Give me a uke!
Uni and Her Ukelele drops the “U” and hops on the Glamtrak
Heather Marie Ellison, aka Uni, is something of a cross between cultish (and coltish) ‘50s pin-up model Bettie Page and My Little Pony, specifically the pony named Pinkie Pie. Throw in the instrument brought to a peculiar fame in the ‘60s by Tiny Tim and you’ve got, well, Uni and Her Ukelele (more later on why she spells it that way), the sexy, campy, child-like, frilly-costumed, tough girlie-girl who sings sweetly and plays a pink ukulele named Sally Luka. Check out Uni’s endearing version of “Mahalo Maui Rose” on her 2006 album My Favorite Letter Is U.
The CN&R caught up with Uni—who lists her hometown on her MySpace page as “The Shimmering Forest/San Francisco/Hollywood"—by e-mail, finding it pretty much impossible to get hold of her by phone since she’s been riding the train (and other vehicles) around the country with her friend and co-performer Mariel a la Mode, a third-generation circus performer, for her “Hobo-Erotic Glamtrak Tour.”
CN&R: You’re a mix of serious musician/songwriter and funky, campy actress. Who are your three favorite artists/entertainers of all time?
Uni: Good question. I would say my favorite singer/songwriters, actor/actresses are Dolly Parton, Olivia Newton-John, Prince and, if I could have one more, Miss Piggy. I love all the elements of performance. The dynamics or the songs, set changes, costumes, makeup. I also don’t like being all of one thing. I wouldn’t say I’m always serious, but I’m not always funny. I like all the emotions. They make up the whole feeling of life!
You go by the name Uni because you love unicorns so much, right? What is it about unicorns?
Uni is short for unicorn. When I started my Uni and Her Ukelele project, I started off learning chords and making up little jingles about unicorns and mermaids, and fun ditties. So I thought: Unicorns and ukuleles go well together.
So, does “Shimmering Forest” also have to do with unicorns?
I tell people that’s where I come from. It’s a place in my imagination where there is harmony between environment and living creatures.
How old are you? How long have you been playing the ukulele?
A lady never says her age. I might have to lie about it someday when I’m famous, so let’s just say I look younger than I am. I have been playing the ukulele for three years now. I got it for a Christmas present, and we all know that Christmas is the best! The ukulele has given me the opportunity to write songs, and travel. It has blown my mind. I am madly in love with it, and I hope that other people get hip to the magical power of the ukulele.
What’s with the popularity of the ukulele?
It’s funny you say the ukulele is popular. Most people who see me carrying it around ask me if it’s a violin. I would say that the ukulele is getting more popular because it’s a super-melodic, fun instrument to play. I love it ‘cause I can write songs on it, and tour all over the place. It’s my instrument of choice.
Tell me something about your “Hobo-Erotic Glamtrak Tour.” How did it come about?
The “Glamtrak Tour” is something that Mariel a la Mode and myself came up with. We perform together a lot in California. We thought why not take our sparkly goodness on the road. Why not really see this country while we are at it? We had planned on taking the Amtrak to all our destinations; that changed when we were making our final plans. It’s more of a “Planes, Trains and Greyhound-mobiles Tour,” but Glamtrak sounds much better.
Who’s traveling with you, besides Mariel? Got any interesting train-travel stories?
It’s just me and Mariel. We have made friends with some interesting characters, that’s for sure. All our blogs are on our MySpace pages. It’s worth the read!
Amtrak is notorious for running late. Has that caused any problems on your tour?
Amtrak tends to run behind schedule. We were two hours late to Phoenix. In Austin our train was an hour late. It’s annoying, but we planned for it on this trip, so we were never late to a show.
How long have you known Mariel? How did you meet her?
Mariel and I met about a year ago. I’d say we instantly liked each other and started doing shows together at Club Unicornbread [in San Francisco]. We do mini-tours to Fresno, Merced and L.A.
You and Mariel are double-billed for this tour—how does that work?
Mariel does singing, burlesque and trapeze. I sing and play the ukulele. During a set we take turns on the stage. We do a set as short as 15 minutes to an hour. We are cool like that.
You have an opening band at the Crux gig in Chico, fellow uke players Dick and Jane. How’d you get hooked up with them?
I have played with Dick and Jane a few times. We played together at the Crux, and I asked them to play Club Unicornbread in San Francisco. On this tour we have done more cabaret-style gig situations. I love opening up for bands. I wouldn’t mind opening up for the Flaming Lips or Daniel Johnston some day. Just putting that out to the universe.
Weirdest venue so far?
The City Museum in St. Louis. But then we were sitting at the Longbranch Coffeehouse [in Carbondale, Ill.] just about to do our show, and it seems that “burlesque” is a bad word. Mariel is about to change that.
You’ve played in Europe. How do European audiences compare to American ones?
I played all over England, Scotland, Germany and Spain. It was magical. One of the best things was that I put my mind to it and I did it. I can’t wait to go back. My tours in the States have been great, but not as compelling as the ones in Europe, except for Fresno, and Pendleton, Ore. Those towns rule! I am hoping the more I tour the States, the more popular my music gets, and I will feel no difference between the audiences in the States and Europe.
If your favorite letter is “U,” why do you choose the less common (at least in the United States) spelling of your instrument: ukelele instead of ukulele?
My favorite letter is U. Or You! I picked the spelling of the ukulele ‘cause when I write it in cursive, I like how the E’s and L’s loop together.
That guy stole it. I was in Spain, and I went to check my e-mail. I couldn’t get on MySpace, and really thought nothing of it. Then I checked my e-mail, and all my friends had e-mailed me to see if I was alive. This happened at the end of my tour, and it was quite heartbreaking for me. I really rely heavily on MySpace for promotion and keeping in touch with fans. Friends and fans wrote in and asked for my page back. MySpace was, like, too bad, and I had to start over. It’s hard letting go of something I worked so hard on, but I won’t let that stop me. I’ve got sparkles to sprinkle all over the land. I don’t need to cry over spilled milk. Ding!