It has been said and it has been said again: 2016 was one of the worst years in recent history. It marked the beginning of a political shift fueled by returning nationalism, encouraging inclusion of those who are like us and exclusion of those who are not. It was also a year of loss: a sudden widening chasm in the arts as several influential musicians passed away. But the extinction of living names we all grew up with — Prince, Bowie, George Michael, Leonard Cohen — brought a pressing question to mind: Who was going to be the next generation of truly influential and great artists?
In 2016 I saw Velvoir for the first time and wrote a review of their performance in which I wondered whether these humans were to be the next great artists of our time or simply forgotten at some undetermined point in the future.
To be great you have to be remembered. To be remembered you have to become an icon. Bowie, Prince, Cohen, each one of them became icons for different reasons in the music world. Bowie gained fame through the creation of a persona — “Ziggy” — and relentless experimentation with musical and theatrical formsl. Prince created an original sound by extensively combining elements of different genres. Cohen became known for his meticulous song craft and insightful investigations into all matters of life, turning the darkest aspects of our existence into musical artistry.
But they were also people like us. Every great artist, whether they succeed in gaining wider recognition or not, needs to come from somewhere and this is a closer look at that somewhere of Velvoir.
Verity on being Transgender
It is in an old-fashioned street lined with terraced houses opposite a train track in one of the outer suburbs of Newcastle that I meet Verity. In the living-room of her current residence posters of Klimt and the swinging madness of the 1920s surround us. She sits in front of me in a demure dress, stockings and low-heeled pumps, her make-up a glowing image of perfection. She explains how she has always been drawn to the idea of old Hollywood — a bygone age when there still existed a certain purity to stardom. There is something undeniably and incongruously pure about her presence: in person as on stage she embodies a space of neutrality.
Being a transgender woman is not a second skin that Verity needs to climb in and out of on a daily basis, it is not even a thought that breaks the surface of her conscious. A woman does not have to remind herself that she is a woman, nor does a man that he is a man. They are simply who they are. Verity is simply who she is. “When I go on stage,” she tells me, “I do not think, ‘I’m trans!’”. And when the question of her gender does pop up in post-gig conversations, it always takes her by surprise.
“The beauty of music,” she says, “is that you forget the things that affect you.”
Music has been a dominant factor in her life since she can remember. The act of holding a microphone became another seamless part of her existence. Never seeking a formal education for something that came so naturally, a unique auditory vision started forming in her head based on a fascination with everything from the Spice Girls to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and an intuition that she will not be able to live as anything other than a creator of art. It is this combination of sounds, rock ’n roll infused self-assertion and an unflinching determination to succeed which would go on to lay the foundation of Velvoir.
Most of us have little insight into the degree of discrimination transgender people generally face. Poverty, inability to find work, harassment, depression and suicide — these phenomena are particularly prevalent amongst this small, but largely ostracised percentage of the population. Verity chooses not to focus (or even mention) any discrimination she may or may not have experienced (besides a quick remark about occasional homophobic comments at new venues). It underscores even more profoundly her support of anti-censorship and a need to free herself from social barriers, which are further fortified by language.
Verity does not aim to speak for anyone, nor sets out to be a role model. Her main concern is being authentic to herself and music has become the ideal medium for her to achieve that. It is both a shield and a way of laying herself bare to be attacked, as any other performer who walks out in the glaring lights of public eyes. At the same time, the action of exposing herself becomes a veritable proof of attaining the freedom that she seeks.
Joe on not being a Musician
On stage Joe strikes a completely different image to Verity. Bearded and dressed in a sleeveless biker jacket and bolo tie, his is a timeless impression of defiance, one that you would expect to find in a smoky pub or in a hard rock band. Denim, leather and bass guitar are the elements that cut a roughened edge, yet in personality Joe is completely different.
‘Lighthearted’ is not the word that comes to mind when you see him for the first time, yet that is how he describes himself. Originally from the ex-mining village of Trimdon, Joe’s good-naturedness and reliant character struck me early on in our conversation at The Angel pub in Durham where we met. He studied Community and Youth Work at Durham University and during that time Joe’s unshakeable obsession with the bass was a source of great distraction. It was an inseparable part of himself and he went on to play in several bands over the years, yet none of them offered him what Velvoir eventually would.
