I recently had the pleasure of interviewing ukulele player, singer songwriter and general good egg Derek Reynolds. Derek recently released his superb ukulele album 'Sanctuary', which mixes exceptional songwriting skills with high level ukulele playing. It was great to chat to someone else mad enough to release a ukulele album. I thoroughly recommend checking the album out if you are a ukulele fan, or just a fan of good music in general. Here's what Derek had to say when I chatted to him :
Hi Derek, can you tell us when you started playing ukulele?
Thanks for asking, that is a funny story. I had been a professional bass player my whole life and quit after 35 years because it was taking too much of my time. The hours spent preparing for a gig, setting up, tearing down, travelling to and from shows and learning songs (when I was subbing) all was just a terrible return on investment. :) So I tried to stop. I even sold all of my gear so I wouldn’t be tempted. That lasted a whole year… Videos of my bass player past can be laughed at here: https://unexpected-ukulele.weebly.com/links-to-the-past.html
Skip to February 2015 and I picked up a cheap soprano uke to learn the Nat King Cole tune That’s All. I was going to play it for my wife on our annual anniversary adventure trip in July, I had never played a uke before but the 4 strings made sense to my bass player brain. By the time we went I knew 12 songs and it just kinda rolled out of control from there.
Prior to ukulele, could you play any other instruments?
Let’s see, my music education went something like this. 10 years old I learned trombone, 12 got my first bass guitar, 15 started dabbling very poorly on guitar to write songs, 16 started playing drums, and then ukulele at 50… unexpected to say the least.
On your album, there is a lot of finger picking and strumming, how would you describe your style?
Well there is a little finger picking and a lot of strumming, they both have a very important role for different reasons. I find the finger picking to add a very nice dimension texturally for breaks and intros but in In my head I am still writing songs for a band and the best way I can duplicate the rhythmic complexities of that is to strum, probably a little too hard. As a bass player I always considered myself just a frustrated drummer (broke a lot of strings) and I guess that is still the case.
I am working on my finger picking abilities constantly and am hopefully getting better and will feature it more. It does not come naturally to my bass player fingers but the more capability I have the better I can serve the songs.
I much prefer to use nails than a pick, what is your stance on this?
Ahh don’t get me started… I am a purist. I think the organic nature of fingers on strings lends SO much to the feel of the song. What you can do dancing your thumb one way and your fingers the other simultaneously is the secret to adding a much more multi-layered sound to what is a very simple 4 string instrument. I’m all about the fingers.
Having made a ukulele album myself, I know it can be quite challenging to get the ukulele to sound ‘big’ without losing its integrity. Your album definitely achieves this, did you have to add much reverb to the final mix?
Wow, thank you very much! I really worked at this, Googled it, you tubed it, talked to producers, bounced it off other musicians, etc… I was using the simplest of setups and did not really have the right mics so you hit the nail on the head. Verb-baby! I was trying to be VERY minimal with my production (the opposite of what I usually do) so I didn’t want it to sound super wet like it was produced by Alan Parsons. I would start with a nice large-room verb or verb-delay combo and just bring it in enough to feel the effect but not make it step on instrument, then I would add a bit to the overall track at mixdown. It’s all very touchy and fiddly and hopefully it sounds like there are less effects than there actually is… if that makes sense.
Are you a high g or a low G man?
In ukulele terms I swing both ways and then some. It’s all about what serves the song and some just sound better on one or the other. On SANCTUARY there are 4 songs played high G, 3 on low G and 2 with my 6 -string.
What size ukulele do you prefer to play?
For my big hands and the tone I really prefer tenor. My ex-bass player fingers work better on it and has a little guitar vibe without losing it’s uke sound.
Do you have any preferred makes of ukulele?
So many really good builders around, and If I had more money this would be a different conversation. But that is the GREAT thing about our little chosen instrument, you can get SO much without going broke. I have a Kala all solid spruce/rosewood that just blows me away for the cost. I have a solid Mango Pono and a Kala laminate 6-string that I would like to upgrade.
