Monday, February 16, 2009

25 Confessions about how I became what I am

1. I am named after a fridge. I was given this name by my best friend, Edward Hollis, while staying with him in Edinburgh in 1995, 9 years before Tricity Vogue came to life and performed on stage under the name. Ed’s mother had a 60s fridge with the words “Tricity Vogue” inscribed on it. She may even have it still, somewhere in darkest Totnes.

2. Edward Hollis is therefore the begetter of Tricity Vogue. This is the nearest I ever got to consummating my deep love for him. He is the man for whom and about whom I wrote the song “The man I love loves only men”. Loving someone you can’t have is quite possibly the most powerful creative inspiration there is.

3. I first had the idea for who Tricity Vogue would be in 1999 and I pitched it to a woman who ran a cabaret agency. “I can’t see the point of hiring a woman to wear fabulous gowns and sing jazz songs,” she said. “I might as well hire a drag queen who can do it better.” I confided what she had said to my boss and mentor of the time, physical theatre guru Joss Houben (, and he told me to take absolutely no notice and do what I wanted anyway. It took me 5 years to follow his advice. “Do as you please” is, ironically, one of the hardest lessons to learn.

4. Performance poet Aoife Mannix was the midwife of Tricity Vogue. She it was who in 2003 took me along with her to a poetry and music night, where she was featured on the bill, and insisted that I put my name down for an open mic spot. The open mic performer before me was so terrible that the host decided to ditch the next spot, but by that time I had geared myself up to perform, so I browbeat him into letting me have the microphone by promising to be quick. I told the audience that my Big Band had stood me up, so they would have to imagine them on stage with me, and then I sang my song “Well I didn’t want you anyway” acapella.

5. I have sung with a real life 22-piece Big Band only once in my life. It was about 12 years ago, in Nottingham. My first couple of numbers went well, then I got pissed at the bar with a seasoned old jazzer who kept buying me drinks and telling me about 1930s singers I sounded a bit like. When I went onstage to sing my final number, Hey Big Spender, I started singing in the wrong place. Half the band followed me and half of them followed the score, with the result that the whole number collapsed. The conductor managed to bring them back together to finish the tune and give me the Look of Death at the same time. Funnily enough they never invited me to sing with them again, and I learned a valuable lesson about drinking on the job. Honest.

6. I wrote my first “Tricity Vogue” song “Well I didn’t want you anyway” the day after a night of romance with a work colleague. Under the eyes of the whole office, I had invited him for a coffee, and when we were alone I asked him if I could see him again. He told me he was too neurotic for a relationship. I told him I didn’t want a relationship, just another shag… but nothing doing. I wrote the lyrics (and the tune, in my head) as soon as I got back to my desk, and emailed them to a friend, who emailed me back with the words, “You’re mad.”

7. Rosa Conrad is the Fairy Godmother of Tricity Vogue. All I had were a bunch of melody lines and lyrics, and no idea how to turn them into proper songs that a band could play. I sang them to Rosa and she put chords to them and made them real. She was always baffled by my awe at this feat: “But the chords were implied in your tune already,” she protested. I maintain that she has Magic Ears.

8. The words and tune to “Under Your Thumb” were written after a conversation I had about my love-life while on my way to the gym. My confidante remarked “Well, you’ve certainly got him under your thumb.” I told her that actually it was the other way round, and then I wrote the whole song in my head, including the key change, while I was getting changed into my yoga kit in the locker room.

9. I came up with “St Tropez” after a Fat Cat gentleman friend of mine told me he wanted me to write a song about him. I don’t think this was exactly the song he was hoping for. He stopped taking me out for expensive dinners shortly afterwards.

10. The worst chat up line anybody ever used on me was “You’ve got great ovaries.” This did not work on me, and neither did the seductive prod in the stomach that went with it.

11. The worst post-seduction line anybody ever used on me was “We have barely scratched the surface of our relationship, and already I’m infected.” I left him to lick his wounds on his own.

12. The most effective chat up line anybody ever used on me was “I am dying of a fatal illness. You may be the last lover I ever have.” He’s still alive and I wasn’t.

13. Dress designer Stephane St Jaymes was the Nursery Nurse of Tricity Vogue. While we sat together discussing ideas for my first dress, we also debated Tricity’s family history. According to Stephane, Miss Vogue was conceived when the Royal Train came off the rails somewhere in Yorkshire, and the King invited a local northern wench to come and entertain him in his carriage while he waited for his train to be fixed. Alternatively, I suspected that Miss Vogue’s mother had worked behind the bar in a northern Jazz Club, and was such a conscientious groupie that she was unable to identify which of the many jazzers to pass through her establishment was the father.

14. My first band was called The Tricity Vogue Sextet. There were only five of us but I thought of my dress designer Stephane as the sixth member of the band. Also, I wanted to call the band something with the word ‘sex’ in it. We performed our first gig at the Lincoln Lounge, Kings Cross, on Tuesday 16 March 2004. Stephane was still sewing me into my gown in the Lincoln Lounge’s beer cellar minutes before I first walked on stage. Stephane’s best friend Darcy added the final touch by painting in my lips in bright scarlet and adding huge dollops of lip-gloss. I had been planning on keeping my make up subtle. However, there was no mirror in the beer cellar so I was none the wiser until after the gig. I have never looked back.

