Burn That Ukulele! Vol 1: Uke Transmissions 2011-13

Burn That Ukulele! Vol 1 is the first part of a retrospective project that’s been lurking at the fringes for quite awhile. It contains 22 tracks, and at 1 hour 20 mins I guess it constitutes a ‘double album’. My decision to release it now is due to a much larger life process, of revisiting my past selves and letting go of old perceptions, emotional habits and unhelpful ways of being in general. As music is my journal, I have several albums worth of old material that I’ll be releasing – both to satisfy my autistic compulsion to archive my creative history, and my spiritual compulsion to metaphorically ‘release old material’.

I’ll dig deeper into this when I write about the other albums in this batch, but for now, let’s talk ukulele…

I first came to appreciate ukulele as an instrument in 2005 (you can read a more colourful account here). At that point, my primary instrument was guitar, and I had developed a pretty solid ‘fingerstyle’ approach of picking that was both rhythmic and melodic. My guitar-playing reached a certain peak between 2003 – 2006, exploring quirky ‘neo-gypsy’ music with Luke Yates in acoustic guitar duo The Spondooli Brothers. But as my fascination with ukulele expanded, my interest in guitar receded, and uke became my primary instrument (and somewhat autistic hyperfocus) for over a decade.

I found that my fingerstyle approach was perfectly suited to the simplicity of the uke’s four nylon strings and smaller neck. Uke evokes many personalities & musical tones – childlike innocence, cheeky sparkle, tender lyricism, dark humour, quirk & whimsy are but a few – and when my life was completely dismantled in 2006, ukulele was a faithful & comforting companion that helped me cope creatively through the years of devastating depression that followed.

As I gradually surfaced from my darkness, I was writing and accumulating a sizeable repertoire of uke songs & instrumentals, and in Sept 2011 I took a tentative plunge (can one plunge tentatively?) into posting my music on YouTube, as an attempt to creatively ‘re-socialise’ from the safety of my loungeroom. This was a process of courage & vulnerability – combining deliberate public self-embarrassment with a sincere faith in, and commitment to, my creations. Over time I received a lot of positive feedback from the online uke community, which bolstered my confidence to embarrass myself even further. I even ventured back into some live solo appearances for a time.

Burn That Ukulele! Vol 1 collects the audio from the videos of the 22 ukulele songs (ie not instrumentals) I posted on YT between 2011 – 2013. They were recorded using only the internal mic on an aging laptop, so no doubt some ears will take offense at the audio quality. I encourage the listener to think of them as ‘folk field recordings’, a la Alan Lomax – there are stumblings, hesitations, dud notes, the hiss & hum of the computer fan, but I present them here as an honest document, authentic to their moment. Ideally, I would have preferred to develop these songs with full instrumentation (= other musicians = costs money), and my vocals make me cringe; but I can’t remember how to play any of these pieces any more, so for most of these tracks these are the only versions likely to ever exist. A handful of the songs became staples in my live repertoire, and were given new life when I collaborated with doublebassist Ross Sermons on the Limited Emission CD in 2013, but overall I was pretty self-conscious about my ‘songs’ (and my voice) and preferred to focus on instrumentals. Nevertheless, these songs still represent a body of work, a self-guided creative learning process, and a long period of psycho-emotional recalibration, allowing myself moments of focused silliness as a form of catharsis amidst some very difficult times.

The tracks are ordered according to when they were written, rather than when I recorded them for YT, as many of them were written between 2005 – 2011, and to a certain extent it shows an evolutionary (or devolutionary?) flow. The only exception is Here Come The Loose Tongues, which I originally wrote as a guitar song in 2002, then worked it out on uke for this 2012 version (a 2016 version, using metal resonator uke & other instruments, also appears on Pigbox & Co. Vol 1).

Tasmanian Summer was one of the first things I ever composed on uke, and the first with lyrics. A wry dig at Tasmania’s fickle seasonal temperament, it was to become the ‘hit single’ I never had, a local crowd-pleaser at gigs and something of a signature. In a parallel universe it would have Bob Brozman-style hawaiian slide guitar and Andrews Sisters harmonies. It was recorded in 2006 on the Spondooli Brothers’ swansong live set A Month Of Moonbeams, and later, more definitively with Ross Sermons on the Limited Emission CD.

Another piece from the same year, Donkey On A Swing was a hillbilly ditty I used to sing to my 2-yr-old daughter (she loved donkeys at the time), as I began discovering that uke lends itself beautifully to Appalachian and bluegrass style fingerpicking. Two years later, missing her terribly after being separated from her & her brother, I wrote her Rooty Toot Toot. I still remember singing it to her over the phone, and when I finished she exclaimed “Again!” – for three encores.

Ukulele often invites a sense of the absurd, and this helped me squeeze light out of some very dark inner territory. I’ve always enjoyed witty wordplay, and throughout my childhood I was exposed to a lot of music from the golden eras of (Western) songwriting – jazz from the 1920s to the early 50s, swing, the crooners, oldtime blues and even country music – when innocence & innuendo seemed to playfully converge in clever puns and turns-of-phrase that tickled the mind. There seemed to be a different appreciation of language in songwriting then.

Using the uke to dive deeper into my childhood memories of these musical eras, I was able to articulate my darkness back to myself in ways that I couldn’t if I’d tried to write in a ‘serious’ tone. If I Was A Bumblebee, Occasional Life, The Shed Song and Killin’ Time sprouted in periods of deep existential confusion and depression, transmuting it into cartoon; Rosy Borderline, Lonesome Prayer and Yours Codependently were ultimately trying to reclaim some sense of internal control in the aftermath of an abusive relationship. More polished versions of Bumblebee and Borderline appear on Limited Emission CD, and a ragged country gospel version of Lonesome Prayer is on 2016’s Pigbox & Co Vol 1.

