BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SUMMER 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
“When the pandemic hit, people everywhere had to reassess and reinvent themselves,” says singer-songwriter and ukulele icon Victoria Vox, in response to the question that has been de rigueur in every interview I’ve conducted over the past two-and-a-half years: “What have you done to stay sane during this period of confinement, confusion, and uncertainty?” Obviously it’s been tough on everyone—no one has escaped unscathed!—but it has been especially hard on people like Vox and her guitarist/bassist husband Jack Maher, who make their living as touring musicians (together and separately) and as regulars on the robust uke festival and workshop circuit.
“To avoid depression,” she continues, “Jack and I started going live on the internet every day as Jack & the Vox [their longtime duo persona] and created The Best Medicine Show. We spent our days rehearsing, learning new songs, including requests, and even writing skits, and then we’d go live every day on our Jack & the Vox Facebook and YouTube pages. It was the perfect distraction for us. We basically were a couple of weirdos making music on the internet for our own sanity.”
Operating out of their home in Costa Mesa, California (south of L.A.), and performing for free (tips “graciously accepted”) in front of life-size cutouts of the likes of Robert Johnson, Elvis, Queen Elizabeth, Barbara Bush, and Frank Sinatra, they would typically play one original song (Vox is an extremely prolific songwriter) and one cover tune—pop hits, deep cuts, and odd choices; you never knew what was coming. Each “show” was typically around ten to 15 minutes total, with Victoria on ukulele and occasional mouth trumpet (she’s famous for it), and Jack on electric guitar or U-Bass, both singing their hearts out and harmonizing divinely.
The first 100 shows spanned March 23 to June 30, 2020; then they went sort-of weekly for several months, culminating in “March Gladness” in 2021: 31 straight days of shows, each with some crazy theme, such as Weed Appreciation Day, Cocktail Day, Amerigo Vespucci Day, National Prom Day, National Open an Umbrella Day, French Language Day, etc. There have been more than 150 episodes in total. Funny hats and crazy outfits prevailed; hilarity often ensued. So maybe they didn’t stay sane during the pandemic after all. Except that the music was always first-rate, so they did keep that end reasonably together. “After March Gladness,” Vox adds, “I started to really hunker down in our home studio to finish the last three songs for the album and finish producing it all.”
Dress-up and madcap reverie aside, the album in question is actually the most important thing to come out of Vox’s pandemic isolation: The recently released Nirvana in REM is a stunning and exceptionally well-made collection of ten original songs, eight of them inspired by the art of Fred Stonehouse, a Wisconsin native (like Vox) whose unusual, fantastical, and often disturbing folk-primitive paintings include images of animals, humans, and imagined beasties—their features sometimes mixed and matched, many depicted crying or secreting tears, sweat, or blood. I won’t pretend to “understand” the messages of the paintings from Stonehouse’s dream-like visions, but they are definitely mysterious, evocative, and provocative—so much so that Vox has built a wondrous musical work of art around them. (Twenty of Stonehouse’s paintings appear in the beautiful, oversized 44-page booklet accompanying the album.)
Returning briefly to the pandemic thread, Vox notes, “Having long days in the studio to write and record certainly was a blessing. I was able to work when I wanted, but also take my time with recording both uke parts and vocals. So much of it was experimenting along the way. I might not have had the luxury of time if I had booked sessions at another studio. This album also would have turned out very differently if I hadn’t had this time at home to learn, record, write, and explore.”
The genesis of the project dates back to February 2020, right before the pandemic shutdowns began, at a songwriting festival in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, at which nearly three-dozen songwriters were randomly paired together (Vox with Maxel Toft) and tasked with writing a song inspired by an again-randomly chosen Wisconsin artist’s work: in their case, Stonehouse. Vox and Toft co-wrote “Quest for Love” based on a Stonehouse painting (“Untitled”) of an anthropomorphic deer, a human heart hovering in the space between its antlers, staring at the viewer. Vox didn’t meet Stonehouse until a week later, but they formed an immediate bond, and shortly after hearing what she had done with “Untitled,” he suggested that Vox write other songs based on his works. Vox, who really seems to be a songwriter first and a performer second (in 2012, on an encouraging dare, she wrote one song a week for 52 weeks!), jumped at the chance to continue visiting Stonehouse’s surreal subconscious art through song. Now, nearly two years later, we have Nirvana in REM—the title a nod to the dream space mentioned in a line from the album’s captivating and hypnotic final tune, “Floating on Fruit.”
