Interview with Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

A drab and uneventful new year’s eve was turning out to be the biggest wet fart of a welcome into the new year – that was until the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain sashayed onto Jools Holland’s Hootenanny stage. Elegantly dressed, sat calmly, eight ukuleles and their individual tamers ripped into the most delightful version of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ I’ve ever heard. They’ve packed out illustrious venues, and stolen The Proms – now we catch up with Hester Goodman before their Norwich date…

You’re not with the rest of the gang at the moment, Hester…
No I’m not – I’m kinda on maternity leave, I guess, which is lovely. 

Yes, owing to the birth of your baby – how’s that going for you?
Yeah, alright thanks! Just getting used to it…

Is it strange having the rest of the group out the country?
Yeah, it’s weird because I’ve never really - I’ve always done everything and other people have had kids, or whatever - so I’ve never really had time off before!

However I did read a quote from someone in the Orchestra that said, “The truth is that when two or three ukulele players are gathered together the gravitational force means that other ukulele players start to come into the orbit.” So can you still feel their bond?
Oh yes, of course! They’re never very far from my mind.

Well, I’ve been a fan of you guys since you saved a drab, pretty sober New Year for me when you appeared on Jools Holland. You shook me out of that feeling of knowing what to expect, and I think that’s part of the power of you guys…
Yes, that’s right. That was quite a while ago now but that was the thing that really changed momuntum. We’ve been going – well not all of us – but the group’s been going since 1985 and we’d been doing things full-time since probably about 2002 or 3 and then that was 2005 and it did really shoot us into a different orbit, really. We did loads of festivals and different sorts of gigs after that.

So when the momentum has increased like that, what comes along with it is a pretty rigorous tour schedule – you’ve been all over the place!
Yeah we have, and next year we’re going further! We’re going to Australia and doing the Sydney Opera House. Well we’ve done Carnegie Hall now, and the Albert Hall and in fact we’ve done Paris, New York, Sydney (we will have done) and London, so we could probably bring out our own range of perfumes soon!

I imagine your aspirations for the band have been far exceeded by the reality, or did you always know domination was on the cards?
Not really, no; I always knew it was a good thing, so you know, that wasn’t a surprise but I suppose from the early days we’ve had quite surprising offers and gigs, but they’ve just got more and more, you know. It’s been great and every now and then we try to do something different as well; we’ve done the Silent Film Show – that was in Kings Lynn in fact. We did it with the BFI and we basically wrote original music to silent film footage, not a silent feature film, but bits and clips and adverts and allsorts of bits and pieces. That was kinda my project, called Ukulelescope. Then we also did another project, a Cecil Sharp project because we also play at the Cecil Sharp House in London quite often, so we did a little project last year, just doing a load of Cecil Sharp collected songs, and we’re doing that again in Birmingham next year. And what else have we done…? We did a little opera called Dreamspiel, in which we collaborated with a playwright from San Francisco – that was four year ago maybe… So yeah, it has exceeded our expectations, really, because we’ve also been able to do these collaborations and things that we never expected and play with lots of different people as well. We’ve played with the Kaiser Chiefs… and Cat Stevens, actually!

Those notches on the musical bedpost, if you like, are huge, aren’t they?
Yeah, the little perks.

I guess by not going traditional, you gave yourself wider scope for touring, and a multitude of various line-up slots. Does the real fun start when you start breaking down barriers?
Yeah, definitely, yeah; that’s when you start taking people by surprise really I think, you confound their expectations and just have fun.

One of my favourite songs of yours is ‘Shaft’ because it’s not a straight interpretation. It’s full of delightful humour. Is this something that evolves naturally, or do you set out with some songs to make them humorous?
Well sometimes we set out to do things quite consciously in a particular way, then other times they just evolve over time, without us really trying. Having been together for such a long time, we’re almost more like a social sculpture than a really, haha!

