The first time someone handed Victoria Vox a ukulele, she tried a few notes, “failed miserably,” and handed it back.
A lot can happen in 15 years.
Vox was a guitar player when she rejected that four-stringed offer. On Friday, she will roll into Whippany as star of the Folk Project’s fifth annual New Jersey Uke Fest.
“The ukulele, I feel, is capable of doing anything,” said the graduate of the Berklee College of Music.
“It can be poppy. It can rock. It can swing. It can be jazzy. It can be funky. It can be sweet. It can be sad.”
Her 10th album, Colorful Heart, spans most of that spectrum. She can thank her mom, her fans, and another friend who presented her with a ukulele after hearing her play Over the Rainbow on guitar. Vox’s version was a cover of a cover by the late Israel ‘IZ’ Kamakawiwoʻole.
“I didn’t even know that was on the ukulele,” she said of the hit recording.
Intrigued, Vox bought a how-to book and started noodling on her new uke at home in Green Bay, WI. Her mom liked what she heard. “She coaxed me into playing it onstage,” said Vox, who only knew three songs on the instrument. Fans kept asking to hear them again.
Victoria Vox and Her Jumping Flea, her first ukulele album, came out in 2006. Fans have snapped up most of her subsequent releases. She has appeared on The Jay Leno Show and opened for Jackson Browne and Leo Kottke. In 2010, Vox was spotlighted in the documentary MIGHTY UKE: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog.
A couple of years ago, someone handed her a guitar. She didn’t know what to do with it.
Something about the ukulele transformed her performing, and her songwriting.
“It’s a very simple instrument. There’s not a lot to hide behind, both physically and musically. I feel like it strengthened my melodies, and it made me think more about what I was saying. And it was just so portable and intimate. People just enjoyed that part of it. It was kind of light and fun and different,” said Vox, 39.
Occasionally, she tours as Jack & the Vox with guitarist Jack Maher. They were acquaintances at Berklee (where Vox also knew John Mayer), but did not cross paths again until a music convention 18 years later.
Maher proposed on their first date, “before we even kissed,” Vox recounted. She said yes.
But Vox needed to digest her “gut reaction.”
“The next day, I’m like, ‘Don’t call me, don’t text me. I gotta think about this!'” They eloped.
Other bets have paid off, too.
After spending a year in France as a teen, Vox leaned toward a career in international business. But her dad, an architectural millworker, had another idea. Blown away at age 6 by Cyndi Lauper, Vox had composed lyrics while playing on her swing set, and recorded a demo of original songs when she was 12.
“Why don’t you do something you enjoy?” her father suggested. “Like how about music?”
Vox was agog. “Really? You’ll let me?”
When composing her song My Darling Beau, Vox wanted a novel solo. So she channeled her high school trumpet experience, puckered up, and mimicked the horn. That was in 2005. A decade later, her mastery of the lost art of “mouth trumpet” landed her in the Wall Street Journal.
“When I’m mouth-trumpeting, I’m not thinking, ‘Okay, I’m a singer trying to sound like a trumpet.’ It’s really a mental, psychological state of: ‘I am a trumpet.'”
‘SIZE DOESN’T MATTER’
This weekend is an encore for Vox, who performed at the inaugural New Jersey Uke Fest in 2013.
“Folks love her! Every year we get requests to have her back,” said FiL Wisneski, a ukester who helps plan the event.
The 2018 festival runs from Aug. 24-25 at the Ukrainian American Cultural Center of New Jersey, at 60C North Jefferson Road in Whippany, and concludes Aug. 26 with a musical free-for-all on the historic Morristown Green.
Saturday is full of workshops for players of all ages and abilities, capped by a 7:30 pm performance by Vox and The Aloha Boys with Alan Distajo. Sunday’s fun on the Green begins at 10:30 am.
Lagrimas — also a Berklee grad– is an Hawaii Music Award winner who has toured with Jake Shimabukuro and other top acts. Terzian is a New York-based singer, songwriter and actress with a taste for the harp-ukulele and electric uke. The Aloha Boys are masters of kanikapila, a pleasant style popular in Hawaii.
Tickets are $25 for each concert, with package deals for concerts and workshops from $102 to $132. Advance discounts are available online through Thursday, Aug. 23.
Video: Victoria Vox toots her mouth trumpet at the 2013 NJ Uke Fest:
Wisneski described the weekend as a doorway to a friendly global community enamored of a friendly instrument. Workshops will cover everything from basics to advanced soloing and the care and feeding of ukuleles, he said. You even can try hula dancing.
Alas, there are no mouth trumpet lessons. But attendees can learn a thing or two about merchandising from Victoria Vox.
Taught screen printing by her mother, a college professor, Vox created “Vox Sox,” V-emblazoned bras, “Size Doesn’t Matter” onesies, Voxer-briefs and “Uke Can’t Touch This” panties.
“They’re not like a huge money-maker,” Vox acknowledged. “They’re more of a conversation piece. If people can leave from the show with a smile on their face and chuckling about how they just bought a pair of panties from a ukulele player, that’s awesome!”