Sarah Maisel and Craig Chee didn’t set out to become a couple—they set out to become a ukulele duo: she the trad-jazz connoisseur and he the indie-pop dude. In fact, it takes a full hour of conversation for their couple-ness to surface.
Maisel lets slip the magic word: “Honey, could you bring that . . . ?”
She catches herself mid-sentence, glances sheepishly at Chee, then explodes into laughter. She was asking him to bring some sort of uke gear to where she sits, strumming her custom-built sunburst DaSilva, when the word dropped from her mouth—inadvertently, unexpectedly, but quite naturally.
“OK, so we’re a couple!” exclaims Maisel, mock-defensively, as she regains her composure.
Chee just grins.
The two are hanging out at the DaSilva Ukulele Company in Sawtooth Studios, a sprawling, block-long industrial building on the west side of Berkeley, California, that houses artists of all kinds: potters, jewelers, dancers, and, in the case of Mike DaSilva, ukulele makers. DaSilva holds regular music events here on a small stage surrounded by woodworking machinery, bookshelves, an upright piano, and some digital recording equipment. Later in the afternoon, Maisel and Chee will be conducting a ukulele workshop for a couple dozen or so people.
The two officially met at DaSilva’s booth at the 2013 National Association of Music Merchants trade show in Anaheim, California. Before that, Maisel had been performing since the early 2010s with bassist Paul Tillery and recording albums of jazz and pop standards ranging from “The Lady Is a Tramp” (from her 2010 debut Have Uke Will Travel) and “East of the Sun” (from 2011’s In the Moment) to “Blue Skies” and “How High the Moon” (from 2012’s With Love, Sarah Maisel). Chee’s solo work is more rock-band oriented—his 2011 album Life in the Key of Chee features guitar, mandolin, violin, bass, drums, and tambourine on original songs that would fit well on a Pitchfork.com indie-folk playlist.
When the two met, Chee thought his music could complement Maisel’s. “He was like, ‘You have a very different sound than me, and you’re female, and you sing, and I think we can cover a lot of bases,’” Maisel remembers.
“I just thought it would be cool to blend our styles,” Chee adds.
The duo initially teamed up for a uke cruise along the US West Coast, but they were soon playing together at the Cairns Ukulele Festival in Australia. By then, they were inseparable, although still not officially a couple. “We actually didn’t want to get together romantically at first,” Chee says. “I was like, ‘This is working out so well and people love us so much—I’m glad we’re not dating, because that would just cause so many problems.’”
“And that was it,” Maisel says, finishing his thought. Apparently, denying the bond only confirmed it. “We just kept being put together, so I was like, ‘Fine. I guess I’ll date you, Craig.’”
Less than a month earlier, Maisel and Chee are at their second NAMM show together, trying to compete with the cacophony of guitars, basses, drums, electronics, and thunderous chatter from the thousands of music heads strolling through the Anaheim Convention Center. Maisel and uke bassist Jason Arimoto are perched on a pair of stools at the Ohana exhibit booth, cooking up a little musical sweet and light along with Chee, who stands next to them in a Hawaiian shirt, playing lead ukulele. A small crowd swells around them as Maisel, in a yellow shirt and tan pants, gets a bit bawdy on a smoking blues tune.
Over a walking bass line and slinky rhythm, Maisel sings, “When I go to the door and he answers, he looks right at me and says, ‘Oh, little girl, what’re you lookin’ for?’”
She grins mischievously as Chee fills in the gaps with stinging leads.
“I say, ‘I’m out of sugar. What’s a girl supposed to do? It could be brown, it could be white, but I’ve got to have that sweet sugar tonight.’”
The trio then launches full-throttle into a blues jam that has the crowd nodding their heads and tapping their toes.
Maisel credits her dad with inspiring her early on to explore the intersection of jazz and the blues. “My father was a big Crumb fan,” she says, referring to cartoonist R. Crumb, who not only illustrates the blues—he designed Janis Joplin’s classic 1968 album Cheap Thrills, and in the ’80s released a series of illustrated trading cards compiled as Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country—but also performs with his own eclectic country/swing/jazz band. “My family was definitely the weird family,” Maisel continues. “All of my friends loved my dad. They were like, ‘Your dad’s so cool!’ And of course, being young, I was like, ‘Oh, God, he’s so embarrassing!’ But I didn’t really feel that way.”
Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Maisel lived in an unlikely part of the country to have a Crumb-loving dad who taught his daughter about the blues and jazz and encouraged her to follow her muse wherever it took her. It started with the violin. “I played classical violin from six years old until about 17,” she says. “I was in string orchestras, did the private lessons, performed at private parties and stuff like that.”
And then it all stopped.
Maisel was 17 when her mother, who had been diagnosed with leukemia when Sarah was just five, died. Later that year, Maisel also lost a beloved great-grandmother. It was a one-two punch that left the naturally cheerful musician hopelessly ambivalent about music. “It was hard,” she says, “especially when my great-grandmother died. I always played piano for her. So I was like, ‘OK, we’re done. I’m finished with this.’”
She enrolled at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where she majored in theater, studying pattern making and costume construction. “I still wanted to be in the arts, and I knew that this would be a skill that I could always get a job in, ether doing alterations or making wedding dresses or freelancing or whatever,” Maisel says.
After she graduated in 2004, Maisel moved to San Diego,
California, where she worked in the theater department at the University of California and at La Jolla Playhouse.
She still wasn’t making music.
Then, one day, some friends from work invited her to come along with them to a pizza joint in Encinitas that held weekly Hawaiian-themed nights. She’d have a blast, they promised. “I’m like, ‘What? Ukuleles?’” Maisel cracks up, as she often does in conversation. “I mean, being from Alabama, you don’t see many ukuleles.”
Her friends were right, though. Maisel was blown away when she arrived to find some 40 people, all playing ukuleles, all laughing and having fun. “It was just immediately . . .” She pauses and shakes her head, “. . . it was life-changing. To walk in this room and suddenly see all these people playing ukuleles—you could feel all the joy in the room. I must have had a look on my face, because people started coming up to me, handing me their instruments, saying, ‘You should play, you really should play.’”
Maisel and three others from her theater crowd signed up for a group ukulele class at nearby MiraCosta College.
That was 2006.
Eight years later, Maisel is already a virtuoso. “I was going through a little depression when I discovered the uke, and it just pulled me right out of it,” she says. “It helped me during a really hard time.”
She looks down at the DaSilva on her lap. “How can you not be passionate about this?” she asks. “It’s such an awesome instrument.”
It wasn’t just the instrument, but also the culture around ukuleles. “You have this whole group of people that you meet up with every week, and then you discover more people,” she says. “Anytime I was sad or upset, all I had to do was play or go be with people who play.”
While her friends were casually interested in ukuleles, Maisel was obsessed. She loved the uke, and eventually was ready to play more than just novelty songs. She wanted to learn complicated jazz chords, so she could make the kinds of music she listened to with her dad.
Maisel asked her instructor, Frank Leong, if he would give her private lessons, and he introduced her to the music of Lyle Ritz, the L.A. Wrecking Crew session player who had taken the ukulele into jazz territory on his 1957 album How About Uke? Soon, she was playing Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald material.
Maisel chords her instrument with the grace and dexterity of a jazz guitarist, although she’s never played a guitar in her life. “I actually like that I don’t have a guitar background, because I don’t have preconceived notions about how to play a chord-based instrument,” she says. “When you watch someone play ukulele, a lot of times you can tell in technique if it’s a guitar player. They’re often trying to do guitar things on it. And there’s nothing wrong with that—it’s just a different way of approaching the instrument, and I like that I approach it as a ukulele.
“Well, there is one thing that I do on ukulele that Byron Yasui [a music professor at the University of Hawaii] used to tease me about: I tend to play with a low G, and he jokingly would say to me, ‘That’s not a ukulele. We can still be friends, but that’s not a ukulele.’”
Maisel was on the hunt for a low G string when DaSilva introduced her to Chee. She hates wound G strings, but was having a hard time finding non-wound strings that she liked. DaSilva, whom she’d met in 2011 at the San Diego Ukulele Festival, told her to contact Chee, who knew someone with the kind of G string Maisel was looking for.
