The Four-String O.G. Records With Alan Parsons, Keeps Ukulele Music Cool
In the wake of Eddie Vedder releasing Ukulele Songs, Amanda Palmer releasing a ukulele album and Bruno Mars’ championing the instrument, it seems like a good time to talk to world renowned ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro about the state of the instrument. He’s been on that tip since he was in grade school. As he told us, most kids in Hawai’i are. He rose to online fame in 2006 with his stupefying YouTube cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and, since then, has put out nearly a dozen releases of his covers and originals and played with Bette Midler and Jimmy Buffett.
We took the occasion of his just-dropped ninth full-length album Grand Ukulele to chat him up. Recorded in Nashville with the legendary rock producer Alan Parsons, the album marks yet another eyebrow raising accomplishment for the musician and for his chosen instrument. On the phone from his native Hawai’i while his new baby took a nap, the 35 year-old Shimabukuro gushed about working with Parsons and gave his typically sanguine perspective on the still-burgeoning ukulele trend. As always, his passion for the instrument shone through in everything he said.
I know you grew up with traditional Hawaiian ukulele music and strayed from it a little, but you also still include some of it in your repertoire like the song “Akaka Falls.”
That’s a very traditional piece. I remember that from when I was a kid. I wanted to record it for this album just to go back to my roots. As you said, I grew up with traditional Hawai’ian ukulele music but then later I got into different styles, pop music, rock music, a little bit of classical, jazz and just kind of fell in love with everything, but, for me , Hawaiian music, that’s always been my first love. Once in awhile, going back to that is a homecoming for me.
Is there a particular statement that you’re hoping to make with this new album?
To be honest it was just having the opportunity to work with Alan Parsons. I’ve admired everything he’s done from The Beatle’s Abbey Road to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, his own Alan Parsons project. He’s such an icon, that I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I’d be able to work with someone like that. For me it was such a great opportunity when he expressed interest in producing my next record.
The way that I approached this record wasn’t so much to make any kind of statement. This was a great learning opportunity for me to work with someone with that kind of experience. Through the process though we really just hit it off and it turned out to be a great experience because he was really open to my ideas, he would suggest what he thought and he would just bring so much to the table. I mean, the people that he brought onto the record like Kip Winger who did some of the arrangements, Simon Phillips the drummer for the band Toto who also played with The Who. I never thought I’d be on the same album with these people.
So, is this the biggest album you’ve done?
Definitely. I’ve never recorded with a full orchestra before, like we did with this record and never in my wildest dreams did I think Alan Parsons would record a ukulele record.
Did he ever think he’d do a ukulele record? Is he surprised too?
Yeah! This was his first ukulele record. I thought that was cool. He’s recorded every other instrument that you can think of.
You’re last album Peace, Love, Ukulele debuted at number one on the Billboard world music charts. Does it feel weird to be categorized as world music?
[Laughing] No. I mean, it’s definitely because of the ukulele and being in Hawai’i. It kind of comes with that association. however someone wants to categorize what I do I’m totally fine with it. When people ask me how I describe the music that I play, I say it’s just ukulele music. For me, that’s my voice and everything I do is very specific to that instrument, even if I’m covering a jazz standard or rock tune. Like, on my last album I covered “Bohemian Rhapsody” and that’s a classic rock song but when you hear it on the ukulele it doesn’t sound classic rock.
To me, it’s something that’s very unique to the instrument because it doesn’t sound like a guitar or a mandolin or a banjo. That’s why I love playing the ukulele, because it’s different. It makes people happy. When they hear it they just kind of smile. When Train came out with “Hey, Soul Sister” in the beginning it’s all ukulele and it just makes you smile. Your ears perk up and your like,”Oh, what is that? I kinda like it.” and then you dig deeper and it’s a ukulele.
You have said the world would be a better place if everyone played the ukulele. More and more it seems like that vision is coming to pass. What is it like to see this instrument you love becoming cool?
Oh, yeah, I mean, especially when Eddie Vedder released that ukulele record, that was just one of the best thing that could have happened this instrument. He makes it cool, like George Harrison made it cool. And Train, when they had the number one song in the country for consecutive weeks, that makes the instrument cool. I think it turned so many people onto it because they hear that song and go, “I want to learn the ukulele.” And they’re not picking up the ukulele wanting to learn corny tunes. They want to learn real songs, real music.
I think that’s the biggest difference. You’ve got young kids now putting down their guitars and picking up the ukulele. Before it was the other way around. That’s kind of how it was even here in Hawai’i. In the fourth grade or the fifth grade in school everyone learns ukulele.
Do you think it’s a trend or will the ukulele stick around?
I’m hoping that it hangs around. You have very serious musicians that are playing it now. Even Paul McCartney is using it in his concerts. These are iconic artists that are utilizing the instrument. Now, it’s not just for novelty.
Another thing, I think, especially in this day and age with iPhones and iPads, we want everything to be smaller and more compact and convenient and I think the ukulele fits right in. You can get on the airplane with it. You can go hiking with it. You just throw it over your shoulder and go anywhere with it.
If you could put together an all-star ukulele orchestra, who would you have in it?
Oh, man. Let’s see: Eddie Vedder, Eddie Van Halen, Pat Metheny and give me Yo-Yo Ma.
Do you ever watch ukulele covers on YouTube?
Yeah. Well, a lot of time people send things to me. Some really cool stuff. They’re are these young kids and they’re taking like heavy metal tunes and doing something cool with it on the ukulele. It’s great to see the passion behind what they’re doing. They’re not doing it in a way where they’re trying to be comical about it. That’s the biggest difference. They’re playing with conviction. That’s a huge turning point for the instrument.