Joni Clowrey, Susan Grant and Charlie Greenwood are ‘Belle Street’. The women have quickly established themselves as one of Shaftesbury’s much-loved musical assets.The trio were the most talked about act at this summer’s Shaftesbury Fringe, with their close-knit harmonies, sassy performance and sparkling stage presence.
Now the women are planning autumn and Christmas gigs. I went to their rehearsal, where I discovered that part of Belle Street’s success is their business-like approach to planning their big events.
Joni Clowrey answered the door of her town centre terrace and ushered me towards the kitchen at the back of the property. From the front door step, I could hear laughter – a great sign. Once inside, I was offered a glass of prosecco. Even better! And within moments I could instantly see why Belle Street are going to be big.
The women’s friendship was immediately obvious from the warmth of the atmosphere in the room. And the women work together really well. Belle Street already has a strong sense of style and identity. Each of the three singers was immaculately dressed, all in black, as if ready to go on stage or to an awards night, rather than a Thursday night rehearsal on Salisbury Street.
I tackled the awkward question first. Artists often dislike being categorised, so I thought it was safer to ask the women which keywords would best describe their music. “We do try not to be pigeonholed,” explained Charlie. “People might think that a female, three-part harmony trio like us would stick to ‘The Andrews Sisters’ with close harmonies or jazz.”
We laughed when I questioned the age of audience. I hadn’t expected the group to use the American wartime singers as a reference, especially when Belle Street sing more contemporary tracks. “We like to describe ourselves as presenting a ‘cocktail’ of different genres because that word also leads into our general vibe of being fun and sassy,” Charlie continued, with exactly what I was looking for – words that summed up what my friends had told me having attended a Belle Street gig.
“There are some classics, jazz standards, contemporaries and songs from the stage because we all love musical theatre. We don’t rule out any genre so will give anything a go. We like to challenge ourselves,” Charlie explained. Any genre? “You’re not going to do ‘Megadeth’ surely,” I asked, half-jokingly. “Well, we are covering an Alice Cooper song in our Halloween Ball. So come along if you want to hear an interesting version of that,” Charlie laughed.
Surprisingly the audience seems to be part of the fun for these three friends. Susan said that Belle Street love to change a track into something that people don’t expect. “If we hear a song I think, how else can we do it? What can be mixed with it? What will people not be expecting? We’re told that people like our eclectic mix because they don’t know what’s coming next,” Susan said, before she added, “We don’t always know what is coming next.” Cue more laughter.
So, in the style of TV’s ‘X Factor’, here is Belle Street’s ‘journey’. The group was formed in time for this year’s Shaftesbury Fringe. Their first gig was at Sloane’s Hair Salon, where Joni works. The festival organisers were amused by a Fringe performance in hairdresser’s salon.
Before that gig, the women became aware of each other’s talent through Shaftesbury Arts Centre. “We were part of a cabaret act at the Arts Centre. We decided to sing a couple of songs together and it just started there,” Susan said.
Charlie was particularly keen to perform a track from the film, ‘The Witches of Eastwick’. “It had a three-part harmony so I deliberately sought out people who I knew were really good singers and it worked out well.”
All three women have performance experience but Joni says that Belle Street is a new departure for all the members. “We have never done anything like this before. It’s really exciting to find other people who are as passionate about this kind of thing,” Joni said.
Susan used to sing professionally on a British cruise ship, which sailed from Harwich. “Just like Jane McDonald but little bit younger,” she laughed. “That was a good few years ago.” But unlike Belle Street, Susan had little say over her cruise ship set lists and she didn’t always perform music that she loved. “There were a few interesting ones. I had to sing ‘Vogue’ regularly – about a million times. It was probably the worst of the songs,” Susan said.
Charlie Greenwood is also one half of a Tisbury-based duo and she, too, has gained extensive experience of performing. “I’ve been singing for eight years in public. I’ve done quite a lot of theatre and sung at quite a lot of shows. I’ve been singing in Hummingbird for five years. It’s quite different. It’s an acoustic duo and we write some of our own material. I feel so lucky to have such a different thing going on, where I get to explore every type of music and performing there is.”
