BY HEIDI SWEDBERG | FROM THE WINTER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Erin McGrane is not Penny and Jeff Freling is not Victor. However, they are Victor & Penny. As with the Righteous Brothers—who were neither righteous nor brothers, or Belle & Sebastian, a band which is not a duo and includes no musicians named Belle or Sebastian, the name is made up. The Victor & Penny moniker, along with the title of their first album, Antique Pop, is a perfect first line of introduction to the music they began creating together in 2010. Vintage sounds, sparkling energy, jazzy stylings, irrepressible spirit burst forward, and you see and hear exactly what they want you to. It’s the work of master magicians that is meticulously, intentionally crafted. Not simple illusion, there’s more to it—and them—than meets the eye. They are hard-working, serious artists with big, grand magic ahead.
In 2010, Jeff, who had studied at Berklee College of Music and the University of Missouri Conservatory of Music and performed with Blue Man Group, was playing the role of Victor California in a fictional band called the Dead Ringers in a ’50s noir musical play alongside the show’s creator, Erin. An actress with a resume that included the film Up in the Air with George Clooney, hosting the Kansas City television program CinemaKC, and singing in rock bands and cabaret, Erin needed backup on a side gig, so they teamed up: Jeff brought his “Victor” persona and Erin soon adopted “Penny Arcadia,” after a lyric in “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”
They found their resonance in swing tunes from the 1930s and ’40s. Listening to numbers from the Great American Songbook, the pair kept coming back to the work of Walter Donaldson, Dorothy Fields, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Woods, and Fats Waller. “We fell in love with the songwriters,” says Erin, “and that’s where we found our story, because we are both songwriters.” To avoid playing the same old standards, they dug for gems on B-sides, a process they call “sonic archaeology.” They created a fresh repertoire of classics and began to write their own music based on the songwriters of that era. Things really fell into place when Erin found her instrument:
“People say ukulele changes their lives and I truly, truly believe that,” she says. “Besides changing my relationship with my dad, it started Jeff and me on a whole new path. We both changed our careers, Jeff moved to Kansas City, we got married, all because of that little uke.” As their musical and romantic partnership deepened, they found themselves together on New Year’s Eve 2010 asking each another: What do you want to do with your life? The answer was to be touring artists together, full-time. “As is our way, we set a goal and made a beeline toward it. Jeff quit Blue Man Group, and as we like to say, I turned down George Clooney.”
Two Old Men
Vocally they are well matched, velvet on velvet, harmonizing and alternating leads with a happily married ease, but Jeff and Erin say their instruments—his 1959 Kay guitar and her ’51 Hofner uke—are the key to the Victor & Penny sound. “It’s like a conversation between two old men,” Erin says. Their sound features Erin holding down the rhythm with high, bright, syncopated chops and Jeff’s guitar singing warm, throaty leads with an overdriven hollowbody tone. Although the Hofner has become fragile with age, they are having a difficult time forcing it into retirement. Jeff says, ‘“We’ve been trying to get it off the road for the last five years. It’s taken a beating, but it really became the sound of Victor & Penny—that ‘chack’ thing that she does is hard to do that on any other uke.” Erin agrees: “I have some beautiful ukuleles and some vintage ones, but none of them sound like the Hofner. It’s a crooked, consumer-grade oddball, but it’s my most precious belonging. We try to use it just for recording. It’s hard to take it out; I feel nervous about it all the time.”
Always a solid vocalist, Erin had also studied piano, flute, and guitar. She also had Whizzo the Clown’s “absolutely unplayable” uke, a gift from a friend whose father, Frank Oliver Wiziarde, had been a Kansas City children’s television star. “I liked that little uke, and I decided I was going to get serious, so we went to buy a ukulele. We had a horrible shopping experience! It was as if the universe was aligned against us. We spent about an hour and a half in the shop.” Jeff says, “She kind of learned how to play uke in that guitar shop in Chicago.”
Erin continues, “We walked out of that store without a uke, for whatever reason, and we sat in the car out front and I said, ‘You know, I think my dad has a ukulele—he had a ukulele growing up that I loved—maybe he still has it?’ So, I called my dad. My dad and I had a strained relationship. I hadn’t talked to him in a really long time, and I called him out of the blue and asked, ‘Do you still have that ukulele?’ He sent it to me, and it was absolutely beautiful; more beautiful than I remembered. I fell madly in love with it.” (See sidebar below.)
