For some, taking a break from your megaband to make an intimate album of ukulele tunes dreamt up in Hawaii is the definition of success. Others don’t think about it that way.
Buried in the liner notes to Ukulele Songs, Eddie Vedder’s second solo project, is the credit “Album concept by Jerome Turner.” As Pearl Jam obsessives — and they are legion — have long known, Turner is to Vedder as Bernard Shakey is to Neil Young or as Napoleon Dynamite is to Elvis Costello.
Strategic deployment of pseudonyms is not where the similarities between Vedder and those artists end. The 46-year-old Pearl Jam frontman may have turned to these icons earlier in his career for guidance and mentorship, but now, in advance of his band’s 20th anniversary ballyhoo, which will include a Cameron Crowe-directed documentary, a book, and a Labor Day weekend festival, he needs no lessons on how to nurture a long, fruitful career while still feeling free to indulge personal whims.
And Ukulele Songs is nothing if not a personal whim — 16 songs recorded over the course of 13 years with, as advertised, a uke and not much else. And while Vedder may still, after all these years, downplay his success or the notion that such a pet project might be a direct result of the luxury he’s worked so hard to afford, he will grant that it’s been cathartic.
“Well,” Vedder says, on a break from recording with Pearl Jam in L.A., “I’m ready to hear some loud drums and fast bass again.” But wait, there’s more.
I had actually been going to Hawaii for quite a while before I ever picked up the uke. I think with anything new you’re going to get more enjoyment out of it if it comes to you quickly, and the uke facilitates that. I was trying to see if I could get a wider range of sounds out of this thing, which led to being kind of obstinate about only having ukulele on the record.
The songs were largely written in Hawaii and recorded on small cassettes at a kitchen table, then later ones were recorded in Seattle. The connection is isolation. These songs were only intended for myself — they were the inner workings of some emotional ups and downs I didn’t want anyone else to hear. I don’t think I would have wanted to pollute a Pearl Jam record with this. Maybe it would have made the songs bigger or better or legitimized them for a larger audience, but that would have felt like a betrayal — like if you wrote some songs in a garage with your friend and then sold them to Broadway without his permission. It was a strange opportunity, writing sad songs on a happy instrument. It’s not Don Ho, and it doesn’t sound as depressing as it might have with drop-D tuning in a sad power ballad from a band from the ’90s. It’s such a tiny little record, it’s so hard for me to place importance on it.
As for the covers [including “Tonight You Belong to Me” and “Dream a Little Dream”], these were songs that just fell out of the sky for me, sheet music that I bought in little antique shops. I didn’t even know all these songs — I only heard what they sounded like three months ago when we were mixing. But they were all in the same wheelhouse as everything else that was coming out of me.
The call that changed things was from Sean Penn for Into the Wild. He just asked for one song, that turned into a bigger piece, and that turned into what felt like a legitimate reason to go play on my own. You don’t really plan that stuff out, but it just seemed right. And you’ve got to figure, the group’s been together for 20 years now, we’re pretty secure.
In general, it shouldn’t be that fucking hard. We’re appreciative of the opportunities we have, and they were largely self-created. When groups are put on a pedestal and they’ve got the ear of the younger generation, then the labels are going to keep them busy — keep them touring, keep them writing, keep them talking. They’re not going to have the time to stretch out. For us, one of the keys is remembering that it was through the group where these opportunities were created. As strange as it is to look back and see the troubles we were going through, there might have been a positive outcome. Neil Young, Pete Townshend, Tom Petty, or meeting Elvis Costello for the first time years ago in Ireland — in ten minutes of talking to us, they could see things more objectively. I am there for a few younger artists, but I wouldn’t want to say who. It might come down to who gets the bigger hotel room, or what to do when the wives don’t get along. But it shouldn’t be hard to play music with five people who love music.
I have a very limited sense of how valuable I am. If I can be dead honest on this, I don’t think any of us in Pearl Jam have the ability to look back and spend much time thinking about [how we got here]. Life moves fast. As much as you can learn from your history, you have to move forward. But I have a good friend who said to me, “You should be real proud of yourself.” We done good? Not past tense. We’re still doing.
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