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What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a ukulele? Maple leaves? Snow? Hockey? Not yet, but if Canada keeps it up, these things may become synonymous with the ukulele the way palm trees and grass skirts are now. First there was J. Chalmers Doane’s innovative use of ukuleles in music education. Then they gave us James Hill and his masterful technique, followed by the yodeling vaudevillian Ralph Shaw. What’s next – charming young Canadian lassies plying us with their witty wordplay and artful strumming?!?!
Too late! If you haven’t already, prepare to meet Zoe, better known as Ukulelezo, from Southern Ontario. Her choice of cover songs, and her earnest yet whimsical performances, have quickly made her a darling of the ukulele Internet set. And now she has started writing original songs that are both clever and hummable.
To learn more about Zoe, we asked her the following questions:
Donnie Bubbles: How did you come to play the ukulele? Had you already been playing another instrument?
Zoe: I literally picked it up on a whim. I was in a music store and they had some of the J. Chalmers Doane cool looking ukuleles on display. I think they look like the love child of a traditional ukulele and a flying V guitar, which is probably why I was immediately drawn to them. I picked one up to give it a strum, and although it wasn't in tune, I was compelled to buy it! I had played guitar for a few years. I'm very much an autodidact, so I taught myself to play in all sorts of alternate tunings, with chords I never bothered to find out the names for, but it never quite felt right. The ukulele felt like coming home.
DB: Surprisingly, with the millions of songs in human history, few have been written about the allure of the moustache, the career aspirations of future bikini models, or love stories featuring people who live with insects. How do you account for your unusual subject matter?
Zoe: I like amusing subjects. I'm drawn to unexpected stories and things that make me laugh. Some of the best songs are written about love and people's own experiences, but I just can't write those kinds of songs. It takes a real bravery to put that out there, and I guess I'm just not ready yet. I appreciate it, but I can't do it. Instead, I will bring you "Urban Dictionary - The Song" and "I want to be like She-Ra". I just made those titles up right now. They have not been written...yet.
DB: As a child of the punk era, it’s heart warming to know that someone younger than me has heard of Jello Biafra. Is this due to your having worked in a record store? Are we, as a society, losing something with the demise of the record store, or is the expanded-reach/lower-entry-bar of the digital age worth the cost?
Zoe: I used to listen to the Dead Kennedys in high school. It was music to skip class to! I'm a fan of a lot different types of music: Jazz, Blues, Folk, Rock, Funk, Electronica, Rap, Bluegrass, Punk, the list goes on and on. It just depends what kind of a mood I'm in that day. I love independent record stores and spending hours trolling through the bins, talking to other customers and finding out what they are into. I hope there will always be a place for them, but the digital age brings music to ears all over the world much more easily. I don't think being a musician is easy, but there are now so many accessible forums and ways to get your music heard! I've discovered so many great bands and songwriters through blogs, Myspace, YouTube and other Internet adventures, that I probably would never have heard of before the digital age. I think it's worth the cost - anything to give musicians more of a chance.
DB: Your duet with Seeso on Angel from Montgomery was described by Woodshed of Ukehunt as “bursting with sexual tension.” Ummm – was the duet experience good for you? Do you have more duets planned?
Zoe: I don't know about that whole "sexual tension" thing. I recorded my part first, by myself, in my room, in another country! It was a lot of fun to do though, and Seeso is a great player, writer and person in general. I've never met him, but hopefully I'll get the chance. It would be great to sing with him live, and we both really love that song, so maybe someday. I don't have any more duets planned right now, but if anyone is interested, I'd love to hear from them!
DB: You are publishing one new song a month for Grumpy Coyote’s Bring the Song Challenge. Do you find that the self-imposed deadlines help focus your creative energies?
Zoe: Yes! I'm a terrible procrastinator. I have a lot of first verses to songs I haven't completed yet. Ideas will run around in my head for a long time. I usually need to force myself to sit down and flesh it out into a full-fledged song. There are always too many distractions, so a deadline, even self imposed, is key to me being at all productive!
A mostly fictional Marvel Comics style origin story of Seeso in honor of his fanboy proclivities: Young Narciso Lobo had a destiny. His father, Dr. Lobo, always thought it would be the family business of medicine, but fate had other plans.
