It was a few years ago now that Katy Vernon first sat at one of the cabaret tables at the intimate Aster Cafe on St. Anthony Main and watched Lucy Michelle play a hootenanny show armed with only an ukulele.
“She sat there and sang and she rocked the whole place,” Vernon remembers, “and I just thought, ‘You can do that? With a ukulele?'”
So it seems appropriate that she’ll return to the Aster tomorrow night to lead the second annual Uke Fest, a celebration of the instrument that eased her back into music after a 10-year hiatus.
And this time around, the event has an even more personal and powerful purpose: spurred on by the reaction she has received about her song, “Peter,” which was written about her brother who has cerebral palsy, Vernon is teaming up with Arc Greater Twin Cities to use Uke Fest to raise money for families dealing with disabilities.
“Do you know me? Can you show me? What are you thinking in there? I hope you know that I care,” Vernon sings in her song “Peter,” which first appeared on last year’s Before I Forget.
“I never wrote the song thinking it would be a message or that it had any agenda,” she reflects. “But then, suddenly, people started sharing with me the whole reaction to when Slim Dunlap had a stroke, and then some other people shared with me that they had family members that had strokes, and that the song made them think about that. Because it’s all about loving someone but not knowing if they can communicate back with you, or what they know, or how much they can tell you.”
Soon, the song took on a life of its own. Families with disabled members began sharing it with one another on Facebook, and people from throughout the community started contacting Vernon to share their own stories. Eventually, a volunteer coordinator for Arc Greater Twin Cities called up Vernon as asked her to sing the song at one of their major volunteer appreciation events.
“I show up, and they started the whole meeting by showing the slideshow that I had made of my brother,” Vernon recalls. “And then I talked about him—and I had never written or talked about him publicly, ever—I read this whole speech that I had written, and then I sang a song, and I was all ugly crying, snotty. But it was just one of those experiences where you look out at people—and there were quite a few disabled people in the audience. It really was transformative for me, to sing in a room full of people that said ‘You get it. You’re speaking for us. You’re giving a voice to something.’”
Vernon grew up in London and her brother still lives in the city in a full-time care facility. Though she doesn’t often talk about her struggles publicly, she says that her relationship with her brother weighs heavy on her mind; she visits him as often as she can and is currently in the process of becoming his legal guardian to ensure he continues to receive appropriate care.
“The gist of my speech at Arc was just how much guilt I feel,” she says. “I never feel like I can do the right thing by him. And I think that’s how a lot of people that have parents, children, anyone with a disability feel; you never feel like you can do enough. So you need people to say, ‘You know what? You’re doing what you can.’ And to have people that can support you. It took me a long, long time to find those people. I didn’t go looking for them; that was the funny part. And I think that’s why it felt like such a gift. Because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. And then I show up, and literally just have hundreds of eyes looking at me going, ‘We get it!'”
Vernon will headline the second annual Uke Fest tomorrow night, Friday, October 18, at the Aster Cafe with additional performances by ukulele lovers Brianna Lane, the Meteor Boys, Sada Estrada, Keldon Ancheta, Shawn Gibbons, Natalie Lovejoy, John Munson, Eric Carranza (batteryboy), and Nora O’Brien (Hot Date).