FROM THE FALL 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE | BY JIM D’VILLE | PAUL KAMAU PHOTOS
Of course, a young woman with a voice like an angel would play the harp—or maybe a harp ukulele. New Yorker Gracie Terzian burst onto the ukulele scene seven years ago with her debut EP, Saints and Poets. That recording garnered her a coveted spot on the Billboard Jazz Chart, peaking at #3. Terzian admits, “I was shocked when that happened.” Suddenly, what looked for a while like a career in acting (her first professional job was at age 12) had taken a decidedly musical turn. So, what inspired her to embrace this new direction as a ukulele chanteuse?
“I never really stopped one day and said ‘I’m no longer an actor; I’m a musician.’” But, after the release of Saints and Poets, other musical opportunities began to present themselves. “I had sung jazz standards at private events before, but I’d never performed my original material publicly. So I scrambled to put a show together of my music.” And as playing and teaching music began to occupy more and more of her time, the transition from actor to musician was complete.
Although Saints and Poets has a decidedly jazz feel, Terzian describes her current musical endeavors as a singer-songwriter in more of the folk genre, with jazz harmonies. The focus of her writing style, she says, is creating alluring melodies. “If you have a good understanding of theory, you’re not necessarily going to be able to write beautiful melodies. Melodies are elusive. When I started writing music, I would usually start with the melody and then figure out the chords to go with it. Nowadays, I’ll find a chord progression, come up with a melody, and then I’ll add the lyrics.” And her lyrics are wonderfully crafted, even impressing Ted Gioia, respected critic and author of The History of Jazz, who says: “Gracie Terzian is a genuine talent. I especially admire her knack in shaping the lyrics.”
In creating her original music, Terzian relies heavily upon her voice as a songwriting tool. “Being a singer before I was an instrumentalist, I often use my voice to develop a melody, instead of my instrument. I think it helps me tap into the actual source of inspiration. When I think about the mysteries of the world and my appreciation of life, I get moved emotionally. That’s when I’m compelled to write a beautiful melody.
“Originally, I was writing slow and ballad-like songs on the piano,” she continues. “So I asked my teacher at the time how I could write more up-tempo stuff with a groove. He suggested I take up a stringed instrument.” Enter the ukulele.
But the traditional G C E A tuning didn’t quite resonate with the music she was writing at the time. “At first, I translated songs I had written on the piano to the ukulele. But with the keys I was working with, I really wanted to hear the notes Gb and Eb.” The solution? She retuned her ukulele to Gb-C-Eb-A. You can imagine how that tuning would wreak havoc on traditional chord shapes in standard C tuning. The answer to that problem was to create an entire library of new chord shape diagrams.
“It’s a cool tuning, but it makes playing simple major and minor chords harder,” she says. “But if you’re playing extended jazz chords, the chord shapes bring the harmonies closer together. Surprisingly, many of the chord shapes in this tuning are actually more comfortable to play.”
However, there was a major drawback: “Over time, I felt using that tuning was disconnecting me from every other ukulele player. I couldn’t use other people’s arrangements. I couldn’t teach in that tuning nor take lessons myself. So eventually, I decided to check out the tuning that everyone else in the world was using. I came to like standard tuning and realized why other people like it.”
Along the way, too, Terzian became enamored with the harp ukulele and it became an important part of her musical arsenal. The harp ukulele and its cousin, the harp guitar, became popular around 1910; so popular that door-to-door salesmen sold them in some areas. As you can imagine, instruction manuals for learning harp ukulele are as rare as hen’s teeth; hence, Terzian is self-taught on the instrument.
“I use the four fingers of my right hand to pluck the ukulele strings, and my thumb on the bass strings,” she says. She tunes the four bass strings to F-A-C-D. “The ukulele being such a high-pitched instrument, the harp strings provide an overall depth to the sound.” Also, with no frets on the harp neck, it mostly relegates the harp strings to the role of harmony drones. The main challenge of playing the harp ukulele is arranging chord progressions that utilize the most harp strings. “Let’s say I’m playing the verse of a song, and most of the harp strings harmonize with the chords. But, when I get to the chords in the bridge, maybe only one harp string sounds good.” How does she use the low end of the harp ukulele in her songwriting? “When I first write a song, I don’t use the bass strings,” she says. “I usually add those notes at the end.”
Besides being a singer, songwriter, and performer, Terzian is also an excellent teacher. Her YouTube channel hosts a plethora of lessons on a variety of subjects, including standard notation, chord theory, scales, intervals, songwriting, and the circle of fifths.
Terzian is currently recording her first full-length album, which promises to be a lush treat for the ears. In addition to her vocals and harp ukulele will be a full complement of instruments, including drums, bass, guitar, piano, organ, and some horns. “The first thing I recorded was the lead vocals and ukulele,” she says. “Then I got the drum, bass, and guitar players in the room together to lay down the rhythm sections.” If all goes according to plan, her currently unnamed project will be released sometime in the late fall or early winter.
What She Plays
Gracie Terzian plays a harp ukulele made by the Honolulu company aNueNue; Kala and aNueNue tenor ukes; and a Konablaster electric uke. She prefers Orcas Black Fluoro Carbon strings.