15. On the day of my first band gig I took the day off work to prepare, and that afternoon while I was walking along Neal Street in white sunglasses I was stopped by a young man who asked me the name of the band I was in, because he could tell just by looking at me that I must be in a band. I took this as a good omen.

16. That same afternoon I bumped into an old flame while walking along Carnaby Street. He was with a bunch of work colleagues, who were evidently Very Important People. When he saw me he did a double take, tripped over, then pretended not to recognise me. I decided that this was the urban equivalent of a black cat crossing my path.

17. At the beginning of my first band gig I annoyed Donald the then barman of the Lincoln Lounge immensely by badgering him to turn off the lights so I could come on in the dark and do a ‘gown check’ before the band started, then turn them on again for the first number. At the end of the night, after everybody else had gone, he told me that I had a nice personality and everything but I really needed to work on my singing voice because I had murdered a couple of the numbers. I was, naturally, devastated. When I reported this feedback to Stephane, he informed me that he recognised Donald from Madam Jojo’s and that Donald was in fact an ex drag queen who had him(her)self frequently sung on stage. Stephane attributed Donald’s critique of my performance to ‘gown envy’. On learning that my critic was a drag queen, the rest of the band burst into a rendition of “Donald where’s your trousers?”

18. I learned how to put on false eyelashes from Stephane, himself an ex drag queen, and he also gave me my first lessons in stagecraft, based on what he had learned during his own time wearing gowns (before he got bored of having to wax his chin every day - something which I don’t have to do, luckily). “Never mind what the band are doing behind you,” he said, “You can’t afford to take your attention off the audience for a moment, or you’ll lose them.”

19. I learned my first ukelele chords from my singing partner Miss Honey Mink, who has a dayjob as a children’s entertainer and runs a ukelele class for children called “Uke Can Do It”. The first time I played ukelele on stage was with her, at Cheese and Crackers on the Battersea Barge. She and I walked on in our evening gowns and explained our Big Band had stood us up, so we were going to recreate the Big Band sound on two ukeleles instead. We then performed the Big Band Blues together.
At the point where the horn section should have come in, Honey launched into a kazoo solo that brought the house down. From that night on I was hooked on the ukelele and bought my first pink Mahalo on ebay shortly afterwards.

20. The first song I wrote on the ukelele was “Aint Gonna Get No Sleep Tonight” about waiting in for a booty call.
The tune is a straight rip-off from a spiritual called “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho”. Only one audience member has ever spotted this, and he was a jazz buff from New Orleans. Luckily, he didn’t seem to mind, and even thought my act of profane plagiarism was in the true spirit of jazz.

21. In 2008 Stephane made me a new black and white gown for the Tricity Vogue Slinktet’s gig at the Scala for White Mischief. Once again, it wasn’t finished until the last moment, and Stephane had to thrust his way past the bouncers on the door to bring it to me in the dressing room, where he proceeded to shoehorn me into it in a manner that caused even the world-weary Mr Dusty Limits to raise his eyebrows. When I was about to go on, I realised that the dress was so tight I couldn’t actually lift my legs to climb onto the stage, and had to ask Mr Limits to give me a hand up. Stephane pointed out afterwards that I could have actually hitched the skirt up. This did not occur to me at the time.

22. After I came off stage at the Scala in my new gown, I shared a cigarette with Stephane down in the smoker’s courtyard, and he said to me, “You are the best drag queen I know.” I glowed with pride.

23. Shortly afterwards my boyfriend dumped me for looking too much like a drag queen and not enough like a real woman.

24. Tricity Vogue is about to give birth to a daughter – the Blue Lady. The birth of this new cabaret character will take place at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern at Dusty Limit’s night Kunst on Friday 27 February. The Blue Lady will be born exactly nine months after my boyfriend dumped me. My ex is therefore the begetter of the Blue Lady. Dusty Limits will be her Midwife, production designer Salvatore Forino will be her Nursery Nurse, and Rosa Conrad will, once again, be her Fairy Godmother.

25. Creating the Blue Lady is my way of dealing with the break up, in lieu of throwing plates, screaming or losing the plot generally. Then again, maybe painting my face blue and dressing up as a painting is losing the plot. Or maybe losing someone you love is the most powerful creative inspiration there is.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Recorder Rebels

Bonding with your gig-mates is one of the things that makes gigging so delightful (among many other things, because, let's face it, as jobs go, it's not exactly going down the mines), and when someone you think is really brilliant rings you up and says "Will you do a gig with me?" it makes you feel a bit like a teenager being asked out on a date by the person whose name you've been writing on your exercise book for months.

