By Gail Reynolds, Columnist
In every realm of music there are respective superstars. February 15 I had the pleasure of seeing two such stellar artists of the ukulele resurgence, Sarah Maisel and Craig Chee. Those who attended the 2013 Tampa Bay Ukulele Getaway know them as inspiring educators as well as fine musicians. They returned to the Bay Area to give workshops and a bonus mini-concert at the Clearwater Sam Ash music store.
Sarah Maisel is recognized as the queen of jazz ukulele, whose renditions of standards truly honor the American Songbook. Aside from her superb instrumentation, she sings with spot-on inflection and style. Thus, she lends a newness to the corniest of ukulele classics. Check out her 2011 CD, In The Moment, and you will hear in “Ukulele Lady” not just another rendition of a uke chestnut, but a sly insight into the secrets of winning the affections of an elusive woman.
Craig Chee has flourished as an indie pop artist. Despite his energetic, intense musicianship there is a refreshing absence of macho affectation. The video for “Lips,” one of nine original compositions on his 2013 CD, Life in the Key of Chee, reveals an engaging self-effacing humor of someone secure in his talents.
Hawaiian born Chee (Aloha!) and Alabama native (Hi, Ya’ll) Maisel complement each other personally and musically as evidenced by their harmonies on their 2014 CD, Say When, a blend of original tunes and covers. “More Than Words” shows that their voices seem custom designed for each other.
Their sense of humor is another compatible trait. It is Sarah in the taped nerd glasses in the “Lips” video. She further demonstrates her droll side on her playfully sexy “Out of Sugar” on Say When.
And now they are gearing up for another collaboration, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign.
I witnessed one element of why they are such brilliant musicians the day of the workshop — their ability to completely focus. I caught a glimpse of them scrambling to get their instruments and luggage from the car that had arrived from Sanford, venue of the previous night’s Valentine’s gig, just minutes before the workshop was to start. Then there they were, on time and totally committed to helping several dozen people improve their uke playing and their understanding of music. Likewise, after the workshops, they chatted with me as if there was no pressing timetable, which there was.
Here’s a little of our exchange:
ROCK AT NIGHT: Despite your different musical preferences, jazz vs pop, your collaborations work so well. What surprised each of you about what the other brought into the mix?
SARAH: You know, I’ve always liked Craig’s voice, but the thing that surprised me is how much richer his voice is when there is something underlying it. When there is a harmony under it, the sound to me was even bigger than it was before. I wasn’t expecting that.
CRAIG: The biggest thing that I love that was very apparent from when we started singing together the first festival — “jump on stage and sing with me” — is because of our backgrounds , we have different takes on how we would fill in the harmony and how we would get to various points. That’s been really cool to play on that. You expect a straight harmony But hen when she comes in she does something different, almost like a whole other melody line
SARAH: Yes, I would try to do a kind of counterpoint when we sing together, too. A lot of that comes from a jazz background, but I also tend to do a sound that’s more arpeggiated because that’s what I’m used to doing but it works really well together.
And in uke playing. I was also surprised by how quickly and easily he was able to adapt into the standards, using things from his pop bag of tricks that would fit very nicely into the pocket of the standards I did.
ROCK AT NIGHT: The collaboration! A lot has been a lot made of your having become a couple. Does working together cause any strain on the personal aspect?
SARAH: Not as much as you would think. Of course, when you are with a person 24 hours a day you are going to have some moments when you think “If I can just have five minutes.” But in general, not really. What do you think, Babe?
CRAIG: [Burst of laughter]
SARAH: You can say, yes, I won’t be offended. You can say yes, Sweetheart.
CRAIG: It’s actually surprising. Sure, there are times when there are hiccups, but generally we understand each other better, both being in the same business than perhaps other couples would who don’t know what the other has to deal with.
SARAH: When we are working we try not to take anything personally.
I actually have more of a tendency to get into a huff and Craig will remind me, “Honey, we’re working right now.”
ROCK AT NIGHT: What do you do in your down time?
[More laughter, as their schedule that includes uke cruises and festivals from Cairns, Australia to the UK, as well as all over the US) suggests that is a rare commodity.
SARAH & CRAIG: Sleep!
CRAIG: Video games . . . I try to zone out, but I’m usually thinking about the next thing that needs to be done. The big thing that I realized when I went into this full time as a musician is this isn’t like a typical 8 to 5 job. Some days we’re working 22 hours. Not always playing, but working on the next workshop, setting up the next tour, so many details . . .
SARAH: We haven’t eaten yet today [approaching 5 pm]. It’s all good. We will. Eventually.
CRAIG: This is an example of how you have to be adaptable and go with the flow . We need to give it our all and be on point. We’ve had so many people who had attended our workshops come up to us and say “That really changed things for me. Years later, we’ll hear how a workshop really touched someone.
ROCK AT NIGHT: What artists do you admire? Who has influenced you.
SARAH: Does it have to be in uke player?
ROCK AT NIGHT: No, it would be interesting to know of those other than uke.
SARAH: The two big influences on me musically are Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass. Those are my two heavy hitters. I listened to them a lot growing up and never got sick of them.
CRAIG: For me there has not necessarily been one in particular, but what really made a big impression on me was, growing up in Hawaii, there were a large number of musicians — on the streets, in the bars, everywhere. And I’d look at them and think that I’ll never have that kind of talent, but I want to make sure that if I am going to pursue music I want to have the business side of it. These guys were amazingly talented but didn’t know how to push to the next step. I realized how important it is to have goals. I’ve seen too many people struggle. Especially when we started dating, it hit home even harder that this is our life and we have to make sure that we have the logical side to it besides having a lot of fun and doing what we love to do. I look at musicians and think what I’d do differently or look at others and gain inspiration and direction to do what we need to do to achieve the best success we can get.
ROCK AT NIGHT: What did you do for your “day job” before you went into this full time?
CRAIG: I was managing a Hawaiian restaurant in Eugene, Oregon. I worked a lot with kids, parks and rec stuff, teaching. I’ve also worked at Safeway.
ROCK AT NIGHT: I can see how your management experience fits into your plan.
BOTH: It does.
ROCK AT NIGHT: Sarah, I remember at the 2013 Getaway you said you took the plunge and had just quit your day job. At the university, correct?
SARAH: I was working for the University of California, San Diego. I was a master dress maker, a pattern maker.
ROCK AT NIGHT: Do you sew some of your own clothes? Those wonderful dresses that you wear that make me wonder, “Where did she find that?”
SARAH: Yes. That red dress with the bolero I wore at the Getaway, I made that ensemble.
ROCK AT NIGHT: And that, too, is a creative outlet, too.
SARAH: I wanted to be a musician from the time I was little, but I knew there was a chance that I would not be able to feed myself doing just that, so I decided to get a trade skill. And then I stopped playing music, but then I found the uke and started playing again. And here I am actually making a living at it. Who’d a thunk it!
[Note: Gifts for Kickstarter contributors included ukulele straps and custom designed Aloha shirts handmade by Sarah.]
CRAIG: Just as she has sewing and pattern design, an actual trade, once I knew in college I wanted to pursue music, I intentionally focused on photography.
and multimedia design. Many festivals have hired me both as a musician and a photographer.
ROCK AT NIGHT: You both seem to be genuinely happy people, so upbeat.
CRAIG: We don’t have time be bad or mad or depressed. We have fun! We enjoy what we do and we realize how lucky we are.
SARAH: Yes, truly lucky.
ROCK AT NIGHT: Sarah and Craig, thank you so much for taking this time. We are eagerly awaiting your new CD!
Click on the CD covers for links to the music
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