June – You

In early June I was on a plane headed to Denver to visit family. The pilot, trying his best to imitate Chuck Yeager’s relaxed and confident voice, said to expect significant turbulence. In the best of situations, my ability to read while moving is iffy, so I put away the crossword book and the neuroscience manuscript that a friend sent me. Skymall would have to wait.

co_pond

A pond in north western Colorado.

With four hours of flying time ahead and nothing to do, I closed my eyes and let my mind wander. I wasn’t trying to sleep, I was just letting my brain goof off – letting it go where it wanted and enjoying the ride. I thought about seeing the huge circular farms and fields from the plane as we approached Denver. I thought about the mountains and wondered if Mark Twain, on his way to San Francisco, went over them or around. And that’s when this month’s song appeared. The words, melody, and arrangement all came at once. As if it was a song I’d been singing since I was a kid.

The four hours went by quickly and when the plane landed, I remembered the song, but not the turbulence. I wrote the words on the back page of the neuroscience manuscript and left the airport for the hills. The tune was clearly going to be my “June song”, but, to be honest, this intimidated me. Until now, my songs have been dense arrangements with instrument after instrument stacked on one another. I love doing this. To me, it’s like painting a rich picture, one coat of paint at a time. This song, however, was different. I tried to imagine more textured arrangements, but the simple one that came to me at first was the only one that felt right.

When I returned home, I practiced singing the song a few times and then hit record and about an hour later, the whole thing was done.  I guess sometimes I get lucky.

When I retrurned home, I had the wonderful opportunity to play with Gaspard and Dancers at the American Dance Festival.

When I returned to North Carolina, I also had the wonderful opportunity to play with Gaspard and Dancers at the American Dance Festival.

Folks! It’s been a great month. For me, it was busy (I played shows with Gaspard and Dancers, Felix Obelix and Bombadil), but very rewarding. I hope yours was just as satisfying. If you liked the song, feel free to pass it on to your friend, or have them sign up for the mailing list. And if you’d like to learn the song, here’s the chart!

May – Right Here, Right Now

Ah, yes, it’s summer again. We had a long (crazy long), cold (super cold) winter that was determined to hang on for as long as it could, but now the windows are rolled down, the wind is messing up our hair and we’re loving it. Let’s all go to the beach!

lone_boat

Maybe we should all go to this isolated beach I found in Vietnam. That’s what I’m talking about!

Right now I’m imagining sitting in one of those beach chairs with the super short legs so that I’m just about an inch above the sand. I’ve got everything just right; a cold drink in one hand, a trashy book in the other, and the waves just making it up to my feet and keeping them cool. Maybe someone else is taking care of dinner. And maybe someone else is going to take care of the dishes. I haven’t turned a page in my book for two hours. I’m just looking out over the water as the shrimp boats pass by. I’ve got nothing to do and nowhere to go.  That’s what this month’s song is all about – enjoying the moment and making it last.

Even this guy, made entirely of bath towels, enjoys relaxing.

Even this guy, made entirely of bath towels, enjoys relaxing.

Last year, right around now, I released my first beach song, and this month’s is my second. I think we’ve established a tradition. I hope you have a great June. Enjoy the song! Learn how to play it or just sing along. And, as always, if you haven’t signed up for a monthly song update, get down to it!!

The Ukulele is on the way to the beach!

The Ukulele is on the way to the beach!  (Sporting a  classy speedo.)

April – Puzzle Pieces

Last month I was fortunate enough to visit the Galapagos Islands.  600 miles into the Pacific Ocean and largely uninhabited, they are a remote outpost of the garden of Eden; the animals do not fear humans. Although you are told to stay at least 6 feet away, their curiosity makes this impossible to abide by.

sea_lion

This little guy come over for a sniff.

