All About the Uke
AJ Lin is a writer, super-smart Internet techie, nomad, and ukulele player. She’s also the feature musical act at the emerge 15 fundraiser on September 27. I couldn’t pin her down in person because she splits her time between Vancouver, Toronto, and Hawaii and is basically always running somewhere, so I threw ten questions at her to answer during a cross-country flight. Here’s what she had to say about being a veteran of an instrument that suddenly seems to be everywhere.
How long have you been playing ukulele?
Why did you first pick up the ukulele?
Why? Because I was nostalgic. Then poor.
The first ukulele I picked up was in 1995. I was at the weekly farmer’s market in Hilo, about to fly back to an icy Toronto. It was a decorative ukulele—not built to be played. It had bad sound and didn’t stay in tune.
About three years later, I went to a music store in Toronto to buy a guitar. The guy behind the counter asked me my budget then told me I couldn’t afford one. He showed me a blonde ukulele made by the Oscar Schmidt Company. “This,” he said, was what I could afford. It wasn’t love at first sight with me and “Oscar” but it was a practical love that I could get blessings from.
In the first year, Oscar accompanied me on the rush-hour ride home from downtown Toronto (it took six streetlight changes to clear an intersection and I had a long, long way home). I know that doesn’t sound safe, but I only played during red lights (and got a few smiles from what would otherwise be grumpy people).
Who is your biggest influence musically? Why?
I’m not really influenced by a certain artist. But I can get influenced by a song. Music is an interpretation of emotion, and a song is an expression of that emotion. Like a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. The music expresses the emotion and the words from tender to banal. From Mozart to Madonna. (I am not saying Madonna is banal. Mozart didn’t write “Like a Virgin,” but he did write “Leck Mich Im Arsch”—lick my ass).
What’s your favourite ukulele song and what’s your favourite song to play on the ukulele?
I don’t actually listen to ukulele music. There are standard uke songs that many serious players know and many listeners ask for, but I don’t know how to play those songs. My favorite uke song is the one that isn’t played on the uke.
My favorite song to play on the ukulele is an interpretation of Guns and Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” I learned how to play it for my friend Dawn (she was my first friend ever). I learned it because it was her favorite song when we were growing up. In fact, the story I wrote in emerge 15 talks about my friendship with her and losing her to breast cancer. I like to play it because it makes me remember our childhood and reminds me to try to live life by making the days count and not counting the days.
Do you think you would earn a living playing ukulele if you could?
Probably not. After playing the same songs over and over again, it would become a chore. I remember hearing about Don Ho singing “Tiny Bubbles.” He wrote it in 1966 and probably played it every single night in shows for tourists in Honolulu right up until he died in 2007. I’m sure at the end of it, it was hard to keep the emotion fresh about those tiny bubbles after singing that song a million times.
The closest I have come to earning a living playing the uke was when one of my bands and I won a ukulele contest. We split our earnings and I, of course, flew back to Hawaii with my winnings.
Suddenly every awkward girl on the planet seems to be picking up a ukulele. Why do you think that is?
Because no one likes to sing a cappella and the guitar is too much effort. The ukulele is less intimidating than the guitar because there are fewer strings. It is lighter, affordable, portable, easier to play, and fits smaller hands better.
How do you feel about the sudden hip factor of the uke?
I have mixed feelings about it. I’m happy because suddenly this means I’m not the only one enjoying it. The ukulele was popular in the twenties and thirties but then faded out, only to suffer a terrible death of coolness factor when Tiny Tim sang “Tiptoe through the Tulips” on Johnny Carson. In a short amount of time, the ukulele went from kitschy to weird to not being played again for three decades.
I worry that, like disco, the ukulele bubble will pop and suddenly there will be some kind of demolition night at a baseball stadium, like Disco Demolition Night, but instead of a crate filled with Bee Gees and Abba records, a bunch of ukuleles will be blown up on the field. I would still play the uke, but I’d have to wait thirty more years for it to be cool again.
Do you think you were ahead of the curve on uke playing?
I always thought it was fun to play, couldn’t figure out why no one else thought so too. I bought extra ukuleles and tried to push my friends to play, but they told me, firmly, “No. Quit being so weird.” When I attended the Toronto Corktown Ukulele Jam and there were other weirdos like me there, I was thrilled. It was a very happy day.
If you could turn one iconic song into a ukulele anthem, what would it be?
There is one uke anthem already: George Harrison’s “My Guitar Gently Weeps,” interpreted by Jake Shimabukaro on the uke. Nothing can replace that.
Do you have more than one ukulele? Do you have a favourite (or is that like asking someone to pick their favourite child)?
I own fourteen. I know I have about five lent out to other people. For the rest, each has a different purpose (four-string concert, four-string tenor, plastic back, camping ukulele, six-string, eight-string, low G, electric, baritone, ukulele bass). Look up the term “ukulele acquisition syndrome.” It’s a thing. But I haven’t bought one since I got Pono (see below).
I have two favourite ukulele:
- Ipo – a concert-sized ukulele made out of koa wood by Koaloha. Ipo means sweetheart in Hawaiian and he (the uke) sounds really bright.
- Pono – a six-string uke I made myself. Sam, a luthier I met in Holualoa, taught me how to make it. It took 140 hours. It was, to date, my greatest lesson in patience and process.
When I play Pono, I think of the flat pieces of wood I picked out to make it and the hours spent molding it into the instrument. I think of the soul of the tree that the music vibrates through, and, it’s a bit sappy, but I am grateful the tree grew to fulfill such a destiny. When I play it, I am happy to be able to say the fingers that made the instrument are the same ones making music. Nothing says “I made this, this is me” in quite the same way.
Bonus question: What did I miss? What else do you want to say?
Sometimes I play to the oddity of the instrument, select songs people don’t expect to hear. The beauty of the uke is it can take any song back to its core with its four simple strings, and there is an honesty to that which the guitar couldn’t ever do for me…to take away notes but keep the structure. It’s like writing something that comes out already edited in the first draft. Every writer’s dream, or at least mine. My hope is that after the novelty wears off the selection, I would love it if on certain songs, if people forgot I was playing the uke to just hear the song. How pretty it is, or how ridiculous the lyrics can be once you strip away the other instruments.
Interview by Ryleigh Walsh