Many a would-be Casanova has spent the night serenading his lover with the guitar, and many a musician has brought tears from just a few strikes of the violin. Seldom listed among these powerful and sensuous instruments is the humble ukulele, but for Nova Scotia-based musician James Hill, this simplest of stringed instruments holds a world of possibilities.
“I remember seeing an interview with a guy in Japan who was living in a little cubicle on top of a telephone pole. It showed pictures of his room that he was living in, and everything was so beautifully arranged because he had so little space to waste. I guess I kind of feel that way about the ukulele.”
The ukulele is often dismissed as a kid’s instrument, and its sharp, cheery sound doesn’t provide an expansive range. Can an artist thrive with such a limited palette?
“I can’t imagine how oppressive it would be to work with an unlimited palette,” he says. “It’s a little bit like writing a novel on a grain of rice, I guess, but I think there’s a lot of fun to be had with that, and there’s certainly a challenge about it. It’s sort of the art of living in a confined space.”
Hill will be performing as part of Folk Night at the Registry with cellist Anne Janelle, his wife and creative partner. The ukulele has been part of his life for nearly a quarter century, when he was first introduced to it in grade school. “I never thought I could get so much music out of a tiny little thingy,” he recalls.
“The teachers believed in it as a vehicle for music education and music literacy, so it was just one of those things that was just happenstance: ‘Here’s your ruler, here’s your textbook, here’s your ukulele.’ Which is amazing in retrospect.”
As a teenager, he further refined his craft as part of the Langley Ukulele Ensemble, and after earning his Bachelor of Music Degree at the University of British Columbia, balanced teaching with a recording career. “The ukulele was this lightning rod for making friends and having fun, to the extent that the friends I keep in touch with in my hometown these days are pretty much all ukulele friends,” he says.
The instrument affected his social life in other ways. In 2009, his career took a turn when he collaborated with his wife Anne Janelle on True Love Don’t Weep, which took him in the direction of songwriting.
“We both started out over ten years ago in the business as instrumentalists,” says Hill. “Fast forward ten years later, we’re both writing and singing songs; we’re performing together, and the focus is less on what the instruments can do and more on what the music can do when it’s combined with words. We’ve become songwriters, it seems, and that happened gradually, but it’s taken us a long way from where we started”
The ukulele and the cello are not typically associated together, and Hill says they didn’t have much precedent to draw from, but the pairing has proven complementary.
“You’ve got the ukulele that is high-pitched and ‘plucky,’ and you’ve got the cello that’s low-pitched and has a beautiful bow sound. It’s a little bit like dancing with a partner whose feet you couldn’t step on if you wanted to. It keeps the instruments in their own range, and together they make a full picture.”
While the ukulele may not have been fashionable when Hill first picked it up, the instrument has seen a comeback-of-sorts in recent years among the hipster set. Look no further than Karen O. playing the instrument in front of 40 million people at the Oscars.
“It’s so portable, it’s so impulsive, you sort of grab it and go,” says Hill. “It has the history of being such a pocket-sized instrument that, whether it’s at a friend’s party in a downtown urban setting, or whether it’s on a ship hundreds of years ago sailing from Europe to the New World, these are the places where the ukulele thrives.”
James Hill and Anne Janelle play Kitchener’s Registry Theatre (122 Frederick St.) on March 29 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 at the door, and can be ordered at www.registrytheatre.com or by calling 519-578-1570. In addition, Hill and Janelle will be hosting a ukulele workshop at 2 p.m. for $25, or $40 with the show.