Tyrone is playing at one of the world’s best ukulele festivals –the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival in the UK. I’ll be writing about the experience as I go. This is about the beginnings and preparations for the tour.
It’s just over ten years since I played my first ukulele festival , and I’ve played many since. Tyrone and Lesley now have a strong repertoire of original material and four studio albums. We’ve invested time, love and skills into learning how to compose sets that work in a festival context. The act, while being a little strange, has its own identity and has been a great vehicle for us to explore very distinctive songwriting and performance which combines the theatrical and the musical. People love T&L and write to us to ask when we’re touring to the US and UK. We’ve played all over Australia and in New Zealand as well, and I wanted to take the act further afield and possibly to the next level, whatever that might mean.
Ukulele Festivals possess rare qualities. Professional performers, aspiring amateurs and players for pleasure participate in a community of practice. The audience is activated as songs and show combine on and off-stage to create unique interactions unlocked by this lovely little instrument. I’m curious about how these festivals work and how they’re put together. There’s a very different feel to other kinds of arts festivals.
The European summer sees quite a few ukulele festivals happen in May and June and I’ve kept an eye on them with a view to playing one. The Grand Northern Ukulele Festival (GNUF) in particular, which has been going for five years, consistently seems to attract acts that I like, and programs and presents them in an interesting way. It looks like fun. It has a philosophy behind (or rather, right through) it.
Unlike many arts events ukulele festivals are created from the grass roots, so there’s something very distinct about the way they are conceived and executed.Often there’s an aspect of rejuvenation, in which communities of geography or interest join to create something that will draw them together, and draw others to them.
The enthusiasm that they’re born of often carries over into the event itself. That seemed particularly true of the GNUF, so I wrote to Mary, the festival director to tell her about what I do and to outline my interest in finding a way to come over to be part of the festival and she got back to me.
Seeking Support: applications
I had assumed that Tyrone’s track record and output to date would mean that the act would at least be a contender for programming, but that the expense involved in getting the act from Australia to the UK might be prohibitive. This was true. In our correspondence we discussed applying for funding to support the venture. (If you’re not interested in arts funding, skip this bit, or have a gander at the music video below by Elof and Wamberg, who will be appearing at GNUF)
Tyrone and Lesley have often agreed to perform at ukulele festivals on a essentially a break-even basis, financially, with travel and accommodation being significant expenses. Our theatre shows and tours are more often paid at industry standard, but not always. Surprisingly (though the surprise has now dissipated) the lowest fees have been offered by high-profile, publicly funded festivals and events here in my home town of Brisbane.
Remembering that we don’t factor in the time we spend writing and rehearsing the material we present, it’s probably just as well we really love doing it. This may well be true of many other acts as well, but nobody talks about it. It’s the secret economy of the arts. Most artists also have other jobs, but you probably know that. Research shows that musicians are particularly adept at organizing their arts-related employment portfolio so there’s a mix of passion and profit.
Balancing day jobs with pursuing one’s musical development is not unusual for musicians, and of course there’s added organizational complexity for the self-managed artist when there’s more than one of you in the band. With Sam (AKA Lesley) already anticipating a European tour of his own with Trichotomy, the likelihood of him being available to travel, even if my plans came to fruition, was very small, so I pursued the idea of a solo tour which might pave the way for the two of us later. I couldn’t finance this myself so sought support.
Arts funding can seem a bit like a mystery if you haven’t looked into it, but fundamentally an application for funding is a space where you get to outline what you’re doing, why, when and how, and what your rationale is in asking for public or philanthropic funds to help you do it. You also propose what the potential return might be on this investment – not necessarily in financial terms.
It’s all about exchange and value,. The same goes for crowdfunding, though the relationship is different.
You must propose what you’re planning to do, to other people who might potentially support or benefit from the project. I talked with people from local groups who were interested in what knowledge I might bring back from the experience, as a performer, participant and punter and built a small research element into the proposal. I also sought formal confirmation from GNUF who outlined how they would support the trip and appearance at their festival. Metro Arts said they’d help with admin and rehearsal space. There were many other events that I’d loved to have been part of while I was over there, such as the Ukulele Festival of Scotland and the Paris Ukulele Festival, but for a range of reasons, not least my family, and that I was previously committed to a Warmwaters gig this trip has to be short and sharp.
Funding applications aren’t simple ventures, but if you direct your energies carefully, their preparation can be very clarifying. I made three separate applications to selected funding opportunities to support this venture, and one, made to Arts Queensland was successful. The others failed, essentially. That sounds like a simple process. It wasn’t. It took months.
With the both funding and gig confirmed, and travel arrangements in train (and plane) I have to prepare for the artistic element. The performance. There’ll be one mainstage appearance and one cabaret-style gig, which make different demands of the setlist. With so much of Tyrone and Lesley’s material being duo-based there’s an element of musical rearrangement as well as the usual attention to detail I lavish on text and movement. With four albums to choose from as well as new songs on the way, composing setlists is a fun puzzle.
As well as preparing for conversations with people I’ve not met before about ukulele festivals, I’m excited by playing to audiences who will have no idea of what to expect and mindful that I’m playing them a whole bunch of songs they’ll never have heard before. I schedule in a series of rehearsals over two months, around all my other commitments, securing the time it will take to get this right. I’m not winging it all the way over there just to wing it. I practice at home as well as in rehearsal space that Metro Arts provide. All this preparation to make it seem effortlessly spontaneous.
This project is supported by the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland.