BY NICOLAS GRIZZLE | FROM THE SPRING 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Before a song comes into its own, sometimes it must be nurtured on ukulele. And sometimes the ukulele nurtures the songwriter right back. This is how the multiplatinum singer, songwriter, and performer LP formed a deep connection with the ukulele, a small instrument that helps channel big emotions.
LP, born Laura Pergolizzi, is not shy about her love for ukulele. She’s an ambassador for Martin ukuleles—the first female ambassador for Martin on any instrument—and openly talks about how the ukulele brought joy back to her music making. The instrument plays an audible role in many of her songs, and an inaudible role in many more, including songs she’s written for other pop superstars.
“The uke is an interesting tool for me in many ways for songwriting because it’s simple and very portable, and it’s always in my life,” she says. “And then, it’s kind of this funny juxtaposition with a voice like mine, you know?” The fact that she has formed a bond with the ukulele and continues to insert it into her music against a backdrop of rich arrangements and powerful singing seems somehow fitting for LP, whose 5’2″, 100-pound frame belies the unstoppable tidal wave of vocal power emanating from it. Or, as LP puts it, “Like a guy with really skinny legs, but they’re really big on top.”
Speaking on the phone from her home in Southern California, our conversation starts, as they tend to these days, with how time was passed while the world shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I drank a ton of wine,” she says with a healthy laugh. Continuing with a more somber tone, “I really worked on the new record [Churches] a lot, because I had the time. I thought I was done with it in early 2020, because it was going to come out in October 2020. And then everything changed. We just buckled down and did a bunch of writing and a lot of thinking. It was a pretty inspiring time to write stuff.”
That meant some new songs were introduced, like “When We Touch,” the first track on Churches. “I think that was one of the last songs we finished, and it was one of the first titles I wrote as we moved into the knowledge that we weren’t going to be seeing each other for a while,” says LP. “I moved ahead to the fantasy of when we would and the magnitude of what it would feel like; that aspect of it.” Other songs were influenced by the pandemic as well: “Finishing ‘Angels,’ and ‘Everybody’s Falling in Love’ kind of kept me going in anticipation of when things got back…” Her voice trails off, before adding, “I mean, you were there; you know.”
LP wrote eight of the 12 songs on 2015’s Forever For Now—her major-label debut with Warner Bros.—on ukulele, telling this magazine in an interview at the time, “Even if I didn’t start a song on ukulele, we’d find ways to start putting it on there.” On, Churches, the ukulele is not as prominent as it was on Forever, or her subsequent smash follow-up on the indie label Vagrant Records, Lost on You. But it’s layered in clever ways within the lush production.
The uke is often heard as a textural component on Churches, including doubled with other instruments as percussion. But there are also moments where it carries the song, like on “Everybody’s Falling in Love.” And some songs that don’t feature ukulele still have it as part of their DNA. For example, “Conversation” and “Can’t Let You Leave” were both written on the instrument.
Songwriting with Ukulele
LP’s success as a songwriter goes far beyond the songs she’s written for her seven albums released since 2001. Since 2007, LP has also been racking up songwriting credits on releases by such major artists including the Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera, Rihanna, Cher, Joe Walsh, Rita Ora, Celine Dion, and others. But the process hasn’t been all smooth sailing.
“I was pretty banged up from the music business in general,” LP says. “Two indie deals, two major deals, and then full stop and into songwriting. It was difficult.” This was around 2009, when the music industry was one of many going through tumultuous times. “I had to kind of put myself back together again a little bit after that experience.”
She had figured that it just wasn’t going to happen for her as an artist, so she turned to songwriting. She went to a little music store in New York City, where she lived at the time, and bought a “tiny little Lanikai ukulele.” She still has that soprano ukulele to this day. “It was only $60, but I had no money at the time. I was like, ‘$60? For what?’ And then I learned four chords—I think I learned ‘Hard Day’s Night’—and I loved it.”
From there, LP taught herself to play using more transcriptions of Beatles songs posted by the ukulele community on the internet, learning the fingerings for chords she was familiar with on guitar. “I played guitar on tour in my early touring days and I remember thinking it would be so fun to have one of those little ukuleles,” she says.
LP credits the ukulele with bringing joy back to the process of songwriting. “The ukulele is such a deep thing for me,” she says. “I started playing it when I thought my artist career, my me-being-a-singer career, was kind of over. I was just going to write for other people. And I used it, I brought it to sessions and it just kind of lightened the mood.”
It started out as a personal retreat, in a way. “The way I got back into my own songwriting experience is I started writing these, I call them ‘bedroom ditties.’ It was just me on the uke, whistling,” says LP. “And I was writing these songs that I couldn’t get out of my head. I was making songs for my girlfriend at the time. I was feeling very creative and good. Not at all pressed for having to have a song for whoever. And it just gave me some ease.”
“It opened up the door in my heart to loving music again.”
