BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE FALL 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
The first vinyl record that Amy Kucharik bought growing up in Carbondale, Illinois, was Weird Al Yankovic’s Dare to Be Stupid. Another early musical influence was the Muppets. No, she did not pursue a career as an accordion-playing parody song artist or puppeteer. Instead, she grew up to become an award-winning, ukulele-wielding singer-songwriter.
Nice to Meet Uke!
Kucharik’s introduction to the ukulele was at a swing dance party in Boston. “A friend brought a couple of ukuleles to this party, and I said, ‘Can you teach me to play something?’ In a few minutes, I had learned to play ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’,” she says. “I had spent the previous three weeks trying to learn two guitar chords. I thought: This is the instrument for me—I like immediate gratification.”
After honing her ukulele chops, Kucharik was busking in the rarefied air of Boston’s Harvard Square. “People would come up and say, ‘Do you know Tracy Chapman used to busk here, and Amanda Palmer?’” People would also ask if she had any music to sell.
Kucharik released an EP, Dance Crush Blues, in 2013, and her first full album, Cunning Folk, in 2014. But Cunning Folk is more than just a CD of music; it’s a complete story with pictures. You see, Kucharik is also a professional graphic designer and illustrator. “I love album layout and design work,” she says. “I especially like working with tri-fold CD packaging. As you open it, each panel has a new layout that tells the story. It’s so cool.”
She uses the scratchboard technique, in which a board is coated with black ink or clay over a layer of white clay and then scratched away to create an image. Kucharik credits fellow New England–based artist and musician Dan Blakeslee for getting her get back into the craft. “I call him my art mentor,” she says. “Maybe because we both love mermaids and octopodes.”
A year after the release of Cunning Folk, Kucharik submitted two of her songs to the Kerrville Folk Festival’s Grassy Hill New Folk Competition. KFF is held yearly in the hill country of Texas and is one of the nation’s most prestigious events for singer-songwriters. The New Folk Competition is the highlight of the festival. Thirty-two finalists are selected from a field of 800 entries to share two of their original songs in an afternoon appearance onstage at the Threadgill Theater. From the 32 finalists, a panel of professional musicians selects six winners. In 2015, Kucharik was one of those six.
Winning the New Folk Competition is no small potatoes. Past finalists and winners have included Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Hal Ketchum, Tish Hinojosa, and Nanci Griffith. But none of them played ukulele. While the festival doesn’t have readily available records as to which instruments contestants played during their performances, there are only two winners who played ukulele that organizers could recall, and Kucharik is one of them. (Honor Finnegan is the other.) “Considering we can only remember two contestants, let alone winners, since 2003 who have performed in the contest playing the ukulele, the ukulele is a rarely played instrument in the contest,” says Lindsey Lee, a New Folk Ambassador with the Kerrville Folk Festival Foundation.
“I have amazing beginner’s luck,” says Kucharik. “I have friends that would tell me their dream was to win at Kerrville. Some had submitted like 20 times. I submitted once.” While she may have been a beginner in terms of entering the competition, Kucharik was not new to music or writing. She grew up in a musical household—her mother played piano, her father trombone—and her path to becoming a professional singer-songwriter began with poetry. As she puts it, “I started writing poetry in college and earned a master’s degree in that discipline.”
“My music is all over the place in terms of genre… It’s like a grimoire—a manual of magic or witchcraft used by witches and sorcerers—disguised as a sticker book.”—Amy Kucharik
Kucharik says her role as a performer is “to channel emotions from the audience, transmute them into joy, and broadcast that back to them.” She adds, “At Kerrville—the largest audience I’ve played for—the audience’s emotional energy was overwhelming.”
Touring, Cancer, and Community
Following her win at Kerrville, Kucharik’s touring schedule ramped up. First was a trek through Texas with the other five New Folk winners. Then she continued touring for the next two years until receiving a breast cancer diagnosis. “It was the worst news I’d ever had,” she says. “Fortunately, I caught it early, and it was treatable with radiation. I was very lucky.” (She is now cancer-free.) At the time of her diagnosis, she was working on her second full-length recording, 2018’s Until the Words Are Gone. The CD comes in a six-panel gatefold eco-wallet case, also designed and illustrated by Kucharik. “I have a lot of feelings from that time that I wrote about in the liner notes,” she says.
Listening to Until the Words Are Gone, is like taking an aural stroll through a musical museum. Her fusion of genres from track to track is seamless. These styles include funky blues, hip swing, country, and vaudeville, to name a few. Couple that with her witty and well-crafted lyrics and you experience a recording where each track is an unexpected delight.
Says Kucharik, “My music is all over the place in terms of genre. A lot of people hear the ukulele and jazz influences and call it ‘modern speakeasy’ music, but I feel like that’s a bit limiting and misses out on lyrical content. I could call it dance music for intellectuals, but IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) is a thing and that’s definitely not the music I make. It’s like a grimoire—a manual of magic or witchcraft used by witches and sorcerers—disguised as a sticker book.”
Though the exact genre may be hard to put into words, her songs certainly have a way of turning heads when heard. “I was playing a busking gig with my trio, Friends With Benefits, in a Newport, Rhode Island, shopping center. In the middle of a song, a guy rides up on a bicycle saying ‘Hey, hey’ to us. I was like, ‘Let us finish the song’,” she says. “Turns out, the bike guy is an organizer of the iconic Newport Jazz Festival. He offers the group a paying job that night. So we played in the parking lot as the people left festival. It was a good time!”
Despite her love for the instrument, it was several years before Kucharik discovered the global ukulele community. “I taught myself ukulele somewhat in a vacuum as I tried making my way in the singer-songwriter world,” she says. “I much later discovered all these ukulele festivals and events. It’s such a welcoming community. Maybe it’s not all that surprising how friendly and approachable ukulele people are.”
Kucharik has numerous projects in the works. “I’ve been working on a kids’ album for about six years! I have seven songs almost ready to record.” As for a new full-length recording, she says, “I’m wondering what makes sense in 2023 and beyond. Will people buy CDs at all? That said, I have about half an album’s worth of material I’d like to record soon.” Kucharik is also finishing work on a songbook of original material spanning her full-length albums and some singles. The songbook should be available in the fall of 2023. Kucharik also hosts a Patreon site where she shares song sheets, artwork, and tutorials, and her music is available at amykucharik.com.