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July 4, 2022

James and Janelle debut in Australia

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James Hill is one of the best ukulele players on the planet. He is a composer and innovator. What he can do on a uke is out of this world.

Barely into his 30s, Hill has already made a career out of knocking worlds against each other. His technical prowess on ukulele is achieved through attacking what is mostly regarded as a lowly folk instrument with the seriousness and nuance of technique usually associated with the highest levels of virtuosity on, say, classical violin or piano.

James’s partner Anne Janelle is a wonderful cellist, singer, songwriter and performer. Together they are headlining the Melbourne Uke Festival then visiting Newcastle and Mullumbimby for a brief tour so this is most likely the only time in Australia you will be able to witness them in such an intimate setting. Don’t miss your chance to say ‘I was there’. One performance only and strictly limited tickets.

James caught up with Mandy Nolan during his preparation for the Melbourne gig.

 

James, why do you think there has been such a re invention of the ukulele?

I think people are looking for an antidote to the fast paced, high tech, there’s an app for that world we’re living in. The ukulele connects real people in the real world with real music. It’s a beautiful thing.

 

What is it about the instrument, do you think, that people find so accessible?

It’s easy to learn. It taps into the DIY spirit. Even a novice player can make a decent sound pretty much right away. It also has a built in sense of humour. The ukulele sounds like a smile.

 

Do you think that uke music is taken seriously by the industry or is it still maligned by it’s ‘toy’ appearance?

It’s a bit maligned but not anywhere near as bad as it has been in the past. It’s gaining respect, slowly but surely!

 

Do you ever get bored teaching beginners? How do you stay fresh?

Not really. Teaching a beginner is like watching a baby walk for the first time: it’s always amazing. Everyone wants something slightly different from the uke; that’s where the challenge comes in. To understand the person behind the student, their needs and dreams.

 

What are you looking for when you are writing a song? What are the stories or narratives that you might decide to tell?

Insight. I mean, if people are going to sit there and listen for a few minutes I’d better have something insightful to share, ideally something that’s specific enough to be concrete but universal enough to resonate with many.

 

What is your songwriting and melody making process?

Lyrics first. Then take the natural rhythms and pitches of the words and just amplify them. That’s almost always my starting point. After that, you just let instinct and experience take over.

 

Tell me about you and Anne – how did you two first meet, and then start playing together?

We met at the University of British Columbia school of music; we were both studying there. I couldn’t get a degree on the uke so I had started playing viola (I’d played violin as a kid). So we met in the symphony. Literally, eyes across a crowded stage!

 

Is there a chemistry between players that can’t be explained? Why do you think there is synergy with some and not with others?

Yes, just like there’s synergy between people. Music is a conversation, just in a different language. I think everyone knows that feeling of having coffee with someone and have time fly because the chemistry was right. And the feeling of trying to converse with someone who just isn’t on the same wavelength. It’s just the same in music. You have to talk and listen in complementary ways.

 

How do you keep pushing the uke? Do you find its limitations are in fact a bonus at times?

Definitely. As an artist, limits are your best friend. There’s nothing more terrifying (and uninteresting) than an artist without limits.

 

What would you say is most important in playing uke and creating technique?

Following the muse. You have to do what you feel, and stay in touch with that feeling as it changes, because it will. I used to be obsessed with scales and strumming technique, now I’m obsessed with songwriting and spontaneity. You have to go where the muse leads you.

 

What should we expect for your Mullum workshop and concert?

Each concert is like a fingerprint, every show has its own special magic. There’ll be lots of great music, some laughs and a few surprises.

 

Workshop (3pm) and concert (5pm) Sunday March 3, Mullumbimby Ex Services Club. For more information visit: www.ukemullum.com.

 

 


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