By David Templeton // From the Spring 2014 issue
“There goes Ken Middleton,” says musician Heidi Swedberg—of Heidi Swedberg and the Sukie Jump Band—pointing through the window into a bustling downtown bakery in St. Helena, in rural Northern California. Out at a sidewalk table, where Swedberg is having breakfast this already-hot summer morning, the rumbling of the occasional cattle truck rattling down Main Street causes Swedberg—in town for the annual Wine Country Ukulele Festival—to shout to be heard.
Which makes her cough—because she’s getting over a terrible cold—which does nothing to dampen Swedberg’s enthusiasm at being here, amid some of the best ukulele players and teachers in the world, including the aforementioned Ken Middleton.
“He’s a fabulous Englishman, who’s just flown over,” says Swedberg. “He’s one of the teachers at he festival. He’s standing in line with Daniel Serna from Yokohama Ukuleles. And right in there is Dave Eagen. He’s a soundman par excellence, but also an amazing musician, and he’s also teaching ukulele.”
Swedberg is perhaps better known as an actress (Hot Shots; Galaxy Quest) than a musician. Of all her roles, her most recognizable is the character of Susan Ross, on the television show Seinfeld. Yes, she played George Costanza’s doomed fiancé, who, in one of the series’ most outrageous and notorious episodes, died of toxic poisoning after licking hundreds of wedding invitation envelopes. Nowadays, Swedberg plays the ukulele more often than she plays characters on screen. Her family-friendly, uke-driven party band with the patently upbeat name released its first album, Play!, in 2009 and has just produced an effervescent follow-up, My Cup of Tea. As a teacher focuses on beginning and intermediate ukulele students, mainly children.
“I’m fairly new to the whole ukulele world myself,” Swedberg says, explaining that she’s played since her childhood in Hawaii, but left music behind not long after high school to focus on acting.
“I received my first ukulele from the Easter Bunny, in Kailua, Hawaii, when I was about five,” she says. “I have three older sisters, and we came out one Easter morning, and there was a little line of ukuleles waiting for us. Actually, it was a line of those little triangular ukulele boxes. The shape of those cardboard boxes has always been really magical to me. It was Easter, but those boxes didn’t have to be Easter egg colors or anything, just the color of cardboard happiness, man. I still love those boxes.
“A lot of times, my students use them as cases, with a little tape seam on them so they open and close,” she continues. “Sometimes, we’ll even build a handle into them, because when you’re working with kids, and they are dealing with $30 instruments, sometimes the case costs more than the instruments themselves, so to keep it affordable for the families, we’ll turn their cardboard boxes into cases. Kids love ’em. They decorate them all kinds of ways, draw and paint designs on them, line them with fake fur.
“It makes the kids way happy.”
Swedberg learned the basics from her mother, who was left-handed.
“My mom plays a right-handed ukulele, strung as a lefty, upside down and backward,” Swedberg laughs. “I find it impossible to play like that, but that’s how she plays. She taught us our first three chords, which I think every kid in Hawaii is required to learn before the fourth grade—C, F, and G7.”
Swedberg kept that first ukulele all the way through high school, and played it often, if not particularly well.
“It was always one of those adolescent, teenage angst things,” she recalls, smiling with mock embarrassment at the memory, “noodling around in my room, writing songs about some boy at school who hadn’t noticed me. That sort of thing. But I never had a professional teacher. I never studied. I figured out chords just by listening to them.
“I pretty much thought I was making them up, discovering brand new chords previously unknown to civilized people.
“I invented the E minor, did you know that?” she jokes.
Asked why she stopped playing, Swedberg says, “Oh, yeah, well. I loaned that first ukulele to a boyfriend—and never got it back. So for my college years, I didn’t play, because I didn’t have anything to play on—all because of that rat fink, Jeff Page.”
For years, as she graduated and began landing roles in movies and television shows, the ukulele was a distant memory. Coincidentally, it was a television show that reignited Swedberg’s childhood connection to the instrument.
