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#GirlBoss Amba Tremain talks Urban Vocal Group, Boy George, and Eva Cassidy

#GirlBossLouise WhitmoreComment

The first time I saw Amba was at a gig at The Wedgewood Rooms. She was on stage, I was in the crowd, in awe of her and her sister, thinking, ‘wow, these girls can sing!’ This was circa 2006. 10 years on, I’m great friends with Amba, and on a sunny but chilly day last month, I met up with her for a cake and a cuppa to dig deeper, to share this remarkable lady’s story. Amba’s life has had more ups and downs than the Skyways rollercoaster at Clarence Pier! So grab yourself a cuppa and let me take you into Amba's world for a while. 

Amba came from a naval family and, between the ages of eight and 10, lived in Gibraltar with her family. This is where she discovered her love of dance, and was taken under the wing of her dance teacher, who put Amba up for auditions. The first job was for a Benetton catwalk show. As Amba was a little blonde, girls she was instantly picked out from a sea of Spanish brunettes.

Amba’s mum Sue, who seems to be the glue to Amba’s huge family, wholly supported every move her daughter made. She was on the island of Gibraltar throughout her time as a naval wife, with her husband away a lot, playing the part of mum and dad to all of her daughters. Sue was a local radio DJ for the island.

Amba feels this was one of the happier times in her life, with all of them together living on this sunny island — mum, dad, and all four daughters. Although those were the days when Amba’s dad’s job began to get pretty intense. He later went to the Adriatic (Operation Deny Flight) on Ark Royal for operations in support of the Bosnian crisis, for which he received the ‘Former Yugoslavia’ NATO Medal.

Amba was used to her dad leaving them for long spells at a time, but remembers once, in the middle of one night, being woken up by guards and evacuated from her home to go to a shelter for safety. Whilst they were in Gibraltar when the first Gulf War in Iraq (invasion of Kuwait) broke out. This posed a security threat and meant placing them ‘behind the wire’ for a time. Amba told me: “it was pretty scary walking with all of our neighbours in the middle of the night, in our pyjamas to a nearby community centre.”

When it was time to move back to England, Amba’s passion for dance was still very strong. With the help of her dance teacher Elisa Kern, she won a scholarship at the very prestigious Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, a boarding school in Hertfordshire.

At the tender of age of 11 years old, Amba left home to start her new life at boarding school. The school itself was set in an old Rothchilds Mansion, so it looked very Hogwarts! Amba instantly loved it. Her classes were not only the arts — the school also had a strict academic programme. She remembers the head teacher coming in once a week to give them a lesson on current affairs. 

I wish more school head teachers would do that in our Portsmouth schools.

Amba leaving for boarding school was very hard for her mother, as Amba was the oldest daughter, Sue missed her loads. With three little girls to look after, it must have been extremely hard for her, but Amba’s mum was always her biggest cheerleader, and supported her and her decisions every step of the way.

From the age of 11 through 12, Amba toured the country with the English National Ballet in The Nutcracker, and finished the tour at The London Festival Hall over Christmas 1992/93. She remembered a very excited mum, dad, and gran in the audience — her gran in a brand new fur coat!

Unfortunately, when Amba was 16, her parents’ marriage broke down, and this could have had an affect on her stay at the wonderful school she’d found, but the understanding head teacher was kind enough to give her a full scholarship which enabled her to carry on. Emotionally, her parents’ split at this time had a lasting effect on her and her younger sisters. Something that took a few years to repair

When Amba was on a break back at home for the school holidays, she visited her local swimming pool, slipped, and fell so hard that she fractured her coccyx. After 16 weeks flat on her back, she knew in her heart that her classical dance career was over. When she went back to school to face the music — pardon the pun — her head teacher was once again very understanding, allowing her to change majors to musical theatre. Amba got the part of Fizzy in Bugsy Malone. She loved it, and never looked back.

At 18, Amba auditioned to be in a pop group, got the part, and recorded her first song, titled Paradise. Her mum, still working as a DJ, always found a way to play it in her sets. Her management/label for this group was called Sweetie Pie Productions — they made Amba move into their pop-themed park, which wasn’t too dissimilar to Paultons Park.

This was a huge deal for Amba, and she was very scared, but rather than these producers working her promised pop career, she was told to go work in the park making ice creams in a kiosk without any training. She still remembers all the little faces looking up at her for ice cream while she didn’t even know how to turn on the machine!

As you can imagine, alarm bells were ringing: this was not the job role she had signed up to. Amba made the decision to go back to school. As the pop world was new territory to the school, they were as confused as Amba with the bogus pop management wannabes, and helped her get back on her feet and encouraged her to perform at the summer ball.

At the age of 18, Amba left school and returned home, and went to work in local pubs, singing in karaoke competitions, but she fell pregnant at 19. She felt terrible, thinking that after all the sacrifices her mum and dad made for her, she went and got pregnant! But her family was again fully on board, and helped her to move back home to have her beautiful and — the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree — talented son.

