Rosie Wilby has become a bit of a ThreeWeeks favourite in recent years, charming our reviewers with her shows ‘I Am Nesia’ and ‘The Science Of Sex’.
What our writers may not have known (although they probably did, they all being very well informed and very good at research) is that Wilby did not begin her career in comedy, but in music, starting out as a singer during those heady Britpop days of the 1990s. It was a period that saw her playing at Glastonbury, and at the legendary Ronnie Scott’s venue in London, appearing alongside the likes of Jamie Cullum and Bob Geldof, as well as writing about music on the side.
It’s those experiences that form the basis of Rosie’s new Fringe show. “It’s the first time I’ve ever combined my music and my comedy in one show”, she explains. “I’d always assumed that, as my songs were a bit serious and wistful, they were a completely separate thing that should be put to one side since once my comedy took off. But then, last year I dug out an old cuttings folder during a clearout and found copies of my ‘Rosie’s Pop Diary’ column, which ran from 1996 to 2000 in Making Music magazine and detailed my experiences trying to make it in the music business. I realised that there was a funny and charming story there that the songs were a part of. And in context it seems to work really well”.
As with many musicians, Wilby’s journey through music began when she was very young. “I wrote songs from age eleven on a tiny synthesiser”, she recalls, “and did my first gig in my parents’ Lancashire front garden with the kids from next door roped in as backing vocalists. One of my hits of the time was entitled ‘School Is Out’. It sounded not dissimilar to the Tears For Fears track ‘Shout’. It was my dream to get down to London and play music in a band”.
It was a dream that she ultimately realised. After finishing college, Rosie headed for the capital to study film, and began responding to ‘singer wanted’ ads in the fondly remembered but now long defunct music weekly that was Melody Maker. But it wasn’t long before she was making her own music. “I finally mustered up the confidence to write my own songs and get my own band together”, she explains, “and we released an album and toured under the name Wilby. At the same time I blagged my way into music journalism, firstly writing for local newspapers in North London, and then Time Out, and then NME and others”.
But not everything went swimmingly for Rosie’s music career, as you might hope if she’s turning it into a comedy show. For starters, her house burned down two days before her big album launch at Camden’s Monarch. “The soot stained CD I rescued from my semi melted player was the first Elbow album” she recalls, going on to note more logistical problems that stemmed from the fire: “I took to the stage wearing an assortment of borrowed clothes from friends. One friend donated her Brownie Uniform! Maybe because I’m small she thought I could get away with wearing that”.
It’s certainly rich comic material, but comedy itself seems so different to music unless your songs are comedic, which in this case they clearly weren’t. So how did Wilby end up doing comedy instead of music? “It really WAS an accident”, she explains. “I unintentionally started telling funny stories and anecdotes between my songs once my band had all left me and I’d gone solo. I felt that without the oomph of a band I needed to add something extra to my performance”. And the links between the songs, it seems, started to take over.
Before long Rosie decided to give pure comedy a go, starting by looking into the stand up competitions that she could use to build her profile. “It wasn’t until I found myself in the Funny Women final in 2006 that I actually started gigging on the comedy circuit” she admits. “Prior to that, I was a bit clueless about how it works – it’s all rather different from the music scene in London, where you can’t gig with any regularity”.
The mechanics of the live circuit weren’t the only thing Wilby had to adjust to; the dynamics of her performances had to change too. “As a musician, I got used to having around 30 minutes on the stage to develop a relationship with the audience” she explains. “When I started doing comedy, I realised you had to make an impact from the first second you appear. You can’t amble on and tune your guitar. You need to just go for it! New comedy acts only get five minutes onstage and need to make them count. So I learned about stagecraft in a way that I never had before. When I did music gigs after having tried stand-up, there was a marked difference”.
Wilby’s done four comedy shows at the Edinburgh Fringe to date, including one – ‘The Science Of Sex’ – which garnered a Fringe Report Award and went on to tour the UK. What keeps her coming back to the Scottish capital each August? “Each year, I’m aware of returning fans and a growing audience”, she says “and it does seem to help me build momentum for the rest of the year, even though it’s an expensive business. Plus, I love the fact that you can run around doing lots of gigs guesting at other venues and nights and seeing lots of shows. Paul Foot was my highlight of last year, so I’ll no doubt make a beeline for his show”.
But back to music for one last question: which of your Britpop contemporaries was your favourite, and which did you like least? “Blur were my favourites at the time. That should make Oasis my least favourite if old rivalries still hold. Yet I confess to a soft spot for ‘Live Forever’…” And after this year’s show, we expect even more comedy fans to be confessing a soft spot for Rosie Wilby.
Rosie Wilby’s show ‘Rosie’s Pop Diary’ was performed at Just The Tonic At The Tron during Fringe 2011.