Victor & Penny Put the Pop Back Into Antique Music
Victor & Penny hail from Kansas City and have combined the tone of the 1920’s with their own modern take to form what they call “Antique Pop”. Featuring the musically trained Jeff Freling playing an old Kay Archtop and Erin McGrane, the talented singer and Ukulele player who also stars on the silver screen. The two combine their talents to produce a unique sound that is both soulful and playfully entertaining. They are currently travelling the US playing shows, and when not playing shows, they are putting on a show in their car.
How did you get started playing?
ERIN: “I love to perform and my family would tell you that I’ve been doing that in one way or another from the start – dressing up, putting on plays, writing stories and poems, doing interpretive dance to my mom’s Broadway albums in the living room by myself – you name it. I started piano lessons as a child, then like lots of kids I joined concert band where I learned flute and sang in the school choir. In college I studied theatre and that training informs everything I do on some level. Next, I formed a rock band with the guys in the orchestra of a musical I was in. In that group I played flute (I had a Barcus-Berry pickup in the headjoint), hand percussion and sang. During that time I also formed a women’s a cappella trio singing songs of the 1930-40s and that’s where I first fell in love with the music of that era. Eventually I learned guitar, started writing music and played solo for awhile. In early 2003, I was approached to co-create a cabaret band in which I sing lead and play guitar. Now, I’m in Victor & Penny and am thrilled about it.”
JEFF: “I found an old guitar in my parents attic right around the same time I was hearing players like Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young for the first time. I was immediately hooked and started playing every day trying to learn as much as I could. I definitely wanted to be a rock star!”
Erin, is the ukuele your primary instrument?
ERIN: “I started playing ukulele about two years ago. My first instrument was piano, then flute, then guitar. But since I picked up my little Hofner Uke, I’ve hardly played anything else. It’s totally captured me!”
You also have an impressive resume on the silver screen, appearing alongside George Clooney in Up In The Air. How do you balance your screen career and your musical career?
ERIN: “It’s difficult and requires a lot of careful scheduling. For example, I have a new indie feature film NAILBITTER that is winning awards on the film circuit right now and I’m trying to schedule around appearances for that. I also co-host a TV show in Kansas City about the film industry in the Midwest CINEMAKC and we just wrapped shooting our second season, so I stay very busy. But my heart lies with Victor & Penny. Since Jeff and I started this project, it’s been a pure joy and we are both committed to it. So, that’s my focus now. We’re touring the US this year and our dream is to tour overseas next year.”
Do you think your being musically educated has helped in your playing and performing?
ERIN: “It has me for sure, but I have a lot to learn. Jeff’s musical training is much more in-depth than mine and his technical ability is just amazing. But beyond that, he’s a gifted and very musical player with an incredible ear – I learn from him every time we play together. He inspires me. My theatre training has helped me be confident on the mic and hopefully put together an interesting show that highlights both our music and also who we are as people. I love to tell stories and the more we travel, the more stories I have to tell.”
JEFF: “I’d say it has certainly helped in my playing as there’s a lot of skill required to play this type of music with any degree of authenticity. As far as performing goes, nobody has helped me as much as Erin. Just as she’s saying that I inspire her musically, she inspires me with her skill as a performer. She has “it” in her soul and it’s a huge part of why V&P has been successful to this point. Being around her is an education in that regard. I think this is why we’re a perfect team.”
How did you both meet and become Victor & Penny?
ERIN: “Jeff and I have known each other since college when our rock bands often played together in Kansas City. But, we didn’t really hang out together and in fact I’m not sure we ever even had a real conversation. We re-connected in 2008 when I was working in Chicago. I was looking for KC connections when his profile popped up on Facebook. I contacted him and he invited me to a Blue Man Group show – of course I said yes! We have tried to play music together several times over the years, but nothing clicked until Victor & Penny. Two years ago, I produced and acted in a new cross-discipline play in KC, and we brought Jeff in from Chicago to be the music director and co-composer. During that time, I got hired to host a live event and I asked Jeff to accompany me on a few songs (that’s a funny story too). And voila – Victor & Penny was born!”
What is the significance behind the name?
