Jake Shimabukuro’s Mission To Make The Ukulele Cool (INTERVIEW)

If you still think the ukulele is not cool, then you haven’t heard it in the hands of Jake Shimabukuro. One minute it can sound like a lush lullaby, like the waves hitting the shores in his native Hawaii, while the next it can rock out with all the rascally tonality of an electric guitar. He can dive bomb it into a groove, shake it with some bluegrass spirit and still have it pay homage to it’s roots with classical Hawaiian signature chords. The ukulele is cool because of what Shimabukuro does with it.

Becoming an overnight sensation via a YouTube video of him playing The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” when he was in his late twenties, propelled his career even further. By this time, 2005/2006, Shimabukuro had already recorded albums with the group Pure Heart as well as on his own, he’d won numerous awards and was extremely popular in Japan. His original compositions were innovative and catchy while his transformations of well-known songs were fresh and exciting. On his second solo album, 2003’s Crosscurrent, he not only covered Sting and Paul Simon but Chick Corea. On 2011’s Peace Love Ukulele, he tackled all the intricacies of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” with a peacefulness that gives the song a whole new meaning.

On his upcoming August release, The Greatest Day, Shimabukuro continues on his quest to make the ukulele an instrument worth listening to. He does a sexy cover of Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9,” a groovy take on the Zombies’ “Time Of The Season” and a tearfully personal “Hallelujah” in honor of Leonard Cohen. His originals, such as the title track and “Straight A’s” are at times fun and jovial while others stir up sentimentality. There are also five live bonus tracks, which are thrilling and showcase the energy of his live show. “We had a ton of fun making it,” Shimabukuro recently said about The Greatest Day, which was recorded in Tennessee like his previous album, 2016’s Nashville Sessions.

Shimabukuro has added some new flavors to his latest album and he talked with Glide recently about making The Greatest Day, the differences between composing and transforming, Eddie Van Halen’s influence, life on the road and what he continues to strive for.

Jake, where are you at today?

Right now we are driving to Huntington, New York. We just played in, oh where were we last night? We were in Derry, New Hampshire (laughs). It’s funny, cause every night we play in a different city and then some nights, for example last night, we played in Derry, New Hampshire, but then after the show we drove for about an hour and a half and then stayed at a hotel so we could be a little closer so we wouldn’t have to drive as far today. But there are moments when you wake up and you’re like, wait, where am I today? (laughs) I don’t know where we went to sleep last night (laughs).

But you get to play in all these cool places

Oh we love it, man. We just have such a blast on the road.

How many people do you have in your band?

It’s a 3-piece band and then we have two guys in production so there are five of us that travel together. And we’re very fortunate. We actually all like each other and everyone gets along so great. We’re hanging out, we’re going out and getting coffee or we’re getting lunch together. It’s one big happy family. Well, I probably shouldn’t say it’s like traveling with family cause a lot of times families don’t travel well together (laughs).

You have a new album coming out next month called The Greatest Day. You’ve done a lot of records. Was there something special you wanted to try for this one?

Yeah, I mean, we’re always experimenting and this one is basically a follow-up to the Nashville Sessions record, which we released last year. So I brought in the same team, the same group of musicians, the same engineer, the same producer, same studio. But this time what we did was instead of just making it a trio record, we kind of went all-out and we brought in strings, we brought in horns, we brought in keyboards, guitars, just a little bit of everything, just to really fill out the sound and take more of an orchestral approach on some of the pieces.

One of the musicians that we brought in for this record was Dave Preston from Denver, Colorado. He’s an incredible guitar player, so we brought him in on the project and he’s been touring with us now. So he’s on the road and he’s the third member in our group. So it’s Nolan Verner, who I’ve been playing with for the last four years now, and he’s on bass, and then Dave Preston on guitar and I’m on ukulele. It’s such a neat sound and I also think we captured the presence of the ukulele and all the subtle nuances on this record. Even when I do the electric ukulele stuff, all the distortion stuff, I think the tones that we got are very warm, very earthy and musical. So I’m really excited about this album.

When you go into the studio, do you like to experiment a lot or do you prefer to have it all pretty much worked out beforehand?

Well, prior to our last record, I loved kind of working things out ahead of time. But with the last record, and with this new one coming up, we kind of did more experimentation in the studio. And it kind of makes sense because I like the way the Nashville Sessions record went, because we basically went in the studio with nothing and we wrote and arranged everything while we were in the studio. So everything is fresh in that environment and when it’s fresh like that you approach the music in a different way and you play it in a different way. And I like the energy from that so I think with this album we kind of did that. We made a few charts and had some ideas for arrangements but we basically just went in and started experimenting with sounds and started to lay stuff down and to play and not be so stuck on what we wrote down on paper; just be open to whatever ideas come to us at that time. So that’s been kind of a new approach for me in the studio and I like it because you’re so much more open to ideas and when you can bounce ideas off the other players and off the engineer and the producer and everybody, you get all this wonderful feedback and then you’re able to create something together and it feels more collaborative.