After her parents split, they moved from Emsworth to West Leigh. Not long after, they moved a second time, to Stockheath Road in Leigh Park. A travelling funfair had set up in the local field. So Amba took her three sisters over to it for a fun day out. They were about to get onto a ride, but one of her younger sisters was a bit frightened. Amba reassured her: ‘it’s OK, everybody is having fun’, and pointed out a group of girls who were laughing and assure her little sister that she would be fine.

As they got on the ride, Amba saw that a group of girls was forming, and all started to point at Amba. When she got off the ride with her little sister, they came over to her and started shoving her and accusing her of laughing at them. Before Amba had the chance to answer back, they attacked her, pushing her to the floor and stamping on her head. This was in broad daylight in the middle of a busy funfair. The little sisters were screaming as they ran back to get their mother, while Leonie — the older of the sisters — tried to shield Amba from the attack. It wasn’t until someone stepped in and stopped the incident that the attackers backed off, only for Amba’s mother to find her unrecognisable on the floor covered in her own blood.

All of the attackers were under 16, and were only cautioned.

After the attack, Amba could not leave her house for weeks. She was terrified. Not a great start for a young mum — her son was only a couple of months old. It took a long time for her sisters to get over the attack. Around two months after the attack, Amba was given a number for a new TV talent show called ‘This Is My Moment’, hosted by Spice Girl Mel B. All Amba had to do was sing down the phone to a recorded message. This was on the Wednesday. By the Sunday, the TV show had rung her back and wanted her to get to the TV studio for the next round of auditions. If successful, they said, they will go live on the telly on Wednesday that week, and then the next hurdle would be the live show on Saturday night.

When she turned up to the first stage, she thought it was game over, as also auditioning was the powerhouse Rachael Hawnt — also a local girl, who Amba had recently been in a singing competition with. Amba said: “Rachael will find it hilarious to know I was in awe of her. And then, to see her show up in the middle of Manchester, my heart sunk. I didn’t think I stood a chance. We’re great friends now, and she’ll probably laugh knowing how terrified I was of her talent.

But as fate would have it, Amba got through to the live Saturday night show! That week, they were all put up in a hotel. Amba’s bank called to say that her overdraft was overdue, and she needed to pay it off, and she could thanks to the £1,000 the studio would be paying her. She remembers getting really excited about being able to buy a washing machine!

For the live Saturday night show, Amba sang Eva Cassidy’s Over The Rainbow. There was a break to give viewers time to vote. Then the live show would start up again at 10:00pm. They all stood in a row as their numbered votes came in — the winner would get prize money equivalent to the number of votes they earned. As they called out each name and the number of votes each contestant had received, Amba remembers them all telling another girl she had won — her votes came in at 164,000. In previous weeks, the winner had taken the lead with just 66,000, so Amba thought it was all over.

Until they read out Amba’s vote count — 304,000! 304,000 votes! 

£152,000 of prize money, (which was £1.00 per vote, with 50p of that going to the winner).  Amba had won the lot, the whole shebang!

The weeks following the show were crazy for Amba — she gained a new fan in the form of her bank manager! And people were stopping her in the street when they recognised her as that girl off the telly.

Now, this was one of the first TV talent shows — nowadays, you win and get signed on with Simon Cowell and you’re all set for your career! For poor old Amba, it was ‘well done, bye-bye!’

As a result the press attention Amba was getting, a management company came knocking at her door telling her they could make the next big thing. Amba sank £30K of her money into the venture the company promised her, but still didn’t get anywhere, soon realising the ‘company’ was a bunch of con-men. Local newspaper The Portsmouth News picked up on the story, and soon, Amba was getting more press attention as the TV talent girl who was conned out of her prize money. There were a fair few ‘what were you thinking?’ angles published.

Luckily for Amba, the BBC noticed this new wave of press, picked up the story, and took Amba on board for an episode of UK’s Worst the last in the season. This episode was entitled “UK’s Worst Showbiz Manager’.

Amba went undercover and met up with one of two music managers. The first manager blamed the second manager, and then the second manager agreed to come into the studio. Her ordeal was picked as the winning story and the con men were ‘awarded’ UK Worst Showbiz Manager. Amba moved on from the experience and agrees it was a lesson well learnt.

As a mother of Josh, who was now just three years old, Amba got a job as a vocal coach and ended up teaching in schools in Hampshire, and was a dance teacher at South Downs College. After teaching, she became a youth worker for Portsmouth City Council, working with Motiv8. She shifted to being self-employed and did a degree in photography, but soon realised that music would always be her full-time job.

She worked at Park Community School, and met Charlie Fletcher, and together, they started UVG — the Urban Vocal group: a non-profit music group for kids, which started with just eight members and now has over 150.

