I REMEMBER the first time I heard Zoe Bestel sing. I’d been invited to take part in a tips-for-budding-bands seminar during Dumfries Music Conference in April 2015 and, after that, an A&R listening event at which the panel gave instant feedback on hearing 75 seconds of songs submitted by nine local acts.
The standard was remarkably high – Bella And The Bear, Mogen, The Barstow Bats and Cammy Black were among those brave enough to take the test that same night – but it was Zoe Bestel who floored me.
Here was a voice with incredible tone and control … but what instrument was she playing? Could it be a harp? It certainly sounded too rich and rounded to be a guitar. A little later I discovered that the song was Nobody Knows from her self-released debut album Sir Lucas And The Moon. And I also discovered that Zoe Bestel was a 17-year-old who played the ukulele.
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“At ukulele festivals people are very accepting of ukuleles, whatever they do,” she tells me just over a year after that first introduction, “but there has definitely been a bit of hesitancy about me with folk festival audiences.”
And yet here we are, chatting a few days after she played the Orkney Folk Festival and just ahead of her appearance at the Solas Festival tomorrow. Audiences are fast catching up with the fact that, in Bestel’s hands, the ukulele shrugs off its stereotypical comedy baggage and becomes the instrument of choice for one of Scotland’s most fascinating young singer-songwriters.
On record she’s spellbinding; on stage more so, as her TC Helicon Voicelive 3 pedal takes chords from her ukulele and creates vocal harmonies using her own voice – all done live, no backing tracks.
“It’s great because I can be completely solo,” she explains. “I don’t need a band behind me. I’m in control of my own vocal effects and it’s always about a sound that’s being created right now.”
Bestel left school to become a professional musician aged 16 – by that point she’d already released an album and done several tours. She had sung since primary school but only taught herself ukulele after being given one as a present by a friend: it was YouTube videos that functioned as her university.
“I learned by listening to songs I already knew how to sing and tried to accompany myself on the uke,” she says. “By seeing what the chords were and doing covers, I’d go on to write my own songs.”
Her self-penned songs are great but so too are the cover versions she has posted online (check out the Tub Sessions series she videoed in her nicely resonant bathroom and her standout interpretation of Jolene, to be found at zoebestel.co.uk). Her blogs, vlogs and tweets really capture her personality in a way that might not be possible with record label execs looking over her shoulder. And, given that she lives in a remote corner of Dumfries and Galloway, they’re a good way to keep in touch with her growing fan base.
“I live about an hour outside of Dumfries, in the complete middle of nowhere,” she says. “It’s good to go to a festival for three days and be absolutely bombarded by people, but I need the downtime to cool off and write. Being where there’s no distractions, no cars going past and only the occasional tractor, that’s inspiration for my writing.”
When I ask who she’d recommend from the Solas Festival line-up, she namechecks another alumnus of that Dumfries Music Conference session – Bella And The Bear – as well as The Jellyman’s Daughter, author Alan Bissett and Friday night headliners Skerryvore. To that I’d add Karine Polwart, Beerjacket, The Hazey Janes and Edinburgh hip hop troupe Stanley Odd. This is the best programme that Solas has ever assembled – just make sure you catch the teenager with the ukulele too.
Sir Lucas And The Moon is available from zoebestel.co.uk. Zoe plays Solas Festival at The Bield, Blackruthven, Perthshire tomorrow; for the full Solas programme (June 17-19) and ticket details, see www.solasfestival.co.uk. She also plays Lindisfarne Festival (September 1-4), see www.lindisfarnefestival.com.