Archaeologist Blues was another live staple that makes a more relaxed appearance on Limited Emission CD. I’ll never forget the time I was approached after a gig by a woman (a fan I knew from previous shows), who objected to the final line of the song (“In all my explorations I ain’t never found a woman who is satisfied”) and asked me to change it! I was taken aback for several reasons: firstly, that anyone would make such a brazen request of any songwriter, secondly – wasn’t it obvious that it’s a blues song, employing a blues trope? And third, well, in my experience of relationships, no matter what the circumstance, women have invariably found something to be dissatisfied about…and after all, it’s my song! People are strange….

Some of these songs were having a crack at satirical social commentary, in the tradition of ye olde Noel Coward, Tom Lehrer et al…I’m not saying I succeeded, but I had fun trying. I’m Gonna Take A Bit Of That One is a twee pseudo-political ditty, Here Come The Loose Tongues takes a stab at gossipmongers, while Somewhere Further Down The Line looks at the absurd existential mess of global human denial…the “It’ll all be fine” of it all.

Bullshit And Art was a disgruntled spleen-venting after a rejected arts grant application (to record an album with some of Tassie’s most established folk & jazz musicians, no less). It’s no secret that arts administration is an elitist, fickle environment, and often favouritism is disguised as ‘competitive edge’, according to who’s schmoozing & whatever’s shiny at the time. I find the whole process of having to justify/validate/prove one’s creative value according to someone else’s expectations to be especially distasteful. MONA (Museum of Old & New Art) had opened earlier that year, and there seemed to be a kind of feverish adulation in the public attention it was stirring up. My autistic tendency to move against the grain of cultural herd-mentality kicked in, as did my natural urge to question the consensus (does that make me contrarian, or insightful?), and I soon discovered that it was taboo to voice any kind of dissent about this new apparition in the Tasmanian cultural landscape. As a boy in the 70s I had a lot of exposure to the Sydney ‘art world’ of the day, and learned from an early age to recognise the pretense, superficiality, competitive ego games & conceptual wankery said ‘world’ engaged in. MONA seemed to thumb its nose at the wankery while continuing to perpetuate it, apparently to confront the paradox; but as an artist still barely surviving below the poverty line, despite having committed my entire life to authentic creativity, the whole spectacle just looked like more elitist pretense to me. And in a state like Tasmania, where so many people are severely marginalised by poverty, lack of housing & other vital services, MONA’s flaunting of its excess in the name of ‘art’ was (I felt) blatantly arrogant & insensitive.

The Ghost Of My Ukulele Baby sounds like an ode to a female lover, but is actually describing a man’s love for his ukulele. Just For You, a spiteful jab after a lover’s betrayal, was intended in the style of pre-doowop vocal group The Ink Spots. I was especially pleased with working the words ‘dictionary’ and ‘thesaurus’ into a song (small things amuse me at times – attentive listeners will no doubt discover the ‘little word’ encoded in the song). Sing Like Curtis Mayfield is just a descent into total silliness (I think I was watching Flight Of The Conchords around that time), as is Banana Bender. In the case of the latter: I was attending a Songwriting course at Hobart Conservatorium that year, and one day my tutor was pressed for time and without a lesson plan. He noticed I was wearing a Tshirt displaying a cartoon of zombie fruit, so gave me the exercise of writing a song about a ‘fruit massacre’. I opted for a bunch of fruit puns over a cheesy 70s ‘Baby Goes To Rio’ groove, and it went down a treat.

I Left My Hum At Home had a particularly unique & endearing genesis. For years now I’ve collected my mail in person from our local rural Post Office. In 2012, the then postmaster (a droll chap with a wry sense of humour & a taste for heavy metal) had a bit of a running joke with me – he often had my mail ready for me as soon as I appeared because he said he could hear me humming as I approached. One day he commented that I wasn’t humming. I said “I left my hum at home”, to which he replied “There’s a song in that” – and within half an hour of leaving the Post Office, the complete melody & lyrics had popped out.

Another descent into silliness, and my final uke song posting on YT, was in 2013, with the namesake of this series: Burn That Ukulele!  I’d performed at my first uke festival a few months prior, and came home feeling disheartened by the whole ‘cult of ukulele’ – too many cliches, too many people taking it far too seriously, too competitive. I’m a bit of an iconoclast and tend to think we need to smash our idols in order to maintain perspective, and while my festival experience was inspiring in many ways, it tainted some of my private pleasure in the instrument. Anyway I had a lot of fun purging my discontent in this song (with an obvious nod to He of the Funky Love Symbol).

Nevertheless, I continued to compose instrumental music on uke, and a brief but delightful collaboration with doublebassist Ross Sermons led to a number of local performances as a duo, and the Limited Emission CD later that year. Playing with Ross (an ex-Nashville session man and consummate musician) really lifted my game and inspired me to compose in more sophisticated ways. We reconvened briefly in 2017 to record a handful of new pieces I’d written with him in mind, and I hope to release these also at some point.

My last blast with ukulele-focused recording was in 2016, with the ramshackle albums Pigbox & Co. Vol 1 & 2, featuring my Nashville metal-bodied resonator uke (affectionately called Pigbox) and a rabble of other instruments I plunked & bashed. The albums contain alternate versions of a couple of my YT postings, but mostly they consist of previously unrecorded songs and instrumentals. After the Pigbox albums I began a completely new musical phase, returning to guitar, percussion, and a swathe of other instruments / soundmaking apparatus, only occasionally incorporating uke into a project (see Skin, Is Land and Gringo!).

The other two albums in this series, Burn That Ukulele! Vol 2 & 3, contain all 40 original uke instrumentals I posted on YT in the same period, between 2011-13.