When you’re creating new music, do you find the melodies are more emotion-driven or music-driven, and by that I mean do the notes themselves lead you where to go more so than the feelings giving you directions?

It’s a little bit of both, you know, because when you’re writing a melody, you can approach it more from a musical standpoint; like, okay, this makes sense, let’s do this. But when you phrase it and the way you play it, that’s where the emotion and the expressiveness come from. Three people can play the exact same melody and it’s going to feel completely different; yet they can be playing the exact same notes and the exact same rhythm and all of that but they’re just going to feel different. And that’s the important thing. You can have all this music written out and all this notation but it’s up to the players to bring the emotional element to what is scored on that sheet. And that’s always the biggest challenge.

It’s kind of like when someone gives you a recipe for like a really good stew, right, and you can see all the ingredients and you have the directions and you mince up the garlic and you cut up the onions and you add this and this. But depending on who the chef is that’s preparing it, they’re going to taste different, right, because there’s so much that goes on in-between the cuts and in-between the salting and even in like picking the vegetables at the supermarket (laughs). There’s an art in that so all those little subtle things, you put that into the hands of the players when you bring in the players and they take the music and their interpretation, their little fingerprints on what they’re playing, and that’s when the magic happens. When you have a good group of people that you trust and are on the same page and have the same intent, yeah, that’s when something really special happens in the studio and I’m so happy we captured that on this record as well as the Nashville Sessions record.

You have some really cool originals on the new record. What can you tell us about what inspired the title track, “The Greatest Day”?

You know, it’s funny, the song that became the title track, we wrote that the night before we went into the studio. I had just flown to Nashville from Hawaii and that night I got settled in and I was just going to bed but I was so excited cause we were going to go in the studio the next day and I was looking so forward to it so I couldn’t go to sleep. So I took out my ukulele and started playing and I wrote “The Greatest Day.” I came up with that melody and thought, ah, this is kind of cool. It captured the sense of excitement and that feeling of having something to look forward to and not knowing what to expect but you know it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be great.

The idea for the song kind of came from this idea of two opposing lines in the main melody. There is a line that is moving, that is descending, that is moving down but then there is another line that is kind of moving up and ascending the scale. It’s like, every day we face these obstacles and certain things happen that kind of feel like they are pushing us back, but as long as we always look forward and we keep pushing forward, even though we get pushed back, it’s important that we always stay positive and we keep moving forward. That is what the song is saying – even though there are these descending lines, by the end of the song there is this push and that’s how you achieve your greatest day, right, is this forward momentum. And that was the idea behind it.

When you are choosing a song that everybody knows, what are you looking for, other than I really like this song?

Well, a lot of it is cause I just really like that song (laughs). And I just want to know what it would sound like on the ukulele. A lot of it is just curiosity. All the songs that I cover it’s usually because I’m a fan of the song or a fan of the artist. But I don’t like to record something unless I know that I can bring something a little different to it, because you can always take the right chords and the right melody and make it recognizable but to me, there’s always got to be some element in there that’s like the key point to the arrangement. So I always try to come up with something, even if it’s something very subtle. So whether it’s a new chord voicing or just a rhythmic idea or some kind of reharmonization, I always like there to be something that is new to me that I had never done before in the arrangement. I feel like with all the cover tunes that we did on this record, there was a new element that was kind of introduced.

Does it generally take longer to fully form a new song opposed to transforming a known song?

You know, it just depends. Like, some arrangements of covers can take forever, like when I was working on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” That took forever to put together just because there’s so much going on and so many parts and there’s so many choices and decisions to make when you’re putting that together. But then sometimes, like when I was working on the cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” or something like that, it went really quick, just because the melody really kind of plays itself and just works so well on the ukulele. Then with original material, you’re creating as you go so there are no rules and nothing to tell you, you have to go there or there; you’re just making it up as you go and sometimes it goes quickly and sometimes it takes forever. Sometimes I’ll write one section of a song and then I can’t come up with a second idea so I’ll just kind of put it to the side. Then a couple months later I will be working on another song and I can’t come up with another idea for it and then I’ll remember, oh, I had this other idea a couple of months ago, and I’ll put the two together and they’ll become a tune.

That actually happened with this record. There is a song on there called “Straight A’s” and the beginning theme, the first scene that is introduced, I wrote that when I was in college, just out of high school. I came up with that line and I just didn’t know what to do with it. Then when I was working on this record, Nolan and I were kind of coming up with these ideas together for “Straight A’s” and then I remembered that line that I had written a long time ago and it just seemed to work with that tempo, it fit the vibe of the song.

