Far out, Taimane
Uke virtuoso Taimane Gardner blasts off with an album that’s simply out of this world
Frequent traveler Taimane Gardner is on a real trip lately — and I’m not referring to her stopovers in France, Brazil, Tahiti or any other terrestrial locale she routinely visits either. Rather, I’m talking about her trippin’ on Mars, Jupiter and Venus.
Yep. Really far-out stuff.
With her latest album, We Are Made of Stars, Gardner proves she won’t be bound by the gravitational pull of her past. In bravely departing from her work as an out-of-this-world ukulele whiz who principally performs medleys of well-known tunes — ever heard her rip through a Bach or Led Zeppelin classic? — Gardner has chosen to soar off into unexplored parts of her music cosmos. Oh, the uke still burns brightly as the nexus of the album, as do her lightning-fast finger-picking skills. But Gardner believes the relatively uncharted portions of her universe — particularly songs written about her interests in astronomy, astrology and “my connection to nature” — needed to be probed further, even if the subject matter and its accompanying foreign sounds turn out to be a bit out there for longtime admirers.
“I’m not hiding behind ukulele cover tunes with this album or playing the kind of songs ukulele players typically play,” she tells me. “You know, I went to France recently to perform and they didn’t want any covers from me — they wanted originals, because they were tired of hearing things that have already been done.
“The truth is, I’m very proud of this album because it’s fully who I am,” adds Gardner, 25. “It may be a little weird for some people, but again, I’m very proud of it.”
The 12-track LP, which took less than a month to record at Blue Planet Sound and Rendez-Vous Recording studios, features a number of firsts for Gardner, who cut her teeth as a streetside performer along Kalakaua Avenue while still in elementary school, before Don Ho discovered her and turned the youngster not only into a regular at his shows in Waikiki, but a bona fide star.
“This is my first album in which I’ve self-produced, self-funded and self-recorded everything,” she explains. It also happens to be the first time she’s showcasing her voice on an album, and doing so in multiple languages. “I perform a Maori chant on it, and I also do a Hawaiian chant with some Japanese thrown in there.”
And then there are the planets, most of which have songs dedicated to them and “their personalities,” the artist says. From the heavy metalish Mars number and taiko-sounding, larger-than-life Jupiter anthem to the extremely ethereal Venus track, Gardner has just about every satellite in our solar system covered, except for Neptune, the moon and the dwarf planet Pluto. “Interestingly, on my last album, I had songs about Neptune and the moon on it. And there’s no Pluto on this album, but there will be on the next, so people are going to have to buy all three albums to get the complete set of planets,” she says, giggling.
If you’re eager to listen to Gardner’s brilliance as a live musician, drop in at Swim Bar, located on the third floor of Hyatt Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa, on Friday evenings for a one-hour set that begins at 6. Or, crash her CD release party at 7 p.m. March 28 on the Planetarium and Gallery lawns at Bishop Museum. The cosmic, stargazing event is free and includes aerialists, fire dancers and tribal drummers, as well as special guests Quadraphonix and poet Kealoha.
Here’s what else the woman whose first name means “diamond” in Samoan tells Musical Notes:
MN: Where did your inspiration for your latest album’s title come from?
TG: It comes from the Serbian proverb that goes, Be humble, for you are made of earth; be noble, for you are made of stars. I’ve always been interested in the planets, in astronomy, astrology, nature and in Greek mythology too, because it all connects and it’s fun.
MN: How challenging was it to produce your first album?
TG: It felt comfortable. If there was a challenge, it came from not being familiar with engineer lingo and not being able to always communicate my thoughts accurately to the engineers. I would just say things like, “I want this to sound shimmery.” And the engineers would be like, “What does that even mean?”
MN: And yet you’ve always been able to communicate your ideas on the ukulele to music lovers. As comfortable as you are with this instrument, was there something new that you discovered while recording We Are Made of Stars?
TG: From a technique standpoint, yes. On my song Battle, I basically learned how to mute the strings while allowing the melody to ring out. I never knew how to do this before — even though I’ve seen Jake (Shimabukuro) do this guitar technique on his ukulele, and a bunch of others, too. But one day I decided to play around with it for the sake of the song, and it just worked!
MN: Do you identify yourself with any particular Greek god?
TG: There are all different aspects of me. I can definitely get dark but passionate when I’m playing, so that’s Mars. Venus is obviously love and the feminine side, which I also incorporate into my playing because there aren’t too many female ukulele players out there. And then there’s Mercury, because I’m known for crazy ukulele playing. But if I had to pick one, I’d probably say Athena. She’s strong, she’s smart, she’s a warrior and she’s powerful.
MN: You’re approaching your travel time of the year, the summer. Have you ever been anywhere where your style of ukulele playing was not well-received?
TG: In Tahiti. They were very dead-set on how the Kamaka — that’s what they call the ukulele there — was to be played, and it could only be done in a certain old-time way. I was on a TV show performing and people would call in to say if they liked you or not, and I think I got two or three callers in a row who were saying, “That’s not how the ukulele is supposed to be played!” One woman didn’t even believe it was an ukulele, because I was playing a custom-made ukulele that was painted black. I think they didn’t even understand it. At the time, I was hurt by the comments. But I realized then that not everyone was going to love my music. And the more people you play for, the more people you’ll have rejecting you.
MN: You seem to always be at home on the stage. Does this showmanship come naturally to you?
TG: I was raised to strike poses. When I was 13, my dad, Jack, would help me figure out what I should do. I grew up performing in contests and everything was wham-bam craziness for two minutes. He would suggest a moonwalk here or there. Then, with Don, he was the one who helped me to connect more with the audience by staring at them. Plus, I used to practice blindfolded when I was younger, just so that I wouldn’t have to look at the instrument when I was playing. But I’ve toned it down in recent years and I’m feeling it more. My performances are more sensual now that I’m 25, so I kind of just dance to my music. But the feistiness is still there!