That was the moment Narciso transformed into his alter-ego, Seeso: Ukulele Hero! Lighting fast fingering and perfect picking! Ability to transcend space and time to perform duets around the world! Tabs your favorite song before you can think to look for it! Can convince ukulele girls to perform naked (every superhero needs a weakness!)
Donnie Bubbles: Okay, so the origin story is a little exaggerated. How did you really come to play the ukulele?
Seeso: I'm afraid your story is much more exciting than the truth. I picked one up in the Old Town School of Folk Music here in Chicago one day a couple of years ago, and instantly fell in love with the sound of her. I like the way she felt in my hands, and the portability was a factor. I bought it on the spot and haven't looked back. I've been almost exclusively playing the ukulele ever since. I'm grateful that I have a store in my neighborhood that carried ukes. Most people don't have that luxury.
DB: You have been hosting an Open Mic Night at the Subterranean in Chicago for more than five years. What has this experience taught you as a performer?
Seeso: First and foremost, hosting an open mic for so long has taught me that you have to earn your audience. You can't just play and expect people to quiet down and listen to you. You have to make them shut up. This doesn't always mean being loud and jumping around. Quietness sometimes works better. Usually, in fact.
Playing every week has also taught me how to play nice with other musicians. Jamming etiquette is a lost art. Oftentimes, performers will ask me to play with them during their set, and I've had to learn how not to step all over their parts. Knowing when not to play is just as important as knowing what to play.
Lastly, it has taught me to be myself. Earlier in my performing career, I tried too hard to be somebody that I wasn't. I'd try to sound like Eddie Vedder or whoever. When I found out who I was musically, my audience seemed to respect that. I'll never be able to sing like Otis Redding or write a song like Bill Withers. What I can do, is write from my own experiences, be specific, and sing in my own voice. It may sound obvious, but it's a discovery that not many musicians make. I'm grateful that I was able to identify the problem, and now I can continue down the road of self-actualization.
DB: While scouring the Internet for details about you, I stumbled on a table read you did for the Frank Chin play, The Chickencoop Chinaman, and it was a very convincing performance. Was the play ever produced? Is acting something you are pursuing?
Seeso: I've actually been a proud member of the Actor's Equity Association for about 5 years now. I do theater here in Chicago. That particular play was never produced, but I have done work for that company (A Squared Theatre Workshop) in the past. Acting is my first passion, music comes second.
My proudest theater moment was the production of "The Romance of Magno Rubio" at the Victory Gardens in Chicago. We were nominated for two Jeff awards, which is like New York's Tony awards. The play is about Filipino migrant farm workers in California in the 1930's.
DB: From when you were first learning the ukulele, can you remember one skill or lesson that you felt had the biggest impact on your playing ability?
Seeso: The one lesson that helped me was to just know that the ukulele is a different animal, a different beast. You have to be in a certain headspace when you play the uke. I'd been a guitar and piano player for years, so I had to understand that I wasn't going to be able to play it like a guitar. If you go in expecting a guitar sound, you'll always be disappointed. Once you accept that, you can let the ukulele be what it is. The ukulele is the most pleasing sounding instrument in the world. If I had to choose one instrument to play for the rest of my life, it would be the deceptively simple, versatile, humble ukulele.
DB: What new adventures can we expect from you this year?
Seeso: I'm finally going to record my album this year. It's tentatively titled, "Elvis and Autumn Leaves." Look for it to be released in late Spring, early Summer. I'm working on new songs at the moment, and I'll post them on YouTube when they're ready for human consumption. I've also got some more collaboration videos planned. They're great fun.
Speaking of collaborations, the collab that I did with Twank Star on "Thank You For Leaving Me" is available now on iTunes. Just go to:
Twank is the newest addition to T-Pain's Nappy Boy record label, so I have high hopes for that little tune. Keep your fingers crossed! I'm really proud of that little song that could. I know it's against all odds to have a hit ukulele hip hop song, but who knows? Stranger things have happened.
If you'll allow me the indulgence, I'd just like to take some time to thank all my YouTube subscribers. The effect of your support has been immeasurable. I was just about to give music up, really. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Here in frigid Chicago, I'm warm and cozy when I read your comments and emails.
There are several ways to stay up to date with my shenanigans -
Also, find me on Facebook! Just search for "Narciso Lobo."