Then the ukulele started showing up as a constant companion on her songwriting sessions. “I felt like bringing a guitar to a session felt so presumptuous,” she says. “I like to keep things open for the start of a song. I don’t want to be like, ‘OK we’re going to start it from the uke,’ or, ‘We’re going to start it with guitar.’ I just brought it as a conversation piece.”
The ukulele figured into one of her biggest hits as a songwriter, Rihanna’s “Cheers (Drink to That),” which hit #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the U.S. after its release in 2011. “It was the first time I remember that I’d brought it,” says LP. “I would carry it to sessions with no case and they were like, ‘What’s that?’ and I’d say, ‘It’s a uke!’ And then we’d get to the part where we’re really hashing out lyrics, and I’d just go in the corner and hash out words. It just made me feel more grounded to the music, even though the music was like drum and bass craziness.”
She continues, “The ukulele is definitely a companion piece to all these things I’ve been writing for a while. And even the title track of my record with Warner Bros., ‘Forever For Now,’ that was just me tripping on mushrooms sitting on a cliff in Big Sur with my ukulele writing that song. The whistle part came first. It was very haunting. My mother had passed away, but it was her birthday that day and I could just feel her essence, [so] I wrote this song about her.” The 6/8 ballad is tinged with melancholy, arranged with spare production mostly comprised of piano and strummed ukulele accompanying LP’s powerful voice, and, of course, whistling. “That song is about the fragility of life. And that’s what I think the ukulele does to me—it reminds me of the fragility of music in general; you almost feel music in the wind.” She pauses for a second. “It opened up the door in my heart to loving music again.”
When inspiration strikes, the key is to be able to capture it in that moment, and the ukulele makes it easier to do that—it is more difficult, for example, to carry a guitar on a hike in Big Sur. “The biggest thing with the uke, for me, is probably the accessibility. It’s always there. I’m always picking it up and jotting down stuff, but those become major songs for me,” she says. “And that’s not to be overlooked. Because I have a very short attention span. Small attention span, small instrument, awesome!” she laughs. “It helps me to jump from one thing to the next, which is how I roll in general.”
When writing 2015’s “Lost On You,” her biggest hit to date, the ukulele helped keep her from getting distracted and solidified the heart of the song. “I just had those three chords and a title, ‘Lost On You,’” says LP, “and then we just kind of bounced from there.”
Big Love for the Little Instrument
LP’s journey with ukulele all started with a surprise breakout hit, which gained popularity after it was heard in a commercial that ran nationwide. “The first major song with ukulele was ‘Into the Wild’ [in 2011]. That’s what I feel made me embark on the whole thing,” she says. “And then ‘Forever for Now,’ and a lot of songs on that record came from the uke. And ‘When We’re High.’ Forever for Now was like me coming out and making the uke my thing, but I didn’t really know I was doing that at the time.”
LP can be seen playing ukulele in the video for “Lost on You,” which has more than 420 million views on YouTube. And in a livestreamed concert from August 2020 with a full band, the show begins with the lights coming up to reveal LP clutching a black Martin tenor ukulele, which is quickly put to use with upbeat rhythmic strumming in the choruses and delicate fingerpicking in the verse of “When We’re High.”
That Martin in the livestream is new, and it’s the first tenor ukulele that LP has played regularly. It’s a custom instrument in a color called “black smoke” that Martin never made in ukulele and only had a short lifespan as an option for guitars. “The tenor is a little different for me to hold,” says LP. “My arm is a little more stretched. I’m just getting used to it now. I felt like [at first] it was affecting my playing.” She adds, “The tenor is nice, I like it. We used it a bunch on the [new] record, too. It does have a slightly more guitar-like sound to it.”
What is it about the ukulele that has so captivated LP as an artist? “I think it’s the timbre of the instrument,” she says. “It’s weird, for some reason I just think it just complements me vocally. I think the sound doesn’t interfere with my voice.
“I also think that because the chords are simpler, for me anyway, because it’s just four fingers and four strings, and I don’t have to think about it as much, I’m not even looking at the fretboard. I feel like it’s more connected to my mind when I’m creating. It doesn’t take away from my thought of the song by ripping me out and thinking, ‘What chord inversion? What am I doing? Where are my fingers right now?’ [With the uke], you can just go with four chords and be so stoked. I think it’s a brilliant way to whet people’s appetite to songwriting.”
- Lanikai soprano
- Collings custom concert
- Vintage Harmony soprano (1930s)
- Martin custom thin-body concert (2012)
- Martin mahogany concert & mahogany concert acoustic-electric
- Martin “Black Smoke” tenor
Play along with The Beatles with The Beatles for Ukulele! Unlike many books of this type, each arrangement in this book includes every measure of the song, as it was originally recorded—nothing is left out. And when you come to instrumental sections, the chords are provided so you can keep strumming your uke.