The hugely popular Literary Lunchtimes at the Ulster Hall, with their readings and specially themed events showcasing works by popular writers, continue tomorrow when you can get the chance to explore the other side of Valentine’s Day with poems by Scott Jamison new theatre from Nicholas Boyle and live music from harpist and singer, Ursula Burns.
While the gig might be intended as an anecdote to cards and chocolates and things that pass for romance nowadays, but surely there must have been some romantic notion that took Ursula off to perform with a dorse-drawn theatre company when she was still very young.
“Well, I suppose it was dark times here and I never really enjoyed my experience of living in Belfast,” she recalls.
“It was a very intense time and I have always been a restless spirit so when I discovered Belfast Community Circus, I latched onto them and they took me under their wing and I really enjoyed travelling and performing.
“So from that age, I just wanted to leave any kind of normal home life and go on the road,” she laughs.
However, at just 14, Ursula had to finish her schooling, but with an innate sense of adventure, she leapt at any chance she got to explore or get away or travel. From that age, she was heading over to London and getting involved in arts projects.
One of these was Horse and Bamboo, one of the last horse-drawn travelling theatre companies.
In the public mind, this is the thing romance is made off, but was it in real life? Did she enjoy working with horses and eating by campfire light? Did she eat a lot of beans, I ask.
“No, no, we never ate beans,” she insists. “In fact, I turned vegetarian at 14 but it was only when
I joined the horse-drawn theatre company that I really learnt about food and about vegetarian food and we used to make quite elaborate meals. We even built our own oven once and we did a lot of things from scratch which was incredible considering there was just 14 people and a campfire.
“It was a beautiful life experience. It didn’t feel like anything from the modern world, It was really like living like the troubadours of centuries ago .
“We were the last folk theatre company. Doing horse-drawn touring had died out years before. To be walking at the pace of life was incredibly physically demanding. We’d walk between 5-20 mils a day, then we’d build the sets, do two shows, in between cooking on the campfire and then next day, we’d take the sets down and set off again.
“We got really strong, and really fit and I loved that lifestyle, living outdoors, There were ups and downs of course, sometimes I would rain a lot , I can remember some unhappy times in the rain.”
At night, the troupe would play music and that really reawakened the spirt of music in Ursula. Up until then, although she’d been writing songs all my life, she’d never taken it seriously until that point. With the company, she’d been acting, doing puppetry and mask-work and didn’t see herself as a musician.
So she came back home, making two highly acclaimed records, VVVVV and VVVVVV.
We know her as a harpist but where do the lyrics of her songs come from?
“Well, some of my lyrics are quite poetic, others quite harsh, others realistic some funny, some straight. Like all human beings have the capacity to be happy, sad, spiritual, mystic, rough and as a human being I can sing in all those flavours.
“Other songs reflect where I am at certain stages of my life. If I’ve moved to Donegal to live on my own for eight months to make a particular album, then that will be reflected in the mood of the album
However, there is a distinct humorous side to Ursula’s songs with her winning an Irish Musical Comedy Award.
“The humour of the songs seem to be directly linked to the Paraguayan harp, she says, unexpectedly. Who knew?
“When I started writing songs that were funny, I did it on the Paraguayan harp but I didn’t really realise until lately that I was doing comedy because all I was doing was writing songs. It was other people who actually aid to me, “no, Ursula, you actually are doing comedy.”
“I had done funny songs before on the Paraguayan harp as just one aspect of what I was doing and then I sold it and stopped writing funny songs – but 12 years later when a new one came through the door, I instantly started writing funny songs again! There’s something about it that brings out a different side of me.”
Some early versions of Ursula’s new songs are up on youtube and some are side-splittingly funny but with a little darkness to them.
Being born is about a baby who wants to go back to the womb when he/she finds out they are being born on the Falls Road in the 1970s.
“There killing each other out there. I was meant to go to honolulu and have parents who practice yoga ,” gasps the baby.
“Comedy is just telling the truth in a funny accent,” says Ursula.
You can catch Ursula Burns in all here glory at the Ulster Hall tomorrow (13 Feb) at 1pm. Tickets are £4.00