I am very proud to have some very talented musicians and performers as Noah Ukuleles endorsees – Matt Hicks, Tricity Vogue, Danielle Laura and In Sync – and now, I’m delighted to be adding the name of Simon Fernand to that list.
I came across Simon performing in the band Plastic Jeezus at Winchester Ukulele festival a couple of years ago, and really loved their set. They had a great energy, and you could really tell how much they enjoyed performing. Simon really impressed as a front man, and they had a set of catchy, original songs which really entertained the crowd. I have no problem with covers bands (having been in a few over the years myself!), but it’s always nice to see a band performing their own songs, and something which I would say is still quite rare to see at Ukulele festivals.
I’m absolutely thrilled to have Simon as a Noah Ukuleles endorsee and he is now playing a Noah Rosewood / Spruce Concert (restrung for left-handed playing), which you can see below in the video to their recent song ‘Pokesdown Lift’.
I recently put some questions to Simon, and here is what he had to say:
To kick things off, I’d like to ask about your early musical influences. What kind of stuff were you into and did you play any instruments? Were you in bands growing up?
I’ve been obsessed with music for as long as I can remember. I have fond memories of listening to my Mum and Dad’s records when I was a very small child – usually The Who and the Beach Boys, and I never really stopped, to be honest. I did that thing that all music lovers my age did – taping the pop charts off the radio each week, and learning all the lyrics. Then as I hit my early teens, I got into alternative rock in a big way. I was – and still am – a massive Nirvana fan. I bought an acoustic guitar and dabbled with that for a couple of years (I was never very good), before getting a cheap electric guitar and trying to live out my rock star dreams. That largely involved standing in my bedroom, switching the lights off, turning everything up to the maximum and making loads of screeching feedback. My poor parents!
I also tried writing some songs around that time but they were predictably terrible. Three chords, no discernible melody and ‘lyrics’ about how hard life is when you’re 15 and the girl you fancy got off with Darren at a party. Dreadful.
Then I somehow ended up in a band with a few friends and a local singer-songwriter I really admired, named Si Genaro. He was (and still is!) a great guitarist, a wonderful singer and an excellent – and incredibly prolific – songwriter. He was also very, very entertaining onstage. He really made me ‘up my game’ in all aspects of my approach to music. The joy of being in that band was watching people laugh their socks off at something he said, then dance like mad things to the songs. That pretty much set the bar for all my musical endeavours since.
Tell us about the band you’re in now – Plastic Jeezus.
We were formed out of the ashes of the previous band I mentioned. Our singer (and songwriter) decided to pursue a solo career and we wanted to carry on doing *something* musical, but we didn’t really know what. So I mentioned that I’d written a few silly songs and… somehow I became the reluctant front-man of the new band. I really didn’t want us to be yet another guitar/bass/drums band so I decided to pick up the ukulele I’d been given and play that instead.
I wrote a bunch more songs – mostly slightly silly songs, that I hoped would make people smile. Our very first gig was in-between the other bands at a festival. We weren’t on the line-up – we just got up onstage between other bands and played!
We did more gigs around local pubs, biker bars, clubs and festivals and people seemed to enjoy what we did.
We recorded some CDs and the first time they went on sale we totally sold out, which blew us all away. So… we kept on doing more of the same – lots of gigs, more festivals, more silly songs and more CDs. And we’ve never really stopped since.
I’ve really loved seeing you guys play over the past few years and I think your songs / style etc, make you very different from a lot of other acts I see at ukulele festivals. I can imagine how you’d also sound equally great (albeit though very different) if you were a ‘guitar band’ – so what made you decide to go with the uke?
There were a few reasons I decided to play uke. Primarily, it suited the light-hearted songs I’d written. I didn’t feel like I could get onstage with a rockin’ electric guitar and sing songs about the silly tongue-in-cheek subjects that I write about.
Also, I thought it’d be something a bit ‘different’. At the time, everyone in the world seemed to play the guitar and I was conscious that I didn’t want to go onstage and play one, knowing that 90% of the audience would probably be better than me! So I went for a fairly obscure instrument called the ukulele. Little did I know that twelve or so years later, everyone would be playing one!
That said, I’ve always had a bee in my bonnet about being described as a ‘ukulele band’. I feel like we’re just a band, making music. I’d usually argue that the ukulele is just one of several instruments in the band – but it seems to be the one that people focus on. We’ve never been described as a ‘bass band’, even though the bass guitar plays an equally important role in the music. I’ve often ranted about it in the past, but I’m slowly learning to accept that it’s a badge we’ve got and I just need to get over it, haha!
What’s been the highlight of your time in the band so far?
There are two, really. The first was playing the main stage at the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival in Huddersfield. It’s a big old room to play and I was really unsure how the audience at a ukulele festival would react to our raucous, fairly irreverent show. I’ve never had any lessons or anything so I was somewhat paranoid that I’d get onstage, start playing and people would shout “What are you DOING?!”. Fortunately, the audience weren’t just polite, they were incredibly lovely. They laughed all the funny bits, clapped, cheered and were generally just the kind of audience you dream of playing to. I came off stage feeling like a rock star – which was *not* something I’d expected from a ukulele festival.
