UKEB –Tell us a bit about you.
I'm the eldest child in a large family. I was always very creative but it wasn't encouraged much - my parents wanted me to do more practical things that they saw as being more secure ways of making a living. My mother is a very good singer and I grew up listening to her and learned harmony from her. My mother also plays piano and we kids were forced to take lessons. I think if I'd had a teacher who could have introduced me to boogie-woogie, ragtime, and stride that I would have been very interested in my lessons. I wasn't that lucky, though. I really didn't like lessons. I learned the rudiments of notation but I find it pretty hard to read musical notes. So I learned the pieces by ear and pretended to read the notes.
I did much better with guitar. I took guitar lessons alongside my brother while I was in high school. Our teacher would let us bring in punk, rock and rockabilly songs we liked and he would learn them and then teach them to us. My younger brother pretty quickly started his own band but I never could get my friends interested in putting a band together. I've remained a solo artist just because I've never been able to find people who want to form a band. I started writing my own songs in college.
I didn't start performing publicly until I moved from Los Angeles (where I was raised) to San Francisco. A friend performed in an open mike and after I saw that I decided to try it, too. I was about 20 or 21 then when I first performed in public as a singer and guitarist/ukeist. (I'm 44 now.)
UKEB –What was your first contact with ukulele and what kind of instruments you play?
The big music for me in my teens was punk and post-punk. There's a lot of attitude that goes with that - seeking things that are "uncool" and grabbing onto them for irony or to be provocative. While in retrospect it's a pretty childish and superficial thing to do, it actually did me a big favor by introducing me to things that I eventually became GENUINELY interested in. In the early '80s, the ukulele was still associated with corny images of the 1920s college freshman and Tiny Tim. It was very out of style. Which made it perfect for punks to pick up. So I bought a cheap (and cheaply made) ukulele from the local music store in 1986 or so and started teaching myself how to play with the help of a Mel Bay chord book. I had never held one in my hands before buying one. I didn't have a relative who owned one or anything so I'd never seen one in person before. I was a fan of Carmaig de Forest but I think I bought my first uke before I actually became aware of Carmaig's work. I heard Cliff Edwards' version of "Singin' in the Rain" from Hollywood Revue of 1929 when I was in college and was blown away by it. I didn't get any more leads on him for a couple years until I found a record store that carried some reissue albums of his stuff. I bought as many as I could afford. At the same time, I heard about the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain via Folk Roots Magazine and picked up one of their albums. Just as had happened with the accordion, the ukulele was being rediscovered and brought back to the limelight by a number of creative artists. Now ukulele is incredibly huge. I'm blown away with how many players there are playing in a number of different styles and really expanding the idea of what one can do with an ukulele.
I was always a strummer, not a picker. No matter how many hours I practiced a week, I couldn't manage to pick cleanly on the guitar or any stringed instrument. I could just barely pick an alternating country bassline strum on the guitar. So when I first got Repetitive Strain Injury in 1995 and finally had to give up playing instruments for the most part by 2000, it was no great loss to the music world. I was a pretty decent rhythm player in a punk kind of way, but my playing was always mainly to accompany my voice. I taught myself to play a little bit on other instruments, too. I have a huge basket of novelty instruments that I used on various 4-track recordings: practice bagpipe chanter, nose whistle, musical saw, wooden toy xylophone...things like that. The main instruments I used when I started performing out were guitar, ukulele and a tenor banjo.
Because it is very physically painful for me to play ukulele (or many other instruments) now, I am not playing ukulele on my album. Robert Armstrong played uke on "The Gold Diggers Song (We're in the Money)" and Steven Strauss plays uke on "I Love to Sing" and "Someone's Rocking My Dreamboat". Steven is a musician who is well-known in the SF Bay Area for his skill and taste. He has played with a LOT of bands, including Penelope Houston's band. He also performs solo and has put out a whole album of ukulele called "UKEBOX". When I first met him, he was mostly playing upright bass. He still does, but a number of years ago he started performing on uke as well. I brought him in to do ukulele on "Someone's Rocking My Dreamboat" because Mike Da Silva, who recorded & mixed the album at his ukulele workshop/studio, suggested that we need something more going on in the treble part of the spectrum. Robert could have played uke on that but he lives 60 miles north of Berkeley and we had already finished his scheduled recording sessions. I didn't want to put him to the trouble of traveling so far again. Steven is so great that without having had a long time to learn the song, he just went in and recorded it in a couple takes. Later, while putting together "I Love to Sing", I felt it needed bass. Tony Marcus, the guitar player, can really swing a tune but he didn't have much to play off of. I was doing the album on a real shoestring budget so I couldn't afford to pay for anywhere near the amount of musicians and sessions that I would have liked. So we were thinking it was going to be just guitar and voice until I heard how much the song seemed to need more. I decided I had to scrape up some more money somehow and get some more instrumentation going. So I called Steven in again. Steven not only laid down a rockin' bassline, he offered to perform uke as well. And the song really took off! It went from a song I felt was not achieving its potential to something that made me really happy and made me want to dance.
UKEB – About your albun Songs the brothers Warner taught me, where you did this Idea?
Because I am disabled and can no longer play my own instruments, I have to hire musicians every time I want to play and I usually can't afford to do that. So I don't perform live that often. Which means the audience I built up when I was a solo performer slowly forgot about me. It also means that performances since becoming disabled have featured none of my original material - I had to stick with jazz standards that the musicians would know already or could read off chord charts.
This is my first album and I wasn't sure if I'd ever be able to afford to do more than one in my life so I had a hard choice to make: Do I do an album of my original songs even though the people who've seen me for the last 15 years have never heard them? Or do I do something closer to what they've come to associate me with? If the latter, how do I approach the album so that I'm not labeled as just another female jazz singer? I'm a big fan of songs that are obscure but good. I like bringing things to people's attention. But obscure songs aren't going to make anyone pick up an album unless you've already got a name. I also like albums that have a strong link between the songs, that have a reason for being together. Either a theme or telling a story or a concept.
No matter how much I like my original songs and want to record them in a studio and get them out there, I decided that I would more likely be able to get people to listen by doing something closer to they style I've had to pursue since being limited to hiring an accompanist. It would be better to do an album of jazz standards. And it was important to pick a strong theme. I had a couple ideas but once I struck on the idea of doing songs heard in Warner Brothers cartoons, I felt I had something I could get excited about and that other people could also relate to. I had always done a couple cartoon theme songs as part of my solo act. Warner Brothers cartoons were a huge part of my childhood (not just childhood) and are important to a lot of other people as well. And music was enormously important to WB cartoons. The cartoons were originally created at least partially with the idea of selling sheet music that Warner Brothers owned the publishing rights to. They wanted audiences to go out of the theater singing the song and wanting to buy the sheet music. Hence in addition to the song being featured in a Warner Brothers film, it would be featured in a Looney Toon or Merrie Melodie. For instance, "I Love to Sing" was introduced in the Al Jolson picture "The Singing Kid" but it was also in the Tex Avery Merrie Melodie "I Love to Singa" where it was sung by a character called Owl Jolson.
I knew that, like me, a lot of people would have nostalgia for the cartoons and their music. With the exception of the very earliest Looney Toons and Merrie Melodies, the cartoons did not usually feature the entire song. The cartoons we know best today, the ones featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy, Porky and other major characters, only have short snippets of the songs, often not sung but played by the orchestra as part of the Carl Stalling* soundtrack to the cartoon. So many people don't know more than about 10 seconds of these tunes. I hoped that people would be as interested as I was in learning how the entire song went.
When selecting which songs to include on the album, I looked around at what was already out there. I didn't want to perform only obscure songs but I also didn't want to perform songs that had been done many times before. So, for example, though I love "As Time Goes By" and it's a song that was used in Looney Tunes, I chose not to perform it on this album. The only song on the album that I did despite the fact that there are many versions of it is "Blues in the Night". I just love the song too much and it had already been part of my repertoire for years. I tried to balance slow songs and fast songs. There were songs like "A Cup of Coffee, A Sandwich & You" that I enjoy but that are very shallow in lyrical content. I opted not to do them even though I like them. Other tunes like "Return My Love" from "What's Opera, Doc?" I didn't do because I would have had a hard time teaching them to the musicians and because they would have been difficult to license (the tune is Wagner but the lyrics were probably written by Michael Maltese, a writer who worked on the cartoons).
UKEB – And how was the process to music´s choices?
