Meet Belfast mum who performs all over world in Abba tribute band
When Karen Rush decided to return to Northern Ireland with her family, performing jobs were scarce. She tells Lee Henry how she kickstarted her career by teaming up with husband Richard to sing some of the Swedish popsters most popular hits
For Abba enthusiast Karen Rush, the winner really does take it all. After performing as a hired hand in various Abba tribute acts over the years, including as part of the internationally recognised Abba Gold show, she returned home to her native Northern Ireland in 2000 to set up her own.
The Bjorn Identity, which launched its first show in 2010, has since become Ireland's premiere tribute to the legendary Scandinavian pop foursome, who took over the charts and won the hearts of millions during their harmonious heyday in the Seventies. And Karen is the super trouper mum-of-two at the heart of that local success.
"I think that performing the music of Abba is as close to musical theatre as you can get," says the 40-year-old from Belfast, who graduated from the University of Hertfordshire with a first in musical theatre in 1998 and subsequently cut her teeth as the lead in countless stage productions.
"Nowadays, when I don those white platforms and put on Agnetha's blonde wig, I feel like I'm playing a role. Even the songs, full of drama and emotion, tell a story. Abba were the most iconic pop group of their era, and my love affair with their music goes on and on. Slipping Through My Fingers and Chiquitita are my favourite songs. The harmony work is just so beautiful."
Although her initial attempt at Abba appreciation didn't go so well, as she explains: "It was in Pakistan and I had a terrible vomiting bug. It wasn't the best experience." Over the years, she changed from performing as Anni-Frid to Agnetha, which, she says, better suits her voice. And Karen has been lucky enough to tour the world singing the songs of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, Sweden's answer to Lennon and McCartney.
"There have been all sorts of highlights," she recalls. "Being flown, first class, to Barbados to play for Richard Branson, as part of Abba Gold, was certainly a once in a lifetime opportunity. And I have to say that it was an honour to perform at the Kremlin palace in Moscow to a 5,000 strong crowd, including Russian members of state. Now, with The Bjorn Identity, I just love seeing the audience's reaction when we step out on that stage. Bringing a show from initial conception through production to performance is vastly rewarding. It's job satisfaction like nothing else."
When she does take to the stage as Agnetha, she can count on the support of her real-life husband, Richard Doubleday (55), from Chelmsford in Essex, who also performs in the band as Agnetha's former hubby, the blonde-haired frontman Bjorn. The couple met in 2000 during Karen's debut post-graduate lead performance at Belfast's Grand Opera House.
"Richard was playing Roy Orbison's manager in The Roy Orbison Story national tour and I happened to be backstage at the Opera House rehearsing the title role of Snow White, which was opening at the same venue the following week. By chance, our two casts happened to meet at the Crown Bar across the street one evening and Richard and I got chatting about our similar interests in music. Now he jokes that the following day, his fellow cast members kept asking him, 'So, did you snog Snow White'?
"It feels authentic performing Abba's music as husband and wife. At first, when I asked him to join the act, Richard, being more into The Beatles, wouldn't have called himself a fan of Abba, but my enthusiasm encouraged him to explore their music and now he's one of the biggest Abba-raks around. To be honest, working so closely together, being with each other 24/7, has its ups and down, but there is no feeling quite as romantic as singing one of our favourite songs together on stage."
The pair married in 2005 and laid down roots in London, where they had two children, Matthew (10) and Molly (seven). For Karen, however, the touring life "became increasingly difficult, and without any family support in England, we felt that the time was right to make the move". The hardest-working showbiz family in Northern Ireland now operates Musicon Entertainment from their home base in Glengormley.
The company has four acts on its roster - The Bjorn Identity, the Motown and soul-inspired The Iconettes, Lust In Music function band and Review to a Thrill, Ireland's only show designed around music written for the iconic spy thriller franchise - all of which she manages and performs in as featured lead vocalist.
"Being trained in musical theatre, and having relocated to Northern Ireland, I found myself frustrated by the lack of professional work in the field," she adds. "For me, singing is my vocation, so I needed to find a means to create work that would enable me to express myself and do what I love. Launching The Bjorn Identity seemed like the obvious first place to start. Now, as well as being a singer and an actress and company manager, I run a home and raise two children, with support from my husband, onstage and off.
