Ukulele Generation; an interview with Amanda Palmer

The ukulele. A sweet and compact 4-string instrument; capable of making you laugh, sing, and, would you believe it; cry. Without a doubt they are the most talked about (and taken up) instrument of the last few years, appearing everywhere from MTV to YouTube, from arenas to the streets; it has conquered the globe. Hawaiian in origin, the ukulele has been around since the 19th century, and has been adapted and developed over the years to become the modern music-maker we know and love today.  And it’s ready to be taken seriously.

It’s hard to pinpoint when this sudden surge in popularity happened, but we know that  (according to a Channel  4 blog) in a survey of music shops carried out by the Music Instrument Retail Conference, 42% said the ukulele was the instrument which had seen the biggest rise in sales in 2011. Another factor contributing to the craze is the success of “nu-folk” bands like Beirut and Noah and the Whale, as well as solo uke artists (largely female) such as ‘quirky’ actress Zooey Deschanel. It also took off on YouTube, with such YouTubers as ‘charlieissocoollike’, ‘nerimon’ and ‘hexachordal’, choosing to write original songs on the ukulele.

But still, no one really knows why there was sudden surge in popularity for the humble ukulele, the guitar’s younger brother. Perhaps it’s because this generation of music fans feel so strongly connected to their idols, and they in turn see their fans as peers. A new art-sharing community has risen, thanks in no small part to social media (especially Twitter) connecting artists with their fans more than ever before. Celebrity is both at its lowest and highest points of privacy. More culturally responsible musicians encourage their fans to think of them as a contemporary; another vessel for expression, another peer to show your work to, another friend from which to glean inspiration.

Because of this, music can be shared also, and what better instrument to jam with than a uke?  Its popularity with many artists who maintain a closeness with their fanbase, mean it is the perfect vehicle with which to write music. One of these artists is Amanda Palmer.  Amanda Palmer; songwriter, singer, pianist, and ukulele extraordinaire, is marching at the front of the crowd, praising and defending her ukes in equal measure. Amanda has been carving her initials into the big oak tree of music for a long time now, beginning in vaudeville duo “The Dresden Dolls” in 2001, then moving on to pursue solo projects , her first album released in 2008; “Who Killed Amanda Palmer”. She has since released a semi-live album of songs written and performed on an Australian tour (“Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under), and  a ukulele EP of Radiohead covers (“Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele”. As well as being a professional musician, Amanda is also known for her strong views on, well, just about everything. Her recent 13 and a half minute speech at the TED2013 conference, titled “The Art Of Asking,” expressed a need for musicians not to demand fans to pay for music, but ask them to contribute, monetarily and/or otherwise. As I already knew, and would learn when I sit down with Amanda to talk about her passion for the little wooden Hawaiian-imports, she vehemently champions its prominence in her music, and indeed, the world.

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It’s a disgustingly hot day in July, and I’m in the dressing room at the Manchester Ritz. Amanda Palmer is performing here tonight as part of the UK “Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra tour” leg, and the hot weather hasn’t stopped fans from lurking around the entrance from the AM. Palmer’s latest album “Theatre Is Evil”, for which the tour is to support, was famously funded by online crowd-funding platform “Kickstarter” amid great admiration, and controversy.  But the 37-year-old American isn’t one to let bad press (or more realistically, internet trolls) deter her, and has continued to promote the album, when performed live; she sings and plays piano. And ukulele.
Amanda props her feet up on the couch next to me, offers me some grapes, and begins to tell me how and when her love affair with the ukulele was first consummated.

“I saw the comedian Ali McGregor at the [Edinburgh Festival] Fringe, and I saw her play “Creep” [by Radiohead] on autoharp. Now an autoharp is also a retardedly simple instrument, to play, it’s easier than the ukulele if such a thing is possible. And I loved the way the song sounded stripped down and so I sort of was holding that in my brain, and then a few weeks later a friend of mine in Boston asked me to do a benefit.”
“I wanted to do something fun, so I spontaneously got the idea to walk down the street to the music shop near my house, buy a ukulele, learn the chords to “Creep” which I figured couldn’t be that hard because there’s only 4, and that was the idea. The specific vision was that I would stand on the bar at the club, play “Creep” on the ukulele, make everyone laugh, and that would be it. I never expected to keep playing it. But it was such a powerful experience, all of a sudden being able to walk around with an instrument. I hadn’t even thought about how stuck I felt on the stage, and behind the piano, literally behind this giant hulking instrument that separates you from the audience. That was the first time I played ukulele in public, and even thought it was wonderful I just thought “I’ll play “Creep” on ukulele and it’ll be this fun little shtick in my arsenal of tools”. And indeed that’s the way it stayed for about a year, I didn’t learn any other songs I just learned how to play “Creep” by Radiohead better and better.”

But ukulele would soon claim its permanence in Palmer’s life and performances, remembering a tour with old outfit “The Dresden Dolls”; she recalls how it became unavoidable.

We [The Dresden Dolls] went on tour with Cyndi Lauper that summer, a week after that benefit, and I brought my ukulele with me and every day, as the crowds were coming in to the enormo-dome, I would set up somewhere out where the punters were, throw out my box, and play and busk. But I only knew one song, so I would go ahead and busk playing “Creep” by Radiohead on the ukulele and I would gather 50 or 100 bucks and I gave it to Cyndi every night to give to the Mathew Shephard foundation who the tour was benefiting”, she remembers, “and then, at some point, I accidentally learned… I was fucking around on a golf cart at a festival, with my boyfriend at the time, and I realised that the chords to “Fake Plastic Trees” are pretty similar to the ones to “Creep” (laughs), so once I had two songs there was no going back. And it was just so fun to play the instrument, so that was that. That’s how I got my ukulele.”

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But what, I wonder, of a women who pulls out a ukulele seemingly from thin air at any given opportunity, of the thousands of makes of ukuleles? Is there a favourite?

“I don’t fucking know anything about ukuleles and I don’t really want to. I don’t even care what kind of piano I play; I’m the opposite of a nerd when it comes to how things sound.” She interrupts herself. “OH WELL ACTUALLY, that’s bullshit, I care what kind of piano I play, but when it comes to ukuleles as long as they’re in tune I’m not very discriminating. I have played a vast number of cheap ukuleles that just will NOT stay in tune; either won’t stay in tune or they’re so badly made, they’re so novelty that the intonation is terrible and you can’t play a chord without it sounding like shit. I mean, I’ve borrowed a lot of ukuleles, I’ve been in a lot of situations all over the world where all of a sudden a gig popped up and I didn’t have a ukulele on me, you know, but I’d tweet if someone wants to bring a ukulele to whatever ‘situation x’ I’m in; I’ll play. So I’ve borrowed some really wonderful ukuleles and some really shit ones. I’ve been given many more ukuleles than I’ve purchased, I have this collection of art ukuleles at home. The one I play and tour with which is the same fucking one I bought that day [for the Boston benefit] is a ‘Hilo’. It has a plastic fretboard and it was $19”.

Amanda’s Radiohead EP struck a chord with her fans, and put her at the forefront of the ukulele revival, but will she take her highly successful idea of ukulele cover EP’s and run with it to make another?

“I love doing covers on the ukulele; but I’m kind of over making records period.” Don’t say that, Amanda! She suddenly looks concerned. “Oh, I’ll keep making music and putting it out!” she reassures me, “but, I don’t know how into the idea of doing traditional collection recordings and releases I am anymore… I learn covers constantly and play them live, you know, I’ve probably done 20 ukulele covers. It might be nice one day to just sit down and knock them all out on to CD for posterity, but I don’t like recording music as much as I like playing music in front of people, it’s more fun. Yeah, I’m so burned out right now from making this giant record, and dealing with all of the… bullshit that surrounds it, that making a new record is the last thing on my list of things to fuckin’ do.”

So what is on her list of things to do? Encourage others to make music for themselves, of course. Amanda is not a musician who shy’s away from her fans, she welcomes them with open arms into her every thought and idea; using Twitter. Her fans often talk to her via her Twitter (@amandapalmer), sending her art they’ve made or songs they’ve written, which she happily retweets. Her fans truly embraced ukuleles, and often busk outside her show venues with other fans. How would it make one feel to know they were inspiring such creativity?

“I think it’s great. I think there’s never anything fucking bad about a person playing music in any way. I think the ukulele is… people may see it as very twee and very jokey, but I think it’s empowering for someone who, especially if they’ve never been a musician but they’ve sort of felt an inclination and an intimidation around it, I think it’s fucking fantastic for someone to pick up a 20 dollar instrument and learn 4 chords and all of a sudden join the ranks of amateur musicians. I consider myself an amateur musician, I’m a good songwriter. The shit that I play on ukulele you can teach any 8 year old, and I love that, I think the less special and stratified and you know, what’s the word I’m looking for – I don’t think anyone should feel intimidated by making music, I think everyone should be invited and included.”

Feeling invited to play music is a new and refreshing concept, dissimilar to the concept that, as she says, “ there’s this weird cultural philosophy that all children should learn how to sing and play music, but as soon as they’re teenagers, unless they’re gonna be really serious about it, its sort of a waste of time. I think a lot of that [creativity] gets beat out of you when you’re a kid, and especially when you become an adult.”

That creativity-shaming may lead some to completely give up music altogether, that is, until they find the friendly and humble ukulele, which again, may explain it’s ridiculous demand over the last few years. It’s perfectly suited for participation, of any ability. This may also explain its rise and rise in schools. Music education classes are using ukuleles more and more, because, as Amanda says “you can teach any 8 year old to play.”