Though creatures of various kinds do turn up in some of the songs on the album, this is really a song cycle about human emotions and relationships, and thus easily relatable, even without the art accompaniment. It’s difficult, as outsiders, to speculate about how much of her is in a given song, and what might be a character she is writing about or embodying, but she imbues every song with compelling personality and genuine sincerity, and she definitely has the vocal chops to draw in the listener.
Musically, the album is something of a departure for Vox. Over the course of around a dozen releases of various kinds since 2000, she’s touched on many different styles and recorded in settings ranging from small groups to large ensembles. Though the ukulele has been central to her songwriting and her live sound since the first decade of the 2000s, she has never been afraid to bring in an eclectic array of other instruments and players to serve her songs, whether horns or cello or accordion or vibraphone or whatever.
A multi-instrumentalist herself—young Victoria Davitt studied violin at 9, oboe at 11, took up the trumpet at 14, and guitar at 16—she has a great understanding of timbral textures and arrangement, and at the same time has developed into a formidable producer sensitive to sonic nuances and possibilities.
Nirvana in REM features more of a stripped-down sound than many of her albums, and relatively few other musicians—Jack Maher shows up on a few tracks playing atmospheric electric guitar and, on one, banjo; Russell Walters plays some bass; Hal Ratliff lays down Fender Rhodes and bass on one tune; and then the rest of the sounds come from the perfect vocal harmonies arranged and mostly sung by Andrea Wittgens; powerful yet tasteful programming, bass and percussion supplied by mixer Geoff Stanfield (who has produced three albums for Vox); and Vox herself on ukulele, U-Bass, and throughout, what is termed “production.” The overall sound is spacious, never cluttered, and highlighted by the juxtaposition of interesting rhythmic elements with moody colorings from electronically altered instrumental samples. It sounds relatively spare, but there’s actually a lot going on beneath the surface.
“In the past I either hired producers, like Mike Tarantino and Geoff Stanfield, or co-produced with Hal Ratliff,” she says. “I’ve learned so much from spending time in the studio with them—and the musicians—over the years. I took an online class in January 2021 from Ryan Tedder [of OneRepublic fame] on songwriting and pop production. Ryan was gung-ho about using samples to inspire songs through creating vibes and layers, so I decided to give it a try. His technique for writing melodies and lyrics was the same as I had always done with the uke, but these sample-created vibes went a little deeper. I had done a bit of home recording before, but in the course with Ryan, I learned about the Splice samples library and how to do a lot more with the audio files and samples. When using these samples, I rarely left them as is, so there was a lot of sample-manipulation going on.
“Then, once I got into the groove of producing the album this way, I had to reverse-construct a few of the songs that I had written 100-percent on uke. I looked for sampled elements that would fit cohesively with the album. On ‘Echo of Luck,’ I ended up using some samples of a zither, trombones, and Middle Eastern strings, which I manipulated to fit the track’s pitch and tempo. Nothing is better than working with real live musicians, but samples will always do exactly what I want them to,” she jokes.
I ask if there are specific producers or albums that have influenced her own production aesthetic. “Of course!” she says. “A couple of my all-time favorite albums are Strange Angels by Laurie Anderson  and So by Peter Gabriel . Both are sort of art-pop. A more recent producer/songwriter I really like is the French artist Héloïse Letissier, known professionally as Christine and the Queens; her Chaleur Humaine album .”
The ukulele plays a less obvious role on Nirvana in REM than most of Vox’s past efforts—it’s mainly used as background texture here and there, and doesn’t appear at all on a couple of songs. But it still was a vital ingredient in every stage of the album’s construction, from songwriting through the final mix.
Asked generally about how she writes songs and how the ukulele fit into that on the new album, Vox says, “My songwriting process can vary from song to song, although I tend to gravitate towards finding an inspiring chord progression and then writing the melody and lyrics together. Sometimes lyrics can form themselves—like magic—out of nonsensical gibberish while trying to find a melody. On this album, I used Fred’s art as a springboard and let some of the songs take on characters: Fred’s mother Rose, Fred himself, Fred’s clairvoyant great aunt Rosalie. Some songs seemed to sing out of the humanized animals that he paints. I found a way to emotionally connect with each of his pieces.