“I was looking for a band for quite a while, looking through the adverts on Gumtree…” he tells me when I ask him how he met Verity. “I remember, I would do it every night before I went to bed, I’d be looking through the adverts and it became almost like this ritual that was sending me to sleep, because all the adverts were the same fucking thing.” He goes on to describe a typical advert and the usual influences most indie bands would list. Until he saw Verity’s ad: “Velvoir needs a bassist.” It was the name that stood out first. He had never heard it before or seen it around. And the rest of the wording was such that he couldn’t stop thinking about it. “Funky bass player … has to play slap bass … seventies influence …” And weeks later, he went back, sifting through all the ads, to make contact with Verity.
With an old-school sense of artistry and technical proficiency that opens up doors to new sonic possibilities, Joe, however, prefers not to describe himself as a musician at all. This is part of the reason why “there is no one who plays the bass quite like Joe,” as one Velvoir fan puts it. As far as sound goes, it is Joe you’ll hear first as he starts warming up before a gig — to some it will be a familiar, almost comforting resonance, to others a continuous rhythm pulling them further and further into dark mysterious layers of sound: that first hint of promise that something outside the ordinary will be taking place.
Adam on Innovation
The young jazz guitarist, Alex Munk, who has recently been making waves in the UK’s jazz scene, observed that the North East produces and gathers an unusual concentration of superb guitar talent. Adam falls within this unusual concentration. He grew up and went to college in Newcastle, but chose to continue his studies at Cornwall University, where he completed a BA-degree in Music, specialising in jazz. Nonchalantly he indicates that he has no other career path planned other than being a musician. His youthful confidence is, however, coupled with a rather sobering realisation that in order to succeed in anything you have to set the bar extra high, because “you’ll most likely fall short of the goal you set yourself”.
It was also through an advertisement that Adam came in contact with Verity. After a 5-hour conversation about life in general and a good jamming session, he joined Velvoir. He came to provide some of the harmonic understanding, allowing him to suggest unusual chord progressions and musical motifs, which added an extra layer of complexity to the music. Regardless of theoretical knowledge, what he aimed to bring to the masses was a crazy, yet tasteful sound: a popularisation of progressive musicianship and a cross-over of genres that could appeal to anyone.
Marty on Perspective
Being an artist of any kind comes with a taint of irrationality and a warning that you will most likely not be able to make a living out of it. Marty is one of the few people who can dispel your misgivings about less-trodden career paths and tell you how to make it work. Or at least how he has made it work.
His drum-style and part of his outlook on life were shaped in the famous Drumtech in London, the UK’s first contemporary music school founded by Francis Seriau. It was a school aiming to train “versatile, creative, self sufficient, employable and above all real musicians”. After returning to Darlington, Marty was not automatically a full-time musician. He first worked for his father, a welder, and for a while led a double life. A tough life. Get up at 5 am. Go to work. Get home at 4:30 pm. Go to rehearsals. Get back in the midnight hours. Over the weekend, he would be gigging, gradually slotting into a performance mindset. A mindset Monday’s 5 o’clock alarm shattered into pieces.
It was teaching requests — something he did not envisage — that finally set him off on the route to becoming a full-time musician. Teaching and his willingness to play in various bands, including cover bands, allowed for him to earn enough to get by on.
When it comes to ability and experience, and not only in terms of drumming techniques but also styles and repertoire, Marty is a store of groovy knowledge. It is groove that characterises his playing. A deep, steady kind of groove that does not come through a rapid bash on the drums but through a harmonious connection with an instrument that is not usually associated with harmony. As Velvoir’s latest member, it is this intense sense of rhythm and also something of stage practice — what works well and what doesn’t — that Marty is already contributing to a large degree.
When I ask him if he has any aspirations for the future, he tells me something we tend to forget, “You have to be really careful when you make up these aspirations in your head. You have to be really careful not to disappoint yourself.”
It is more importantly about finding a band that works well together, where a relational understanding is already a natural part of the member fabric and the music simply flows from there.
There is no denying the discordance between Velvoir’s four members — their “crazy image” as some call it. However, in personality as in artistry each member brings a different element which together forms the core of their identity and music: a defiance of social expectations and norms expressed in the lyrics and vocal presence, unparalleled technical skill, old-school artistry and innovation in the bass and guitar riffs, and the precision of soulful drumming: a groove that permeates any combination of sounds. And through this unlikely yet highly effective combination of individuals they have become a symbol of a working democracy.
Special thanks to Matt Flynn for providing the cover photo.