My Birmingham by Erica Nockalls
It could have been Glasgow, it could have been Manchester, but only Birmingham offered me a scholarship to attend their school of music.
As a 19 year old aspiring professional violinist from a rural farming village in South Yorkshire, I had no proper knowledge of, or real affinity towards any of these cities. So after what felt like an eternity trying to make up my mind, I made the decision to attend Birmingham Conservatoire from 2002-2006 to study a degree course with honours on violin.
I was going to become the best violinist I could possibly be. I was going to meet likeminded musicians at the Conservatoire, start a rock band, and take over the world in that glazed, day-dreamy ‘everything will fall into place’ sort of fashion that only youths under the age of 21 ever seem to possess. The allure of free cash offered by the Conservatoire by way of an entrance scholarship did sway me, I’ll admit. Although it wasn’t a huge amount of money, it was just enough of an ego stroke to sway my decision and sure, I was flattered that Conservatoire desired my attendance enough to fork out for me. My guitarist boyfriend at the time (also 19) and I packed up our belongings and left home from the same village simultaneously. Rick and I had already secured a small one-bed mid-terrace 1st floor Bearwood flat, situated above an opticians, opposite a kebab shop. We both knew our destination was the antithesis of where we previously called home, and so slightly teary-eyed, unsure yet excited, we set off on our little adventure down the M1 in a hired van, packed full of third-hand furniture and mismatched kitchen ware, chinking gently in open cardboard boxes in the back as we drove.
Fast forward to present day:
I’m a 31 year old professional violinist, musician, vocalist and artist, currently residing in the South Shropshire Hills. I write, record, tour internationally and oil paint for a living. I front my own art-rock band and have recently released my 2nd solo studio album under the moniker ‘EN’.
‘Manikin’ video taken from the Imminent Room album –
I also play violin for Midlands Indie legends, The Wonder Stuff, and I’m one half of an acoustic duo with Miles Hunt. I have played fiddle live for The Proclaimers since 2008 and have participated in a multitude of both live and studio session work over the years (Ting Tings / Fink / The Mission / Damien Dempsey / Dirty Ray). The city of Birmingham has been paramount in shaping my career to date, however, possibly not in the ways you might imagine…
Birmingham Conservatoire had (and still has, I believe) a great reputation for attracting a fantastic wealth and array of world-renowned musicians who visit the school in order to teach, give master classes, run workshops and conduct it’s orchestras. The most valuable part of my time at the Conservatoire was being mentored for 4 years by one of these world-class musicians – Japanese virtuoso violinist, Ken Aiso.
I felt as though Ken and I understood each other well from our initial lesson together. Spoken language wasn’t always necessarily particularly fluid and easy, but it was never a barrier that inhibited communication. If language did on the odd occasion fail us, we were able to understand each other through a combination of physical demonstration, body language and a little bit of pointing. He nurtured the potential he saw in me, kicked my backside when it needed kicking, but most importantly – he inspired me. Ken himself is by no means a by-the-book violinist and he encouraged me to explore different playing techniques and investigate repertoire that my violinist peers would have arguably run a mile from, screaming. My own playing style wasn’t emerging as one suited to the quaint finesse and floridity of the Mozart concertos that were occupying the degree syllabus at that time. Ken recognised my unease with much of this standard classical violin repertoire and, appreciating my love of dark, angular, heavy and progressive styles of music, Ken mirrored my tastes by suggesting composers who penned less cheery and more aggressive, passionate ditties.
Another great influence on my playing style came through joining the Birmingham Conservatoire Folk ensemble where leader, Conservatoire graduate, and fiddler extraordinaire Joe Broughton taught a group of us the ins and outs of how to play folk, and quite rightly too, all by ear. It is from Joe that I learnt and appreciated different folk fiddle styles from around the globe. Because these folk tunes were taught to me by ear, the majority of this material is still indelibly burnt onto my mental hard drive to this day. Having a few jigs, reels and hornpipes under my belt saw me in very good stead indeed, but more on that later…
So, two very positive experiences of my formal education there, however, trouble was afoot. I assumed that the Conservatoire would be full of musicians who wanted to form bands. It was not. The population of students could roughly be divided into those who had aspirations of joining an orchestra, those who wanted to become music teachers, those who wanted to go to university on the back of something they were reasonably good at (but hadn’t thought about it any further than that), and me – a girl from Donny who wanted to learn how to be a demon fiddler and put a band together with her guitarist boyfriend. I’m aware this sounds like a criticism of the Conservatoire, and at the time I did feel a little misled as to what the life of a music student would be like. However, in hindsight I appreciate that this situation taught me one of the greatest lessons for future life and survival as a musician, and that was the necessity to become autonomous.
It became clear early on in my days at the Conservatoire that I had to look further afield in order to gather potential band mates, and so I unleashed myself onto Birmingham’s rock scene with gusto in order to meet likeminded musicians who shared similar passions. ‘Musicians wanted to form progressive metal band’ read the posters that I printed out on Conservatoire paper and distributed liberally (and often illegally) around Birmingham’s rock pubs and clubs, and so my face and phone number were now very much out there. ‘That should do the job’, I thought to myself, and it did. FIRESWITCH were born.
We were a three-piece with a drum machine at first – me on my highly prized red electric Ted Brewer violin that ran through all manner of FX, mainly distortion. Rick, on his customised Fender Strat, which, once replaced with some beefy metal pick-ups certainly was a force to be reckoned with, and our new 5string bass player friend from Wolverhampton whom we’d met one night in Birmingham city centre pub, The Costamongers. ‘Chris Bass,’ as we’d soon christened him, had spotted the pair of us surreptitiously redecorating the interior of Costamongers with ‘Musicians wanted’ posters and promptly offered his services. For months after we’d all met, the three of us continued to hold auditions for the position of ‘Singer’ in our tiny Bearwood flat, but after too many uncomfortable moments where you either wanted to call the police or die laughing, we gave up looking and decided to just do it ourselves and we all became vocalists in our prog-metal trio.