"There really is no average week for me. I just never stop. Monday to Friday is a mixture of school runs, housewife duties, PR and marketing, booking and sourcing venue leads, Musicon administration and rehearsals with our various acts. The weekends are reserved for travelling to venues across the country and performing in any combination of our several bands.
"Time to relax is, unfortunately, hard to come by with so many projects on the go, but when we get the opportunity to unwind, it's the simple things that we like to enjoy. Relaxing with an Indian takeaway, a movie and a bottle of wine can be a much-needed treat. And Sunday is a day that we like to set aside for family. We treat the kids to Sunday lunch and a walk along the loughshore in Jordanstown to blow away the cobwebs from the weekend's work. If we get more time together as a family, we love to go camping in Enniskillen. I think it's important, when we have time off, to take the opportunity to make memories with each other and the children."
So what do the youngsters make of their parents taking to the stage in those white flared suits and platforms?
Karen says: "When the kids were younger, they used to love it. We live and breathe Abba in our house, so it was the first pop music they ever heard. There is nothing like seeing their wee faces in the audience when we play at our local theatre, Theatre at the Mill.
"Molly cried with pride the first time she spotted her daddy as Bjorn, she was so emotional about it all. It must have been overwhelming for her. She loves to sing and dance and likes to sit in on our band rehearsals, she knows the setlist to all our shows. Her favourite Abba song is Honey Honey."
Their eldest, though, has a slightly different take on it all, as Karen adds: "Lately, Matthew has become a little too cool for it all, not wanting to admit how much he enjoys it. However, he has the makings of a great roadie and is always keen to come backstage after a show to help out. I fear they might have the bug."
As well as being fans of the Swedish supergroup, both Matthew and Molly are showing signs of following in their parents' footsteps, having both become members of the Starburst amateur theatre group in Ballyearl. "They are currently working on a production of Madagascar Jnr," says their proud mum. "Matthew has a principal role in the show and Molly is working towards her Grade 2 ballet exam. We wouldn't consider ourselves to be 'stagey' parents, but we are very proud of them both."
Since her first professional gig, providing backing vocals for impresario Peter Corry at the Waterfront Hall, to featuring in the top 20 of the inaugural Northern Ireland's Most Inspiring Women list in 2016, it's been a career of incredible and consistent highs for Karen. It all began back in primary school, when she first revealed her talent for singing.
"I had my first solo in the Nativity play age seven," she says, "but I took stagefright and just covered my face. As my confidence grew over the next few years, though, I remember that feeling of exhilaration, that buzz of excitement from being told that I had been awarded a solo in church ahead of the girl who normally got to sing all the solos. I still get that rush. Nothing has changed there."
She looks back at her pivotal performance as Snow White as the creative catalyst that all stage performers crave, the role that opened so many doors for her, but remembers a "special" performance of The Wizard of Oz in the old Lyric Theatre on Belfast's Ridgeway Street as a particularly poignant and gratifying career highlight.
"It was very emotional as it was the last show to be performed on that old Lyric Theatre stage, before it was knocked down and rebuilt in 2010. I was playing Gilda, Rachel Tucker was playing Dorothy and Liam Neeson was voicing the character of the Wizard. James Nesbitt was also there, and we all came on stage to sing the finale, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, led in song by Brian Kennedy. It was a pleasure to meet Liam and chat with him at the after-show party, where he reviewed my performance, telling me that he felt very comfortable and safe watching me on stage."
Confidence is the name of the game for Karen. There are plans to expand the Musicon Entertainment portfolio in the months and years ahead, with audiences across Ireland the UK likely to see her perform in one venue or another as she tries out new types of productions.
"I'm not done creating new and exciting entertainment projects just yet," she points out. "There is always the possibility of another show in the pipeline. I can't be on two stages at once, so I have ambitions to expand our company of local performers to enable us to bring all of our shows to venues throughout the country. It's exciting times ahead."