‘Professional party starter’
The colorful musical world of Heather Marie Ellison
To get a sense of how immersed Bay Area transplant Heather Marie Ellison has become in the local music scene, take a look at this month’s entertainment calendar in Chico: March 13 she hits the stage at The Maltese under her solo moniker, Uni and Her Ukelele; March 26 she joins the rag-tag acoustic crew the October Coalition (aka The Family Band) at Blackbird; two nights later (March 28), she heads back to Blackbird to sing and play synth in disco-pop duo Astronaut Ice Cream; and the following day (March 29), it’s on to playing “shmaltzy love songs” with her brand-new duo The Magic Moments during Sunday brunch at Tender Loving Cafe.
That’s not counting her hosting gig for the Kids Share & Tell open mic at Blackbird last weekend or the fact that she’s currently teaching 15 students ukulele and piano.
Ellison has been in Chico a little more than two years, and she’s already become one of the more recognizable faces on the local scene, partly because she usually doesn’t turn down a project.
“I like community, [and] this is a really good way to make friends,” Ellison said during a recent interview. “You have to just be open. Being close-minded or not up for whatever is not going to get you very far.”
Of course, the main reason she’s on stage so much is that she is a great performer. Ellison has the range to deliver a sweet and simple folk tune and turn right around and belt out a pop standard with the chops of a vintage jazz singer, and her emotional commitment to the moment makes for an engaging musical experience. It also doesn’t hurt that her eclectic sense of style—ranging from Grand Ole Opry cowgirl to rainbow-and-glitter Jazzercise instructor—is always fun and on point.
None of that is by accident. Ellison came to Chico with a world of musical experience, starting with her childhood years in Santa Rosa.
“I’ve always been in love with music. I love listening to music and I love performing,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid of being on stage, so they’d give me little solos in the kid groups I was in. I just would sing in front of the mirror for hours. It was always in me.”
By the age of 15, Ellison was in her first band, singing ’90s country covers in a regularly gigging group. “I got used to playing four-hour gigs. So, from the get-go, I was training to be a show pony,” she said.
As a young adult, she graduated to legit show business when she was discovered by R&B pioneer Johnny Otis, the late Rock & Roll of Hall of Famer who wrote, among many other songs, the early rock hit “Willie and the Hand Jive.” Ellison joined The Johnny Otis Show as a singer and had the opportunity to open for the likes of James Brown and Ray Charles and get schooled in the art of showmanship along the way.
“I learned so much. [Johnny] just said what needed to be said. If I was doing something that wasn’t to his liking, he would nip it in the bud,” Ellison recalled. “I would dance a lot, and then I couldn’t sing as well because … I just needed to jump rope all the time to get conditioned for singing and dancing. He would be like, calm it down, disco dancer.”
During her time with Otis, she moved to Hollywood and split her time between performances and working at Amoeba Music. “It was a really sweet spot in my life. You know, some people go to college, and I went to L.A. and worked at Amoeba and rang up rock stars.”
It was at the end of her time in So Cal—just before moving to San Francisco and pursuing a solo career in earnest—that Ellison created her Uni and Her Ukelele persona. She picked up her first ukulele at the legendary McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica.
“I wanted it so bad, and then I just couldn’t put it down,” she said. “I started making up songs to go with the chords I was learning.”
The original songs she created (“My Favorite Letter is U,” “La La Happy Too!”) were pure pop, and during the mid-2000s Ellison took her compact act and dove right into the DIY mindset, playing shows anywhere—cafes, rock clubs, burlesque shows—burning her own CDs, and booking tours across the U.S. and all over the world, from Europe to New Zealand. She recorded three albums and an EP with various uke-led combos.
Chico was a regular stop during her Uni travels, so when San Francisco became too expensive, she decided to come to this more affordable city that already knew her fairly well.
“Everything here is word of mouth,” Ellison said when reflecting on how she’s found herself in one creative situation after another. “I’ve been so lucky and have had amazing opportunities,” she added.
On Facebook, Ellison lists her occupation as “Musician/Professional Party Starter.” During her relatively short time in Chico, she has been an instigator in an inclusive way, providing a spark, then getting everyone else—audiences and other artists—involved in fanning the flames.
“You gotta be the first one on the dance floor to show the way,” Ellison said, before adding with a laugh, “I’ll be the first, then I’ll be the first to leave, too.”