Glengormley 'Mamma' Karen's spreading the joy of Abba with The Bjorn Identity
As Northern Ireland fans go wild for the second Mamma Mia! movie, Karen Rush, singer with The Bjorn Identity Abba tribute band, tells Gail Bell why everyone still wants to be a Dancing Queen
THERE are many lines Glengormley mum Karen Rush could pluck from her vast repertoire of Abba songs which would resonate with her life thus far, but perhaps, the most apt is simply: 'Thank you for the music'.
As founder and vocalist with Belfast-based Abba tribute band, The Bjorn Identity – soon to begin a new six-date Northern Ireland theatre tour – she has much to thank the Swedish foursome for, specifically a remarkable career impersonating "the blonde one".
She has donned her wig as Agnetha Faltskog and performed on a beach for Richard Branson – after being flown first class to Barbados with the band Abba Gold – and has sung in front of a 5,000-strong crowd at the Kremlin Palace in Russia with Abbamania, but last week it was a date at Odyssey Cinemas in Belfast which had her pumped with excitement.
The local date was a set piece ahead of the opening of the new film Mamma Mia! Here we Go Again and, given the intensity of local fans, she knew the atmosphere would be "electric".
"The event was full of hardcore fans and the audience didn't waste any time leaping out of their seats to dance as close to us as possible – a few even made it on stage," she says. "I love the less-well known tracks in the film and even the sad songs are a winner. The Mamma Mia movies are definitely spreading the joy of Abba music to a whole new generation."
Now aged 41 and mother to Matthew (12) and Molly (8), her own generation by-passed Abba pop songs while growing up and, on the insistence of her mother, she listened to Karen Carpenter and Elaine Paige instead.
"I joke I was too young to listen to Abba back in the day," she says, "but my husband, Richard (Doubleday) remembers buying one of their singles. It wasn't until I was asked to join Abba Gold that I just fell head over heels in love with the music and it grew from there."
Conveniently, Richard is also a member of Bjorn Identity, assuming the identity of Bjorn and bringing an extra layer of authenticity to the band created by the couple in 2010.
"The real-life Agnetha and Bjorn were, of course, married, so it's a case of life imitating art for us," says Karen. "We work hard to not only sing like Abba, but to act out the tiny details as well – although, obviously we didn't marry on purpose just to be the husband-and-wife in an Abba band.
"Our costumes are specially made by a costumier in England and I study every nuance – how Agnetha would hold the microphone, or how her face would look in a certain song. There are many dedicated Abba fans across Ireland and they notice everything.
"One of the greatest commendations came from fans in Dublin once, who had seen the real Abba perform live and said we were just as good. You don't get a better compliment than that."
The acting comes easily for her, having studied Performance Arts at Hertfordshire University (graduating with first class honours), although she found her voice long before that – while a pupil at The Little Flower Primary School in Belfast, acting in Annie alongside fellow pupil and now West End and Broadway star Rachel Tucker.
A career on the West End stage had at one time seemed a possibility for Karen too, but, despite spending like what seemed an excessive amount of time auditioning for various roles, she says she failed to land her "big break".
"I spent an awful lot of time auditioning, including for Mamma Mia, and although I toured in various productions, I didn't quite make the West End," she reflects. "I have no regrets though; life is full of surprises and I love what I'm doing now."
Serendipity played its part and she rather casually landed her vocalist part in Abba Gold, the top tribute band in Europe at the time, after one of the girls left and Karen was asked if she wanted to take her place.
"I had sung in bands before but I wasn't what you would call an 'Abba-rak'," she admits. "But, the more I sang the songs, the more I fell in love with the music. People can't believe that I never tire of Abba songs, but I really don't.
"There is always something new to learn and the music is so complex, it keeps you on your toes. Dancing Queen has a four-octave range, while Slipping Through My Fingers and Chiquitita have the most beautiful harmonies."
She met her Essex-born actor husband – a graduate of the Guildford School of Acting – while both were appearing in separate shows at Belfast's Grand Opera House, but in different parts of the theatre on the same evening.
"I had just landed my first big job after graduating and was rehearsing for my role playing Snow White while Richard was starring in the Roy Orbinson Story," Karen explains. "By chance, both casts went to the same pub for a drink later in the evening and Richard and I got chatting about music – although Abba wasn't high on his list back then, as he was more into the Beatles."
The couple, who married in 2005, lived in London for four before years before returning "home" in 2009 for a better work-life balance.
"Moving from London was a risk, but you are a minnow there and the place is swamped with Abba bands," Karen says. "When we we came here, there was a lot going on in the theatre and film scene and Richard got a lot of work with Game of Thrones."
But, since creating The Bjorn Identity – fellow cast members are Diana Nesbitt (Frida) and Ryan Greer (Benny) – life has never been busier.
As well as singing at gigs all over Ireland with her own band, Karen starred in the popular Thank You For The Music show which ran at the Grand Opera House last year. She had travelled to Brazil in 2011 with Abba Magic for the original show and was asked back for a one-off Belfast performance.
After setting up production company, Musicon Entertainment, to promote the flourishing Bjorn Identity, it was decided to add more themed bands to the books – The Iconettes (Motown), Lust in Music (disco) The Bootleg Dukebox (vintage jazz) and the James Bond-based Review to a Thrill – and Karen sings in them all.
"We put in 14-hour days sometimes and travel all over Ireland, but, thankfully, my mum and dad are a great help with the childcare," she adds. "I love all types of music that makes people passionate and although it is sometimes nice to pull off Agnetha's white boots and just be myself and sing other songs for a while, the blond wig will always be waiting in the wings."
:: The Bjorn Identity Here We Go Again theatre tour kicks off at the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, on October 6 – see thebjornidentity.co.uk for details. The Iconettes & The Hitzvilles play the Theatre at the Mill on September 22 and Portico of Ards, September 28.