The second highlight was when we were asked to support cult-favourites The Lounge Kittens at their show at St. Pancras Old Church in ‘that London’. It was a sold out show and yet again, I was nervous that the audience might not ‘get us’ (it’s a recurring theme – I get this before pretty much every show!). And once more, my fears were unfounded. The audience was just perfect. We even tried a new song and it went down a treat. It made me think “Yeah. Ok. Maybe we *can* do this”. Afterwards we sold a tonne of merch, then went and got absolutely legless in a random pub somewhere. It was just the perfect night. I should probably add that this set is available on our ‘Live at St. Pancras Old Church’ album – available on our Bandcamp page, and on all good streaming services *plug plug*
Have you always written songs? What is that process like for you?
I have a love/hate relationship with songwriting. I struggled with it for many, many years. I probably wrote five songs in six or seven years. And none of them were that great. Then in the last couple of years, something just clicked and I found that I could just sit and write a song that I was happy with, in a couple of hours. It seems that the more I do it, the easier it gets – and I think that’s half the trick, to be honest. Keep on trying and eventually it’ll just happen.
In terms of process – it’ll be one of a couple of things. I’ll either start with the concept (“I know! I’ll write a song about the weird people I meet on the bus!”), or the chords and melody (I often record myself just strumming chords and humming little snippets of melodies that ‘work’). I keep a note of my ideas in a tattered red notebook that goes everywhere with me. I’ve found that there’s a great pleasure in hand-writing lyrics, rather than typing them on the phone. The only downside is that I sometimes can’t read my own handwriting!
Is there anything you can’t write a song about?! I particularly enjoyed your ‘Pokesdown lift’ song recently – it is a very fine example of your ability to take an obscure topic or idea, and create a very catchy and humorous song! Tell us more about it and what prompted you to write it.
I like a challenge! I was approached by a member of a local community group, asking if I’d write a song to support their efforts to get a lift fitted at our local train sstation.The train company promised to install one many years ago, but never did. It’s an issue I’m very familiar with, and it’s been going on for a good decade or so, so I said yes – and then the song just kind of wrote itself. I think I’d written the whole thing within a couple of hours of being asked. I cobbled together a video and sent it over, and… well…it seemed to go down pretty well.
Weren’t you then asked on to ITV local news and BBC radio to talk about it? What was that like?
Yeah! It all seemed rather absurd. I had a few days where I was getting messages from various people from ITV, BBC and the local paper. The lift appeal had been covered by them in the past, but my song had seemingly given it a new lease of life – a new angle, I suppose.
For the ITV recording, a group of people with placards had gathered on the green opposite the station. When I arrived, I had random protesters coming up to me and excitedly saying “Thank you! Your song is the reason we’re all here!”. It was all rather surreal, but quite lovely.
What advice would you give for people who are just starting to write their own songs or find writing bit of a struggle?
I find it useful to play very regularly – just noodling, most of the time – and keep a note of ALL the ideas that emerge. Use a phone, a notepad, whatever works. If I stumble upon a set of chords that interest me – or some quirky little melodic phrase that I like, I’ll record it on my phone. Then from time to time I’ll go back and listen to all those fragments and see if there’s anything that inspires me.
I do a lot of my writing when I can find some quiet time – where I can turn a line over and over in my mind until I can get it right. I often do that in the shower, or on walks by the beach. I’m lucky enough to live by the sea here in Bournemouth, so I regularly stroll along the clifftop trying to fit some words to a melody. The solitude is helpful. Trying to write while there’s ‘stuff’ going on around me is practically impossible. And with two children, there’s almost always ‘stuff’ going on at home!
In terms of the band, how have you been affected by the situation with Covid 19? Have you gone down the route of livestreaming gigs, etc?
It’s been an interesting – and challenging – time for bands. A lot of acts have been live-streaming gigs but for me the great joy of playing a live show is making a connection with an audience – seeing their faces, hearing their laughter and generally sharing a moment together. So we’ve been focusing on putting together little videos of performances, except we’re adding more layers that we can’t do live – just because we can. Adding extra instruments and new twists to old songs. We’ve done a few cover versions, too. It’s been a lot of fun, but it’s not really a replacement for live shows. It’s just keeping us busy, and trying to keep our fans entertained. We’re itching to get back on stage in front of people, but who knows how long it’ll be before that happens?
Fingers crossed, the live music scene will be able to return sooner rather than later. When it does, what ambitions / plans do you all have for the band going forward?
In terms of ambitions, I’d love for us to play some international festivals – ukulele or otherwise. And we’d love to do more cabaret-style shows. We played a couple just before lockdown and I think our slightly quirky, comedic act fits that world well. I’d love to explore that more.
In terms of plans – we’ve got several shows booked, but we’re keen to explore the world of cabaret and comedy nights, rather than trying to play ‘rock’ gigs with funny songs. It’s a new world of opportunities for us, and I think it will be a lot of fun.