From the Summer 2016 issue of Ukulele Magazine | BY ALEXA PETERS
Ukulele and cello, it turns out, are a match made in heaven.
That’s what solo instrumentalist James Hill discovered when he and his cellist wife Anne Janelle were asked to collaborate on an arrangement of “Ava Maria.” With complementary ranges and timbres, the instrument pairing fills out the low-end without neglecting the middle. “A lot of people play uke and bass, but I call that a ‘bread sandwich’—there’s too much space in the middle. The cello closes that gap,” Hill says.
In the last few years, Hill has departed from the solo style he built his performing and teaching career on, and has primarily focused on the magnetism he’s found with Janelle. It’s a musical honeymoon for the couple who met at University of British Columbia where Janelle studied classical cello and Hill, unable to find a university-ukulele program, studied viola.
The couple married in 2013, released the Juno-nominated album The Old Silo in 2014, and last September welcomed their first child, a baby boy.
Hill has evolved from being a soloist to being a husband, father, singer, and collaborator. Though few knew it, he says these elements have always been a part of his creative identity.
“People who tuned into me in 2002 thought that I was just an instrumentalist. . . [but] the journey toward songwriting [and group playing] was circular for me,” he says. “I was singing and writing songs when I met Anne at university—that was normal. I was also doing jazz, I was a DJ, and I had my own one-man funk band.” Hill adds that he spent 12 years of his early life playing in such groups as the Langley Ukulele Ensemble.
It was after Hill’s solo career took off that those other endeavors fell by the wayside. He swung to the solo instrumental side because that’s where he felt he had “more to say.” But after years of focus in that area, to the extent of penning an extensive solo-ukulele curriculum and beginning the Ukulele Way online instruction site with Chalmers Doane, Hill now finds it more of a creative challenge to share the stage.
“When I was first starting out I preferred playing solo,” Hill says. “You have more control, no question. But as I became more confident as a musician I started to enjoy the duo/group dynamic more and more. There’s a chemistry between Anne and I that is bigger than the sum of its parts. I think people can relate to the way a couple works together. It’s more like real life. A soloist can’t help but seem a bit disconnected and insular. There’s no disagreement, no compromise. And that’s what makes life interesting, right?”
He’s found his voice as a singer as well, noting that all instruments are designed to imitate the voice, and that eventually he wanted to do more than imitate.
“I got to a point where the music alone wasn’t enough. Maybe it was enough for the listeners, but it wasn’t enough for me! I had some things to say and I couldn’t say them without, well, saying them! Singing forces me to open up, to be vulnerable, which I like, most of the time,” Hill says.
Yet, where focus has changed, Hill’s penchant for taking risks has not. He’s still the guy who in 2011 demonstrated that you can indeed play ukulele using chopsticks and a comb (the video has more than 880,000 views on YouTube at press time).
The Old Silo displays his talent for an array of styles—the poetic, story-heavy lyricism of roots music, the grit of Americana, catchy pop hooks, and the exploratory instrumentation of world music combined with the precision of classical. It also showcases the partnership between Hill and Janelle, and their ability to give each other room to express themselves.
Their duo has been groundbreaking for Janelle, too, who has mostly left the classical world and released two acclaimed folk-pop albums of her own. “Anne has gone through a huge transformation over the last few years in her own musical output and interests—she’s turned into a great singer-songwriter,” Hill says.
Hill and Janelle have toured extensively in the last couple of years, but plan to spend a stint at home with the new baby. Each evening, Hill lulls him to sleep with nursery songs, strummed on the beater ukulele by the change table. Hill constantly finds ways to keep himself writing and practicing with the baby, and says he’s more grounded at home than he was on tour.
“I find when I’m on the road, I get really inspired to start things. But I find that I don’t really finish anything until I get home,” Hill says. “So, here I am at home for a stretch with the baby, and I find that I’m digging into things that have been sort of half-baked for months, even for years.”
In the next year, Hill plans to release an educational YouTube series and perfect some new sound experiments, like shoving chopsticks in his ukulele. He revels in his creative journey, and the fans who have supported him from solo instrumentalist to singer-songwriter.
“That’s the great promise of the middle- class musician, you have this great freedom, [so] the fans that say, ‘I like your music, but I’m a fan of you. I want to follow you on your journey,’ are the ones I appreciate most.”