To keep myself busy, and hopefully provide a bit of support / coverage for musicians during these difficult times, I’m trying to interview various people from the ukulele world and feature them on the Noah Ukuleles blog.
Next up, it’s an absolute pleasure to interview Danielle Laura of The Mersey Belles. Danielle has a wealth of experience in the music industry and as part of The Mersey Belles, has wowed audiences at Ukulele festivals with wonderful renditions of songs both old and new, with beautiful vocal harmonies and ukulele arrangements. Here’s what Danielle had to say:
How important was music to you growing up? Did you play any instruments?
Music has always been a massive part of my life. My mum is a brilliant piano player and I had piano lessons from a very young age. I picked up the flute in school and went through a few of my grades. Then at university whilst doing my music degree I moved towards guitar. So you could say now, with me playing the ukulele, I’m a jack of all the musical instruments and master of none. Singing has always been my passion in the main, and I have been singing in bands and session singing since I was about 12. I feel very blessed to have been born into a musical family, especially now my dad Steve and his wife Helen are superstars of the Wirral Ukulele Fanatics up here – we are definitely keeping ukulele in the family!
Before The Mersey Belles came along, you worked as a backing singer for the pop group Atomic Kitten, which involved a lot of touring and UK television performances – what was that like?
I did a lot of work for Liz from the Kittens after they disbanded. She’s a lovely girl and it was a pleasure to be her backing singer. Yes I went to some awesome places and did some brilliant TV (TOP OF THE POPS BABY!) and for the whole thing I’m totally grateful. I’ve also done my fair share of session singing, teaching and my own band stuff. I loved being a session singer, I feel like it really fine tunes your singing and I wish a lot that I was still doing it, but with 2 kids, 3 jobs and a Liam Capper-Starr to handle it’s hard to find the time for it all.
What led you to take up the ukulele? Did you quickly feel it was right for the music you wanted to make?
I love telling this story. One of my dearest friends Donna had started to run a tea dance at music festivals and I had just sung backing vocals on Ian McNabbs “Little Episodes” album. Ian had actually gifted me my first ukulele (he will hate me for telling this story again). I then thought of what a cool idea it would be to get another person involved and dress up in vintage garb and play old and new songs in a vintage style. My second child Willow was toddling around (and sleeping through the night!) and I hadn’t really done a lot of music in a good while, so I just picked it up. As I started to play the ukulele it just felt like a nice fit. I then met the first Belle – Lou – then after that the lovely Lindsey contacted me through a mutual musical friend in Liverpool. From there I also started meeting loads of really cool people through the ukulele and in 2019 lovely Rosie joined me as did the boys Ged & Liam. Mersey Belles is a bit of a ukulele network of late. We have welcomed some newbies into our midst just lately in the form of Marc Gallagher and Sam Lyons, both incredible musicians who I’m sure are going to really add a lot of talent to the Mersey Belles collective. It’s such a nice community of ukulele folk up here in the north west, and I am truly blessed to know and work with some amazing musicians.
You’ve performed at major festivals here in the UK and around Europe, but last year must have been pretty special as you went out to perform in China. How did that come about and what was it like?
Yes, I have been extremely lucky to have played so many amazing festivals here in the UK and abroad. But China really was a once in a lifetime experience! We were contacted by a Chinese agent who has offices in London and also China way back in 2015, and we had tried to get a tour together at that time but for one reason or another it never materialised. This time was different and they had asked me to form a Mersey Belles ukulele 4 piece to take over. Welcome the boys into the band (long story)! It was hands down the most amazing and equally bizarre 2 weeks of my life so far. The schedule was gruelling, at times getting into bed at 1am and then getting up at 4am for a 2 hour flight to perform a matinee. The venues were incredible, such beautiful theatres, and so well looked after. In the main, the strangest (but most exhilarating) thing was the appreciation of the Chinese audiences after we had performed our shows, hordes of families approaching us for pictures and autographs and handing us their children to pose with. One really lovely elderly man in Yinchuan stormed the stage after our first show insisting that we sign a fan he had with him and asked if we would pose for photos – we really were so well received.
I think though the highlight for all of us was our last show in Tianjin. Before arriving in China, I had been approached by a children’s group of ukulele players called “TJ Kids” who has asked if they could perform with us at our performance. After much to and fro through our agent it was agreed that they would join us for our version of “500 miles” (Proclaimers “I’m gonna be”), but on the day before leaving our agent spotted that the uke group had learned the Peter, Paul and Mary version that was made popular in China by Justin Timberlake. Luckily me, Rosie, Ged and Liam are consummate professionals and this was an easy (ish) transition for us to make! It turned out absolutely amazing and the kids were so brilliant that it made us quite emotional as it was the last song we played in China. The children were especially fascinated with Ged’s banjolele, the banjo and my Andy Miles Nano uke. We were lucky to have a day or two off at the end of it and took the long journey to the Great Wall, which was one thing off the bucket list. All in all an amazing experience and you never know, we may get to go again one day.
As someone who has a wealth of experience when it comes to performing live, what advice would you give to any uke players thinking of doing this?
Try not to take yourself too seriously, be kind, practice, practice, practice. Most of all enjoy it! I learned quite late on in my life as a performer that if something isn’t fun to do then instead do the thing that makes you happy. Life is too short.
In addition to performing live, you also put on workshops which have been very well-received in the ukulele world. Do you enjoy teaching and what can someone who attends one of your workshops expect?
Over the years we have done all sorts of different formats of workshops, one from basic ukulele playing, to singing based workshops. Me and Linds did an amazing one in Blackpool at a World of Ukes evening a few years back at Christmas where we got everyone to sing Silent Night in harmony. It was beautiful! Me and Rosie also now run a women’s only ukulele club here on the Wirral on the last Monday of every month. We have some lovely ladies join us and we all have a right laugh! The last workshop we did at the Sussex Ukulele festival however included the boys, so Liam and Ged headed to the back of the room for picking and strumming techniques and me and Rosie kept a hold of our singers for some lovely harmony and ukulele strumming. You really can count on us to cover all the bases lately (shameless plug there, ha ha)
How have you been / are you being affected by the current situation with the coronavirus? Are you making any plans to livestream gigs, workshops, etc?
We have had the majority of our work cancelled I think until June at the moment, so as with everyone else this situation has hit us hard. As well as being Belles and Beaus, we all also work in the creative industries and the charitable sector, so all of us have lost more than gig money at the moment. With that said I’ve been so encouraged by my fellow colleagues, musicians and ukulele players for keeping their chins up and still teaching and live streaming throughout what is just a terrible time when we all have bills to pay, it’s just marvellous how people come together in a time of crisis. I heard Operalele did an online quiz yesterday, absolutely fabulous! As for what we will be doing, our Ged is currently uploading mini ukulele tutorials so we will be sharing those on our page as he sends them over. There are a couple of ideas and offers of online gigs floating around Mersey Belles HQ at the moment, so we are trying to get our heads together and work out how we can still share our music with the world. Or I might even dust off Liam Capper-Starr and see if he’s good for some online ukulele madness! All will be revealed I guess…
Just confirmed – Danielle will be appearing on the World of Uke’s ‘Wireless Ukulele Festival’ on April 17th. It’s being described as ‘ just like a ukulele festival, but at home’! For more details, click here.