LP on Crafting Hits for Ukulele

LP first came to my attention via her astounding performance on Live at EastWest Studios that was featured on YouTube.
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LP first came to my attention via her astounding performance on Live at EastWest Studios that was featured on YouTube. In a vibey and intimate recording-studio setting, moodily lit with blue and green hues, and with the audience lounging on comfy leather couches, LP’s band backs her quirky, yet soaring voice and sparse ukulele playing with sensitivity and compelling dynamics. She is totally immersed in the music, hair covering her eyes, not saying much, not moving much, but she still somehow connects with the audience in a big way. It was one of those exhilarating and unexpected moments that raises the hairs on the back of your neck and burns the performer’s name forever into your neural network. This is something you remember.

Martin Guitars felt much the same way, naming LP as its first female “Ambassador,” and the only one to be a ukulele player. As a songwriter, she has already scored hits with artists such as Rihanna (“Cheers: Drink to That”) and Christina Aguilera (“Beautiful People”). And Warner Bros. Records chairman Rob Cavallo—who has a ton of responsibility being a label executive—thought enough of her talent to take on the production duties for LP’s debut album, Forever for Now [Warner Bros.], by himself.

Not a bad place to be for the soft-spoken, New York-born musician who derives bits of her quiet, compelling charisma from icons such as Chrissie Hydne, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and Joni Mitchell. And while the people who inspire her may not be readily visible in LP’s stage or studio persona, their artistic spirits are certainly moving within her.

Did you use a specific ukulele on the Forever for Now sessions?

I have a bunch of different ones, but I mostly used my Martin Concert ukuleles on the album.

You play guitar, as well, so did you do any guitar parts on the record?

No. I only play uke on this one. Maybe I’ll bring the guitar back on the next record.

Was there any particular method for recording your ukulele?

I have Fishman preamps in a lot of my instruments, but for the album, we miked the ukulele with small-diaphragm condensers. Sometimes, I like to quantize the uke parts in Pro Tools after we record them. I mean, the uke almost sounds like a shaker at times, and by quantizing a strum-y part, you can get some cool little effects.

What was your tuning?

It’s standard [low to high, G, C, E, A], but I often tune down a half step.

Do you use any pedals?

Onstage, I have a pedalboard and my own direct box—a Tonebone PZ-Pre—with the EQ already dialed in to where I like it. There’s also an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail reverb and an Xotic AC Booster.

How did you first discover the ukulele, and how did it become your main instrument?

It’s a bit of a mystery, I guess. I started out on guitar, and I just picked up a ukulele at some point—a real cheap one that I didn’t even have a case for. I had no idea at the time that it would become such a huge part of my music. It kind of worked its way into my life as a songwriting tool, because it’s small and handy and easy to get to any time inspiration hits. So I started writing all these songs on the uke, and then recording with it and playing out, and, all of a sudden, it became my thing.

Was there anything in particular about the ukulele that seduced you away from the guitar?

You know, it just felt fresh to my ears. The casual nature of it inspired me, and that changed things a little. It changed how I approached songwriting, and it gave me a different perspective on rhythm and harmony. For example, some people think of strum-y, happy, Hawaiian-style music when they see a ukulele, but I found that it can be very haunting. It depends on the chords, obviously, but I liked the kinds of environments I could create with the ukulele. The title track on the album—“Forever for Now”—is a good example. My playing on that is very sparse and quiet.

I also like the uke’s relative simplicity, chord-wise. When I’m singing full on, it’s often hard to concentrate on my playing. But the uke really helps there—it’s just four strings and four fingers—so I feel I can accompany myself without worrying too much about my playing, and free myself to concentrate fully on my voice.

I found out that Sam Cooke wrote a lot of songs on uke. It was his writing tool of choice, in fact. And, now, when I listen to some of his songs, I can kind of tell. There’s a rhythmic thing that happens when you play uke that’s kind of distinctive, so I’ll hear that and go, “Ahhh—that has to be a uke song!”

Did you learn ukulele chords, or amend guitar chords, or just lay your fingers on the strings until you found something that sounded like a song?

Actually, I discovered most of my uke chords playing Beatles songs. Somehow, after I had gotten that first, cheap ukulele, I found this website that had all these Beatles songs—all played on the uke, and everything was done on video so I could watch the chords being formed and play along. It was amazing! I think the first song I learned was “A Hard Day’s Night.”

You often collaborate with other writers to compose songs. As you are both an artist and a songwriter, is it a strange process to work with someone else? Does the “artist” in you ever get in the way, because that person has very specific things to say for herself?

[Laughs.] Um. Well, I collaborate a lot. It’s mostly what I do, and I think the best songs are written by two people. When done correctly, collaboration can take things to a different place. Now, sometimes, you don’t want that—you may not want the song to go that way.

How do you ensure that you are collaborating “correctly?”

Oh, it’s subtle. You have to be careful. When someone is playing their ideas for you, even something as simple as a brief expression on your face can bring things up, or bring the whole process down. You can manipulate the situation so many different ways, and you can miss out on something wonderful if you don’t do it right. There’s definitely a way to collaborate that brings a song to new heights, and the right path often depends on the people involved, the atmosphere, and the creative goals. It can be different for each songwriting session. You just have to be able to sense it, and participate accordingly.

How finished are the songs you bring into a writing session?

I like to bring in snippets of ideas. If I bring in something, and someone else has something, it can get exciting fast. It doesn’t have to be something big. Sometimes, if a writer just brings in a title, it can start good things happening.

What’s one of the big bummers that can happen in a songwriting session?

Sometimes, the melodies deserve better than the words I have. It’s a tough situation when that happens. I hate it. But that’s when collaboration helps. Another person can bring in words or ideas that save the song.

What about finishing songs? How did you know when there’s nothing more you can do, and the song is done?

I have a funny story about that. On the new album, there’s a song called “Night Like This.” I wasn’t sure it was done, so it got put away. It wasn’t that I gave up on it—I just thought it needed another part. But I think my management thought that I wasn’t interested in the song for me, so they started pitching it to other artists. A couple of big artists showed interest in the song, so now the record company is listening, and they said, “You need to put that on your record.”

So your record company inspired you to finish the thing?

[Laughs.] Well, yeah. But it’s not a bad thing that the record company is part of the A&R team for the album.

How does your management even hear your works in progress?

There’s a folder with a pool of songs in it that everyone on my team has access to. They can listen to the audio tracks, and if they get excited about something they hear, they can go out and pitch it. This is a good thing, because I want people pitching my songs and making something happen. That helps get my work out there. Also, I certainly don’t sit around and pitch my own songs—I’m the songwriter.

But don’t you ever go, “Wait! That song was for me!”

I’m in a unique position, because I’m an artist and I’m a songwriter who writes for herself and for others. This is all new for me, and I haven’t yet figured out what to keep for myself and what to give away. I mean, that happened with “Night Like This,” right? I was surprised when it was pitched, and other artists expressed interest in it. I was like, “Well, okay…”

But I think it gets back to the fact that I am a songwriter. I write a ton of songs, I put them all in this folder, and anyone can go in there and make something happen. I’m very open to it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a little weird.