The inherent idea of children needing to learn an instrument or be musical in some way contributes to a greater need for these instruments; unassuming and fun. And more than that; children love music. Everyone loves music.  Learning is fast, and you can play guitar covers on a uke, so anyone can have a stab at their favourite songs.  And the ukuleles small size suits kids to a tee, no more lugging around cumbersome cellos or awkward brass instruments.

The compactness of a uke is something Amanda has noticed helps her spread her music even further. One of the rewards for donating $5000 to the “Theatre Is Evil” kickstarter, was a private house party gig, at your house.
“I’ve done about a dozen of them, they’ve all been incredibly fun, AND that’s actually very ukulele-related because I didn’t really consider doing house parties until I put 2 and 2 together and realised “oh I can take my ukulele anywhere and play songs for anyone anywhere they live”, and so the ukulele actually facilitated my ability to be able to sell house parties. And I’m about to do two more, I’m doing one in London next week then I’m going up to Oslo and doing an Oslo house party. They’ve all been incredibly unique, different, and beautiful, filled with beautiful people.”

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Whilst tininess may be a useful attribute, it isn’t just that trait that Amanda loves about ukes. “The ukulele is beautiful in the way that, it sounds inoffensive, it’s not a frightening instrument, it has very little dynamic, so you can’t really play deafening aggressive music on it, but you can with a piano playing through an amplifier.” But it’s this simplicity that lead Amanda to delve into its unchartered complexity, and changed her art irrevocably.

The ukulele has really wound up affecting my life and my song writing and my approach to art in a way I never could have guessed. I gravitated towards its simplicity, and it’s really comforting to me to write a simple 3 chord song and just, not think at all about dressing up the music or complicating it or not thinking at all about whether or not it sounds impressive, because it can’t. I mean I’m sure it can, I’ve seen people who are ukulele virtuosos who blow my mind, but I like to think that the ukulele sort of therapeutically allowed me to tap into some sort of more balanced, honest form of song-writing, which it did, you know, I started happily joyfully writing these great stupid personal songs on the ukulele and just recently, there’s a song I’m gonna play tonight, a brand new song that I wrote on the ukulele, and it wouldn’t work on the piano, and it’s very possibly the saddest song I’ve ever written, and part of the reason, the main reason I wrote it that way was I didn’t have any access to a piano when I wrote it, I didn’t have any privacy, I was in a house that I was sharing with Neil [Gaiman, her husband] there were people all around, I don’t write well when people are listening.  There was even a piano in the house but it just wasn’t possible to get any privacy so I had the song in my head, took the ukulele, hid in the backyard and wrote it sitting in the woods.”

The capacity for a song written and performed specifically for the ukulele to be beautiful is mostly undiscovered. Many people won’t have heard anything other than “happy music” ringing from the 4 strings, but Amanda stretches the instrument’s potential much further. And later that night, when Amanda bestows her “saddest song” upon the crowd, it is painfully gorgeous; two words most people would never attach to a ukulele, and leaves many of us in tears, including the woman herself.

Over Amanda’s career, as a fan and as a journalist, I’ve observed this changing direction in her art, not just her love for ukes, but her adoration of paradox, and a want to make this “novelty” instrument produce emotional songs. It’s something she’s already familiar with.

“I love paradox period. Obsessed with paradox. I love things that come in incorrect packages, like songs like “Oasis” [a jaunty romp through the adventure of abortion and rape] where the whole song is a cognitive dissonance between shiny happy beach boys music and a girl talking about an abortion, I love that. And a ukulele is kind of the same way; the instrument itself is so unassuming, and draws you in so, you know, it’s all so available to the listener, but then if you assault them lyrically it creates this great dissonance. I don’t mean an assault in a offensive way I just mean when you hear something you’re not expecting to go along with the little major chord twee strumming. I have to say you could look at the trend of cute girl ukulele players, because there’s a bunch out there who are singing about their sweaters and their breakups and its all really sweet and nice and cute, and if anything they help me. They give me a great backdrop and a landscape against which to push. If it wasn’t there, there wouldn’t be anything to push against.”

In the 30 minutes I spend with Amanda, you get the feeling she perhaps doesn’t quite know how much influence she has (despite her confessing her love for ego-stroking). The impact Amanda has on her fans and on the music industry is extraordinary, and inspires both people and artists alike to create and to share, and to just fucking play your ukulele.
“I actually really love that it makes things simple, because I think people need music.”

And with that, I leave Amanda to prepare for her gig. Later that night, Amanda greets her adoring fans atop the balcony of the Ritz, and dressed in a kimono, she begins to play “Creep”, on… well, take a wild guess.

 

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Kerry Harrison 2013. Taken at the Manchester Ritz, 11/7/13 (title picture Kerry Harrison)

 By Katie Memmott