Singer Naomi Vallance has been widely acclaimed by a range of music commentators for her “strong bluesy voice” with its “rich undertones” and “impressive range”. Having trained for four years in the performing arts – though as an actor rather than a vocalist – Naomi, originally from Cornwall, but who has lived since childhood in Henley-on-Thames, has also won praise for her versatility and her ability to “involve and totally enrapture her audience.” These qualities, combined with her refreshingly natural, wholesome look, helped Naomi win the national heat of the UK Open Mic competition earlier in her career.

Then, last year, Naomi won the Sue Ryder 'Performer of the Year' award. So Naomi, now into her thirties, is receiving well-deserved recognition as her professional singing career goes from strength to strength. She has made several single records and has penned some beautiful songs. A first album is now planned, along with appearances at Henley's Fringe Festival in July plus during the local Jazz and Blues Week in the Autumn. Naomi is also a founder-member of Sam Brown's ever-more-successful International Ukulele Club of Sonning Common which has involved various TV, radio and festival performances. She'll be joining them on tour in France this year.

“It's funny, but some of my best ever moments have been playing in the Ukulele Club,” Naomi told me when we met.“I'll never forget the excitement of playing to a huge crowd at the big Cornbury event in 2012. The mix of enthusiastic amateurs in the group playing alongside some top professionals works brilliantly, and with Sam Brown directing us all it is always amazing."

"Then there was a moment at last year's Cheltenham Ukulele Festival when Sam was up on a balcony at the top of Waterstones' bookshop. and she suddenly called out for me to join her singing 'Freight Train'. I ran up all the steps, and then, as we both blasted out the lyrics, literally hundreds of uke players down in the street below who were nothing to do with us, all started strumming along. It was totally unplanned and an unforgettable, crazy moment - just wonderful. But my times with Sam's uke club have all been like that – just so uplifting and such fun. I really look forward to performing in France; that should be very different and a whole new experience!”

So, how did Naomi become involved in music rather than acting, which she had trained to do?

“I was always quite interested in musical theatre, and there had been lots of recorded music at home – like Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder or Elvis. I was the third of four children, and from an early age I was the one who sang the harmonies during sing-songs in mum's car. Later I was heavily into Norah Jones and Alanis Morissette as well as the divas like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. I loved the drama of their performances and the fantastic vocal range they have. But, apart from playing the flute a bit, I'd never performed much music and certainly never saw that as a career option,” Naomi explained.

“Then, when I was feeling low one day after I had broken up with my first serious boyfriend, my two brothers - one was a DJ and they did some karaoke - suggested I go along to a karaoke night here in Henley. I wasn't keen - but they insisted it would help cheer me up. So, I went along and sang Alanis Morissette's 'Ironic'. I just did it as a kind of therapy for myself and wasn't bothered about people's reactions. Plus I didn't know it was actually a karaoke competition. Anyway, the audience were really appreciative and I won. Eventually I ended up in the national finals. Also I found I'd really enjoyed singing to a crowd, loved it in fact. Later I entered the Open Mic competition but by then I was singing in pubs and clubs – though still working as a secretary. So, things started to happen from there."

“Singing in the Open Mic final in Southampton's Guildhall was wonderful,” Naomi recalled with a broad smile. “There was a big audience and I had lots of support. I could really see I was carrying the crowd along with me as I sang, and that's a fabulous feeling you never forget. It was a brilliant experience, and maybe my years of theatrical training helped me not to be nervous. Though I was surprised how edgy and aggressively competitive some of the other contestants were – which is quite different from my experience of real professional musicians who usually aren't like that at all."

“From there I have sought to take almost any opportunity to broaden my experience and work with as big a range of professional musicians as possible. I have met some wonderful people. For example, there is Annie Parker, a professional flautist and saxophonist who lives in Henley and performs internationally; she quite often plays with me now. And I was lucky enough to meet Sam Brown before she started her various uke groups. Sam actually gave me vocal tuition and taught me about stage craft. We discussed songwriting too. I learned so much from her, mainly because she really listens and focuses on encouraging people to be themselves. She doesn't try to mould you into another version of her. She was very positive about my songwriting too. Later I did several demo recordings of songs she had written and Sam also recorded me singing 'Natural Woman'. Then, after she started her uke groups, there were lots of opportunities to meet and perform with other professional musicians. I have just gained so much from all of that.”

Winning the Sue Ryder 'Performer of the Year' award in 2013 must have been very satisfying?

“It certainly was – though it came after a tough year for me,” Naomi explained. “I had contracted viral meningitis some months before and was quite seriously ill in hospital. It took me many weeks to fully recover. It was a miserable time but it made me reflect on the things I really appreciate in life. I am now more determined than ever to forge forwards with my musical career. I would like to tour other parts of the UK, and especially to do more London-based performances including at Ronnie Scott's. The retro-style jazz singer Rebecca Poole who is from the Henley area originally was at school with me and her career is now surging ahead – so that's an inspiration. And Mollie Marriott (Steve Marriott's daughter - Ed) who is currently recording in the USA as well as Megan Henwood who won BBC Radio 2's Young Folk Award, are friends who also attended my school here in Henley. I admire what they are achieving too."

“My future plans include performing at Henley's Fringe Festival in July, and hopefully at the local Jazz and Blues Week in the Autumn. I would also like to sing at the Crooked Billet pub in Stoke Row near Henley – which is a favourite with all the musicians. The big lesson I've learned and would pass on to anyone is that to succeed in music you really have to have huge determination. You must really want it. And you must enjoy it so much that, even if you can't make a fortune from it, you still have no regrets at all about pursuing your dream. One thing I have loved is performing with and teaching music to young people. I was involved in the Henley Youth Festival and ran a workshop teaching ukulele to seven year-olds. It was so much fun and some of them even phoned me later to ask for more lessons. Which was really lovely. It makes me very optimistic about the future!”

For more about Naomi, see The photographs that accompany this article are by Giuliana Morello.

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Commenting On: Interview - Naomi Vallance

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21765 Posted By: Graeme & Dorothy Cardno (Aberdeen)

What a fascinating interview - we didn't realise how multi-talented you are. You hide your light behind a bushel!

It will certainly keep you very busy balancing your business life with the ever-increasing demands to continue developing your musical talents.

You will be looking forward to the summer festivals very much - only wish we were nearer and could be there.

Please remember the Edinburgh Fringe Festival would be a great place for you and if you ever go there we would certainly come to hear you.

We wish you continued success in your future in the music business.

21764 Posted By: Lesley Clark (Henley-on-Thames)

Naomi is one to watch, hopefully in the future when she is the star she deserves to be, I can still say 'I know this lady'

friendly fan !

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