I’ve had, friend of the blog, PaulC nudging me in the direction of Shelley O’Brien for some time now. And I’m very glad he did. She has a silky, jazz-inflected voice and has a way with a tune. She’s recently released an album You, Me and the Birds and caused a few members of the ukulele community to get hot under the collar with this article. So I fired some questions at her to find out more.
You spent your childhood between two ukulele centres: Hawaii and Canada. Which of those was the biggest factor in you picking up the uke?
Hawaii. Growing up in the dark cold winters of Northern BC, my family planned an escape to Hawaii every other Christmas. It was paradise to me – and getting on a plane in cold BC and getting off to the smell of Hawaiian flowers was magic. Don Ho on the turntable for the rest of the year! Also – according to my parents I was made in Hawaii… :)
How does the ukulele influence the type of songs you write?
I’ve been a piano player since I was three years old, so it had always been the instrument I wrote on. When I picked up a ukulele and started playing 3 years ago (never even having played guitar), it completely changed my world…Four strings! Beautiful sound! Strumming! I would say it led me to some really upbeat and happy chord changes and melodies. Even if the theme of the song is sad or melancholy lyrically, the Uke adds an undeniable element of hope and possibility…
Your songs have an old-school jazz sound. Who inspires you?
When I was booked in 2004 for my first pro gig at the Drake Hotel in Toronto, I was commissioned to learn a bunch of old jazz tunes (ok, ok, I suggested it). I love these old tunes from the american songbook! Following that I started getting bookings on ships, and expanded my repertoire, always with a core of jazz standards from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s – I suppose this was the inspiration for that hint on the album. Lyrically, I like to write about the comings and goings of people, things, relationships – longing for what you want, saying goodbye…on “you, me and the birds” there is a song called “emily, coming and going” which is about a 7-year-old who adapts to living with a father who persues his dreams without her on the other side of the country. another song is “with a will, margerie” which is about a love affair I have with a glacier in Alaska.
I notice you’ve worked the cruise ships. How do you approach performing for that sort of audience?
I do my best to approach all audiences with a combo of humility and gratitude. Contrary to what people may think, cruise ship audiences have been so varied and diverse. In one cruise I could get a couple in their 80’s waltzing as I played an old jazz tune, a young group of women asking me about one of my original songs, and a child sitting beside me humming along to “let it be”. Cruise ships were also the ideal workshop for me – all the songs on the album had their chance to be heard many times as I got opinions of listeners heading up to alaska.
Generally it seems people want to connect to something within you – no matter what the age.
How can people get hold of your music?
What can we expect from you in the future?
More music! A tour in Ontario in the fall, a gorilla hotel room showcase at OCFF, and next year, folk festivals and another trip to Europe.
Winter is coming, and I am busy writing songs for a new album already….but also plan on frequenting the weekly Corktown Ukulele Jam as often as possible…