INTERVIEW: Amanda Palmer on the power of the ukulele

IK Multimedia's MODO BASS

The ridiculously, unfairly talented and stupefyingly affable Amanda Palmer is one half of The Dresden Dolls. She also has a rather successful solo career, encompassing everything from big shows to sudden public ninja gigs. She has an addictively percussive piano style and expressive vocal delivery, but of late she’s become quite the ambassador for the humble ukulele – partially through her oh-my-god-that-makes-so-much-sense cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” and partially through her song “Ukulele Anthem.” Palmer’s not out there to prove she’s the ultimate uku-shred virtuoso. She simply reminds us that playing music is fucking good fun. Observe:

So why the ukulele? 

The beauty of picking up the ukulele a couple of years ago was, I’d finally got past the stage of piano playing where I didn’t know what the chords were. Probably around my teen years, when I started studying jazz and chords and theory, and not even learning to read music so much but understanding what an A Minor was verses a D Major and knowing what the notes were called – it kind of stripped some of the mystery out of ‘Well this shape sounds pretty, and this shape is scary,’ which was basically the way I learned. When I picked up the ukulele I had no idea, because guitars were really frightening and foreign to me because of the fretboard being laid out very differently. And when I picked up the ukulele I got to go back to the very beginning, of making shapes with my fingers and having no idea what the chords were, just knowing that they sounded nice.

And you’re especially in the dark when you start with a uke because that top string is tuned higher than the next two. 

Yeah! And to this day I play the ukulele totally by ear. I don’t know most of the chords that I’m playing, and I don’t want to know. In order to figure out some cover songs I’ve looked up some chords in books but I immediately forget them and I just remember then as a diagonal line or as a triangle. And I kind of love that. It kind of keeps the beauty of the mystery intact. And when you think about it, instruments, for probably thousands of years weren’t notated that way. It was just what sounded good and what worked. So I’m whatever you would call… there’s gotta be a good word for that. I’m like an instrument Luddite or something.

But the uke is great because people think “Oh it’s just a ukulele. It’s not real, it’s not a serious instrument. And then they make music with it. 

And that’s the beauty of it! It’s a deceptive little beast. And that’s why I fell in love with it. Because I picked it up as a toy, as a gimmick to play at once show, and I figured the gimmick would be over immediately. And the ukulele taught me a really valuable lesson, mostly about myself and about the nature of performance. Which is, piano is heavy and complicated and a pain in the ass to carry around and/or rent and/or plug in and amplify. And when I realised that I was able to do to people with the ukulele what I had done to them with the piano, I learned that the ingredients are way more essential than what I thought, way more basic than I thought, and you don’t need very much to affect an audience. All you need is the right presence of being, and any kind of instrument and a voice and a song, and you can captivate anyone and anything. And it kind of released me from my cage that I didn’t even really realise I was in.

I heard this great story that George Harrison used to carry two ukes with him wherever he went, just in case he met somebody who didn’t have one.

Two ukuleles! Yes! I’ve heard that story! And that’s kind of fucking beautiful! And I also love the fact that I’m not a ukulele virtuoso, I never will be, and nobody expects me to be, and nobody ever talks about how great a piano player I was! You know, I don’t think I’ve ever read a single review of one of my recordings or live performances that spoke to my piano playing. I think it’s because I treat the piano like a tool. I would read interviews with people like Tori Amos or whatever, talking about their spiritual relationship with the piano and the keys, and I would just feel totally confused, like I was missing something. Because I don’t give a fuck about the piano. I really don’t! The piano was the instrument that happened to be there in my life when I wanted to make music. But I would happily have exchanged it for a guitar or a harp or anything that I could bang on and sing songs. I think that also explains why I never wanted to practice the piano, I never wanted to learn classical music, I never really wanted to be a good piano player. I wanted to be a good songwriter, so that’s where I put my energy. Instead of staying home and playing the piano I was off doing drugs and having sex and trying to have an interesting life so I’d have stuff to write about!