Ukulele virtuoso and composer Taimane released her latest album, Hawaiki, earlier in 2022 which pays homage to her Polynesian roots. She has been taking her Hawaiki Tour across the US and UK, and in June, she made her debut at the 50th Annual Glastonbury Festival. A globally recognized inspiration to the AAPI and music community, Taimane is also featured in the Smithsonian book, We Are Here: 30 Inspiring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who Have Shaped the United States and will be on the cover of Ukulele Magazine’s 10th anniversary issue. APA spoke with Taimane ahead of her California and Hawaii shows coming up in late October and early November.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
APA: You’ve been traveling a lot lately on your Hawaiki tour. How has that been after a while of not touring?
Taimane: It’s been good, I’m playing with new musicians and have been transitioning back into the tour mode. I’m also happy that the people who come out are really appreciative.
APA: How did this new group of musicians come together? And what was it like working with them?
Taimane: I will be joined by two dancers who will be dancing a mix of Polynesian and contemporary styles, and I met them through a friend of a friend and also through Facebook.
I will also perform with a violinist, who I’ve also met over Facebook, and she’s got a beautiful voice and can shred on the violin. Our guitarist is from Berklee School of Music, and he responded to an ad I put out. He’s from Argentina and is very gifted on the guitar. I met our percussionist through Instagram, and she’s from Puerto Rico, so we’ll have some great Latin rhythms.
APA: I love that you push the boundaries of ukulele playing in technique and by exploring a wide range of genres. Are there any genres or styles that you want to expand into?
Taimane: I would like to do some more with electronic music. Having live ukelele and an electronic element together would be a really nice pairing, and figuring out how it would work for a live audience would be a fun challenge. I particularly love lo-fi, though it might be too chill for a live concert. Trance or house would be fun too.
APA: You also do a lot of mashups. What’s your thought process and how do you find songs across genres that work well together?
Taimane: Matching the keys is important, but so is having an overall theme. I recently just put a new, fun little Halloween mash up medley on my social media. I wanted something Halloween-related and also fairly simple, so then I looked up Halloween songs that I liked playing. I picked out three or four songs that worked together, and they meshed really nicely.
I’m not a huge music theory person, and I actually don’t read music. I do everything mostly by ear. For mashups, I’ll usually start with one main song and see how I can transition to other songs. I’ll play different variations, record them, and listen to them to figure out which one sounds better or flows better. When I try it with the band, I’ll add some different elements or switch up the song structure to make it flow better.
Taimane: Yes, for the most part, and I enjoy it.
APA: It definitely shows in your performances–you just seem like you have so much fun, and I think that the energy is really infectious.
Taimane: Thank you. It’s sometimes a little weird and over the top, and I wonder if it’s a bit much, but a lot of people say they like it. It’s really nice to be able to be myself and be weird, and also have people appreciate it. They send me such nice messages saying that they enjoy the videos because they’re unique. It’s a little risky, but you only live once, so you might as well just put it out there.
APA: That’s great, people are drawn to that authenticity. The first song of your latest album, “Hawaiki,” feels part guided meditation, part movie soundtrack, and your voice and the instruments come together to create almost a 3D soundscape. What was on your mind when you wrote this piece?
Taimane: This was actually a last minute addition because I felt like the album needed an introduction.I collaborated with a DJ named Jerome James and we came up with the electronic beats, giving Polynesian instrumentals a modern twist. From there, it was telling the story of where I’m from and how [the album will take you] to a spiritual place called Hawaiki. It was kind of an afterthought, but I like to say that it’s one of my favorite songs on the album.
APA: Could you tell us about the other mythical places referenced in your album tracks?
Taimane: I’ve always been inspired by Greek mythology, but in this album, I decided to share more about Polynesian mythology. Pulotu, [one of the songs in the album], is the underworld in Samoan mythology. Hawaiki is a spiritual land, a place where Polynesians believe they originated from and will return to after death. It’s also where the spiritual gods and goddesses in Polynesian lore live, so it’s similar to Olympus in Greek mythology. Polynesia covers a huge area and the cultures are similar, but they all have their differences, so I wanted to be respectful [of those differences] and choose [aspects of] Polynesian lore that have a similar meaning across the various cultures.
Tamaine: I discovered it during my trip, though mythology has always been something I really enjoyed. My mom would always take me to Samoa when I was a young child, but my last trip there, right before Covid hit, was the first time I went on my own after my mom passed away. During that trip, I brought my Polynesian mythology books and went with the intention of learning more about my Polyneisan side and the culture, and then I wanted to create an album about the places I visited.
APA: How has growing up in Hawaii influenced how you make music? Do you think it has had a big impact on the sounds that you gravitate to?