The whole premise of the tune was I wanted to write a song where you could play one note throughout the entire song from beginning to end. You know, there’s a famous Jobim song called “One Note Samba;” it’s a bossa nova tune. And the premise of that song is for most of the section, the melody is basically one note; it’s just one note that you’re playing over all these different chord changes. And I always thought that was such a really good idea because normally we’ll have a sustained melody; I mean, we’ll have one stagnant chord and the melody changes over. But this one, it’s the melody that is stagnant and the chords are changing behind it to keep it interesting. So I wanted to write something like that and that’s what “Straight A’s” is.

And you have dobro player Jerry Douglas on this album

Yeah, Jerry Douglas came in and played on three tracks and I was very, very excited to have him. He played on a track called “Eleanor Rigby” and he also played on a Jimi Hendrix cover that we did called “If 6 Was 9” and he also played on one of my originals, a song that was written for the WWII veterans, called “Go For Broke.”

Tell us more about that one. I didn’t realize that was about veterans.

It’s a song that was written for the Nisei veterans. Anybody that had any kind of Japanese descent were put into these internment camps after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor because our country was fearful that they were going to betray their country. There were hundreds of these Japanese-Americans that were living in Hawaii that were like, no, we want to prove our loyalty to the US. So what they did was they were petitioning to serve in the US military to prove their loyalty to our country. And they became the original 100th battalion, and then later the 442, and it’s a really fascinating story. And for me growing up in Hawaii, I was very close to that story because those soldiers were from Hawaii, the original soldiers, and they went on and became the most decorated unit in the history of the US military. So I just thought that story was so fascinating and the phrase, “Go For Broke,” was their motto. It was like a phrase they would use in Hawaii, which meant to go all in and that was their fight motto, to go for broke, all or nothing kind of thing, that type of attitude.

When did you first realize you could do all these new things with a ukulele?

I guess it was when I was maybe like eleven or twelve years old. That’s when I started being a little bit more experimental because prior to that I was always playing traditional Hawaiian music. And I’ll never forget the first time I saw a video of Eddie Van Halen playing and I remember thinking, that is so cool! It was so high energy and they were running all over the stage and I remember thinking to myself, that’s what a ukulele concert should be like (laughs). Cause prior to that, like whenever I’d see a ukulele concert, people would just either sit in a chair and strum and play or be standing and playing. But I always thought, no, it should be more physical, like a sport! (laughs) And that’s when I started really kind of branching out and experimenting with different sounds and I started using electric guitar pedals and things like that.

Pick or no pick?

No pick. When I was younger I used to play with a thumb pick, cause I was really into like Al Di Meola and those guys and I liked that muted pick sound and you can play really fast with a pick and all that. So I really gravitated to that. But then there were a couple of times where I was asked to play something and I couldn’t find my thumb pick so I couldn’t play certain songs and that really drove me crazy. So then I decided to get rid of all my picks and was like, I’m going to learn to play these songs with just my fingers so I wouldn’t have to rely on the picks anymore. That’s when I gave up on those and I was probably in my early twenties, I think, when I decided to do that and learned to play with my fingers. And it was the best decision I made because I think that when I was forced to just play with my fingers, it opened up a lot of new ideas for me and I was able to use different parts of my fingers so I could get a lot of different tonal sounds and add a lot of different colors to my palette. Every once in a while I will try to pick up a pick and do things but it’s not the same. I just like the way my fingers feel on the strings now.

How easy is it to play with and intertwine the ukulele with people like Yo-Yo Ma and Marty Friedman, who can be very technical and in the case of Marty, very fast? Is it something that has to be rehearsed ahead of time or can you play together spontaneously?

It just depends on what we’re playing. We could definitely be very spontaneous together but if we’re going to play something more intricate that we’d like to work out where we’ll be kind of playing the same lines or doubling certain lines or playing harmonically in certain areas, then some of those things sometimes takes a little bit of time to work out or to rehearse. But with musicians of that caliber, their ears are so good that they can just play anything. We could play like a 12-bar blues or something and just jam and have a great time.

You’ve made a lot of records, you’ve won a lot of awards, you’ve been all over the world – what do you still strive for?

I just want to keep trying new things. I always want to feel like I’m learning and growing and moving in new directions. I just never ever want to be afraid to try something new musically. I’m not talking like skydiving or anything (laughs). The thing with music is that the more you learn the more you realize how much you don’t know and I just never ever want to be afraid to keep exploring, cause it’s easy to just get locked into your comfort zone and be like, oh yeah, I’m happy with just doing this. I never want to feel like that. I always want to push myself. One day I want to write my own concerto for a sixty-piece orchestra or something. I might be like, I don’t know how to do that yet but hey, I’m going to learn someday how to write for a full orchestra. One day I’d like to be able to write for woodwinds and horns and all that. And those are the kinds of things I want to keep striving for and keep pushing myself. I know it’s going to take time, little steps here and there. A lot of times if there’s a situation where I’m hesitant, like, I don’t know if I can do that, then that’s when I mentally tell myself, you’ve got to do it; just suck it up and go for it and do my best. Never be afraid. So I hope I can always maintain that.


Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough

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