“As far as musical inspiration and which instrument I start on, it just depends on my mood or the equipment at hand. I wrote ‘Quest for Love’ with the U-Bass and ‘Think Twice’ on the piano—we have a 36-key mini-upright piano in our living room. When I perform ‘Think Twice,’ I play it on my baritone uke. ‘Silent Song,’ ‘Echo of Luck,’ and ‘Color of Lying’ were written with a tenor low-G ukulele, while ‘Easy Money,’ ‘Clean,’ ‘Eye of the Animal,’ and ‘Floating on Fruit’ were all composed with samples and the ukulele, or I brought the uke in later in production, as I was composing and recording simultaneously at times.
“The ukulele is used in most of the songs, however not always in obvious ways. In ‘Easy Money,’ for example, you can hear the uke clean on the chorus, but also throughout the same chorus you hear a long chord on the ukulele. However, I reversed the audio file so you hear the tail of the chord first, with a crescendo, and ending with the attack of that chord—the loudest part—usually adding to the rhythm on beat 1 of the following measure. I do a similar thing with the uke on ‘Eye of the Animal,’ as well as doing harp-like fingerpicking on the verses on the chord changes. It adds some harmonic texture while also giving plenty of space for everything else going on.
“On ‘Color of Lying,’” she continues, “during the writing stage I was experimenting with some different sounds on the uke and took a ribbon and laced it around the strings near the saddle. This created a nice, muted, percussive sound when plucking out the chords and notes, and was ultimately used in the final version of the song. When I play this live, I’ll use a ribbon, or even a paper towel in a pinch! I also loop the bass part with my uke going through a Pitchfork octave pedal. I like to challenge what people think when they hear ‘ukulele music.’ I probably did this even more on a side project and album I did in 2013 called Boombox Séance. I wrote the music for all those songs on the ukulele—mostly baritone—and would often use reverse, dropped octaves, and the looper. Stylistically I called it ‘uketronica.’ I was just trying something different.”
The ukes that Vox used on the album are a koa Tiny Tenor from Daniel Ho and Pepe Romero’s Romero Creations company, a Kala U-Bass (“I know it’s not really a ukulele, but ukulele-sized,” she says), and a pair of Mya-Moe instruments: a figured-mahogany baritone that includes a beautiful fretboard inlay by Larry Robinson, and a spectacular myrtle cutaway tenor custom pyrographed in 2020 by Honolulu-based artist Dino Muradian using elements from Stonehouse’s painting “The Echo of Luck” on the top, back, and sides. (Click here for our feature story about Dino and pyrography).
“Since I’ve finished the recording,” she notes, “I’ve been figuring out how I’m going to perform these songs with just my uke and [Boss RC-30] looper. It’s a fun process and usually calls for a bit of problem-solving. Of course one option would be to just play to the track, but that doesn’t inspire me. We debuted ‘Silent Song’ on episode 77 [of The Best Medicine Show], which was a stressful looping dance for me and Jack. No one can screw up at any time, as it is recording live for the entire duration of the loop, taking turns to loop our ‘part.’ I also performed ‘Clean,’ ‘Color of Lying,’ and ‘Echo of Luck’ at the Reno Uke Fest a few months ago, but I had Dani Joy, Perry Stauffer, Daniel Ho, and Jack around to be my ‘band.’ I recently figured out how I can perform ‘Floating on Fruit.’ I’m still figuring a few of them out, but I’m happy with the ones I’ve done so far. I can also do the songs almost completely solo, with or without the looper. It’s good to have options in case the power goes out; I speak from experience!”
With the uke world starting to return to some semblance of normalcy as the pandemic recedes (fingers crossed!), Vox has been stepping out from behind the Zoom curtain in recent months for the occasional uke festival (Aurora, Reno, Rocky Mountain) with more planned. “I can’t believe it’s already 2022!” she says. “Time is flying. I do have some ukulele festivals lined up this summer: Kamloops [British Columbia], Mighty Uke Day [Michigan], Los Angeles, and Durango [Colorado]. I also have some regular shows coming up where I’ll be able to showcase the new album more. Jack also plays with his own band, Feed the Kitty, and they are keeping him super busy and are breaking through with some opportunities themselves. So I expect to be doing some solo touring later this year, too.”
And then there are her regular songwriting workshops (Camp Vox) and no doubt other events to fill in the calendar a little more. Up the road a little, she hopes to record an album of the excellent original Christmas songs she’s penned through the years; a tribute to the great jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker; and perhaps even an album of her French songs.
Basically, Victoria Vox never stops, and the ukulele world is all the richer for it.
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