By Kenny Berkowitz
Fiona Silver makes an unlikely up-and-coming ukulele star: a rocking, blues-infused, soul-singing East Village hipster who switches back and forth between tenor ukulele and electric guitar, sultry one minute and vulnerable the next. At 23, Silver snagged a ukulele endorsement deal from Luna Guitars, which helped jump-start her career, coupled with a steady stream of songs released on Bandcamp. Silver took a break from gigging around Brooklyn and Manhattan and working on her debut album, which is still months away — at least — to chat about her dual passions.
How do you know if you’re going to write a ukulele song or an electric guitar song?
Depends on what’s in my hand, but it has a lot to do with my mood. Ukulele is softer than guitar, so that’s where a lot of my more playful songs come from, whereas when I play guitar, it’s a little more riveting, a little more intense. Electrifying.
How do you describe the Fiona who plays electric guitar?
She is bluesy and soulful and . . . fierce.
And the Fiona who plays ukulele?
That Fiona is a little more sensitive, a little more joyous.
After starting on electric guitar, what made you pick up ukulele?
Someone gave one [to me], and I was really excited, like, “This is so cool.” Just the fact that the tuning is different, the number of strings, the size, all those things that separate guitar from ukulele gave me a whole new playing field. It was very exciting just to mess around on ukulele, and if I put my hand in a shape that I thought would make a certain sound, it was fun to hear something completely different.
What can you do on uke that you can’t do on guitar?
The uke just lends itself to the mood of things, and because I don’t play acoustic guitar, the ukulele is my acoustic. The music on electric guitar can be louder and faster, but you have to plug it in—it needs that external power. With the uke, the power is within it—it’s just naturally there. There’s a simplicity that comes across with the ukulele, and it’s so portable, it’s the easiest thing to pick up and go.
Where do you take it?
Sometimes I’ll sit by the water in Williamsburg, or I’ll go to Tompkins Square Park, or I’ll just play on my fire escape. Living in New York City, there’s not a lot of nature around, so ukulele is a way I can connect with that, because it feels so in tune with nature. My ukulele has a pickup, and sometimes I put on effects or tweak my amp to manipulate the sound. But in general, when I play ukulele, it’s raw, and I think there’s something really beautiful about the acoustics of this natural instrument, this sense of being . . . untampered. There are some trees back by the fire escape, and I can play without thinking about everything else that’s going on around me, just being outside in my sacred private area.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Ukulele magazine.