day-in-the-life

Meet seven diverse artists—some who make their living playing uke, others who perform for the love of it (after working a day job)—and find out what inspires them and what they aspire to.

Julia Nunes: Cool and Casual in Los Angeles



Where are you and what are the vibes like?
I love this question. I’m at my house. The vibe is very cool. My girlfriend and I are both working at our desks; she just made me lunch and it was incredible. Our apartment is clean, serene, and this interview is already great, so it’s all positive vibes.

When was the last time you played ukulele?
Yesterday.

What song did you play?
Working on a new song, which means I played the same chords over and over again and kind of vaguely changed little words, editing the lyrics. It’s not quite a full-fledged song yet.

Describe your personal style.
I have a minimal aesthetic. I like things simple, with clean lines, and it has to be comfortable. I also care deeply about function—like I need to be able to carry stuff without physically carrying it in my hands. I sew inside pockets onto my jean jackets, and sometimes I wear a fanny pack.

Describe your ukulele playing style.
I played guitar before I played ukulele and I’ve never really differentiated between them in terms of playing style. I fingerpick and strum, but I can’t do the more intricate, classic ukulele strum styles.

Favorite ukulele covers?
Uh oh, I don’t have a top five and I’m tempted to go scan through YouTube and find some, but that feels false, so I’m just going with honesty.  I can only think of Danielle Ate the Sandwich covering “Rich Girl.” Her voice is incredible, and I feel like I rediscovered that song with that cover.

What’s your dream collaboration?
I wanna add a uke and a fourth harmony to Haim’s sound.

Favorite ukulele joke?
This is another question I’d have to Google, so I’ll tell you about my dad’s favorite joke when I was growing up. He’d ask, “Where do the bad dogs go?” and then he’d hold his fist up for a bump and then say, “to the pound” with the biggest grin on his face. Thousands of times, and we were never any less excited about the punchline.

Brit Rodriguez: Globetrotting California Girl



Where are you and what are the vibes like?
I live in Los Angeles, but my heart is definitely in California, as a whole. I’m lucky enough to have moved around a lot so I have music friends all over. We all just started Skyping regularly to share new music and poetry. It’s soul reviving!

When was the last time you played ukulele?
I play every single day! If I’m going somewhere and I can’t bring my Godin MultiUke, I take my Boulder Creek soprano in my backpack.

What’s the last gig you played? What were you wearing?
I just finished up a residency at the Orange County Fair. I wore an incredibly sheer pink skirt that I had picked up that day. It’s now in the “Do Not Wear Onstage” section of my closet.

Do you have any pre- or post-show rituals?
I listen to Nicki Minaj’s verse in “Monster” before every show. On the way there, I’ll listen to a playlist full of ’90s hip-hop, jazz, and the Spice Girls.

Describe your ukulele playing style.
I just play hard. Most shows I’ll end up bleeding. Thank god for super glue.

What do you still want to learn on ukulele?
How to sweep! I want to be doing crazy solos.

Favorite uke players?
My homies in New Zealand.

What’s your dream collaboration?
Right now, I’d probably cry if I could play with Valerie June. She’s got this incredible voice that seems so raw and vulnerable. I’d love to write for her.

Favorite ukulele joke?
You haven’t been feeding your guitar very well.

Rio Saito: Tokyo Virtuoso



Where are you and what are the vibes like?
I’m in my house, and I’m playing with my dog and just relaxing.

When was the last time you played ukulele?
I was jamming with my friends in my dream. Ha ha ha.

What song did you play?
It’s not a song, but we were making up some chord progressions and giving out solos.


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What’s the last gig you played? What were you wearing?
It was at the Kani Ka Pila Grille [in Honolulu] with Bryan Tolentino and L Halehaku Seabury. I had great fun, because it was my first time jamming with them! And I was wearing my favorite blue-and-black Aloha shirt. Next I will be touring around Shanghai, Beijing, and Korea in October with Derick Sebastian and Chang Min Lee.

Describe your ukulele playing style.
Mostly, I perform old songs, and for me that music feels fresh and beautiful.

Favorite ukulele covers?
“Lover,” Alfredo Canopin Sr.; [Chopin’s] “Nocturne No. 2 in Eb Op., 9, No. 2,” Gordon Mark; “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” Kimo Hussey; “This Nearly Was Mine,” Byron Yasui.

Erin McGrane: Vintage Charm via the Midwest



Where are you and what are the vibes like?
I’m in Nashville recording a new album with my band (Victor & Penny).

When was the last time you played ukulele?
About an hour ago.

What song did you play?
I’m rehearsing a track I’ll be singing tomorrow in the studio, “Day Off Boogie.” It’s an original tune we wrote on ukulele and guitar about how great it is to come home off the road from touring to our little apartment in downtown Kansas City.

What was the first song you heard on ukulele?
My dad had a ukulele and he would sing and play songs to me when I was a little girl. The first song I remember is “Lazy River” by Hoagy Carmichael; I have fond memories of singing along with him. He bought his Hofner ukulele in 1952, when he was stationed in Germany while serving in the Navy. That ukulele is my most treasured possession and it rarely leaves my side. “Lazy River” is now a regular part of our live show.