I guess I'll address instrumentation a bit. As I said, money was definitely a limiting factor for me as always. Ideally I would have liked to have hired 4 or 5 musicians and paid them for rehearsals together and then record the album when we had coalesced as a unit. It was financially impossible to do that. I approached Tony Marcus first, then Robert Armstrong. Tony & Robert are both members of The Cheap Suit Serenaders and have played gigs with each other for 30 years now. Not only do I like their work, I hoped that they were used enough to working with each other that they'd fall into a groove pretty quickly. I also very much wanted to work with them personally because they are two of the nicest guys in the world. Both are multi-instrumentalists so I would get a lot of bang for my buck by hiring them. Tony plays guitar, mandolin and fiddle. Robert plays guitar, Hawaiian guitar, ukulele, banjo and musical saw. Mike Da Silva very generously offered to record and mix the album. Tony did the initial recordings at his studio and then we continued at Mike's.
Initially I was doing the album just with Tony and Robert. But when we got further along and figured that we wanted to go back and add ukulele in on some other songs, I didn't want to bother Robert by hauling him all the way back to Berkeley (he lives about 60 miles north of Berkeley) just to record a small part. That's when I asked Steven Strauss if he'd be willing to play. I had already called in Brandon Essex earlier to lay down some bass on "The Lady in Red" because we really felt the track needed the bass end. That will show you how loose the process of doing the album was. If I had had it all planned out, I would have called Steven in because he can do both bass and ukulele but I wasn't thinking about those tracks at that point. Brandon came in and did a very pro job on the bass. He was excellent. Very little time learning it and boom - just did it. It's interesting to compare the different work by the two different bassists.
There were a couple tunes where I knew ahead of time what I wanted the instrumentation to be. "The Lady in Red" was like that. I wasn't always able to achieve what I wanted to, but I knew the sound I wanted to try for so I wanted fiddle, accordion and a lead guitar on that song. But there were other songs where the instrumentation wasn't as clearly worked out in my mind. Everything on the album started out as just rhythm guitar and voice. And I got used to hearing that for weeks. Sometimes you get so used to what you're hearing that you have trouble imagining what else you can do with it or it drives out the ideas you already had in your head before. Sometimes the musicians would make a suggestion about what instrument they thought would go well but most of the time I would look at what instruments they could play and choose what I thought would work best. Ukulele was used as a way to thicken the sound of the "band". I think part of that is because I myself was always a strummer with the ukulele. If I had been more of a picker, I might have conceived of ways to use the ukulele as a soloist in parts. However, the two ukulele players I had - Robert and Steven - are both very skilled players. And they each added some very nice picking even when the ukulele was playing as support to the Hawaiian guitar or rhythm guitar. There are some very pretty uke runs if you listen closely. We really tried to bring focus to the best runs while mixing the album.
And, just as an aside, we were completely surrounded by ukuleles while recording this album. Mike Da Silva is a very talented ukulele luthier. His workshop/studio is not only filled with the ukuleles he's making but with his own collection of vintage ukuleles. So we were surrounded by old Martins, Johnny Marvins, Roy Smecks, cheap plastic ukes from the '20s - '50s, and even gorgeous handmade instruments from the late 1800s.
UKEB – I like very much Warner´s cartoons, and listen this songs in your voice, brought me good memories. What is your feelings about this songs?
It's very nostalgic for me as well. Even when I was accompanying myself and performing solo, I always played a lot of songs from what is called the Golden Age of American Popular Song. That would be roughly from the '20s to the '50s. I didn't see "The Gold Diggers of 1933" until I was in my late 30s yet I knew the melody to "The Gold Diggers Song(We're in the Money)" when I was a little kid. There are just certain tunes that are burned into my brain because of how Carl Stalling chose to use them in Warner Brothers cartoons.
Some of the songs on the album are silly. They're not what you'd call "classics". "The Latin Quarter" is an example. That's what you'd call a novelty tune. But "Blues in the Night" is one of the greatest songs ever written, in my opinion. A true classic. And some of the songs on this album I will always hear in the cartoon character's voice. I always hear Bugs singing "Someone's Rocking My Dreamboat" and Michigan J. Frog singing "Hello Ma Baby".
Though these cartoons were actually made to be screened before a feature film and seen by adults, most of us saw them on TV as kids. For most of us, our childhood is something we reflect back on fondly. An uncomplicated time when we didn't have to worry about a job or bills or paying taxes. So the cartoons and the music associated with them have an ability to sweep our worries away and let us go back to just having fun for a little while. You will always have good feelings associated with these classic cartoons and the classic melodies that you learned from them.
UKEB – What you know about Brazil and brazilian music?
