LEVANNA MCLEAN AKA NORTHERN SOUL GIRL (DANCING)
“Last night I was sat in Tunbridge Wells, in a local pub, and got a phone call from Velvet Hammer’s Clifford Frazier, the singer of Happy.” Says Levanna McLean; aka Northern Soul Girl as she’s known to millions of YouTube viewers. “It was so exciting, I had never spoken to him before, only on Facebook and via email, and he (just) phoned me up.” The Wigan Casino monster Happy, mashed up with the contemporary Pharrell Williams hit of the same name, featured in a 2013 clip that jettisoned the then 17 year old into an internet sensation, capturing her northern soul dancing, out in the open, with youthful abandon down Broad Street, in Staple Hill, Bristol.
“Clifford goes ‘Awww, it’s sooo nice ta tawwk to you. Don’t stop doin’ whachu doin’!’”
Levanna starts to blush; it was a very polite attempt at an American accent.
“Nice confirmation that …” Levanna pauses, with a big smile on her face, “… what I’m doing is Ok.”
Universal Music TV certainly agrees, sanctioning the smart, brand new 2CD compilation Express Your Soul (including the Velvet Hammer cut, remastered) mixed by Levanna, who is rapidly building her reputation as a burgeoning soul circuit DJ & selector. This after the Levanna McLean/Soulgirl-Next-Door effect, helped propel sales of Move On Up: The Very Best Of Northern Soul beyond 40,000 copies in its first week, an astonishing amount for a specialist music compilation in 2015. All the major label had to do was put her in the TV ad and on the cover, and that simple trick seduced more supermarket consumers to the sacredness of Northern Soul, than a thousand impassioned posts by purists. The same purists, notoriously known for a lack of acceptance of new bloods, and who famously used to refer to Wigan Casino late-comers as “divs” that have, sadly, been critical of Levanna’s impact on the scene.
“It’s really hard to say anything negative,” says Levanna, “but if anything it would probably be that you can get these purists who don’t like what they see as the commercialisation of the scene and they tend to be quite horrible and mean sometimes.” Digital celebrities have to be able to handle trolls, who at the click of a button can reply to a tweet or comment on a Youtube video, without a second thought. Thankfully the McLean’s - Levanna’s younger brother, skateboard wunderkind Schaeffer, whose broken bones for his sport, and is also a web star with over 27 million hits (to put that in perspective Levanna’s Happy vid has a “mere” 1.7m) – are made of strong stuff.
“I have tough skin,” says a defiant Levanna, “but some people don’t and find it really hard to deal with it. But it’s only a few that have let the Northern Soul Scene down. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion but for me I’m more interested in giving appreciation to the artists of the music that I’m putting in my videos. I want them to know that the song they wrote so many years ago that they thought had just gotten chucked to the back of radio station, is getting played and should be more appreciated than it is.”
Each dancing video made by Levanna is in collaboration with her Mum, Eve - a former Top Of The World Stafford regular - who first switched Levanna onto Northern Soul to begin with.
“I was already listening to people like The Heavy & Amy Winehouse, and we we’re in a hire car in Spain and my Mum brought along a CD she made for me of Northern Soul, because she knew I was listening to all these people and it was a really girly CD, you know? Gloria Lynne’s Tower Of Strength & Barbara Lewis Hello Stranger, I remember just falling in love with the music. Driving down the big cliffs, past the trees and the mountains, it felt like we were in the Italian Job! The view, the music and the sun, it was kind of love at first, err, hear … if that’s a saying?”
Eve deserves a lot credit, if you’re a McLean it appears you’re encouraged to live your dreams – even turning the living room into a makeshift skater park when it was too wintery for the 4 year old Schaeffer to venture out. Levanna also started performing when she was young, appearing locally at Bristol Hippodrome in theatre productions of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang & Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, whilst still at primary school.
“I still live with my mum; we get on so well are really close. We work on our videos together, and come up with awesome ideas. Then we go on our little missions to create something and that’s what we love doing, on a daily basis. We think of something and were like ‘ah yeah, lets film this’ then were putting a video up on YouTube that we only just thought of 5 minutes ago!”
The first vid, featuring the Sharon McMahan rarity Where There Is Love, is a real From Russia With Love affair.