It was a wonderful trip, spent with wonderful people.  However, one huge surprise wasn’t the islands themselves, but Guayaquil, a city in mainland Ecuador that serves as a gateway to the islands. With a day to spend wandering around, I took a tour with a local guide.  Before, all I saw a very poor city. It lacked the history and romance of Paris or Charleston, or the natural and cultural beauty of Rio. The buildings were a tan mishmash of low-end concrete architecture, and the one impressive structure was being torn down. Our guide, however, opened our eyes to its beauty, which, in some ways, was every bit as thrilling as the Galapagos.

When our guide picked us up at the hotel, you could tell that he was bursting with pride in his city. He was thrilled to show us what we had overlooked. The first thing he pointed out was how clean it was. There wasn’t any trash in the gutters, graffiti on the walls or even gum on the sidewalks.  Although so much poorer, Guayaquil is Singapore clean.  And in a city with relatively little money, that can come only from the people taking pride in where they live.

park

I met this little guy in a park in downtown Guayaquil.

From then on, the tour was a parade of hope and growth and improvement. Some features were subtle, like the citywide sidewalks that are covered to keep you dry and cool. You don’t realize how hot you could be until you step out from under them. Some features were more obvious, like the beautiful waterfront promenade. The final stop was a former slum that was becoming a lively commercial district that was owned and operated by the former tenants. Given an opportunity for something better, these people were taking it and doing the best they can.

On that tour I learned to not judge a city by its architecture, but by the people that live in it. And I also learned that the people of Guayaquil love a tasty turkey sandwich! Who knew? Every street corner had a little stand with two or three roast turkeys that they would carve fresh and pile into loaves of bread.

When in Ecuador, the ukulele can't resist the tasty turkey sandwiches.

When in Ecuador, the ukulele can’t resist the tasty turkey sandwiches.

I hope everyone had a great month. I certainly did. As always, here’s the chart for this months song.  And, as always, if you haven’t signed up for a monthly song update, here’s where you do it!

March – Dance Party

Every two years I attend a conference at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.   The lab is sort of like heaven for people like me (nerds).  It’s a place where scientists are the rock stars and half the people at the bar have won Nobel prizes.  It’s a place where you’re not judged by your looks and social graces, but by your research and your publications.  I love it.  It’s all science all the time.

Last month I was there to soak up some knowledge and present a new method for determining 3-D chromosome structures.  Cool stuff!  (If you’re interested, we used this method to look at genes that escape X chromosome inactivation.)

uku_and_dna_smile

It’s not every lobby that has a big DNA molecule AND a ukulele on display.

While I love this trip, it has one very awkward feature.  On the last night they transform the conference room into a discotheque.  Usually they get a really bad band and everyone lines the walls, looking down at their shoes, waiting for the whole thing to be over.  It’s a little bit like that nightmare we all have about being 13 years old all over again.  Except this time it’s for real.  I think they do this to remind us of the real world.

This month’s song is dedicated to that dance.  Science and music are both a lot like that conference and the dance party.  There are great times and then there are those uncomfortable moments.  However, on the bright side, these awkward moments always make great stories to tell (and songs to sing) back home!

joshs_fish

Here’s an example of “day-glo gene expressions” from an experiment I did years ago. The blue shows the nuclei inside of 10 cells, and the red and green dots show genes that are being transcribed.

If you’d like to try to play or sing along with this song at home (and I would strongly encourage you to do so), here’s the chart!

And if you’re not already getting email updates about my songs each month, join the fun!

My album, Postcards From Home is out!!!  Get your copy on iTunes, or order a limited edition CD!

Interview on WUNC

Today Eric Hodge interviewed me for WUNC‘s Morning Edition.  You can read about it and listen to the full interview.  It’s a nice synopsis of my “Song-of-the-Month” project, with some fun behind the scenes details that haven’t made into my monthly posts, and they did a great job splicing in various tracks from the album.

The ukulele knows he can't live without his radio!

The ukulele knows he can’t live without his radio!