But I am really interested in all of the local luthiers that make ukes. They are doing so many amazing things and just here in the immediate Portland Oregon area we have 4 amazing builders. Phil Riggio, Mya-Moe, Beansprout and Char Lutheries. I wish I could get an instrument from each...
On the album it has a very clear sound, what recording equipment did you use?
My DAW was StudioOne Prime and I used an AKG Perception 100 Condenser and a Blue Encore 100 Cardioid mic. Effects were all the standard on-board stuff that came with the software. Like I said, minimal. It was very much about mic placement, which varied with each instrument.
It sounds like most of the album is not multi layered – did you do much multi tracking at all?
I started out with the goal of a fully multi tracked album with drums, bass, and everything but eventually pulled it back, waaaay back. A had played a few very intimate performances and the feedback from these made me realize that I should just let the songs speak for themselves. So I only added what I thought really needed to be there to convey the proper emotion for the song itself. That was SO hard for me to do. I still hear a fully formed pop-radio productions of the songs in my head when I hear the tracks. Someday...
On the album, lots of the songs sound like they have been played on a ukulele with steel strings, is this the case?
Only a steel wound low G on my Pono and low A on my 6-string the rest is all nylon.
Lots of the songs have fantastic ukulele intros, and then in comes the singing. Do you always start with the music first?
Yes I do, and thank you again. I may have a song lyric idea but nothing gets formed structure or melody-wise until the music is starting to connect. And I am a firm believer in the musical intro, it’s a lost art. Get to the hook get to the hook… blah blah blah. I really love it when I can set the mood and then come in with the ideas and find a bit of tension before the hook drops. I don’t always achieve that but it is usually my goal.
'On the plateau' is one of my favourite tracks from the album. It has some almost Jazz sounding chords in it, and a gorgeous descending melody line in at 2 minutes 18. What was the idea behind the track?
April 14 2018 I was hiking Mosier Plateau above Mosier Oregon in the Columbia River Gorge. I happened to have my 6-string with me and the flowers were out in a multi-colored carpet all over the hillside. I sat down under a tree with a view of the Gorge and the breeze blowing the grass into Miyazaki-like waves and that tune just came out of me. The first 2 sections were complete by the time I headed back down. That part you mention came the following week as I was going through pictures from that day and developing the song more, it became the focal point of the tune. So in the final arrangement the whole arc of the melody builds to that point and then releases. I am very happy with the way it turned out, it’s also one of my faves.
Something that always intrigues me is who people’s influences are. Who are your favourite artists and who are your favourite ukulele players?
I imagine this question can have a wild variety of answers. I am a huge fan of The Decemberists, The Foals, Jamiroquai, Jarle Bernhoft, Foo Fighters, 70’s Funk bands, The Cure King’s X, Prince, Kings Of Leon, Frank Sinatra, ... it gets pretty diverse. As for influences and/or favourite ukulele or acoustic players that is a very different list. Jack Johnson, Vance Joy, David Gates and Bread, Carole King, John Mayer, Eddie Vedder’s Ukulele Songs and Jason Mraz.
Some of your playing to me had a little but of Lyle Ritz influence to it – he is a player I admire so much, I wondered how aware of his work you are?
Well, I am aware now! And geez, I am also very humbled. My interesting /jazz-ish chords are born of my constantly looking for a simple interesting movement in a song. It is impossible to avoid a certain amount of “really your playing G again?” in my head so I try to reach somewhere else and am sometimes successful. Lyle is amazing and I will be investigating more, thank you.
What does the future hold for you?
Honestly I really don’t know. Being a solo acoustic artist in a very subjective marketplace is challenging and I try to take a zen approach and explore whatever paths that are presented to me to my fullest ability. I really appreciate the good vibes I get and the connection with humanity that I never had playing bass in a band. I am currently just hanging on to my new concept of doing music full-time, but as long as I can continue having music be my driving force I will be overjoyed with wherever it takes me.