“It was completely random, we were in Moscow because my brother had a skateboarding event, and I had only just been to the 100 Club in Oxford Street, my first all-nighter, just 3 months before, and was really getting into the dancing. I was loving it and everything was new. And Mum (who films all of Schaeffer’s Youtube videos as well) began filming me, on this slippery surface which was great for dancing.”
Because of its rarity, the Sharon McMahan cut soon got noticed, going viral.
“I can’t take full credit for that, My Mum and I are always on Youtube, or Solar Radio and you know we could be tidying up and it’d be on in the back room. Music tends to be on in our house, so when Where There Is Love, an acetate copy, played on Youtube, we were like ‘Oh My God! Why don’t we put this song to the footage that we shot in Russia for a laugh?’ It was a meant to be thing. So it’s not synched (which some of the Soul Source faithful were extremely swift to point out) but people hadn’t heard it and began sharing the video – ‘hey can anyone identify this song?’ So that’s where I got the reputation, and it’s what I want to stay true to, exposing something that would not have had that exposure any other way.”
Then there was the Pharrell Williams smash, which changed everything. Pharrell’s marketing gimmick was to have a 24 hour dance video of Happy with people sending in their homemade clips from all over the world. But after the campaign had finished, Levanna and her Mum had the idea of mixing his song with Velvet Hammer’s Northern Soul classic, as a spoof.
“That’s when things went exponential.” Says Levanna still displaying an air of disbelief: “It just rocketed after that video.” The video catches a beautiful moment of togetherness, as bystanders join in, completely unplanned. There’s a kid in the background (not her brother) who can be seen spinning, mid-air on his scooter, and a merry older gent, just past happy hour, who begins to dance. All the more surprising in that Levanna was wearing headphones, so nobody else could hear the music.
“Not a thing,” Levanna laughs. “He couldn’t hear anything but he managed to stay in time! But actually we did not think that we could use the clip afterwards, we were a bit disheartened, like ‘ah it doesn’t matter, we can do another video; it was a nice idea.” But when we came back and watched it we thought it was hilarious.”
Pharrell liked it too, tweeting ‘The UK is getting #Happy’ and subsequently invited Levanna to come dance with his entourage on the following years Brits – she took along her friends, a crew of new blood’s that travel from Bristol to all-nighter’s all across the country.
“Our favourite place to go is the 100 Club (where Levanna danced to her first ever Northern Soul song I Got To Find Me Somebody by the Vel-Vets – included on Express Your Soul) because it’s really easy to get to. Just a straight journey across Great Western Railway Lines, or we get the Megabus, because we’re all students we don’t have a great budget and it’s only £7 return. On the trip back, after dancing all night, we would mong out, sit on the sofa at home listening to soul records.”
The passion for Northern Soul that Levanna clearly demonstrates has, mostly, been embraced with open arms by the faithful. “I love the people on the northern soul scene,” she says, “they really, really look after you. I was up in Manchester on my own once and thought I’d go to Burnley for a weekender. You know, I thought: ‘why not?’, but I didn’t know how I was going to get back to Bristol the following morning. When I told people I hadn’t organised a way back they asked around and found a guy from Bristol and he was so lovely and gave me a lift. I don’t know any other culture that would do that and make you feel safe. They are like a family, like a 2nd family. It saved me a hundred pounds!”
At this year’s Cleethorpes weekender, organised by Ace Records Ady Croasdell, Levanna came runner up in the dance competition. Afterwards, she got to meet Sharon McMahan, the artist that started it all.
“It was the first time Sharon McMahan had ever performed in the UK; Ady wanted to get her over here ever since he heard Where There Is Love on my video. Sharon was in VIP and is just the most beautiful soulful woman you’ll ever meet in your life! She gave me a massive smile and said: ‘I’m trying to figure out how the hell that unreleased song had gotten on Youtube!’”
Croasdell had to request the mp3 so that both the band and Sharon could learn the song.
“It was a really tearful moment for me, because if it wasn’t for Where There Is Love I wouldn’t be where I am today. Sharon said ‘oh my god it was so good to meet you and I’m so thankful that you used my track.’ To hear her do such a fantastic rendition, of a song she hadn’t performed live before and have her say what a good job I did, well …”
That’s what it’s all about.
Express Your Soul is out now on Universal Music TV
Main photo by Dammo Photography