February – The Chariot

Early in the month I had a conversation with a classical pianist about performance anxieties.  Getting on stage, especially in the world of classical music, can be very stressful.  Your audience comes with all kinds of expectations about what they will hear – comparing you to the collections of cherished recordings they have at home.  With their opinions formed years ago, will they be open to your interpretation?

The conversation reminded me of a line from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“, a poem by T. S. Eliot.  In it, Prufrock asks, in the midst of his angst and insecurities, “Do I dare disturb the universe?”

uku_with_tea_smile

Who said the ukulele was uncultured? The ukulele enjoys a spot of tea with a side of poetry.

I love that line.  To me it conveys a sense that the littlest thing can cause ripples that change the very core of existence.  In the context of the poem, Prufrock is freaking out. He thinks he will ruin everything and make a fool of himself, but the optimist in me sees another side to it. If we can make things worse, then we can also make things better.  To me, it says that the smallest amount of beauty that we bring into this world can change things for the better.  In that way, all of us can, and should, dare to disturb the universe. (“Oh, dear,” says Mr. Eliot, as he rolls over in his grave, “I never intended this poem to be used in a pep rally.”)

The ukulele doesn't mind the occasional chariot ride

The ukulele doesn’t mind the occasional chariot ride

From time to time, people ask me what my song titles mean, and this one, The Chariot, is a little cryptic.  It comes from the last line in the main chorus, “Coming for to carry me home”.  That line was borrowed from an old spiritual called, “Swing low, sweet chariot“, which described a chariot delivering the singer from hardship to heaven.

For those who want to try this song at home, here’s the chart!

And if you’re not already getting email updates about my songs each month, join the fun!

Postcards From Home update!  Tune into WUNC this coming Friday, March 7th. I’ll be on Morning Edition  with Eric Hodge.  The album’s official release is Tuesday, March 11th, however, right now you can pre-order it on iTunes, or order a limited edition CD (there are still a few left, but they’ll go quickly in the next few weeks).

January – Up In The Air

At the end of last month I visited my parents in Cambodia for their 50th wedding anniversary.  I had a wonderful time and the overnight flights were fine, except for one small thing.  Someone near me must have had a pretty bad cold…

uku_with_tissues

Even the ukulele get a cold from time to time.

Nobody likes getting sick, but it happens.  This was a hassle, but it wasn’t a big deal.  I got a stuffy nose, a sore throat and my voice dropped an octave.  And once the sickness went away, I was left with a bunch of lingering symptoms – in particular, a deeper voice.

I had a song to work on, and I was making good progress.  I’d done everything but record the vocals and I was waiting for my voice to return.  So I waited, and I waited.  And then I waited some more, thinking I should rename my song, “Lingering Sinus Congestion”, but I was also getting worried.  How was I going to sing if my voice was twice as low?

Like everything in life you can’t change or control, sometimes you just have to go with it.  If you can’t beat’em, join’em. So, instead of waiting till April for my voice to return, I embraced its lowness and re-wrote the tune to take advantage of these unchartered notes.  It felt funny at first, but it didn’t take long before I was having a lot of fun with these notes.  And who knows?  I might just use them again now that I know I have them.

johnny_cash3

Before he got famous, the ukulele used to hang out with other bass singers.

p.s.  Here’s the chart.

Album update!!!  Last month I told you that I was putting my 2013 songs in an album.  Well, I’ve done that.  I tweaked the mixes (if you liked “You Can Do It” before, you’re going to love it now) and had them all mastered.  And, just for fun, tossed in one more tune, just for good measure.  I’ll have this baker’s dozen on CDs and iTunes, and pre-sales start February, 11th.  And don’t worry I’ll send you an email reminder!  The official release is March, 11th – this gives the distributer just enough time to ramp up some publicity and fan-fare.  Here’s a sneak-peak at the front of the album:

Here's what the front looks like (photograph by KC Jung Photography)

photograph by KC Jung Photography

… and here’s the back:

... and here's what the backside looks like!