Around 1987 I got bored with what was happening in alternative rock and started discovering other genres, including world music. The UK's Folk Roots Magazine really helped me find new things. So I am a little familiar with tropicália, samba, boss nova, choró and forró in their modern forms. I've also heard Olodum and drum troupes like that although I don't know what that genre is called. Although I'm definitely not up-to-date with the Brazilian scene. I'd say that my knowledge of Brazilian music is stuck somewhere between the 1930s and the 1990s. Most of my knowledge comes from compilation albums so I've been a bit lazy about identifying individual artists whose albums I should buy. David Byrne has been very good about introducing the Anglophone world to various Brazilian artists via compilations on Luaka Bop and Rykodisc also put out some good compilations. What's kind of funny is that I have several siblings who were adopted from Brazil and I listen to more Brazilian music than they do! Brazil clearly has a very rich musical history. I don't speak Portuguese and my level of Spanish attainment only partially helps me understand the lyrics without translation, but the lyrics to Brazilian songs seem very poetic to me and I like that. Just listening to the voices even without understanding everything they are singing, the voices are very rich and expressive. Clearly I have a lot more to learn to even get to a basic understanding of Brazil's rich and diverse music history and scene!
This is going to sound cheezy, but I'm a HUGE fan of Carmen Miranda. I am really bummed that I didn't have enough money to both put out my album AND put together a live performance tribute to her for the centenary of her birth last year. This is another example, like ukulele, of something I pursued in a sort of punk way at first and then became interested in a totally unironic manner. It also relates to Warner Brothers cartoons because that's how I knew of Carmen long before I ever saw any of her film appearances or heard any of her songs. Instead I would see Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck in drag doing an imitation of Carmen. So I knew that sort of cartoon image of a Baiana long before I knew about Carmen and long before I ever knew what a Baiana is.
She has become sort of a punchline, which I think is really sad. Not because I don't like that sort of cartoon as a joke in Warner Brothers films but because I think she became a woman who wasn't fully appreciated by either Brazil or the US. She became an enormous star here and then became trapped in that stereotypical character, which was very limiting to her as an artist. And in Brazil I gather she was thought of as a sellout. This all ignores her talent. When I finally saw her in one of her American film appearances I could instantly see why she was so engaging that when they saw her on Broadway in "Streets of Paris" and "Sons o' Fun" and they immediately signed her to a Hollywood film contract. She was so full of life! Her eyes were like shimmering pools - they just invited you in. It's not that her voice was the greatest voice ever. It was fine. It was nice. But it was her ability as an interpreter and a performer, as well as her comedic timing, that made her a star in the US. I say "in the US" because even though I know she was a star in Brazil before she ever came here, I'm not qualified to judge how Brazilian audiences saw her and how she first came to prominence there. Anyway, I really love her music and it's also due to her band O Bando da Lua. They were great. I've only go a little bit of samba music from that era and would very much like to obtain more. I have one compilation of samba groups from the '40s called "Samba da Minha Terra" and it's great stuff.
I don't know exactly why but I tend to be old-fashioned in my tastes. That is, I like older jazz (pre-'50s), older Hawaiian music (pre-'50s), older calypso (pre-'60s) and the same thing goes for samba. I tend to like samba from Carmen's era more than later period samba. The older version of a genre is usually more exciting to me than the stuff that came later. It's more vital-sounding. That may be because there's less recording studio trickery involved. They really had to play well because they made the majority of their living off of live performance, not record sales. They had to be able to deliver live.
UKEB – Was you expect your albun had been a impact in a country that has no ukulele tradition?
I guess what I'd say is that I was surprised to find an ukulele-specific blog in Brazil. I'm not surprised there are uke players in Brazil because the instrument is popular in many countries because of its portability. I guess I'm curious as to how different the uke sounds from a cavaquinho, given that the instruments are related. I was definitely surprised that a blog in Brazil picked up on my album given that various things have gotten in the way of me really promoting the album [lack of $, lack of experience doing promo, slipped time schedule for writers and others I'm working with...]. I definitely thought the album would have appeal anywhere that Warner Brothers cartoons are known and loved, though.)
UKEB - Do you think the fact of playing ukulele in this albun can positively affect their performance in sales?
