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Our Artist Spotlight blogs are a weekly feature where we focus on one of our performers, giving you the chance to find out more about the people behind the performances, and offering an insight into the world of professional entertainment.
This week we’re talking to the brilliantly talented contemporary orchestra and urban string group USO about how they got into the professional music industry, what it’s like to perform alongside some of the biggest music acts in the UK, where they find their inspiration, and offering their advice to anybody that is considering a career as a musician.
USO is run by Musical Director Stephen and Manager Natasha, with support from their Events and Marketing Assistant, Nikki. Stephen started up the orchestra in 1993 as a vehicle for his unique string arrangements, providing orchestral backing for recording sessions, TV, and live shows for top recording artists, including Soul II Soul, Kyle Minogue, Madonna, Mick Jagger, Grace Jones and many more. The group quickly gained recognition for their work, and were invited by Oasis to arrange the strings for their second studio album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, and perform at the launch for the album. Soon after, Mariah Carey invited USO to perform for her Christmas party, and so the group made the natural transition into performing live for events.

So what training is involved in working with some of the leading musicians in the Uk music Industry? USO’s Musical Director Stephen studied both the violin and the piano at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, and Manager Natasha gained an MA/LBB and undertook an internship at the Smithsonian Institute in Washihngton Dc. During her internship she was lucky enough to work on the largest annual cultural event in the US capital, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, something she classes as an invaluable experience

“If you are just starting out, do consider work experience. I personally benefited immeasurably from my own internship working on one of the biggest festivals in the world.”

Natasha also impresses the importance of hard work and a passion for working with people. “Don’t do it unless you are ok with late nights and a lot of sleep deprivation!” she jokes. “Do do it if you work hard, have a positive attitude, and understand the importance of relationships, with both clients and musicians. We try to exceed our clients’ expectations on every event, whilst also keeping our musicians happy so that they have that ‘USO vibe’ that we pride ourselves on. It ensures that all of our musicians can give their best for our clients while on stage.”

Anybody who has worked or is looking to work as a professional musician knows that the hours can be long, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to compromise your social life or personal relationships in order to get ahead. Natasha believes that working to such a busy schedule only increases the need for close relationships within the group and within the industry as a whole, “I think in this industry you have to love you job, as it is going to take up most of your time. In terms of social life, it is fortuitous that we have become close friends with many of the musicians and also some of the regular clients we work with. It sounds corny, but as we are regularly on tour with the musicians, spending hours together in various green rooms, we have become a bit of an extended family and everyone looks out for one another”, she explains. But the rewards for working so hard are bigger too. “I think it differs from other jobs in that the hours are longer but the highs can be higher. There can’t be many jobs more satisfying than performing for a live audience and giving them the best night of their lives.”

USO receive glowing feedback from our clients; their ability to provide a variety of fresh and innovative urban musicians is second to none, covering everything from swing bands to DJ sets, and is one of their unique selling points. “Contraband understand our unique USP, which is the ability to provide many different styles of music for one event, making us the first band of choice for many event organisers particularly when travelleing is an issue.” Another valuable asset is their flexibility in the size of the group that they can provide, from 2 to 20 musicians. This is something that they have particularly developed over the recession, finding that they had to be more resourceful to ensure they were still able to offer excellence to their clients, who were working to smaller budgets but still wanted to be able to provide high quality musicians to their events. This has included creating a little version of their Big Band, making it more economical to transport for international event (one of the reasons the group is so popular for overseas especially Europe).

With so many events under their belt, naturally we wanted to find out what their favourite events for Contraband have been!

“There have been many highlights, including a chill out set in Zermatt (in winter, yes it was very chilly!); a 16-piece swing band at The Swan at The Globe; performances at some of the most prestigious venues in th Uk,including Chewton Glen, as well as some of London’s ,most iconic landmarks, such as the Oxo Tower; performing at the dizzy heights of Sushi Samba on the 39th floor of the Heron Tower and playing in sunny Monaco just a few weeks ago.”

Alongside their corporate work,USO regularly performs alongside major recording artists, both in the studio and on tour. This means that they never have to look far for inspiration. “We are blessed to be constantly surrounded by music as we work regularly recording strings for some of the coolest names in the music industry – Groove Armada, Maxi Priest, Nightmares on Wax, Nitin Sawhney and Robert Miles, to name a few. We’re also fortunate enough in our live event work to support many of the artists we admire, so have the opportunity to see them live. Recently this has included Bryan Ferry, Beverley Knight, The Noisttes and Cee Lo Green. One of our favourite new artists is Laura Mvula, who we just supported at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. Many of our own musicians also perform regularly with big name artists so we are sometimes lucky enough to be invited along. Our vocalist Sarah Jane Skeete is Robbie Williams’ backing singer, so we went to see him (supported by Olly Murs) at Wembley last week, he is an amazing showman. Similarly, our percussionist Davide was performing at the fantastic new Love Supreme Festival last weekend, so we saw the SUPERB Gregory Porter – words just can’t describe the talent and presence of this man.”

But despite having the opportunity to work alongside such recognised artists, Natasha says that the main inspiration of their work comes from the regular event work they do:

“It sounds cheesy, but our most important source of inspiration is from our clients! It is through their suggestions and feedback that we have developed all of our unique ensembles.”

USO uses this inspiration to constantly feed their creative juices, and develop new acts. They’re currently developing their Little Swing Band for a debut at The Savoy next month, which will feature Stefan Booth, the star male lead in the West End hit Chicago in 2012. Alongside this, they’re looking forward to start work on producing their own original album.

USO  performed at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 13th July. Frankie, Chloe, and Nicky from the Contraband event went down to watch the show, and said it was one of the most amazing live gigs they have ever seen (and they’ve seen a few!). The show recreated the ground-breaking Bob Marley & The Wailers album, Catch A Fire. This sensational new orchestral interpretation also featured Jazz Jamaica All Stars, special guest Brinsley Forde (Aswad) and a 240-voice Voicelab choir.