By Amber von Nagel
This may be the digital age, but the Liverpool ukulele duo the Mersey Belles still have one foot firmly planted in the stylish past. In fact, connecting with the two women—Danielle “Nancy” Perkins and Lindsey “Pearl” Stainthorpe—via Skype is like opening a window to 1940s England. Both are wearing navy-blue sailorette frocks, their hair done up in flawless victory rolls reminiscent of those once worn by actresses Ingrid Bergman and Mary Beth Hughes. Of course, the retro influence among ukulele players is in and of itself nothing new. Today’s uke scene is, one can argue, a tad preoccupied with bringing back the fashions and attitudes of past generations.
With a penchant for jazz standards and fondness for tiki culture, uke players love to pay tribute to bygone eras. And why wouldn’t they, considering the instrument’s many waves of popularity over the past hundred years? There’s something magical about those old, time-worn photos of original Hawaiian ukulele masters in their cross-cultural attire of leis and western suits, flappers playing ukuleles in ethereal lace dresses, or 1960s surfer guys plucking away in barkcloth Hawaiian shirts. That affinity for nostalgia is not lost on the Mersey Belles and—fortunately—it goes beyond retro fashion. Musically, the duo is best known for its beautifully harmonized renditions of jazz and pop songs from the first half of the 20th-century.
Although these musicians have only been active for a little over a year, they’ve already grown a dedicated fan base in the United Kingdom, and begun writing their own material for their upcoming debut album. Finishing each others’ sentences as they discuss their desire to make their way to America, these graceful, talented women display an enthusiasm for music that is positively infectious.
How long have you played music together?
Nancy A year and two months.
So then this is your first project together.
Nancy We had a couple of mutual friends here in Liverpool because we both worked in music for quite a long time. We did run into each other on one job before this one, but we didn’t know each other.
What job was that?
Nancy We worked for Asda…is that Wal-Mart over where you are? It was like an advert promotion that we did together.
Pearl We sang in a choir.
You met each other more through your vocal work than the ukulele?
Nancy No, it was totally ukulele, actually, because, well, we didn’t really meet then, but we found each other, we’d realized that we’d both done that gig but we’d not really talked to each other.Pearl Because there were quite a few people in the choir.
Nancy But it was ukulele that brought us together.
So you both already had a passion for ukulele and for mid-century popular music by the time you met?
Nancy Yeah, I mean, I had this idea about a year and a half ago. I was working for a tea dance company over here in the UK. So my idea with that, because I was serving tea and cake to people dressed with victory rolls and pinafores—and I was given a ukulele because I sang on somebody’s album over here in the UK—basically I was thinking, wouldn’t it be great if you had two girls dressed in the same outfit with victory rolls playing the ukulele? So that was my brainchild about 18 months ago.
Along with the ukulele and your beautiful vocals, aesthetic is a huge part of the Mersey Belles.
Pearl Yes, definitely. This [gestures to her hair] takes an hour to do.
Nancy It takes her longer. It takes me a half an hour.
Pearl It’s worth it, and the getting ready is as enjoyable as the performing!
For each of you, what attracted you to the ukulele and how long had you been playing it before you became a duo?
Pearl I started on the guitar, and obviously it’s a transferable skill, so then I picked up a ukulele back in December 2012, and just loved it from then on.
Nancy As I briefly mentioned before, I sang on an album here in Liverpool for a local artist and to thank me for doing such a good job on the album, he actually gave me this beautiful Kala ukulele. It’s my favorite one. And I just started from there. The thing I really like about the ukulele is it feels really nice to play and it doesn’t feel too complicated or…I mean, we don’t claim to be amazing ukulele players, but we just really enjoy what we do.
And being technically proficient singers, the ukulele is a really good accompaniment for both of you.
Nancy We spend a lot of time on arranging our songs vocally. Because we know we’re not going to break into any, like, ukulele solos or anything like that.
Pearl We prefer to do more on the vocals and just use this as a tool to make a nice little plinky-plonk, you know, in the background.
What attracted you to doing mostly mid-century popular music? Was there anything in particular that you identified with in that style of music?
Pearl I think for me, I liked the simplicity of it, you know. I liked the beautiful sound that was created. I also liked the chord progressions as well, and a lot of the ’20s and the ’30s and the ’40s music used sevenths. I think they just make an awesome sound, and I think with our vocals, it’s pretty special, really. And that’s really why I really enjoy it. Plus, I love the look.