FIRESWITCH gigged mainly in Wolverhampton and Birmingham in the gloriously sticky rock clubs and pubs you’d probably expect, and although we never really got anywhere, it wasn’t through lack of trying and buckets loads of honest hard graft. We were dedicated to rehearsing at Hockley Street Studios near Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter three times a week for nearly three years, and if I do say so myself, we were pretty damn tight. Rehearsing that much though, and inevitably wanting to have drinkies afterwards, meant being in a band was quite an expensive pursuit and my entrance scholarship from the Conservatoire quickly ran out. So, autonomy reared it’s pretty head once more and instead of getting a job behind a bar or as a stripper in one of Birmingham’s many gentleman’s clubs (yes, this is something students do) I thought I’d try busking instead.
Rick bought a cheap acoustic guitar and not having enough money left over for a guitar strap, fashioned one out of some green plastic washing line from our flat. Together we worked out instrumental guitar and violin arrangements of those folk tunes I’d been taught by Joe Broughton in the Conservatoire Folk Ensemble and once we’d sufficiently rehearsed, we tirelessly boarded busses and trains clutching our instruments wearing our ever-present fingerless busking gloves. We visited the most affluent areas with pedestrian walkways that we knew of at the time, mainly Solihull around Christmastime and Stratford upon Avon in the summer months, always returning to our Bearwood flat in the evenings afterwards weighed down with a fair bit of coinage, feeling absolutely shattered and cold, but with our dignities firmly in tact. It was better than stripping anyhow. To this day I have a rule of giving a busker a couple of quid if they put a spring in your step. It’s harder graft than you might think, and it is to be hugely applauded, not least because these people are often struggling musicians demonstrating autonomy.
It was one fine summer’s day in Stratford upon Avon in 2004 when we were taking financial advantage of the generosity of a multitude of tourists outside Shakespeare’s house that my luck changed. The Wonder Stuff’s record producer at the time lived in Stratford and strolled past us while Rick and I were busking. Unbeknown to me at the time, I was ‘spotted’. I found out when singer of the band Miles Hunt called me on the phone a couple of weeks later that The Wonder Stuff were on the look out for a new live fiddle player to join their ranks so they could reintroduce some of their fiddle songs back into their set.
The Wonder Stuff’s producer who saw me playing violin that day was friendly with the owner of Hockley St Studios – the rehearsal complex where FIRESWITCH diligently practised weekly. I had quite the look back then (long jet black hair, bright red lipstick, pale skin and also 6ft tall, which I still am) and after a bit of detective work from the producer, it transpired that I was the violinist busking girl seen in Stratford who looks like an ‘evil Snow White’, and that it was me who the band wanted to call up for an audition to join The Wonder Stuff, which is exactly what happened. By my third year at the Conservatoire, I was touring with a professional rock band playing proper gigs with audience member numbers greater than your own mates, members of other bands you’re on the same bill with, and, of course, their girlfriends.
It’s no secret that the city of Birmingham boasts many a fine venue, and as a touring musician I’ve seen the inside of many venues all across the land over the years, but Birmingham has played host to some of my all time favourite gigs. Experiences at the O2 Academy, Symphony Hall and the Town Hall, both as a performer and as a punter have stayed with me as being some of the fondest memories of my career, and as a fan of live music in generally.
My favourite haunts as a student were the aforementioned underground hole-in-the-wall, Costsmongers, the infamous Brum rockers hang-out and venue, Scruffy Murphy’s, the canal-side The Flapper and Firkin, pre-club boozer, The Gallows, and of course, night club Edwards No8. These days, on social occasions and after either my band (EN) or The Wonder Stuff rehearse (we still rehearse at Hockley St Studios) you can find me either in The Wellington real ale pub in town, The Lord Clifden or The Church in Hockley, or my old fave, Scruffy Murphy’s on Dale End if a late drink is in order, which it often is.
During my time studying in Birmingham, I had a fair bit of spare time on my hands in between classes. Perhaps it was time intended for personal practise, but playing violin at Conservatoire level is physically and mentally exhausting, and there really is only so much your body and mind can take. Opposite the Conservatoire grandly stands the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Every time I heard the chimes of Big Brum (the museum’s clock tower), it made me feel so proud to be studying in such a fabulous and cultured city. I would often wander into the museum spending hours there, being lured in by it’s warmth, it’s lack of entrance fee and most importantly, some of the most beautiful, finest art I’ve ever seen in my life.
I’ve since wondered if this regular exposure to art stirred something in me on a subconscious level. Even though I come from a long line of artists as well as musicians, it never occurred to me that I’d be any good at art, largely by being thoroughly discouraged in secondary school. I’ve now been oil painting for a couple of years, selling my original artwork and prints through my website, at gigs, and recently through my first art exhibition at the newly opened Harborne gallery, Havill and Travis.
View more of Erica’s artwork here
I visited the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery just this week and stood in quiet contemplation, marvelling at the work in there and thinking of how far I’d come as a musician and artist in my own right. I’m happy to report that even on a January weekday when town was so quiet, the place was incredibly and respectfully well attended.
I am eternally grateful to Birmingham for shaping me into a reasonably well-rounded human being at a time and age when I was at my most malleable. I’m grateful for feeling like I did my last bit of growing up in a safe and friendly city. My time there was character building and testing at times, but I learned a hell of a lot, and not just about music. Thanks Brum, I owe you one.