Like Maisel, Chee had a background in classical music—he grew up in the Manoa Valley on the island of Oahu in Hawaii playing cello—but took up the uke after arriving for college at the University of Oregon in Eugene. “I didn’t see myself carrying my cello around to parties going, ‘Hey, guys, let’s play some music!’” he says.
His laugh is as infectious as Maisel’s, but louder and more husky. “That’s when I decided to pick up ukulele,” Chee adds. “I wanted to take something from my culture and share that with others.”
At first, Chee formed a duo with a fellow Hawaiian who played guitar. Eventually, the duo expanded to a full band with drums and percussion, keyboards, horns, and other stringed instruments. Chee and his group of instrumentalists and hula dancers landed a weekly Friday night gig at a club called Noho’s Café. In the three years that they played the job, Chee became proficient on ukulele. Then he met Maisel.
While DaSilva takes credit for introducing the two, he won’t be blamed for their hooking up. He just smiles and shakes his head as he walks about in the ukulele company he’s had in Berkeley for the past decade. “That’s on them,” DaSilva says.
Once Maisel and Chee began playing together, they became a virtual DaSilva traveling ad. Maisel was playing an $800 Pono ukulele when DaSilva offered to custom-build a uke for her. “At the time, I was happy with my Pono. It was my first real uke,” she says. “But then it crapped out on me during a gig and I went back to Mike and said, ‘If that offer still stands, I’d like an instrument.’”
Maisel’s custom uke is a beauty—bright sunburst finish over an Adirondack spruce top (with no soundhole) and ziricote back and sides (with the soundhole on the top side). Its most interesting feature is the rosewood headplate with a guinea pig appliqué made from koa, spruce, ebony, and reconstituted stone.
Chee’s signature DaSilva CC-Tenor has a hand-rubbed polyester high-gloss finish over an Adirondack spruce top, with curly koa back and sides. The notable features on his instrument are its random wood rosette, two-toned body, stone fret markers, and slotted, asymmetric peghead with a yellow-heart underlay.
Over the past year, Maisel and Chee have conducted several workshops at the DaSilva Ukulele Company, and their performance schedule has gotten busier and busier. Summer 2014 has them going from a March festival in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, to a June uke fest in Cheltenham, England, and on to a seven-day Alaska cruise in July that they will host, offering workshops and performances.
When they first got together, Maisel and Chee weren’t sure the partnership would work out. “It was a leap of faith on both our parts,” Maisel says. “But after the Australia festival last year, we decided, ‘Yeah, this is going to work out; this is going to be a good partnership.’ Now, we’re hoping to do a record together some time next year.”
The two also plan to continue doing their own solo music. “We do stuff together and we do stuff separately,” Maisel says. “It’s important to us that we keep our separate careers.”
She gazes over at Chee and he smiles. “I mean, Craig writes his own music and it’s great,” Maisel observes, “but it’s different, stylistically, from what we do together. We work really well together and we have a great time, but we also don’t want to lose our individual identities.”
Sarah Maisel’s Gear
Ukes: Custom DaSilva Ukulele, Compass Rose “Le Jazz” model made for her by California builder Rick Turner
Strings: She uses a combination: D’Addario T2 for C through A strings, and a PHD Ukulele Creation unwound low G
Electronics: The DaSilva uses a Fishman Pro Blend Preamp. The Compass Rose is equipped with a pickup builder Turner designed specifically for the instrument. She uses a TC Electronics Hall of Fame reverb pedal
Amplification: Fishman Loudbox 100 for restaurant gigs, though she plans to switch to an AER Compact 60
Craig Chee’s Gear
Ukes: DaSilva CC-Tenor, KoAloha Slim Body Custom Tenor
Strings: D’Addario T2
Electronics: The DaSilva uses a Fishman Pro Blend Preamp; the KoAloha uses an L.R. Baggs FIVE.O. Also, Shure 58 Beta and Fishman Aura DI. Pedals include TC Electronics Hall of Fame reverb and Boss RC-30 looper. He has a Peterson Strobe tuner
Amplification: AER Compact 60