Brittni Paiva – Built for Speed

Whether behind the wheel of a car or in front of a crowd, ukulele virtuoso Brittni Paiva always seems to be going places — and fast.

As impressively fast as Brittni Paiva can be at running her fingers along the neck of an ukulele — her digits firing away like pistons in an engine while navigating each fret with the sort of precision and control that makes the instrument purr as few can — there is only one place other than on a stage where her need for speed is even greater: behind the wheel of one of her souped-up automobiles, with one foot on the pedal and that trusty stick shift in hand.

She’s been on this car-racing trip for a few years now (“It’s all legal racing, of course,” she insists), bitten by the speed bug shortly after meeting the beau of her dreams, Branden, a skilled auto mechanics technician. The couple wed in 2008, and since then it’s been a marriage made for those heavenly Big Island racetracks.

“He’s the builder; I’m the driver. And I think he’s mostly confident in my driving skills,” Paiva says, laughing.

“Car racing is a completely different rush for me,” continues the Hilo native, who owns a ’95 Toyota Tercel and a 2005 Mazda 3 Hatchback — the former used for drag racing, the latter for autocross. “I didn’t think I would like the speed. But now I don’t want to stop.”

She shouldn’t. After all, car handling is a skill, one that certainly came in handy for Paiva during a recent brush with disaster on a wet Big Island roadway.

“It was a pretty slick surface,” she recalls. “My car started to fishtail, but I was able to recover. I don’t think I would have been able to avoid crashing the car were it not for my autocross training.”

Yet as adept as she has become at driving fast, fans shouldn’t worry about Paiva changing career lanes any time soon. Car racing may be a passion, but it’s also more of a career diversion for Paiva, who still knows what really revs her engine: music. Her latest CD, Tell U What, is an impressive collection of jazz, R&B, pop, reggae and classically influenced tunes — all of which were engineered, arranged and produced by Grammy-award winning saxophonist Tom Scott, the conductor and bandleader of the West Coast jazz fusion ensemble The L.A. Express. Also joining Paiva (who captured the Na Hoku Hanohano Award in 2005 for “Most Promising Artist”) on this, her fifth album as an instrumental soloist, are veteran musicians such as Michael McDonald and Ray Parker Jr. McDonald’s soulful baritone vocals can be heard on the album’s second track I Keep Forgettin’, an adapted version of a song the former Doobie Brothers member released as a solo artist three decades ago.

“Believe it or not, Justin Bieber is in my CD player. There aren’t a whole lot of artists out there who give me goosebumps, but he does.”

“I met Michael on Maui after a show, and he told me that if I ever needed help with song tracks, to let him know,” Paiva says. “I decided to take him up on the offer.” Musical Notes tracked down the 23-year-old ukulele virtuoso with the quick smile shortly before she embarked on a trip to Japan for more performances, and got her to opine about such topics as Justin Bieber, wearing loud clothes on stage and, of course, the ukulele.

MN: You’re quite versatile as an instrumentalist. Aside from the ukulele, you’re skilled at playing the guitar, drums and bass, to name a few. Do you have a favorite instrument beside the ukulele?

BP: It’s the bass. I’m actually a self-taught player, spending countless hours on YouTube listening to just about any bassist and playing grooves. One of my biggest influences has been Tal Wilkenfeld. She’s amazing.

MN: Does that mean that you hear more than just the ukulele when composing music?

BP: Definitely. I hear everything together. Sometimes it gets frustrating, though, because I can’t always reproduce what’s going on inside my head.

MN: So what music, other than your own, is going on inside your head these days?

BP: Believe it or not, Justin Bieber is in my CD player. There aren’t a whole lot of artists out there who give me goosebumps, but he does.

MN: I think a lot of 11-, 12- and 13-year-old girls would appreciate that comment about the Biebs. Unfortunately, they won’t learn about it here because, well, no one in those age groups reads my column.

BP: You know, a lot of people use Justin Bieber as a punchline, but I don’t — not after I saw his DVD. He’s an amazing talent, and I have a whole new appreciation for what he does.

MN: Let me say that I have a whole new appreciation for you after discovering that you wouldn’t be so shy and reserved about your wardrobe on stage.

BP: Oh, yeah! I don’t mind performing in a hot pink shirt, neon green pants and sparkly shoes. Even if I look goofy, I don’t care. I really like being different.

MN: So, no wardrobe is too big for you, eh? Does the same hold true for the ukulele?

BP: I don’t ever want to shrink the ukulele. My feeling is there are no limits when it comes to playing it. So yes, there’s no song that’s too big for the ukulele.

MN: What about Cliffs of Dover by guitar wizard Eric Johnson? Can you play that? Or is it too fast?

BP: I can play that. In fact, I was warming up with that song at the Namm Show in Anaheim earlier this year when a bunch of other performing guitarists looked over at me and said, “You can play that — ON AN UKULELE?!”