Tamaine: Absolutely. I don’t think I would be playing ukulele if I wasn’t from Hawaii. Growing up, this instrument was such a big aspect of my childhood. I’m also a little biased, but I think the best ukulele teachers are here in Hawaii, and they really helped me shape my sound. When I started composing, it’s hard not to be inspired by the beauty of Hawaii. I learned to compose by creating mood music to the beautiful landscapes I was surrounded by.
APA: I noticed that many of the songs in your original discography reference natural phenomena (the elements, the planets), but the subjects can also be interpreted as symbols of something supernatural. What draws you to these kinds of subjects?
Taimane: Since a young age, I have been interested in witchcraft and paganism. I feel like my generation is becoming more interested in these kinds of things. I started out with planets for my first album because space is really interesting and fun, and everyone can appreciate it. It’s not a political or triggering topic. The transition to elements for my second album worked since each planet is associated with an element in astrology. I was thinking that my next album would be inspired by astrology, but then I was inspired by my Polysian side. But we’ll see, maybe I’ll do an astrology album next.
APA: Are there any memorable incidents or funny stories from the practice room or the stage?
Taimane: I played on NPR Tiny Desk, and, right before I went onstage, they said I couldn’t bring my pedals because they were trying to do more of an intimate, acoustic vibe. Some of the songs I had planned to play definitely needed the pedal effects, so I had to quickly change the setlist in 15 minutes. There was a bit of pressure, but in the end it worked out. I’ve also had strings break on me during shows, and I’ve learned to talk to the audience while stringing up a ukulele as fast as possible. There was also this one other time where I went to a show, and I forgot my ukulele. I brought the case but didn’t check to see if it was inside the case, so I had to ask my dad to quickly rush back to bring my instrument.
Taimane: Sure. I use a harmonizer for my vocals, which adds a little oomph and harmonies through effects like reverb and echo. For my ukulele, I use the Earthquaker device, which has reverb and delay in one pedal, which I absolutely love. It’s lightweight and small, and I’m all about simplicity because it’s easier to travel. It also adds color to my sound.
APA: Are there any places that you want to explore or perform at? Any favorite venues that you’ve performed at?
Taimane: Greece would be cool because I enjoy Greek mythology, also India since I love their music and culture but have never visited. And also Egypt because it would be so cool to perform in front of the pyramids. As for venues, I enjoy The Hamilton in Washington D.C. and Freight and Salvage in Berkeley because they have great sound, and the staff take really good care of musicians.
APA: You’ve been busy lately, how do you stay grounded and prioritize self-care?
Taimane: I like to work out, and I usually do yoga when I’m on the road. I feel so much better after working out, and I find that to be really important. I try to not overwork, which is hard since I don’t have certain “hours,” but I try to stop around 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. and do something completely different in the evening to keep myself balanced.
I’m more of an introverted type, and while I love performing and being expressive, it does take a lot out of you. It’s nice to have other aspects that I can be involved in that use a different part of the brain, like thinking about merch or writing music. I find it fun because each day I can pick what I feel like working on. I’ve gotten really interested in shipping merch lately, and I’ve learned a lot about the post office.
APA: What would you say to people who want to learn how to play the ukulele? And do you do any teaching?
Taimane: You can get a pretty good instrument under $150-$200, and there are a lot of good tutorials on Youtube for beginners. There’s a really nice, inspiring ukulele community all over the world, and in ukulele festivals, everyone brings their instrument and jams together. It’s a great group activity.
Sometimes I teach workshops at festivals, and occasionally I’ll send video tutorials on Cameo, which is an app where fans can pay celebs to send short video messages.
APA: What has been on your playlist lately?
Taimane: Lately it’s been a lot of high-placed electronic, hip hop, pop–workout music. I’ve also got some lo-fi going on, and also Jim Morrison, just randomly. I also love the band Khruangbin–they’re mostly all-instrumental and have a stoney, dance-pop vibe. The electric guitarist plays with a ton of pedals, so you’ll get that psychedelic, electric, hiphop energy. I actually got front row tickets to see them when they perform in Hawaii–partly because I really want to see what effects they use!
APA: Anything else you would like to share or plug?
Taimane: My handle for most of my socials is @taimanegardner. I’m on TikTok and Instagram. I also do have a signature ukulele perfect for beginners as well as advanced players who want an instrument they can take to the beach and not have to worry about the elements. It’s a more portable and approachable ukulele that I feel represents me as an artist–it’s black and has a moon made out of white pearls, and it represents the night sky. It’s my first signature ukulele and it’ll be coming out sometime before the Christmas season.
To see Taimane’s upcoming concerts, check out https://taimane.com/live/.