Danielle Ate the Sandwich

Quick Q and A with Amy Kucharik

According to Amy Kucharik’s bio, she’s a ukulele-slinging singer-songwriter from Somerville but she’s so much more.  She’s incredibly creative, vibrant, perceptive, and she’s got music coming out of her pore.  Amy’s performances are always lively; her joy for life shines forth with every note sung or played.

Amy Kucharik is opening for Guy van Duser and Billy Novick at the me&thee in Marblehead, MA on Friday, February 23.

To learn more about Amy, check out her website.  And if you want to hear more about Amy and about her show at the me&thee, check out this podcast.

Here’s a video of Amy’s “The NonCommittal Love Song.”

I’ve got to know: what made you fall in love with the ukulele? I love the fact that your mission is to make it more evident that it’s not just a “twee” instrument–that it’s a versatile one that can be used to play a variety of different genres of music.

I actually did not fall in love with the ukulele — not to the level that I think a lot of ukulele fans do. For me, it was the joy of being able to play an instrument almost intuitively after having struggled to learn guitar (which I’m still learning). But once I was marked as a “Ukulele Girl,” I have to stand up for the thing and tell people that yes, it’s a real instrument, not a toy. What I do think is very cool about it is that it has limitations, and the challenge of working within its ability can be inspiring. Also, it’s easy to carry around. But you’ll notice that I tune mine with a low “G” string, so it has a little bit of a richer tone than your standard “my dog has fleas” tuning.

What kind of uke do you play?

This is a concert Kelii ukulele; that means “chief” in Hawaiian. It’s made of koa wood. I also play a 1930s plate resonator tenor guitar and the harmonica, and occasionally (though not on my shows) French horn. I’m working on my 6-string guitar skills and play a few songs on that in public sometimes.

Do you have any ukulele heroes?

I have songwriting heroes and musician heroes. On the uke, I respect Jake Shimabukuro’s ability and I like Danielle Ate the Sandwich and Ingrid Michaelson, both of whom I see as doing something similar to what I’m doing, using the ukulele as a vehicle for their songs. But I would rather talk about Fats Waller, who I think was a tremendous musician and showman, or Victoria Spivey, who was an African American 1920s blueswoman who eventually started her own record label (and who incidentally sometimes played the ukulele). Her lyrics have this devil-may-care attitude and are often very feminist, even perhaps by today’s standards. All those early blueswomen are my heroes. I also adore June Carter, who was a big inspiration to me early on, who has this amazing personality on stage, and thought she wasn’t as good a singer as her sister. And Anais Mitchell’s album Hadestown was an inspiration to me as I was working on “Cunning Folk,” because she proved to me that you could have a great diversity of styles working together and still fitting under the “folk music” umbrella.

You play solo, in a duo, and in a group.  Can you tell us about the joys of being able to play in different configurations?

I suppose there is a joy to performing solo and being able to really engage the audience completely, because that’s the only energy you’re getting and you can tap right into it and get in a flow with the feedback you’re getting from them, without the pressure of having to lead the band. But working with other musicians is really fun; sometimes magical things happen when you all are really in synch; it’s like a conversation… sometimes somebody plays this amazing part and you build off of each other… I kind of live for that collaborative aspect. But it’s more of an economic choice than an artistic one, and then you make the best of whatever situation.

Your songwriting is also quite varied.  Your songs are sometimes whimsical, sometimes sultry, but always entertaining.   What ones are the most fun to play?

Thank you. The most fun just depends on the night and the audience… But maybe “Everything But Love,” (one of the new tracks) because it’s joyful and all the stuff in there makes me smile. Or the harmonica part on “Arrows & Slings”… I LOVE playing harmonica.

In addition to being a musician who records and plays live music gigs, you also are available as a DJ for swing dancing events.  How did that opportunity come about?

So I started out swing dancing and blues dancing, which led to collecting a lot of music, then DJing. Friends I met swing dancing also led to me pick up the uke in the first place. I’ve been DJing since before I was a professional musician. I started out at MIT’s Wednesday night lindy hop dance and have DJed for a couple of national-level blues dance events.

I recently found out that you’ve been experiencing some pretty intense health challenges this past year. Would you care to share what it’s like to have a cancer scare, go through the process, and try to keep on keepin’ on in terms of your career and everyday life?

I figured this would come up eventually, and hopefully speaking out about it will reassure someone else who might be going through something similar. I found a lump in my breast last May, which turned out to be a small malignant tumor. I was extremely fortunate to have Mass Health insurance, which covered almost everything, an incredible team of doctors at Mount Auburn Hospital and the Hoffman Breast Center, and an amazingly supportive boyfriend and group of friends (including my band) who got me through it. I was also fortunate to have a very treatable version and to have found it early.

The whole time, I was terrified not only about my health, but also that I would miss out on opportunities because I felt like when you’re at the DIY indie musician level, you have to give it everything you’ve got on an almost constant schedule, or you lose ground. I run my own business and manage every aspect of it, from songwriting to practicing to booking and promoting, including all the artwork, and my secondary business is as a freelance artist and graphic designer. I don’t get sick days. So it was hard to step back and say, “okay, I’m going to take time off to heal.” I probably didn’t give myself enough time, and the first few gigs and tour I did after my surgery felt really challenging. I also haven’t figured out how I will — if I will — address this onstage. I feel like maybe someday I’ll write the song, and then I’ll have to talk about it. But I’m still working on how it fits in to the bigger picture. Generally, I’m pretty upbeat on stage and people want to see me as this good time, cheeky ukulele gal; I’ve tackled being perceived as smart and tough as well as “cute,” but this thing is on a whole other level, and I honestly haven’t figured it out yet. I’ll have to get back to you on that one. The good news is, I survived, and I haven’t given up.