There goes the neighbourhood
Ahead of their upcoming Montgomery Theatre show on 12 June, Exposed caught up with Sheffield based upper voices choir Neighbourhood Voices to talk inclusivity, live shows with Self Esteem and their big comeback show
Neighbourhood Voices is definitely not what you instinctively think of when you conjure your own memories of choir (belting out He’s got the Whole World in his Hands, this is not!). Founded back in 2017 by Gina Walters, who you may recognise from her other musical incarnation, the superb Before Breakfast, the choir has gained huge popularity in Sheffield for their uplifting performances of contemporary classics, while simultaneously upending expectations of what a choir can look and sound like.
Inspired by modern pop and indie choirs such as Deep Throat Choir and Lips, Gina’s aim was to create a safe space for Sheffield singers from all backgrounds, enabling them to ‘find their own voices’, and five years on, their number has soared from 10 original members up to an impressive (and loud) 60 voices.
Such has been the success of the group, that around two and half years ago Gina enlisted the help of Liv Muir Wilson as assistant musical director, and between them they craft interesting arrangements of songs that you probably won’t hear from other choirs around the city.
“I would say that in Sheffield, we are unique in what we do” says Liv, who prior to joining NV gained plenty of experience working in choir’s while studying music at the University of York, “Our rep[ertoire] choice is different to a lot of other groups.
“I’ve sung in rock choirs and pop choirs before and covered a lot of choral standards which are often taken from musical theatre or the current mainstream pop charts which is what you hear on the radio. This is great but they don’t do what we do.
“What I think Neighbourhood Voices does is tap into music that you hear a lot of, and is really popular, great music, but you might not hear choirs perform.
“There’s no set way that we pick the songs. Me and Gina will occasionally get together and say, ‘we could do with a new piece of rep’, but sometimes it’s us just messaging each other saying I’ve heard this on the radio, or I remember this banger that I’ve always wanted to arrange.
“We always want to make sure that we’re doing new stuff, but we also want to make sure that it’s not something that if we did it at a gig people would be like, why are you doing this? There is a certain level of keeping it consistent with the Neighbourhood Voices vibe.”
The inclusive founding principle of Neighbourhood Voices has always been important to its members and through the choir, people from many diverse walks of life have been given the platform to sing and interact together socially. Given these commendable achievements, it would be easy for them to rest on their laurels, however they are keenly aware that while their intention is to engender an inclusive space, they aren’t perfect and more efforts can be made to include people of colour and other marginalised communities.
Liv explains, “Recently, we’ve had a lot of discussions around our inclusion language. We obviously don’t want to pointedly ask people in the choir how they identify, but we try to make it extremely clear that we are an upper voices choir and people can make of that what they want. If they feel they fit into that, they are welcome along. It’s something that we’ve had real conversations about, because we want it to be a safe space for women, but we don’t just want it to be a safe space for women.
“We really, really want to make sure that people from any background feel welcome, included and safe to sing. Something that I love about it is that it’s a non-auditioned choir. There are people here who have done music degrees, who’ve been lifelong music learners and can read sheet music and play several instruments, then there are people who’ve literally never sung in a choir before in their lives. Importantly, we don’t teach from sheet music, we teach it all by ear.
“We have a number of LGBTQ+ and Queer choir members, of which I’m one, and we’re actively welcoming to non-binary people, trans people, and anyone who feels like they don’t currently have a place in choir. We’re doing a lot of work elsewhere to be allies to other groups, and that’s something that’s ongoing and we’re taking on training to support that.”
“For example, we’ve booked in racial equality training because we recognise that we are a very white, and not exclusively, but predominantly middle-class choir. It isn’t lost on us. We want to do the work to make sure that we’re welcoming to all demographics, and everyone feels that they can join. Obviously, you need to see yourself represented in something to begin with, so we want to make sure that work is being done to ensure that.
“Something that we’re really working on musically at the moment is to make sure that we’re representing a diverse range of artists in our rep choices. I think everyone, especially on the committee, understands that it’s an ongoing conversation and everyone’s very willing to keep having those conversations. We just want to make it the most open and inclusive space that it possibly can be, and we know that we’ve got work to do to help it get there. Basically, we’re aware of it and we’re working on it.”
Thanks in part to this inclusive attitude, Neighbourhood Voices bring a unique vibe to all their shows and have played some incredible sets through the years, including memorable Tramlines slots and a magical night at the Leadmill in January 2020, where they performed with another Sheffield fave, Self Esteem.
“The gig with Self Esteem was definitely a highlight for me while I’ve been in the choir.” says Liv, “It was amazing. She [Lucy Taylor] also performed at our Christmas gig in 2019 at Picture House Social, which was incredible as well.
“Not long after that we went into lockdown, and while we couldn’t get together in person, we used that time to make a lockdown video. We used our arrangement of Billie Eillish’s Bad Guy, with everyone recording themselves and their vocal track and me and Gina mixing and editing it all together. It was really quite emotional to see everyone on a screen singing together and hearing everyone’s voices together again.”
Liv originally commuted from York for choir, before moving to Sheffield in March 2020, which frustratingly coincided with the first national lockdown, meaning that choir and singing in groups were a definite no no (even when people were allowed back to the footy!). Now that things are creeping back towards normality, at least in terms of restrictions on singing, there is extra enthusiasm for the upcoming Montgomery Theatre show.
“I’m extremely excited. It’s been a long time coming.” Says Liv, “We’ve got a band joining us, which will be fun. We had piano and keys at our Christmas gig, and we’ve got a bassist this time around. We’ve also got amazing support from Elanor Moss and Steel Works A Capella. I’m excited to hear that.
“We’re just dead excited to be doing a big gig again. I think the last proper Neighbourhood Voices big gig that we did was in 2019, and we’ve had a lot of new members since then. We’ve got new rep and it’s a new time now as well. We have had to work up our confidence as a group and I think this is really going to be the event where we’re like, we are back!”
To witness the return of Neighbourhood Voices, head over to the Montgomery Theatre website for tix.