ERIN: “The name Victor comes from the play we did together in KC. The band was, “Victor California and the Dead Ringers”. I came up with the name Penny Arcadia which is a take off of penny arcade – a line from the song “Paper Moon”. We thought that the name Victor & Penny evoked the vintage feeling we’re interested in and was memorable. The duo is so much about the two of us and our relationship, that it seemed appropriate that it be our names. However, Sometimes we play as a trio or even as a quartet with drums, and then Victor & Penny represents the group.”
Tell us about the gear you are using.
JEFF: “We feel that the instruments we play are part of what gives this duo it’s charm. Erin is playing a 1951 Hofner ukulele given to her by her dad who purchased it in Bremerhaven, Germany in 1952 while he was in the Navy. That’s a whole other story in itself. My guitar is an early 1960s Kay arch top outfitted with a D’Armond pickup that was recently hand rewound by Seymour Duncan himself. It’s never sounded better! I play through a Mesa Boogie Subway Rocket with reverb provided by an EH Holy Grail strapped into the back and wired into the effects loop. I also run through an Ibanez Tube Screamer that I’ve taken apart and mounted in a 1940s Crosley radio. Erin sings through a Shure Super 55 that she claims can read her thoughts and I sing through a Shure Green Bullet to get that 1920s recording sound.”
Tell us about your album Antique Pop.
JEFF: “We were talking one day about exactly what kind of music we are playing. Up to that point we were describing it as 1920-30s jazz, but that didn’t seem quite right. It certainly has it’s roots in early jazz but we see it as the earliest form of pop music. Antique Pop seemed a fitting title for what we do and also for the album because it’s A- accurate, and B- catchy!”
ERIN: “We like to say that we play music we call “Antique Pop” because it was the equivalent of the top 40 hits from 60, 80 and even 100 years ago. Now we call these songs standards and classics, but they were the new, popular music of their day. We also like to search for deep cuts and less well-known songs – there are gems out there.”
JEFF: “The album was recorded in October of 2011 over three days at Hi Style Studio in Chicago, IL. We chose Hi Style for it’s use of vintage gear and it’s cool vintage vibe. The proprietor, Jimmy Sutton, is a fantastic, not to mention well sought after upright bassist who joined us on all 11 tracks. Also joining us on a couple of tracks is Gonzalo Bergara, a fabulous gypsy jazz guitarist from Argentina who we met in LA last summer on our first west coast tour.”
ERIN: “Making the album was a wonderful experience. We recorded all the instrumental tracks together in one room live with no overdubs. I love the feel and sound of that – so warm and real. Jimmy’s dog, Little Man, even sat in the room with us on a couple of tunes! Then, Jeff and I recorded our vocals together live with no overdubs on these fabulous vintage mics. It was a challenge to know you had to get it right or we all would have to start over together from the beginning, but I love the result. The highlight for me was playing with Gonzalo. Besides being a master gypsy jazz guitarist with an incredible musical ear, he’s also a bright spirit in the world. Generous, warm, joyful, funny – it was truly our pleasure to work with him. Playing with Jimmy and Gonzalo was a dream and really pushed me to do my best. Jeff wrote two of the songs on the album (Victor’s Dream, Rickshaw Chase) and they are my favorites.”
What do you see in the future for Victor & Penny?
ERIN: “We will continue to tour, see America and eventually the world. We are enjoying our project and traveling together and we feel so grateful for the opportunity to do that. We’ve met amazing people everywhere we go and we are humbled by the kindness shown to us. As for goals, we want to incorporate more original music into the set. We are also inspired to learn more about the era and the sophisticated songwriting and melodies of the early 20th century music. For me, I want to continue to improve on ukulele as well as continue to find my voice in these wonderful old songs.”
“We are also working on a travel show/reality web series concept based on our adventures together on the road. We started making videos on the road (Car Concert) and people seem to love them. That gave us the idea to share our experiences and stories as well as highlight the fantastic people we meet, cities we visit and venues that host us. I’m also working on a travel blog. We are just so excited about the future – everything seems wide open and full of possibility. The key is that Jeff and I are taking this adventure together for love of the music and each other, not to find riches and fame. Our definition of success is making music together for a living, meeting people, traveling and growing as musicians and people.”
JEFF: “More traveling and playing. Finding more creative and efficient ways to reach people. Bringing this fantastic old music with us into the modern world and introducing it to a whole new group of fans. And of course, more odd experiments with guitar gear.”
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