Hummingbird was voted the best overall performance during last year’s Fringe Festival. And they are still going strong. So is Charlie mounting a takeover bid to take up every single slot in the Fringe schedule? “Kind of,” she laughed.
Joni has always loved singing and it’s become a bigger part of her life over the past five years, since he got into amateur dramatics with Shaftesbury Arts Centre and the Motcombe Community Players. “I also sing a lot in my kitchen,” she added. And later on the women were going to do just that.
Locals have been heaping praise on Belle Street since they first saw the women performing together. “We had a really great reaction. We did a practice gig before that and we found the response quite overwhelming. We’ve had so much support, especially from people in the Arts Centre. Joni and I worked locally in Shaftesbury and many people know Charlie. People talk to us about it. It’s really lovely. We are really grateful that we can sing together at events and have people behind us,” Susan said.
The women say that they enjoy having a close contact with the community. “If you are in theatre, you are hidden behind bright lights and you don’t get to engage with the audience very much. The last few things we have done with Belle Street have been quite intimate so we’ve had a good connection with people in the audience,” explained Joni. “You see people’s faces. It’s a different vibe. It’s exciting when people come up to us and say they saw us at the Fringe. Sometimes, we don’t know who they are. It’s really nice to have people go out of the way and give you a compliment.”
After such a highly acclaimed debut, Belle Street are already being booked for gigs. The women haven’t set a limit on the distance they are prepared to travel. “We’re just testing the water and seeing what comes up. Over the next three months we have got quite a nice set of gigs lined up, which are all quite local but they are very varied and we will gain such good experience with each one,” said Charlie.
Joni explained that they have already agreed to sing at a dinner dance and they have just confirmed a pop-up gig at Shaftesbury Wines on Sunday 21st October at 6.30pm. “That’s very exciting,” she said. Belle Street are also performing at a women’s networking group Christmas party. “We are tailoring ourselves to very different and extreme venues. It is exciting every time. We have to treat each gig a little bit differently and that’s one of our strengths. We can create a bespoke thing and relate to the people that we’re performing to,” Joni said.
Many local performers will wait to be booked by a venue. The Belle Street trio have taken a different, more business-like approach. They’ve hired the Shaston Club themselves so they can arrange their own event, their Halloween Ball. “We wanted to do a Halloween gig and we wanted to be able to present ourselves in a way that we thought best represented us. We decided to make an opportunity and put this on,” said Joni. “We all love a really good party and it’s hard to find somewhere that isn’t just a pub. We wanted to host an event where people can dance. There’s not always a lot of opportunity to do that. Halloween is such good fun.”
The women laugh again when I suggest that Belle Street is becoming a brand. Ok, we may have to wait for the perfume range and hair product endorsements, but that’s exactly what they are doing. They know their own skills and abilities. They know their audience and how to give their followers a professional, polished and ultimately fun and feel-good experience.
Their Shaston Club Halloween Ball is on Friday, 26th October. “We wanted to make it basically a party. It’s a Halloween ball and we’re encouraging everybody to dress up. There will be a prize for the best dressed. It’s a mix of songs that we’ve interpreted in our Belle Street way and there’ll be costumes, canapés and a welcome drink. After that, we will have a disco,” said Susan.
And what about the music? Will there be spooky songs? “There will be some obvious choices and some curveballs during the evening,” teased Joni. “And we have an excellent MC for the night – Mark Blackham. He will be introducing us and making a few appearances himself.” Mark has a big voice, which he proved as lead man in the Arts Centre’s run of the musical ‘Mack and Mabel’ this summer. “We’re really pleased that he is happy to champion us,” said Joni.
Tickets for the Halloween Ball are available at High Street Bakery and Sloane’s.
I left the women to their rehearsing and wondered what Belle Street have in store for us next. Their cocktail of singing skills, experience and attention to detail will undoubtedly mean that we can expect big things from Belle Street. “It is definitely a labour of love. But we want it to succeed and see where we can go. We put a lot into it and enjoy doing so,” said Charlie.