The 2020 pandemic forced the cancellation of what would have been the third Wonderstruck Ukulele Academy (WUA), an annual event Erin, Jeff, and uke singer-songwriter Danielle Anderson (aka Danielle Ate the Sandwich) created in 2018 in the Music District, a cooperative music community in Fort Collins, Colorado. “Our dear friend Danielle lived in Colorado at that time,” Erin says, “and the three of us came up with the concept of an immersive weekend for a small group of ukulele enthusiasts that was different than a uke fest. Everything had to have those ‘ah-ha’ moments: wonderstruck! We call the students ‘cadets’; it feels like summer camp. We instruct 25 people over three days, and the classes revolve around performance, songwriting, and creativity, and culminate in a ‘campfire’ concert, on a real stage with a professional sound person, sound system, and lights. Everybody gets the feel of getting up there and actually performing in a concert setting, but it’s in a safe space. Wonderstruck hasbeen life changing. There’s been lots of tears; huggie-sobby. Ukulele has that effect—it does something to your heart, squeezes you a little bit.” The WUA is hoping to be back for an in-person event sometime in 2022.
The three friends brought their lives closer together when Danielle became their neighbor. “My recent move from Colorado to Kansas City, Missouri, was highly influenced by Jeff and Erin,” Danielle says. “When I was on tour and playing shows in the area, they always made Kansas City feel like home by letting me stay at their lovely place and setting up great shows with wonderful audiences. They helped me move into my third-story apartment in the peak of the Midwestern summer humidity. That’s friendship!”
Coping With COVID
Since 2010, Erin and Jeff have put 275,000 miles on their car’s odometer, playing 1,100 shows in 40 states and three countries. In their peak touring year, they had 205 road days on their schedule. “We had a PO box and no actual home—we were really tired,” Erin laughs. Then, in 2020, it all changed. “We went from 85 shows on the books to six. It was an eye-opener.”
What Erin calls “hard nesting” ensued. They adopted a rescue cat and started working from home separated by a wall in side-by-side studios. Jeff went back to Berklee (virtually), and is finishing a degree on media composition and film scoring. Erin is putting a commercial real estate license to use, and is working on a second book of poetry and memoir-based essays. Together, they are creating a sound cycle of scored poetry about getting through anxiety, stress, and isolation, Sounds Like a Feeling, Looks Like a Poem, which will include short films of each piece. “It’s been an unexpected journey this year. As performing artists, it’s been difficult, but the pandemic has also given us time to stop, reset, and proceed with thoughtfulness,” she says.
The ukulele continues to enrich their lives. Jeff finds it invaluable to his new line of work. “I’m scoring a film this summer that calls for the use of mostly acoustic instruments. I plan on incorporating the ukulele into the mix, probably in some unorthodox way. Erin and I own an array of ukuleles, each with its own distinctive sound, ranging from a rich baritone uke to a bright banjo uke, to an old Bakelite vintage model from the 1950s that has a completely unique tone. The versatility of the uke makes it the perfect instrument to layer in arrangements.” Erin, too, maintains the glow. “People love the ukulele! I’m always discovering people who are devotees, regardless if I know them through music, real estate, or literature. The joy that playing ukulele brings crosses all demographics and will continue to bring me together with others, I’m sure.”
My Dad’s Uke
Erin McGrane: “I called my dad and asked him to tell me all about the Hofner uke, and he told me this story: When he was 19, my dad joined the Navy. He and his father had a strained relationship, but on the day he was to ship off, his dad said, ‘I have a gift for you’ and he gave him a little ukulele. My dad said it was a very strange gift—he didn’t play ukulele, his dad didn’t play ukulele, but his dad said, ‘I hope that it keeps you company and you learn how to play it.’ So, he took it with him, carved his name in the back—’Mac’—and played it until it fell apart.
“In 1952, when my dad was stationed in Bremerhaven, Germany, his roommate, a guitarist with whom he used to play, convinced him to buy a new, better instrument. At that time, much of Bremerhaven was still unrepaired from the ravages of WWII. My dad remembers walking down a street as the sun was setting. The buildings on both sides were mostly bombed-out shells, but at the end of the street was a shop with its lights on, burning brightly through the window. It was the music store where he bought his 1951 Hofner.
“The great thing was, this ukulele became something about which my dad and I could talk. My dad got very interested in my progress. He asked me to send him a song that I was learning. We chose a song that I hadn’t sung before, but had been on my mind—Fats Waller’s ‘I’m Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.’ We recorded it on the computer and emailed it off to him. And no kidding, he emailed me right back and said, ‘You won’t believe this, but that is the song I sang to your mother on that ukulele the day I got home from the Navy.’”
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