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Interview with Grace Savage - UK Female Beatboxing Champion

26 June 2013 Robert Bradley

Grace Savage has held the title of UK Female beatbox champion for last 2 years. On July 17th she and a number of other urban musicians invade the Shed at the National Theatre bringing together a part gig, part theatre and part installation collaboration that’s aptly named Home. London Calling's Robert Bradley caught up with Grace in her preparation for the show.

London Calling: When did you first discover that beat boxing was your calling?

Grace Savage: I got into beatboxing when I was about 16, Bellatrix (world female champion 2009) and I are old school friends and she taught me the basic noises and encouraged me a lot when I was learning. I learnt a bit from Audible1 back in the day too. We all grew up in Crediton (a small town in Devon) and there happened to be a lot of beatboxers about. Not many people know it but the West Country has a surprisingly good hip hop scene! I’ve always imitated people and the various noises that world throws at me, so it came quite naturally and once I had grasped the basics, I learnt a lot of techniques from watching videos on youtube and visiting sites such as humanbeatbox.com. I caught the beatbox bug instantly and two years later found myself performing my first big gig on stage at the QEH, Southbank Centre in London with Shlomo and The Boxettes in front of over 2,000 people!  

LC: Thats sounds like an extreme right of passage!

GS: Yeah it was, perhaps the most epic experience of my life! Shortly after that, I started doing open mic nights alone in order to boost my confidence and work on my solo set and before I knew it, the gigs just started creeping their way in.

LC: Who has been your major musical influence?

GS: My inspiration for rhythms and beats comes from listening to a lot of hip-hop, dubstep and drum n bass. But you may laugh; I love my pop, country and folk music. When I was 14 I saw Rahzel perform in Exeter and he blew my tiny little mind! He was the first beatboxer I ever saw live and that night definitely had a lasting impact on me. He was really pushing the boundaries of beatboxing at the time and it was exciting to be a part of that. Apart from him, as a young girl there was a serious lack of role models in the media, but I have always been inspired by strong women in music. Early influences include Beyonce, Amy Winehouse, Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, Eva Cassidy, Alanis Morrissette, India Arie and Pink. Later down the line, when I had gained some performance experience, I was introduced to Shlomo by Bellatrix and asked to audition for the Vocal Orchestra. Rehearsing and performing with Shlo and the Vocal Orchestra was a huge learning experience for me; not only in terms of the technicality of beatboxing but also in performance technique, reading music, using melody & harmonies, learning the shape and structure of songs and the overall theatricality of a live show. I’m working on my solo album at the moment with producer/songwriter Dee Adam and I’ve learnt so much from her musically in the past year.

LC: What kind of challenges have you encountered?

GS: The same challenges of any self-employed young person trying to make a living in the creative industry in the current climate…it is just really hard sometimes, but luckily because of my mix of theatre, teaching experience and beatboxing being quite a unique skill, I have been relatively lucky with finding work.

LC: What about from a creative stand point?

GS: Having to be constantly pushing myself creatively and making sure I am always learning new things is tough. In a purely technical sense, being a female beatboxer, I have sometimes found it a challenge to produce bass that sounds as phat as the guys, but I compensate by using femininity to my advantage and working harder on my vocal scratching and composition of my sets. When I started working in the studio with Dee, it was a challenge for us to find the right balance for beatboxing; we wanted it to sound authentic and recognisable as a human mouth but didn’t want this to compromise the overall muscle and punch ofthe songs.  So most are a mixture of beatboxing and programmed drums that work together to create an organic, but still hard-hitting sound.

LC: You've held the title of female beatboxing champion 2 years in a row, did you face stiff computation?

GS: The quality of beatboxing from last year to this year in both men and women’s categories has levelled up a huge amount. The beatbox scene is expanding rapidly and people are starting a lot younger now and the girls are definitely getting better! There were about 50 guys competing on the night compared to seven girls in total, so that gives you an idea of how much competition I was up against. I have been in the final against Dana Mckeon two years running now, she has a great musical aspect to her beatboxng and Mc Lycan (who I beat in the semi-finals) also has some serious bass so it certainly wasn’t an easy ride!

LC: Can anybody beatbox?

GS: I have always said yes. We all have a voice therefore we can all beatbox. Whether that means we can all be great beatboxers, I’m not so sure because although much of it comes down to dedication and practice, and a vast majority of it is creativity and performance technique, which can’t always be taught.

LC: What type of vocal training is required and how long do you warm up before a gig?

GS: The physical power of beatboxing comes from the plosive and percussive sounds made by the lips and tongue and breath is achieved quickly and often taken in whilst making a noise (inward snare noise for example) so when first learning to beatbox it takes a lot of repetition and practice. It’s basically muscle memory, the more you do it, the better and more consistent your noises will sound. When I practice now, I focus more on having good flow, timing, rhythm transitioning and trying to come up with new sounds and unique material. For warming up I just need to make sure my lips are warm and loose (!) and my mouth isn’t dry and I’m usually good to go. I achieve that by drinking lots of water, chewing gum and doing lots of mouth stretches and lip bass (blowing out hard like a horse so the lips vibrate).

LC: How long ago was it that you turned professional?

GS: My first paid gig was a Children’s show at the Southbank centre where I performed twice a day and taught workshops for a month and I was 21, I think? I was in my final year at Leeds University then and I went professional as soon as I graduated. Every job I have had since graduating has been as a beatboxer.

LC: Must have felt awesome?

GS: I do feel extremely privileged that I can make a living out of doing what I love.

LC: What was the most difficult beat technique to learn?

GS: I try not to learn other peoples beats anymore, I only try and come up with my own. It’s good to start by learning other people’s routines but not being original is really frowned upon on the beatbox community, so once you have reached a certain technical level it’s important to create your own rhythms. One of the first beat patterns I learnt was the wind technique (Kenny Mohammed) and I remember finding that really hard at the time!

LC: At The Shed you’re working with some serious talent from the urban music scene, what should an audience member expect?

GS: We haven’t started rehearsals yet so it’s still really fresh, but it’s quite gritty in places and humorous in others. The music is being used in a very unexpected and quite ground breaking way, so I would say expect the unexpected!

LC: What advice can you give an aspiring beatboxer?

GS: Say yes to every opportunity you can. Be nice, be professional, work hard and be creative. Take inspiration from others but never try and be them. Don’t be afraid! Life is too short for insecurities! Try and avoid using cheesy lines to inspire others such as ‘Don’t be afraid!’ Don’t take advice from someone who can’t take their own advice.

Home is on at The Shed at the National Theatre from August 7th to September 7th. Advance tickets available here.

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