I understand you are currently recording in the studio, what can people expect from this new recording?
Well, the ‘studio’ is a nest of blankets and foam sheets at the bottom of my stairs! I’m recording onto my laptop with a single large diaphragm condenser mic into a Focusrite interface. With the exception of the laptop, the whole setup can be had for around £250. I think that people that know me for playing uke might be a little surprised as not only are there several 5-string banjo tracks on there, I’m also playing the guitar, bass, percussion, harmonica, etc. and there are some great guest musicians too (including my daughters!)
It’ll be released in plenty of time for me to take a box full to the Ukulele Festival of Scotland in April ?
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to record their own material?
Do it! Don’t expect amazing results at first, but just get used to how things work and how you sound. Recording yourself is a great way to improve as it can be really difficult to concentrate on playing AND listening critically! We’re all so spoilt now, many of us have recording technology in our phones that Abbey Road would have been envious of, so why not use it! Also, keep it simple. We have access to such amazing technology now you can end up with 48 tracks of nonsense in no time! If your song doesn’t work with voice and a uke or guitar, then it won’t work whatever you do with it. As it happens I’m going through all of my recordings at the moment and asking, “does it really need that extra instrument?”!
All that said, a great song well played but recorded on an answerphone is worth more than any expensively produced but soulless hit.
I see you are teaching at Sore Fingers as well as another retreat in the UK as well as a workshop in the USA. What is unique from each of these learning experiences for any student?
Sore Fingers is a bluegrass and old-time music camp, not a uke camp, so students get to mix with lots of other singers and instrumentalists, all of whom have some common musical ground. Also, the students stay with the same teacher for the whole week, so there’s a lot of opportunities to get really deep into the material. At the West Coast Retreat, people pick different tutors for different workshop sessions, but there are still workshops that continue over 3 sessions (one each day) so again you can take it further than a single hour-long session. Plus of course, both situations have plenty of time for extra-curricular playing & jamming! As for the Uke Room retreat, it’s brand new! I’m really looking forward to doing it and finding out what we can achieve!
What in your experience are the biggest misconceptions people have about learning the ukulele and other instruments?
That it’s about notes, chords, etc. or even what the best instrument or set of strings is! Of course, those are important parts, but music is about feeling, it’s about getting a reaction from you, your friends, your audience. It’s about connecting with other musicians as well as the listener. It’s about making feet tap, making people dance, smile or cry. That sounds really naff, but I don’t understand why anyone would want to make music if they haven’t been profoundly affected by listening to it at some point. There are songs I cannot listen to without the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. That’s why we learn an instrument, and the technicalities of learning it are just so you can make that happen, even if it’s only to yourself.
Oh, and the ukulele is no easier than any other instrument if you play it well ?
What’s the best advice anyone gave to you as a musician and who gave it to you?
Wow! So many… The wonderful Seattle busker Howlin’ Hobbit once said (I paraphrase), “if your prime concern isn’t entertaining people, get off the stage” which I think is brilliant! Another one, which many musicians have said at some point but I got from Bob Brozman, is “Just because you can don’t mean you should”.
If you could play with any musician on planet Earth that you have not yet played with, who would it be and why?
I’ve been really lucky to play with lots of great musicians and some of my heroes, but sadly many of those I would love to play with are no longer around. I’d have to say Dom Flemons, he’s such a great performer who really knows his music and history. If I’m allowed to pick someone who’s deceased, I’d love to strum few songs with Pete Seeger.
How useful is it to play a variety of instruments in musical development?
It’s extremely useful to be able to realise ideas. If you play bass, for example, not only can you add a bassline to your song, you also understand how basslines work, how they can drive the song along, change the harmony, etc. All of the instruments you play cross-pollinate, so you’ll get inspiration for a guitar part from something you discovered on say, a banjo. Instruments are just tools, the more tools in your box the more jobs you can do!
If you could go back in time 20 years and give yourself one piece of useful advice, what would it be?
Play what you love, regardless of whether others think you should. The music I play now is music I have been seeking out and listening to for 30 years (and playing for myself, in private), but only in the last 6 or 7 years have I been playing it in public in any meaningful way. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Oh, and get used to beans on toast and charity shop clothes!