Describe your personal style.
I have always been drawn to a vintage vibe. I favor feminine styles like dresses, but I like to put an edge on by pairing them with boots.

Describe your ukulele playing style.
As the rhythm section of our band, I play with a fast rhythmic strum that supplies the “chop” on our more upbeat, hot swing tunes.

Favorite ukulele covers?
Our new album features all original tunes but one—and we’re really happy with the cover we’ve chosen for the record. We’re doing a Gypsy jazz-influenced cover of Sting’s “Moon Over Bourbon Street.”

What’s your dream collaboration?
I have a dream of playing and singing with Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion. I’ve been listening to him on the radio for years. I was raised in northwest Iowa on the Minnesota border, and I’ve always felt that Lake Wobegon and all its citizens were the people I grew up with. When he talks and tells stories, it feels like home to me.

Jon Braman: Uke Hip-Hop in New York City



When was the last time you played ukulele?
About 20 minutes ago, putting my daughter to sleep.

What was the first song you ever heard on ukulele?
The first real ukulele playing I heard was probably my cousin Tony Schaeffer, who lived his whole life in Kailua on Oahu and played and made ukuleles and guitars. I learned how to play a little Hawaiian thing he taught me but I could never play it like him.

What’s the last gig you played?
Last Wednesday was the Melting Pot, which we do the second Wednesday of every month at Pianos on the Lower East Side. We’ve been doing it for a long time and we have way too much fun. Every show is different and surprising. People get into it and dance or sing along, or just sit back and listen, or eat and drink. We invite folks up for the jam at the end. It’s hip-hop, it’s soul, it’s rock—it’s a ceremony.

Do you have any pre- or post-show rituals?
I guess you could say the subway. Before the show, I take the subway from work to the show. After, I take it home.

Describe your style.
I used to call it ukulele hip-hop, but I’m not sure that means anything. I write songs and beats and play music that is about life and the world. I generally can’t make things up so I write about what I know or what I see in the news. It’s true that I try to be a student of hip-hop, and also of lots of other kinds of music.

Favorite ukulele covers.
Blackbird” (Beatles) and “Everyday Struggle” (Biggie) seem very well-suited to the uke.

Favorite uke players?
Merrill Garbus (Tune-Yards) and Khabu Young, who can do anything.

What’s your dream collaboration?
Kendrick Lamar or Tune-Yards.

Ben Ahn: San Francisco by Way of Kauai



What was the first song you ever heard on ukulele?
Growing up in Kauai, I don’t remember an exact song; I remember general feelings more—the uncles sipping beer and jamming along, lots of good food on the table, the kids running around getting in trouble. I just remember smiling a lot when the music was around.

Describe your personal style.
My personal style? Geez, that’s pretty deep. I’m pretty laid back, I guess—most comfortable in surf shorts on the beach, relaxing with people I love. This isn’t going into an online dating profile, is it?

Describe your ukulele playing style.
I guess my style is one that attempts to blend vocals with lead instrumentation. I primarily perform solo, which means I can’t rely on anyone else to carry a song or arrangement, and when I think of what my audiences seem to gravitate toward, it’s the way I mix in finger work with singing. That and a lot of talking. I think I’m pretty funny, which is dangerous.

What do you still want to learn on ukulele?
Currently, I’ve been playing around with sneaking more diminished chords into traditionally simple transitions, along with trying to improve my accuracy when playing faster than I’m comfortable.

Favorite ukulele covers?
I was moved recently when I watched Sara Bareilles’ uke cover of Sia’s “Chandelier,” but then again, I pretty much love everything Sara does.

Favorite uke players?
Jake [Shimabukuro], Troy [Fernandez], Peter [Moon], James [Hill]—so many of them inspire me. I also think it’s funny that I refer to them by first name, even though I’ve only met a handful of them. Strange how music can make you feel like you know someone.

Mike Hind: Mellow Vibes in Bermuda



When was the last time you played ukulele?
Today, about 10 minutes ago. I try to play at least a little bit every day, preferably at least an hour or two.

What song did you play?
“Get Better” by Frank Turner.  I love that song!

What’s the last gig you played? What were you wearing?
The last gig I played was my regular gig at the Dock at Waterlot Inn, here in Bermuda, on Sunday night. I wore a dark pink Oxford shirt and bright yellow trousers.

Describe your ukulele playing style.
I joke that I kinda just bang on it until it sounds like I want it to. I think I play pretty percussively by necessity, as it’s accompaniment to my singing. I don’t play pretty, but I think I play musically.

Favorite ukulele covers?
Julia Nunes’ “God Only Knows” and “Build Me Up Buttercup”; Danielle Ate the Sandwich’s “Dream a Little Dream”; the Re-Entrants’ “Ace of Spades”; Gugug’s “Surfin’ Bird.”


This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Ukulele magazine.

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