This style of music is popular for weddings, and I know you play a lot of weddings and similar events. You’ve definitely found a niche there.
Nancy Definitely, and we find a lot of brides these days are wearing vintage wedding dresses. And we played this amazing wedding last year that was in the middle of a forest, and that was just absolutely magical.
I understand you also recently played a christening.
Nancy Oh yeah, we do hen nights, christenings, twenty-firsts, bar-mitzvahs, everything.
Pearl We’ve been known to sign up to just do a little set in somebody’s living room.
Do you have any plans to tour other parts of Europe anytime soon, or maybe even the US?
Nancy Because things are getting quite busy for us over here, we are actually currently in talks with a couple of management companies, and then the progression from there would be obviously to kind of start looking at Europe and the US, but we can’t really do that on our own. We have people interested in managing us, and we’re just trying to find the right person for us. Because it’s a big deal, isn’t it, to go in partnership? We go in partnership with each other, but it’s almost like you need to trust that person, so we’re on the lookout for representation at the minute. The right person, or people. From the beginning of this, what we both said is that we’re doing this to enjoy ourselves. We’re not taking ourselves too seriously, and we’re not divas. We really are in this genuinely for it, and the minute we start taking ourselves too seriously, I think…well, we’ll just never do that.
Pearl I completely agree. I think, you know, when you stop loving it because it gets too much, then you’ve got to question, really. And we really genuinely are in it for it, and we had such an amazing year last year in our first year, and this year has just gone crazy.
Nancy Oh, it’s mental!
How would you describe the current ukulele scene in the UK?
Nancy There’s a big thing happening here in Liverpool. There are so many ukulele bands here, and we know so many people down south. But we know all different types of ukulele bands, like the Ukuleighties, which is an ’80s covers band. And we have more traditional friends who do the ’20s stuff.
Pearl There’s loads of them, but they’re not purely ukulele. There’s a lot of clubs, there’s the Wirral Ukulele Orchestra, who are amazing. The Wirral area is just booming. Liverpool itself is just amazing. People tend to be quite stylized with it, I feel, because obviously with the George Formby thing. You know, he was from Blackpool, and we’re not far from Blackpool, so people have picked up on that and do play his style. Or, there’s a couple who do Roy Smeck. So people do lots of different things with the ukulele over here. But I think at the minute, we’re the only girls doing the duo.
Nancy We’ve researched all over and there are lots of trios, quartets, and quintets out there all over the world, but there’s no duos who do what we do.
Pearl Fingers crossed, touch wood. One thing to mention, actually, that’s really important that’s come out in the last couple of years: In school, when you were little, you would learn how to play a recorder. Today, they’ve all got ukuleles. They all start on ukulele. And we just think that’s fantastic.
Nancy It’s a ukulele boom.
When it comes to songwriting, how does that process work for you as a duo?
Nancy I think one of us has an idea like a melody or a strumming pattern or chord progression, and then we’ll come together with that. We’re basically considering writing with other people over here in Liverpool. We’re currently writing an album and we want the album to be amazing, to get us over to the States hopefully to promote it, you know what I mean? So we want to make sure that it’s really good, so, you know, we can get a record deal.
Pearl I think it’s all good and well singing other people’s songs and putting our own spin on them, but when you write your own song, you can just do what you want with it. That’s yours. You have full ownership on that song. And you can perform that to whatever degree you want. I think it’s stepping up the game as well a little bit for us. We’re hitting a different target audience. We’re looking at expanding our knowledge for what we can do as musicians.
Nancy I was just about to say, it gives you a lot more credibility, I think, if you can stand up and say “this is and album that we wrote between us.” And as we say, hopefully it will get us a nice, lovely tour in Europe and the States.
Pearl Oh, we hope!
What The Mersey Belles Play:
- Kala KA FMS 904
- Epiphone Les Paul Ukulele Cherry
- Kala KA-JTE/2TS acoustic-electric archtop
- Stagg USX-SPA-SE
- iUke mini ukulele
- Kala soprano with redwood back and sides
- Clearwater acoustic-electric concert
- Stagg soprano with rosewood back and sides
Both use various types of Aquila strings, and favor Aquila Nylguts on their sopranos.