“After I moved to Los Angeles, I was auditioning for a TV pilot, and the character was a singer-songwriter,” she says. “And things were going along pretty good, and they had me come in to test for the network, which is where the final audition happened.” In television, she explains, you have to sign contracts before you do the final audition on a TV show. “Just before that last audition, they said, ‘Do you play the guitar?’ and being an actor, I said, ‘Sure. Of course I do!’
“That’s one of the rules they teach you in Hollywood. You never say no. ‘Can you ride a horse?’ Sure! ‘Can you shoot a gun?’ Absolutely! Of course? I live to shoot guns. So I told them I could play the guitar, even though I couldn’t, and then before the audition I went down to McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica and I got myself . . . a baritone ukulele! I figured, they’re TV people. They don’t know the difference between a baritone ukulele and a guitar!
“And as it turns out . . . they didn’t.”
Tired of raising her voice to be heard above the passing trucks, Swedberg pauses as a large vehicle carrying bags of manure roars past. “Anyway, I got the part,” she shrugs, then adds, “and after they shot the pilot, they rewrote the episode, and decided they didn’t need that character in it. It was fine, because that contract I signed said that I had to be paid for the entire season whether I appeared in the show or not, so . . . ”
By that point, of course, she’d become fully reunited with playing the ukulele, and this time, she stuck with it. She found her first real teacher, McCabe’s late luthier John Zender, who passed away a few years ago, and whom Swedberg recalls fondly.
“He was a beautiful man with a long white beard,” she says. “He taught me to fall in love with the ukulele again.”
She stops to wave at a pair of gentlemen stopping in at the bakery, which appears to be the place to get breakfast in tiny St. Helena. Asked if she now considers herself a musician, and actor, or both, Swedberg ponders the question as she takes a bit of her breakfast.
“In my case,” she finally says, “I don’t think there’s much of a difference. I’m still acting. I’m just acting like a musician. I think that’s kind of just how I roll. ‘Musician’ is the part I’m playing right now, because I honestly don’t think I’m that great of a musician.
“I’m that good of an actor, either,” she laughs. “But what do we care?”
Swedberg does not appear to be feigning humility. She’s clearly just offering a brutally honest assessment of her own gifts.
“Here’s the thing, this is what I really believe in,” she continues. “I think it’s far more important to make music than to be good at making music.”
Does she feel the same way about acting?
“I don’t think acting is all that important,” she says. “Not compared to music. For the most part, acting is just entertainment. I think there is some importance to the theater, but TV and all that? Come on! It doesn’t matter what monkey you hire for the job, it’s all going to work out.
“But music,” she goes on, “music is a basic form of human communication. Music is essential in keeping us human, in keeping us connected—connected within our own culture, and connected to other cultures.
“It’s a communication tool. We do tend to think of music as entertainment, which is fine. Entertainment is fine. But communication is better. Communication is vital to making our lives worthwhile.”
And what is it, exactly, that Swedberg believes she is communicating with her own music? This one takes no time to ponder. She’s clearly thought about this question.
“What I want more than anything,” she says, “is to encourage other people to play, to sing, to make music, to have music in their own lives, as a vital part of their lives. And you don’t have to be good for it to be vital. I stand for making music no matter how bad you suck.”
She laughs again, then bangs on the table, emphasizing every other word with its own bang.
“I think!” Bang! “You totally!” Bang! “Have to!” Bang! “Get over!” Bang! “Your fear!” Bang! “Of!” Bang! “Sucking!”
“Just get over it, man! And make music! And sing, and play. That’s why I love the ukulele so much. We’re a lot less judgmental about how people play the ukulele than we are about how they play the guitar, have you noticed that? The ukulele is a little bit silly. It’s funny. People aren’t intimidated by it.
“If you come to a party and you have a guitar, people are gonna look at you like, ‘Ooh, beautiful guitar! Can you play it?’ But if you go to a party with a ukulele, people will say, ‘Ooh, that’s cool! Can I try it?’”
Clearly, Swedberg is someone who wants to spread ukulele happiness wherever she goes, to make people laugh, to make people smile. And the ukulele, she has proven over and over, is the perfect instrument to make that happen.
“It’s awesome!” she says. “When you see a ukulele, you know it’s time for a holiday. It’s a good time, wrapped up in one little instrument. Ukulele! It means ‘Party,’ you know what I mean?”