Along with her writing team ‘HALO’, made up of bandmate Andy Dixon and sister Leonie Tremain, Amba has also written songs and worked with artists at Syco Records, and enjoyed co-writing sessions with Newton Faulkner, Ella Henderson, Roachford, and Jerry Williams.

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It was during this time networking that Amba and her sister Leonie got the chance to work with Boy George. They ended up recording backing vocals on his 2013 solo album This Is What I Do, and doing a press tour of Paris with him to promote his new material! Amba recalls how laid-back Boy George was compared to his public persona.

One of Amba’s biggest achievements to date, she tells me, was being asked by Eva Cassidy’s record label in Washington, Blix Street Records, whether she and her sister Leonie would be interested in singing on the latest Eva Cassidy album. There was no guarantee that their vocals would be used, but they were over the moon when they got the call to say that they’d made the album. Somewhere was released in 2008, and the sisters were mentioned in the insert. Amba recalls picking up the album and a Gold Disc for contribution to sales, and crying in her car out of sheer joy.

It was crazy to know they’d actually recorded their vocals in a little studio shed in Harrow using a pair of broken headphones between them.

Highlights and memorable moments in Amba’s include:

  • Having dinner in Boy George’s hotel room, looking out over the Eiffel Tower over glittering nighttime Paris. This was during a second trip for more TV work with Boy George. “It was a truly surreal moment. It was hard not to lose my cool around him. But he was just the nicest person to work with.”
  • Singing in the Vatican in Rome with a 50-piece chamber choir. “It was a working tour and at the time I was a classical singer. It was a truly breathtaking experience of a lifetime.”
  • Most recently, her vocal group UVG performed to a sell-out crowd at the Pyramids. “Seeing over 120 people up on stage, a packed audience and the band waiting on my cue to start was just amazing.”
  • Playing on the main stage at Portsmouth music event Victorious Festival with her covers band The Live Lounge Project (now known as FM Live). “This was an incredible for us. We had a fantastic performance slot just before Texas, and the crowd was incredible. We have performed at every Victorious event going right back to the very first one, ‘Victorious Vintage’ at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. We absolutely loved that day, playing on the main stage in beautiful sunshine, with our originals band. We will never forget that day.”
  • Collecting the award for ‘Cultural Partnership’ at the start of 2017 for UVG’s work within the city. “The UVG is Charlie and I’s ‘baby’. We have nurtured this for 10 years, and being recognised for our efforts was an amazing feeling.”

Things Amba loves:

  • “I adore teaching. It’s something I have done solidly since 2003, and is a part of who I am now. Whether it’s one-to-one or teaching a room full of people, I love it.”
  • “I love performing at some of the best local venues in our city. Most of all, The Wedgewood Rooms. It feels like our training ground, as I’m sure it does for so many other musicians within the city. Geoff and the team there are just amazing. Every event has been as thrilling as the next, and it’s a real privilege to support local, small music venues, yet for it to leave you feeling as if you just headlined at Wembley.”
  • “I love performing with my sisters. We are all singers, and it’s something we sometimes take for granted. Being best friends with them all is something I truly treasure.”

Other things Amba does now:

  • Backing vocals for local singer-songwriter Marley Blandford, whose talent is endless. 
  • Musical Director of UVG, based at Portsmouth Guildhall
  • “As well as the younger group, we also have a thriving adult singing group: The AUVG runs twice a week”
  • “I run an artist development programme nurturing up-and-coming commercial music talent” 
  • Amba has a solo residency at Kassia: “I really enjoy singing the songs I love to some truly loyal followers”
  • Amba performs with her covers band — “we have recently reformed our originals band after a few years away, with a view to release some new material this year”
  • “I run my photography business in my spare time and absolutely adore taking photos. It’s my passion in amongst everything else I do”
  • “If I’m not playing the piano, recording, or singing somewhere, I’m in the office co-running UVG and planning out the sessions day by day. And if I’m not there, I’m photographing or editing. And if I’m not doing any of these things, I’m being a taxi service for my son! (I’m told things get better the older they get?) Or I’m just a wife chilling out watching telly with my husband Sean. He has been the absolute rock in my life, and without his support, none of what I love to do would be possible.”

If you’re interested in joining the UVG, head along to their sessions on Mondays at Bedhampton Social Hall or on Wednesdays at Portsmouth Guildhall, both from 5:45pm through 7:15pm, and free for those aged 11 through 18 years.

The adult sessions take place on Wednesdays at St. Luke’s Hall and on Thursdays at Havant Pastoral Centre, both running from 7:30pm through 9:00pm — these are for those aged over 19 years, and are free for the first session, and £7.00 for each session thereafter.

Find out more on the UVG website »

Interview by Louise Whitmore — Edited by Jeeves Williams