The diversity found on Travels is epitomised by the track ‘Low Rider’, which features vocals by Jake, as well as heavily effected, blistering solos. “I didn’t want to do too much ‘electric’ playing, with effects and the like,” explains Jake. “If you don’t have that visual of someone actually holding and playing a ukulele, it’s easy to assume it’s an electric guitar being played.”
The tale of musical influences can be a curious one. “I’m really into heavy metal music,” reveals Jake, before adding, “I loved listening to anything heavy when I was a kid. On the album there’s some distorted ukulele which is sort of my tribute to Iron Maiden. In the recording process I double-tracked the ukulele part, then layered it an octave lower and added a harmony – all to give it that big Iron Maiden sound!”
The conversation turns to Jake’s formative years. His mother, an extremely capable ukulele player, would often play the ukulele at the family home.
“By the time I was three,” recalls Jake, “I was wanting to play. She had a really good Kamaka ukulele – the same brand as I play today – but she didn’t let me touch it! But I was persistent and by the time I was four she sat me down and taught me a few easy chords. Looking back, that was a pivotal day in my life. What I remember most clearly about that day was the feeling of watching her take the ukulele off the shelf and put it on my lap to play. I remember when I hit the strings for the first time – that sound, just the open strings. I may have been only four but I remember that feeling and the sound to this day.”
Despite his immense talent and technical ability, Jake remains refreshingly humble. In fact, the more he is asked to talk about his own abilities, the more self-effacing he becomes. “I’m definitely not a technician. Tommy Emmanuel – now he’s a technician. He’s got every technique in the book down, and then some. There are definitely more people out there who have a better understanding of theory and harmony, better improvisers. But, for me, the turning point was when I learned to play what I feel. When I was young I would just play and have fun. But there came a point as I matured, where I felt that connection with harmony where I could feel something and play it. It wasn’t something that I worked towards, it was all very spontaneous.”
During the course of the conversation it becomes apparent that, for Jake, music is much more than merely the production of notes on an instrument. Anyone who has had the opportunity to see him perform live, either in the flesh or on video, will attest to fact that Jake uses his ukulele to express himself. We ask if that’s his incentive for playing music. “When I’m playing, writing or arranging it’s a little bit of everything, mainly because I have the time. If you’re not under the spotlight on stage, you have time to micro-manage everything. But when you’re playing live, you just rely on what feels natural. It’s also important to have the confidence to believe in what you do because the things that come naturally are easy. And if it’s easy, you don’t want to play it, you want to play the things that are hard. Often the hard stuff is what others are playing, but they’re playing that because that’s what comes natural to them!”
It’s a message preached by Jake as he travels to schools and colleges around the world. In encouraging them to find their passion in music and live drug-free, Jake explains, “I always tell people in my workshops, ‘You should place the greatest amount of value on what you can already play, because that’s what makes you who you are. Playing what comes naturally is what people feel, it’s what speaks to them because it’s real and unique to you.’”
When discussing the benefits or otherwise of playing what comes easily, Jake is quick to add a caveat. “That said,” he clarifies, “It’s good to have that curiosity which drives you to experiment and learn what doesn’t come naturally. That’s how you grow your vocabulary and toolbox.”