The G.O.A Choir

27 October 15 words: Bridie Squires
Honey Williams runs and directs a group of singers who don't exactly go down the traditional routes, but they ain't your typical choir
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photos: Sylwia Jarzynka 
montage: Raphael Achache

How did G.O.A start?
Once upon a time, I was asked to do an interfaith festival. They wanted a choir – a Christian gospel choir. I’d been involved in Freddie Kofi’s choir called Present Future Generation. I didn’t have a choir, but it was a paid job, so I started phoning around. People agreed to do it, and we got some songs together. As we were rehearsing, a workman walked past and said [Nottingham accent] “Ah! You lot sound like a gang of angels, you do!” We were like, “That’s the name!”

So we performed. The crowd was mostly Muslims, a couple of Sikhs, and a few Christians, and we were singing “Yes! Jesus loves me!” [laughs] It was a nice idea, but in practice, it doesn’t really work. The choir went down really well, though. People came up to us afterwards. I thought it’d be interesting to set up a choir, not necessarily to do with Christianity, because none of us were actually Christians, but with really individual, unique and striking people. So I did. It’s really a contrived idea, very Simon Cowell – I cherry-picked people.

What about your personal singing career?
I’ve been singing since I was about six years old, doing competitions and talent shows. When I was sixteen I was singing at Trevor Rose’s studio with Nick. Around that time, I also met Dougie – Joe Buhdha – who got me in the studio and put me in touch with Rodney P when I went to London for university to study graphic design and media. I went on tour with Rodney, featured on his album, and wrote a couple of tracks on there. I worked with Klashnekoff too – I did the singing for Black Rose on Sagas of Klashnekoff. That was a long time ago, but I’ve worked with a lot of underground hip hop people, met Roni Size and was on MTV.

Woah. So how has the choir morphed over the years? Are there any original members?
Not now. People dip in and out. We’ve had members join, have babies together and then leave. So we’ve got a choir baby. The baby only exists because of me, [laughs] which is weird. Some of my friends from the original choir sometimes come and help out. It’s almost like an agency.

Have people gone on to do other things after the choir then?
Oh, yes. Emily Franklin does solo work. Ed is in The Afterdark Movement. Lewis is a drag queen who performs up and down the country. Ex-Friendly is a DJ. There are so many who do other, different things. We’ve got eleven people at the minute. Ideally, I’d like about five in each section.

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Honey Williams.

Can you explain the sections?
You’ve got sopranos – high woman singer, in Italian. Then you’ve got your altos – a low woman singer. There’s tenor – a high man singer. That’s all we’ve got in the choir. Some of the guys can do bass as well – baritone. There are three sopranos, loads of altos and two tenors, so it’s a bit imbalanced at the minute. We need more people.

What kind of people are you looking for?
People who aren’t dry, basically. I can spot a singer in the street – they stand out without even trying. People that can sing in harmony, too. I think people underestimate how hard that is. Normally, when you sing on your own, you just concentrate on yourself, so you’ve got to get used to not solely hearing you. You’re becoming one with other people. It’s tough to find that.

You do covers but you write your own music too, what’s the creative process for both?With my songwriting, it starts with me getting a melody that will nag me. Anything I’m thinking about at the time will coincide with that melody normally, and it bothers me until I get it out. I have to make it into something. For the arrangements of songs that already exist, we have a song tombola. We all write down songs we’re interested in covering, then pick them out and vote as a team. Because everyone’s so different, the songs are really odd that get chosen. We cover everything from Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones, to 212 by Azealia Banks. The musical knowledge within the choir is like an encyclopaedia.

Do you direct everything?
I vocally arrange everything. It’s really hard because you have to be able to split your brain three or four ways, and not everybody can think like that. Sometimes when I’m directing them, I want to sing all the harmonies at the same time, which isn’t humanly possible.

You’ve worked with Mouthy Poets. Do you see yourself primarily as a poet or a musician?
I’m a songwriter, first and foremost, and a poet after. I’m more like a secret poet. Making songs is about the melody. Song is melody first, words after. With a poem, words first. That’s what defines it for me.

Who else have you collaborated with in the past? And is there anyone you’d like to collaborate with in the future?
We’ve collaborated with Natalie Duncan. Her work is beautiful and we all sounded amazing in the end. Ayanna Witter-Johnson, she’s a cellist and a singer – that was a beautiful combination. Joe Buhdha, Juga-Naut, Scorzayzee. In the future, I’d love us to work with Sia Furler, Bjork… if you could arrange that, that’d be great. I quite like Skepta too. A grime or hip hop artist from around here would be good. I like Wariko, wherever he got to. In the near future, we’re collaborating with Theo Bard, a folk artist – I’d describe him as a cross between Lindsay Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac, and Paul Simon.

I saw you all at Xylophone Man’s old spot once. What kind of reactions have you had when busking?
We’ve had people enquire about having us play at venues, and stuff, “Can you sing at my daughter’s party?” and we’re like “If you’re willing to pay, we’ll be there. And you don’t mind a bit of swearing.”.

Have you got a favourite place to perform in Nottingham?
Riverside Festival is great. Small venues like JamCafé can be really scary because people are literally watching your every move. That makes me wonder what they’re thinking. My favourite venue is Rock City – I like the gritty, dirtiness of it.

Anything else you want to say to LeftLion readers?
We’d love to get more people involved in the choir. We want to do more experimental stuff – I’d love for people to get in touch to collaborate. If anyone wants to do administrative stuff or be our manager, that would be fantastic as well because I hate doing that! [laughs]

The G.O.A Choir, Black History Month Launch Event, King’s Meadow Campus, University of Nottingham, Friday 2 October.

The G.O.A Choir website

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