And Hester, you must know the connection comedy can have, from your previous work in theatre, and also the power involving your audience can have. The connection you have is very strong…
It is, and I think you can’t manufacture what you get from having a group of people who’ve worked together for so many years and that’s sort of interesting in itself and has its own momentum. But yeah, we’ve never really set out to do a conscious thing, although we’re aware of what the kind of ‘product’ is now and we maintain that. Yeah, the main thing is to make a connection with our audience and break through the fourth wall, really. Certainly in theatres, where we play a lot, you get that kind of fourth wall that never gets broken and never gets breached. I think people really like that.

You all have separate ventures – you released an album of solo material last year – do your solo endeavours keep you creative?
Definitely. We’d go mad! Because we tour so much, it does become like a job… well it is a job! But it can become monotonous sometimes and you can’t avoid that, so it’s good yeah; it keeps us all fresh with new ideas to bring to the show, really.

One of the things I think that helps to break down that fourth wall is that you’re not genre defined. You vary from R’n’B to punk to classical – do your varying music tastes inform what’s coming in?
Yeah, I suppose we all tend to bring the ones that we sing to the table. I mean, in the old days we used to do much more obscure old stuff because it was more experimental, but now we’ve got more of a responsibility to make it work, so we’re a little bit more strategic about things. We think about what might be good more than what we want to do, but we still do largely what we want to do; if we really don’t like something, then it just doesn’t happen.

You’ve eschewed the need for a record company, which in these uncertain times, is probably a very good thing. I imagine this allows you more creative freedom?
Yes of course, I mean we’ve always done that but now we’re on-trend, I suppose! What we do mostly is tour, as well, so it’s very immediate; people will buy stuff that they want to hear that they’ve heard at the gig, you know.

Now the Orchestra has been attributed – almost single-handedly - to the uke revival, but you’ve been together for over 25 years. Why now?
It’s funny because when we first started, it was the most deeply unfashionable instrument you could ever think of, which was the attraction then, you know, as a complete and utter outsider instrument, which was delightful to us, and then to realise that you could do anything and everything you wanted on it… It’s a great instrument to play; it’s very empowering because it’s easy to pick up and learn quickly – I mean, it’s harder to play well, but you can teach someone to play a couple of songs in 10 minutes. When we first started there was nobody – literally nobody under 55 who played the ukulele back then! And all they played was George Formby, so we used to get really fed up – I mean we don’t get those questions any more, but for years the first question that would always be asked was, ‘Do you do George Formby?’ When you think of the ukulele, you think of George Formby; well of course you don’t any more. He’s been forgotten a bit now, but we all grew up listening to George Formby and are very fond of him, but in our original context, it was a blessed relief not to have to play any George Formby on the ukulele. Now, of course, the popular thing has become just to do anything you want on the ukulele, you know, mostly rock and pop and whatever really, to mix it up.

And you guys I’m sure are partly responsible for achieving the nationwide dream of replacing the recorder with the ukulele in schools, which seems like the most sensible thing ever, because everybody hates the recorder!
Well I’ve got a sort spot for the recorder because my sister plays the recorder very well and she ended up playing in concerts and things like that –

- Oh well, a recorder played well is a different thing…
Yeah, played badly isn’t good, but a ukulele played badly is OK, and of course you can sing with it too.

In Norwich we have our very own Ukulele Festival, which celebrated its 2nd year this year. Can you see the revival going from strength to strength?
I don’t know really, I mean there’s bound to be a bit of a backlash; inevitably when something becomes really popular, people tend to say, ‘Oh I’m sick of this and I’m sick of that’, and I saw a Google Alert only yesterday actually, saying ‘My least favourite instrument is a ukulele, because it’s a fad…’ But it’s been going from strength to strength for about four years, or something now.

I think something that enables people’s creativity can only carry on, really…
Exactly, and that’s what it does.

There’s a certain magic to it as well -
Yeah, people love it and it does make you smile and it’s like an olive branch – you can always make friends with a ukulele. Yeah, it’s got a special magic, definitely.

I was wondering as Uke Royalty, as you guys are, do you have a message for the Norwich Ukulele Society?
‘Keep on Plucking’ is, I think, the only thing I can say!

Emma Garwood

The Ukuelele Orchestra of Great Britain come to the Theatre Royal, Norwich on December 5th. For tickets and more info, go to www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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