A couple of weeks before Christmas I was waiting in the Playhouse theatre lobby, about to go and see La Cage Aux Folles, when I got just such a dream phone call from guitarist and ukeleleist extraordinaire, Martin Wheatley. He asked me if I'd do a gig with him that Saturday for a birthday party at a venue near Euston. Now this is the man who I've not only heard accompanying the stunning Cousin Alice with exquisite lightness of touch, but also the man who can play 'the dam busters' on a single ukelele and make it sound like the entire orchestra. I said yes immediately, even though I already had two gigs on that Saturday - one in the afternoon, and one late night - and the reason I said yes was purely and simply because it was Martin, and I knew that getting the chance to sing with him was going to be like a Christmas present all by itself.

Then it turned out that the gig he was asking me to do was the very gig that I'd actually turned down a few days before because I was already booked up. And so I had been - until Martin asked me. See what happened there? I got seduced into doing the gig purely and simply for the pleasure of working with one of the best musicians in London, and sure enough it turned out, miraculously, that there was room to fit a third gig in between the other two after all. If any musician ever tries to tell you that they're only doing it to make a living, don't believe them. They're doing it because they love music. (This is why musicians almost never get paid what their services are actually worth.)

Martin picked me up in the car from Volupte after my afternoon gig, and gave me a lift to the bar where the gig was - but when we got there we discovered that we were an hour and a half early, and the venue was locked and dark. So we pulled into a parking space around the corner and ran through a few numbers together on the ukeleles, using a torch to light the cab of his people-carrier enough to see the chord charts - because we hadn't actually had a chance to rehearse a single thing beforehand. This may seem shocking - either the bit where I'm sitting in a parked car in the dark while a strange man gets his instrument out, or the bit where he and I are about to play a 90 minute gig completely unrehearsed (which one you find the more shocking will depend on your musical background, probably).

But it's not really that shocking when you consider that there is a huge back catalogue of jazz standards that most jazzers know like the back of their hands, all of which Martin has been playing for decades probably, and many of which I've now been singing for 15 years too. All the musicians need to know is the singer's key, and they're off. And as for me, I never have a clue what the tempo and the style is going to be until they start - which is exactly why I've always got such a kick out of singing jazz with a 'scratch' band. It's a musical rollercoaster. The Slinktet have been going for nearly 5 years now and I absolutely love rehearsing and performing our own material, but I also get a wicked thrill out of going back to my old edge-of-seat ways and flying by the seat of my pants for the odd gig too. Especially when the musician flying the plane is as skilled a pilot as Mr Wheatley.

Having run through a few numbers quickly that we'd both be able to do on ukelele together, Martin pulled his car around to the front of the bar again, only to discover that it was still closed. So back we went to our backstreet parking space. But instead of doing some more rehearsing, we started to chat about how we'd first got into music as children, and a conversation began about our first instrument - the recorder.

It turned out that we had both ended up as musicians despite, rather than because of, the start that we'd had on that unassuming little instrument. Martin revealed that as a child he had actually been thrown out of his school recorder group. Why? Because he had been caught cheating. How had he been cheating? Shockingly, instead of sight reading the music in front of him, he was listening to the tune and copying what was being played. This was considered extreme disobedience by his music teachers, hence his expulsion from recorder paradise.

My own recorder misadventures began when my grandfather (who was an antiques dealer, rather more of the Arthur Daily than the Lovejoy school of the genre), gave me a bakelite recorder so I could join the school recorder group (from which I'd already been excluded for a year by the fact that my parents considered it a waste of money to splash out on a bit of plastic for me to blow down). Unfortunately the bakelite recorder, while a charming antique to look at, was out of tune with all the other recorders in the school recorder group. Thus, whenever we played a tune, there was always that hideous buzzing sound that you get when somebody in the group plays the wrong note. Except in this case, nobody was playing a wrong note, it was the recorder itself that was out of tune, as my recorder teacher discovered when she took the offending instrument off me and tried playing it herself.

After (I suspect) a discreet word in my parents' ear, I finally got a proper bona fide Aulos soprano recorder of my own (which I still have somewhere, complete with deep teeth-marks on the mouthpiece). But my recorder misadventures didn't end there. A few years later my mum gave me a note to give to my recorder teacher. I didn't read it (because I was that kind of a goody goody kid) so I had no idea what my mum had said in it, until my recorder teacher called me over after practice and said to me very gently that it was okay to make the tune up by listening to it and then copying it, because that was actually something called 'playing by ear' rather than cheating. So I wasn't to worry about the fact that I wasn't doing it properly - in fact I should be proud of the fact that I was able to play by ear because in fact that was actually a gift that not everybody had. To be honest I was a bit baffled by this little pep talk, because I wasn't aware that I'd been doing anything wrong in the first place - my mum hadn't actually shared any of her concerns about my musical shortcomings with me - she'd just gone straight over my head to the teacher. And, in fact, it never occurred to me to report back to my mum what the teacher had said. So my mum went on thinking that I was a musical retard - possibly to this day, who knows?

I still can't really read music, to be honest. That's where years of cheating gets you. But what I can do is sing, unrehearsed, with someone I've never sung with before, in front of an audience, and sound like I know what I'm doing. It's the ultimate bluff. Except it turns out not to be a bluff at all, but, in some people's books at least, what you're actually supposed to do.