parents playing albums by singer songwriters like Joni Michele and John Martyn and I really like José González. I’ve been told that I would sing non-stop even before I could talk, so I’ve been musical from an early age. During my years at school, I learnt how to play the oboe up to grade 3, then piano and flute. I didn’t have an interest in stringed instruments until a relative send me a ukulele which felt natural to me, so I taught myself how to play.
I started to write my own songs and realised that I could also sing at the same time. I was still young at that stage and still had a yearning to be a writer, so the idea of squishing songwriting and playing uke really appealed to me.
There were a handful of musicians at my school, but none of them wanted to go in my direction, but I must say that the school was very supportive. I was just 14 when I recorded my EP called ‘35 Missed Calls’ and gigs started to come in. Most of these were on the weekends, but if I had one during the week I was allowed time off as my teachers said it was part of work experience. I wrote and performed my own songs and it soon became apparent that this could be something I could do with my life. I left school at 16, sat my parents down and said this is what I want to do, they just said ‘ok ‘ and they’ve helped me ever since.
I started busking and putting my songs on YouTube and I was asked to fill in for 30 minutes at an Arts Centre near Galloway, as an act had pulled out. It was my first real gig and it went really well and afterwards the Art Director asked me to come back to do some more supports. There was also a guy there who had a small Indie record label who signed me up and later we record ‘35 Missed Calls’. All this happened so quick during 2012, in one year I had learnt how to play the uke, write my own songs and get signed and I was still only 14.
I looked at songwriting courses at university and talked to lecturers who said that I’d already covered what they would teach me, they recommended I just keep writing and do as many gigs as I can to gain experience.”
Now of course, this involves a lot of travelling and it’s essential that Zoë’s ukuleles have the utmost protection as they are so light and vulnerable.
“I have the Fusion Urban Series ukulele bags which, as so many people are aware of, have so many roomy pockets to carry all the extras and the backpack straps are great when I need to be hands-free. I also have one of the larger bags from the Fuse-On range which is perfect for my multi-effects processor, my leads and a couple of rolls of the ever-important Gaffa tape. I love these bags and certainly won’t be changing to anything else and of course, they travel so well. Ukulele players Sarah and Craig Chee travel the world with their Fusion bags.
There are hundreds of ukulele clubs in the country, but I think Scotland is slightly lacking in numbers and gigs are limited. I think this is why the uke is having a relatively tough time, as it’s very folk-based here with traditional songs played on authentic instruments like accordions and fiddles.
The closest ukulele scene is in and around Dumfries, which is probably the biggest hub of ukulele’ness in this region and where Stuart Butterworth organised the first Ukulele Festival of Scotland which was a huge success. I headlined there in 2016 with James Hill and played the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival.
I’ve also broken into the folk scene playing at some of the bigger events like the Cambridge and Stonehaven Folk Festivals, where my direction with the electric uke has been widely accepted. At the Orkney Folk Festival, I was the only artist with a uke, I had an amazing response. I also did a workshop there and taught about harmonics and fingerpicking, which I have put a stamp on in my own style.
After some of my shows, I’ve had people say they weren’t that bothered about coming as it was just a girl with a ukulele, but they were so thrilled I went down another route within the performance, I even have a cover version of Massive Attack’s Teardrop which my fans love. Other people have simply come to the show after seeing my YouTube Tub Sessions which involves singing and playing in the bathroom, often in the bath”.
Zoe has a cool collection of Ukuleles... all have names of course.
“I have names for all my ukuleles, my first was a Blue Moon soprano which I called Luke. I have another soprano I named Sir Lucas which was a Christmas present that came with a Fusion gig bag. Next on the scene, was a Clearwater baritone that I named Luna, which featured throughout the Sir Lucas And The Moon album. My Kala ASAC-T tenor and ASAC-B, baritone are my main gigging ukes which have been named by my Facebook fans as Mr Montgomery Plinkety and Baron Jarvis Fortesque. These are beautifully built with some of the finest exotic tonewoods including solid acacia.
The uke is small and lightweight and I’ll often take one on a walk through the hills if I feel there’s a song about to happen. Just the walk down our drive from the farm is ¾ mile long before I get out to the baron hills, this alone holds an experience with sheep, cows and rabbits. I find the seasons here are so inspirational, there’s going to be a song on the new album called ‘Winter’, which highlights my thoughts on how it can be cold and dark without leaves on the trees, but you know that the sun is going to shine again soon. There’s also a new track called Dragon Song, although there aren’t that many dragons about these days even up here!
Most of my albums and singles have been recorded at Unit 7, which is a studio in Bladnoch, with my sound engineer Huey Dowling who has an assortment of great mikes to get the best out of the ukes. There’s a lot happening during 2017 for me, so I would say watch this space for gig announcements and when my album is released.
I am a bit of a self confessed hermit, I love it here in the hills, it’s not that I don’t like cities, I enjoy a visiting and gigging amongst all the glitz and the lights and there’s also a much bigger choice when it comes to food,” laughs Zoë...... “But I know I can go back home to this wonderful area.”
Keep in touch with Zoë Bestel:-
Interview by Lars Mullen