Occasionally Social Media in the ukulele community does that thing where it alerts you to something really special.You know it's going to be cool when your Twitter, RSS or Facebook feeds are showing the same thing from lots of friends. Sometimes its just an amusing picture, sometimes a thought provoking news story, or in this case, a video. And it was certainly a video that did the rounds - an impromptu song being performed on the ukulele on the NYC Subway and the brilliant, appreciative reactions of the fellow passengers. If you didn't catch it, I blogged it here and it's a real treat.
That uke player is Jessica Latshaw and I am delighted that she agreed to be quizzed by Got A Ukulele.
Photo Credit - Jessica Latshaw
Jessica describes herself as an artist, a daughter, a sister, a friend and an Aunt. She's been a dancer for just about forever and has been writing music since she was a young teenager. She has performed on stages in Korea, Japan, Canada and all over the USA, but was most recently captured performing that uke song, Ain't My Friend, on the subway. To her surprise that video has since been viewed by over 1.5 million people, she has been asked to perform the song on TV and on more stages and has released the track on iTunes. Way to go!
I caught up with her recently to discuss music, the success of the song and the ukulele.
You are clearly a talented musician and singer - how did that all start for you?
Some of my earliest memories are walking outside, on my parents land in Pennsylvania, and making up my own songs to sing out our animals. I guess that's kind of how it got started. Eventually my parents noticed that could really sing, so started to encourage it. Then I started piano lessons, singing in church and writing music...and, well, here I am.
Some kids don't get on with music lessons - was it something you took to naturally?
Ha ha! Yes and no. I started with piano lessons and pretending to learn how to read the music. Actually I just memorised my Moms (who can play the piano) finger positions on the notes. When my teacher finally discovered my cheating, she made me go back to primer books. And then I quit because I was very frustrated by starting at the beginning again. However, I started piano again at 14, this time because I really wanted to learn - the right way. I had started to play by ear and decided that I needed to learn theory too. That was the right decision. I went on to study piano at collage as well. I also LOVE voice lessons, have always loved them. If I could afford it I would take them regularly.
It's always impressive to see somebody who writes their own songs - when did you write the song Ain't My Friend, and what's the inspiration?
I wrote that in the summer of 2011. The inspiration stemmed from a friendship that became more than friends at one point, and then, for his reasons, he decided to just become friends again. It's a hard, sometimes painful transition to go backwards in a relationship, and I experienced just that.
That video has now been viewed over a million times - how has that changed things for you?
Well I am now working with a manager who has managed Jennifer Lopez and Tori Amos (amongst others). I also have a publicist now. Plus, people are paying me money to play my songs. It's pretty crazy and exciting.
Well, considering your musical background, was this always the goal - did you sense that success was out there waiting to be grabbed?
People have always told me there is something "special" about my performances - whether it was dancing, acting or music. I listened to them gratefully, but also understood that there are many special artists who never get a big break, and that doesn't make them any less talented. Also, the term "success" is viewed differently by different people. There are artists who have sold millions of records and have lived unkind lives or messed up very important relationships through bad choices. I would say that's not successful living. I guess I'd like both - to sell albums AND to love people well and make good choices. That sounds just about as successful as one can be.
Tell me how you got into playing the ukulele, and what models do you play?
Actually, I am a pianist first. I only picked up a uke in the early fall of 2011. Mostly because it's too heavy to tote a keyboard around in the city when I am just going to an open mic and playing two songs, max. So a ukulele was nice and light and I thought it would be fun to write music on a different instrument. I have now had two Cordoba brand ukes. The first one is a little smaller with no pickup. The one I am currently playing is a concert size with a pickup. AWESOME!
What do you say to people who laugh at the uke and think it's just a toy instrument?
Well, they're entitled to their opinion, of course. But I enjoy it, so I do. End of story!
And what else do you play?
As I say above, I play piano, but also, a little guitar.
So, what are your plans for the future, musically speaking?
Making albums, whether that be with a big label, an indie label or independently. Also, playing lots of gigs. More collaborations with musicians to back me up. I recently started working with an incredible percussionist which I am excited about.
I tell my readers many times that playing in front of other people, or with others is about the best way to improve your craft - is that something you agree with?
YES! Just like anything else in life, you don't grow and get better unless you do it - repeatedly. That's the only way to get better. There's no shortcut; there's just practice and repeat and learn from mistakes and grow.
Do you have any tips for beginners just starting out with the ukulele?
Yes - make sure you get something that holds it's tuning. My friend picked up a uke, but it's so cheap that it's intonation is off and so she is too frustrated with the sound of it to really practice. Invest in something that has the ability to make you inspired to play music and learn the instrument.
Finally, I HAVE to ask this. Did you stay in touch with the guy who played the congas with you on the subway video?
I have. Quoom 1 (along with MC Boogie - the guy making the announcements on the subway) actually played 'Ain't My Friend' with me at the Local 269 on the Lower East Side a few weeks ago. It was a nice little reunion and people really dug it!
Thanks so much to Jessica for agreeing to talk to Got A Ukulele. I would urge that you check out her Youtube channel and her Facebook page. She also writes a Blog.
Most importantly of all you can get a copy of the track, Ain't My Friend on iTunes Here.
Best of luck with your future Jess!