The Covert Pop Songwriter by Derek Reynolds

My name is Derek and I am a solo acoustic singer-songwriter. That is the story and I’m sticking to it… oh, also I perform with a ukulele.

People have written SO extensively about the problematic image the ukulele has with musicians that I won’t dwell on it However I find it interesting that even the primary and obvious use of ukulele in hits by Vance Joy, Twenty One Pilots, Train, Young The Giant and Bruno Mars haven’t really helped the public perception of the little 4-stringer. There is not a uke to be found in either of the official videos for Vance Joy’s big hits Saturday Sun or Riptide, which are both played on the uke. So we can assume that Vance’s management definitely understands the issue. Even though I applaud Vance Joy’s YouTube videos where he seems to usually be on one of his ukuleles, thank you James Gabriel Keogh! And YES, Eddie Vedder came out of the closet and released the Ukulele Songs album. Hooray! But not so much, here is what Rolling Stone said: “The ukulele doesn’t allow for the widest range of expression, which makes it a challenging foil for Eddie Vedder, who never met a feeling he couldn’t drive through a wall. But this uke-suffused album stands up because he adapts the instrument to his idiosyncratic needs.” When have you EVER read an album review that blamed the instrument for the shortcomings of the music? As a person who HAS released a solo acoustic ukulele album, much Like Eddie’s, I can attest that he did not even scratch the surface of what the instrument can do. Can we admit our lovely ukulele has a PR problem? Absolutely yes. Is it fixable? or does it really NEED to be fixed?, that is a bigger question that plays back to being a musician in the first place.

I don’t say I play the ukulele and the “U” word does not appear prominently on my website. But that is just so people don’t turn away before hearing my music. Once people hear your music it shouldn’t matter what you are playing ON if they find a connection with what you’re playing. If the songs matter the medium becomes a non-issue. And I think that is what a lot of online performers are missing. Learn your instrument, develop songs (original or covers), make them musical, dynamic and interesting. Then go play your music live and see what gets a response. Put yourself emotionally into your songs, be honest, be yourself and make the audience part of your music then you will find the people that “get” what you’re doing. A lot won’t get it but the ones that do are your fanbase, at that point, it becomes a numbers game. And there is no faking it when you are playing a three hour set of 40 songs because it is exhausting.

I play a fair amount of Farmers Markets which sell locally sourced produce, meat, furniture, pottery paintings, etc… The “Local Grown” movement is big in these parts and as far as I’m concerned music is part of that. Just because you can post a video to thousands of people all over the world with social media tools you are not really building fans. Start local, the real fans come from an emotional connection with your art so get out and play for them. That is the work that goes into being a performing musician and it is and SHOULD be hard and occasionally frustrating. That’s how you learn. I think it’s a concept that seems to be losing ground because it is SO easy to just cut a 55-second video and post it. But there is no real connection to your audience in that format, no shared vulnerability of a live show. So if you get lots of online attention for your music try posting a lyrics-only video of a song and see how that affects your numbers. It’s a good litmus test to see if you have followers or fans.

So get out there and show people that your ukulele is more than just a gimmick or a social strum-along toy. It was born of an old Portuguese instrument and proudly honed for 100 years by Hawaiian artists and luthiers all over the world. It has a long and proud tradition so make real music with it, write songs on it, go play shows for people who really aren’t expecting what you are about to do, be brave. Get off the web attention-fix and make your OWN music. It’s not easy but it is definitely worth it and the whole ukulele community will thank you for it.

Derek Reynolds

Derek Reynolds

3 Responses to The Covert Pop Songwriter by Derek Reynolds

  1. nick cody 31st July 2018 at 9:20 am #

    I think it’s a very interesting discussion. I think the idea of one “ukulele community” is flawed. My observations are there are all manner of very diverse views and sometimes warring parties, especially with festival organisers. For many the interest in the uke is more social than musical, for others its about playing simple covers and for some its about music creation. The latter group tend to see the uke as one of many musical instruments and not some magical item! I love the tiny instrument (I have 20) and I find it a brilliant writing tool

  2. Jono Bell 31st July 2018 at 7:20 pm #

    My mantra of it’s the song and it’s performance that counts,still stands.
    And a good song will take on a life of its own weither it’s only heard locally or globally.
    As a regularly gigging musician with my band that comprises of two uke players bass and drums.
    And with our arrangements the feedback has been that we’ve got a unique sound which has stood us well live.
    However we see ourselves as songwriters first so with that in mind when in the studio it’s the mantra of whatever the song needs it gets that counts.
    Our latest recording has had numerous radio plays since its release last week.
    It has a strong guitar and theremin part and apart from a Uke melody solo the rhythm Uke part is not up front in the mix.
    Some might even say it’s more of a guitar song either way it matters not to us.
    It was written in my kitchen on a Uke
    And when last performed live we play the non guitar and theremin version revived no complaints.
    We don’t play down the fact we play Ukes in the band nieither do we make a big deal of it.
    We just write songs and look folk in the eyes when we play them live.
    And that’s thankfully what we’ve been judged on.
    There is definitely a public and I include musicans stereotypical view on the ukulele a lot of which has been reinforced by the artists in the so called ukulele scene.
    A debate I am personally tired of.
    But I’ve seen and heard new artists breaking down this preconception.
    Viva the revolution.

    • nick cody 31st July 2018 at 7:48 pm #

      Hi Jono

      Thanks for the reply.

      I think there are all manner of myths about “a uke community” and a “uke scene”
      The reality is that many who talk about such things are focussed on the social meet up aspect and playing rather than the music

      This is not my view and why I set up OUS, which has provoked some “interesting” responses! lol

      As you say Viva the revolution



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