Judging from the rash of “I’m Yours” YouTube covers, tweets, and unauthorized tabs that continue to eat up sizeable Internet bandwidth, the song, which Mraz released on his third album, 2008’s We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things, has become a favorite among beginner uke players. That was confirmed by my own teenage son, who last year wandered downstairs strumming through the song’s chord changes while singing the upbeat lyrics, even though I’d never known him to have picked up my 1960’s Kamaka uke for longer than a few seconds.
The irony that “I’m Yours,” originally written and recorded on the guitar, has enjoyed such a robust second life on the ukulele is not lost on Mraz, who grew up in Virginia and has since moved to San Diego, California. On his brand new album, Yes! (Atlantic), he delivers new material on his baritone uke.
The night after he appeared on the 2014 season of “American Idol” as a guest mentor, I spoke to Mraz on the phone about his newfound appreciation of the humble four-string instrument, as well as the incredible reception “I’m Yours” continues to receive in the ukulele world.
‘I’m Yours’ is probably the most tabbed ukulele song in history at this point. How did it become such a uke sensation?
The song was kind of inspired by ukulele music. I wrote it in 2004, after spending a lot of time in Hawaii and in Jamaica, which brought in whatever reggae influences the song has. Hawaii brought forth the ukulele influences—even though I didn’t write it on ukulele, that’s definitely where my head was. I actually wrote the song on an electric guitar, funny enough, but it wasn’t really about the tools—it was the need to get the song out of my head. In my head was a ukulele rhythm, this lightness that the ukulele brings.
Have you checked out any of the thousands of YouTube videos of people playing ‘I’m Yours’ on ukulele that are out there?
I have checked some out, not thousands, but I have checked out quite a few over the years. I’m always surprised, usually impressed, and always touched that yet another person has chosen to make the song their own. That’s the highest honor as a songwriter.
Did it surprise you that ‘I’m Yours’ has had this second life on the ukulele?
It does. Maybe it’s only a matter of time before something else comes along, or another song is rediscovered. The lyrics are affirming. If you sing along, you give credit to love, and if you play along, it’s four simple chords that keep you rolling along. There’s a little half step diminished chord that may challenge you as a player, and give you a little excitement and is a break from the repetition. It’s a fun song to play. For me, I’ve been playing it for ten years and I’m still not bored with it.
That’s a good thing because your fans may demand that you play it for the rest of your life.
And I’m OK with that, because, you know what? People sing along when I sing it. I’m not alone. It’s like we’re all celebrating something together. It’s been around long enough and people have been playing it their own way. Everyone has their own reason for liking it, I suppose. They’ve connected it to their own life, their own friendships, their own weddings, whatever it is. It’s not about me anymore. I guess it never really was. It’s about the song. I’m just lucky to have been a part of it.
Did you grow up playing the ukulele?
It’s something that came later in life. Usually when I take the stage, I cheat and play a baritone ukulele. I say cheat because I can play the guitar shapes. Occasionally I’ll have a homework assignment or a studio piece that requires me to remember the shapes on a soprano ukulele.
Baritone ukulele has a very distinctive, evocative sound. What do you like about playing that instrument as opposed to the guitar?
Having played nylon-string acoustic for years, there’s a familiarity to the baritone ukulele. When I play the baritone, I still feel like I’ve got my nylon with me, but it’s simplified, and because it’s simplified I can almost make prettier voicings or simplify my rhythm. With the six-string, I always have to worry about those two extra strings, am I muting those or letting them ring? With the bari, I’m getting a pretty warm and almost low tone and I pay attention to each string. There was a short period of time when I was transferring all my songs onto the baritone, and even though I had my ten-piece band, I was still rocking some of the big pop tunes with this ukulele. I could still get a lot of funk, a lot of skank out of it, and the tone and clarity that I would with my nylon. There was something so simple and quite liberating about the whole thing.
Would you ever be tempted to write a sad song on the ukulele, or is that just a contradiction in terms?
Oh, totally! Unfortunately, sad songs don’t usually make it onto my albums, but eventually they will. Maybe I’ll put out a sad record one day, but I’ve written a couple of sad songs and the ukulele has been a part of those. In fact, one of the first songs I ever wrote, “The Actress,” was written on ukulele. Very minor key.