I don't think the album's sales will be negatively affected because it has ukulele on it. If anything, it's a positive. We do have a ukulele tradition in the US but it has never been a lead instrument of US music the way piano and guitar have been. It was a huge fad in the US in the '20s, brought in at a time when anything Hawaiian was very chic. It became so indelibly associated with the '20s that by the time flappers became mothers with grown children, their children viewed it as a corny instrument because they associated it with their parents. Your parents stuff is never cool! :) I think it had a brief renaissance in the late '50s because there was a little '20s revival (Some Like It Hot and the [Warner Brothers-produced] TV show called "The Roaring Twenties" were part of this). Then it came back a teensy bit when Tiny Tim because famous. And then it was uncool again until punks started picking it up. Even then, that was a very slow-growing renaissance. It took about 10 years for it to really saturate and now it's been around so long that I think there's a good chance the ukulele will not become uncool again. It's become just another choice of instrument. A lot of people like it for its portability, its light weight, and the relative ease with which you can learn it.
If I had had ukulele on all the tracks the problem I would have seen with that is that ukulele is so prevalent in the alternative scene right now that you really have to do something different to stand out. There are so many good players out there. I don't want to be just another person using the ukulele as a vintage prop, as a signifier of jazz/alt/cabaret cool. 20 years ago you could do that and stand out because there just weren't many people out there playing uke. Now uke players are a dime a dozen so simply playing uke isn't enough. You either have to be virtuosically good on the uke or you have to be using ukulele as an instrument just like guitar is an instrument. You can't use it as a gimmick.
UKEB – In the end of 2009 you released your albun for free download, you want to do this again.
I might do it again. I can't do it on a permanent basis because I haven't even begun to pay off my debt in making the album. Even doing it on a shoestring budget with the help of friends was very difficult. And because I'm performing songs Warner Brothers owns the rights to instead of songs I wrote myself, I also have to pay them a part of every album I sell, even if I give the album away. It cost me about 1/4 of what it cost to do the album just to license the songs from Warner Brothers. So, because of this, I can't really afford to give it away all the time. However, I did offer a "pay what you want - even nothing" promotion in December of 2009 because I really want people to hear the album. I'm doing this all on my own. I don't have a manager or an agent or a public relations person. This makes it a bit more difficult to advertise the album and let people know it's out there. Not only because I'm doing all the work myself but because I haven't done it before. It's a big learning experience. Word of mouth is very important. When people hear the album and like it and tell their friends how much they like it, that helps the album grow. So it's worth it to take the risk of a limited-time promotion like that. During that promotion, I think about 1/3 of the people downloaded the album for free. Some paid for it but less than what the regular price would be, some paid exactly what the album would cost and some paid much more than the album cost. It was interesting to see how people responded to the promotion. I hope they like the album and tell their friends about it.
UKEB - What is playing in your cd player at this moment?
A Bear Family boxed set called "West Indian Rhythm:Trinidad Calypsos 1938 - 1940".
UKEB - How you define your musical style?
This sounds like such a cliché answer but that's a really hard thing for me to pin down. I'm the same way in music that I am in the rest of my life - I'm a generalist. I have a LOT of interests and don't like to specialize. I will perform any kind of music I think is good. My original songs range from rock to ragtime to polyrhythmic worldbeat. When I performed solo with my guitar,uke and banjo, I'd do pop, rock, Kurt Weill, film themes, classic country, calypso…whatever. The only limiting factor, really, is the musicians I find to work with. Some only work in one or two styles and when that happens I perform the styles they perform.
If I had to come up with a description, I'd say that it's definitely vocal, definitely with an emphasis on acoustic instruments. I have a lot of what used to be called "torch songs" in my repertoire ("torch songs" from the American slang phrase "to hold a torch for (someone)", meaning that you are in love with someone, usually unrequited love). I like things that other people consider novelties. I like unusual material, lesser-known but good stuff. I like material that has a sense of humor.
I've never taken vocal lessons but I've tried to teach myself several different ways of using the instrument that is my voice. I taught myself to yodel, for instance. So I aspire to using my voice like an instrument and sing using different techniques when the song calls for it. I'm haven't achieved all the vocal skills I aspire to, but that's what I aim for.
UKEB – Congratulations for your great work, was a great surprise to me. Thanks for your time and let a message to brazilian uke players.
Thank you so much for blogging about my album and embedding it at your site for people to listen to. I'm honored you have enjoyed it. Thanks to Brazilian uke players for being interested in this instrument, keeping it alive worldwide, and adding a particular Brazilian twist to things
*Note: Carl Stalling was Leon Schlesinger's/Warner Brothers' music director for years. It was he who composed and orchestrated the soundtracks for Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies using songs Warner Brothers owned the rights to, or songs in the public domain.