Del Rey has been a reader of The Ukulele Entertainer eNewsletter since it began in 2009.
In How to be Del Rey Part 1 she told us about her start as a musician: learning classical guitar from the TV in the rec. room of the trailer court where she lived. Today she talks about her life as a gigging musician and her introduction to the ukulele.
In case you missed Part 1 you can find it on my Blog page.
I did a little experiment.
I’m always trying to get things to be different: changing tempos and keys so that the segues are really differentiated.
But I opened for Leo Kottke: and he plays a lot of things in the same key. He played four songs at a similar tempo and in the same key. So, I tried that the next time. And nobody noticed. It was fine.
I tend to write songs in a fairly traditional mode. Something like Dancehall Shuffle you’ve heard me play a million times. But it’s an original song that sounds like an old song: partly because of the fingerpicking thing. Sometimes I play with a couple of really highbrow jazz guys, who will deign to be my sidemen for a band gig, and they have more ideas per song than I have per week. They are just so full of sounds and ideas and tempos and I’m always: “Ding-dang ding-dang.” [Del imitates sound of alternating thumb picking]
I’m a member of a book club called the Bushwick Book Club. Bushwick is a suburb of New York and this guy Geoff lived there for a while and moved back to Seattle to get married. But he missed the book club so much that he started it here – it’s wonderful. We’re all songwriters. We all read the book and then we put on a show of original songs about the book. I’ve done some songs that are outside of my genre. We’re always doing a wide variety of books. We did a Young Adult novel Akata Witch, and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, we’ve done Shakespeare too: it’s really wide.
I use a one microphone setup. It’s made my life so much better. When you have a good sound guy – who knows what he’s doing – it’s incredible. But when you have a lousy sound guy it’s no lousier than if he was ****ing up your monitor mix. One of the ways musicians demonstrate neurosis is by getting really involved in sound checks. I know a couple of my colleagues for whom the soundcheck is like a diva performance: getting the monitors ‘just so’ and getting this tone and that… I’m like, “People, don’t play at such a high volume, and listen to yourself – you don’t need the sound guy.”
The Catalyst venue in Santa Cruz got some pretty major acts. It was just off the I5 corridor and enough out of the major markets so really big bands would play there on an off-night on their way up to a gig in San Francisco. And my manager, Johnny – Genial Johnny – would call up Beau Tie, the booker. They’d talk baseball for about an hour and then Johnny would say, “Okay, what have you got for me?”
Then Beau would pencil me in for random dates which would always be these interesting, incredibly disparate gigs. I opened for Exene from the band X, I opened for the Sun Ra Arkestra. That was really fun, all these little old black guys in daishikis, with their horns. Sun Ra would call a tune, and since they were playing from charts, all these charts would fly into the air while they were looking for the right chart and then boom, they would hit and would play the song. Fun to watch. They sounded great. I’ve opened for Johnny Winter and for Leo Kottke a couple of times. I’ve been on a lot of bills with lots of people.
The Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum brought Azo Bell over to their Uke Expo 2002 in Montclair, New Jersey. I was not yet playing ukulele professionally, and did not yet have my resonator uke, but seeing Azo play made me really interested in it. I was like ‘Oh man, this is really a creative instrument’.
But it took me a little while to actually start thinking like a ukulele player. And James Hill noticed. After about the third or fourth event we had done together, he’s like, “Hmmm, you’re really starting to think like a ukulele player now.”
I think I was using the re-entrant string in a different way and starting to think about chords in a little bit different way …I stopped thinking so much like a guitar player in how I was setting things on the ukulele. But it did take a little bit. And I really object to people that just copy the thing that you do on guitar, in E – and do it in A on a ukulele – that doesn’t sound good.
My bands included The Yes Yes Boys and Del Rey and The Blues Gators (which was just me, a harmonica player and a bass player). I just loved having The Yes Yes Boys I thought that was a great band. I would have liked to have had it for a lot longer. But, you know, that’s four hotel rooms and it’s four plane tickets. One big gig will pay enough, but then all the little gigs don’t. So, one of the ways that I’ve managed to make a living as a musician is I generally haven’t had bands – I’ve just always worked in small groups and by myself. Solo playing puts a lot of pressure on you to really do an interesting show. There’s nobody up there but you so you’d better be interesting.
It’s a really common thing in my genre of music for people to partner up: both for musical reasons and because you’re out in this big scary world and you’re just a little poor traveller. Acts like Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe, Charley Patton & Son House or the ukulele player Little Laura Dukes and Robert Nighthawk. In partnership they were able to play rough venues like street corners, turpentine camps, or the ferry landing on Lake Cormorant, Mississippi. The music I love is made by poor people – for poor people
I went to Australia I think six times. That was before they got their arts councils defunded. When they had funding for the arts they could afford to bring you in and pay accommodation. Festivals like Woodford and Port Faerie were just fabulous. Really fun festivals. Thoughtfully programmed with people from all over the world. Vancouver was like that too: a truly multicultural setting with Tuvan throat singers cheek by jowl with some guy from Mississippi – I love stuff like that.
You could watch act after act and it was all incredible world class stuff but each is really different. You know it’s not just a blues festival and not just a one instrument event. I do find the concept of the ukulele being the only instrument quite constraining – musically. It’s fine as a teaching thing but the idea that your little instrument is the only thing… Plus, in a mixed setting the ukulele doesn’t get coddled. Nobody gets real quiet when you take a solo, so you have to get loud. It’s like the big kids swim. You have to get in there and make some noise you can’t just be like, “Wee wee wee wee.”
I really like what I do. There’s always tons of room for improvement to be a better musician – to hear more, to play more that you hear. My goal is so that when I sing, “[Del sings a jazzy phrase]” I can play, “[she sings the same jazzy phrase again]” without having to arrange it note by note. My arrangements are sophisticated, but I want to be able to do that more in real time. That’s what I’m working on. So, my path is pretty straight ahead. Yeah, more and deeper, that’s about it.
Like James saying to me, “Oh you’re starting to think like a ukulele player.” I hadn’t realised it but yeah that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m not just trying to do the same old thing in a new place, I’m trying to do the thing that’s for the new place.
I just saw Katherine Bradford, who is a Maine painter, describing how her mother asked her, “How long is this painting thing gonna last? …you have young children and a husband!”
So, she said, “Mom, I just want to paint one really good painting.”
Then she gets this really devilish look and says, “And that’s lasted me as my artistic credo for the past fifty years!”
That’s a really good attitude.
You can have some sort of balance between being pleased with yourself and that feeling of, “I could do better”. There’s a balance, because the people that hate every single thing they do – that’s neurotic. And the people that are satisfied with every single thing they do – that’s no good either. It’s nice where you like it but you want to keep making it a little better.
But leaving people wanting more – that’s the best. Don’t take your whole time, stop a couple of minutes short.
You can find out more about Del Rey at: www.delreyplays.com
and her albums are available as downloads from: www.hobemianrecords.com