Singing With Your Hands: A Conversation with Jake Shimabukuro

By Brent Thompson

Jake Shimabukuro is a living example of how technology can propel an artist’s career in today’s music industry. The Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso found an international audience when – unbeknownst to him – his rendition of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was posted on Youtube in 2006 (the clip has received over 16 million views). During his career, Shimabukuro has collaborated with Jimmy Buffett, Lyle Lovett, Yo-Yo Ma, Jack Johnson and Bette Midler and many others while releasing a steady stream of solo albums. On August 31, Shimabukuro released The Greatest Day [Mailboat Records], a collection that finds original songs sitting alongside cover versions of “Time Of The Season,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “Hallelujah” among others. On Sunday, September 16, he will perform at WorkPlay Theatre. Recently, Shimabukuro spoke with us by phone from his home in Honolulu.

Birmingham Stages: Jake, we are enjoying The Greatest Day. If you will, talk about the album’s body of material.

Jake Shimabukuro: There are six new original tunes and six cover tunes that I’ve never recorded before except for one of them – it’s an original called “Go For Broke.” We had re-recorded it because recently there was a movie called Go For Broke that was released in Hawaii about the Japanese-American soldiers who fought in the Second World War. That served as the theme song for the movie, so we re-recorded it and Jerry Douglas – one of my favorite musicians – makes an appearance on that so we decided to put it on the album.

Birmingham Stages: Do songs still evolve even as you take them into the studio to record them?

Shimabukuro: Yeah, definitely. They’re constantly evolving. It’s hard for me to listen to my own records because, by the time the album comes out, I already have so many new ideas that I always wish I could go back into the studio and re-record. It’s just never-ending – the songs evolve constantly. At some point, you’ve got to realize that, “OK, that was then” and it’s just a snapshot in time. Don’t get hung up on it – keep moving forward and you can use those ideas on the next project.

Birmingham Stages: When you’re recording cover songs, how do you place your own stamp on the material while retaining the original integrity of the song?

Shimabukuro: That’s a tough one. I always want to be respectful to the original, but at the same time I try to put my own spin on things. I try to be true to the melody as much as possible and really draw out the melody. But sometimes it’s hard, especially when it’s the ukulele or anytime you take a vocal tune and you try to quantify it as an instrumental. The human voice is so amazing that there’s all the subtle nuances that [make it] hard to do with a stringed instrument. I think a lot of times horn players or wind players have an easier time because they’re dealing with the breath and it’s that much closer to the human voice. With strings, you’re singing with your hands and your fingers so it’s a totally different approach. So, yeah, I struggle with that – really trying to bring out the melody. I like to do it where I’m singing the song in my head and that really helps me to be more vocal about it.

Birmingham Stages: In writing instrumental material, it must be nice to focus just on the music and not have to create lyrics for it.

Shimabukuro: Yeah, that’s true. In writing instrumental music –  especially when it’s your own piece – you can do whatever you want because it’s your own piece. But also that can be challenging because you can do whatever you want [laughs] and you can get carried away. The bottom line is you just want to be musical and you want to create something that will connect with people. I always lack a little bit of confidence when it comes to writing my own music, but it’s fun and I enjoy it.

Birmingham Stages: An artist once told me that an instrumental piece allows the listener to hear the song in his or her own way. In other words, it’s open to interpretation given there is no vocal story to guide the listener.

Shimabukuro: That’s totally true and I think, with instrumental music, sometimes you have to be very careful with how you title the piece because that can work two ways. You can lead the person or give them a hint, but then sometimes you give them a title and it kind of locks them into a certain feeling.

Birmingham Stages: Early in your career, you utilized Youtube as a platform to get exposure and grow your audience. Some artists love the current climate as there are so many ways to connect with listeners. Others say it’s a challenging time because the amount of content makes it difficult to separate yourself from the crowd. How do you view the current model?

Shimabukuro: I’m very grateful for social media and Youtube and the Internet because I’m pretty certain that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for those avenues. Youtube really started a touring career for me, so that was the catalyst for me. Otherwise, I would never get any kind of radio play. I think that a lot of artists are getting their starts on social media and I think it’s great. Even though there’s a lot out there, I still think if you have something that moves people and it’s great to have that platform to expose what you do. For me, I spend hours on Youtube sometimes just looking up new artists or checking out interviews. I’ve discovered so many new, incredible musicians through social media, so I’m grateful for that. It’s been truly inspiring and it’s just a great new format for the audience to connect with artists.

Birmingham Stages: You deserve a lot of the credit for it, but the ukulele is seeing a surge in popularity these days. For example, music retailers now prominently display ukuleles and ukulele songbooks.

Shimabukuro: Yeah, totally. The bottom line is I’m just a big fan of the ukulele, so when I see it in movies or commercials or just making its way into mainstream media, it’s totally exciting. For me growing up in Hawaii, the ukulele is such a big part of the culture. It’s like the steel guitar – the steel guitar is an indigenous Hawaiian instrument. It was invented in Hawaii and you hear it now so prominently in country music and different styles of music. Surfing was also invented in Hawaii, but now you travel around the world and see such a surfing culture and community evolving in so many different countries. I feel like the ukulele is the next thing that’s making its way out there and I think that’s fantastic.

Jake Shimabukuro will perform at WorkPlay Theatre on Sunday, September 16. Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $35 and can be purchased at

Photo courtesy of the artist.