From the Summer 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY STEVEN ESPANIOLA
Though only 15 years old, Aidan James exudes a sense of confidence usually reserved for only the most seasoned music veterans. By the time he was 11, this prodigious Centennial-generation ukulele player had already shared the stage with an impressive roster of established artists including Jack Johnson, Lisa Loeb, Mick Fleetwood, Jake Shimabukuro, and the pop group that would later become his adventitious mentors, Train. This early, real-world experience would go on to serve as an impromptu music university of sorts for Aidan, providing this budding young talent with the necessary tools to nurture his natural abilities.
I first saw Aidan perform last year during the NAMM show, one of the largest music product trade shows, where he was showcasing at the Kamaka booth. There was a lot of anticipation brewing in the air throughout the slowly-building crowd of eager NAMM-goers. A number of the onlookers, including myself, had already heard the buzz surrounding Aidan, who had already gained notice on YouTube and now had his sights set on the world. From his first strum, it was easy to see that we weren’t dealing with your typical teenage ukulele player and that we were witnessing something special.
By the end of our interview, I came a little closer to understanding why the Honolulu native who recently relocated to Los Angeles, was so comfortable in his new role as “ukulele phenom.”
When did you start playing uke?
I started taking lessons at the Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios in Honolulu when I was 4 years old.
What attracted you to the uke?
I wanted to start with a simple instrument, and in Hawaii, it was only natural to learn the ukulele.
Who were some of your early ukulele teachers and what were some of the most valuable lessons you learned from them?
I started taking lessons at the Roy Sakuma Studios, but I didn’t really do well in a group session and the teacher was strict. But when my parents put me in private lessons, I became more interested and focused. Later, Roy Sakuma became my personal teacher. He taught me a lot about chord progressions and picking styles—and he always told me to have fun and be who you are.
You have a beautiful custom Kamaka ukulele. Can you tell us a little about it?
It’s a custom tenor in koa wood with a pearl “AJ” logo inlaid into the fingerboard. It took about eight months to make. Most custom ukuleles take a minimum of a year to finish, but we requested a rush because I needed it for a show. It has a low-G, which fits the sound of my music, and I use D’Addario J71 strings.
Can you describe your songwriting process?
Before I start to write, I figure out what I want to write about. After that, I usually start with the music. I feel like I’m really good at finding a good chord structure that fits the song’s genre. Then, I start to sing random melodies that fit the chords. Once I have the melodies for the verses and chorus, I start to mumble out gibberish and I keep doing that until it turns into words. If the words don’t completely make sense, I change them out until the words fit the inspiration. It’s a process that goes on until it all feels right.
What inspires your songwriting and ukulele playing?
There were a few artists that I listened to when I was growing up and they inspired me in some way, whether I knew at the time or not. My first music experience was watching The Wiggles on TV when I was two years old. I was memorizing and singing their songs all the time. My parents said I always sang in-key, with great timing, and that this is when they knew that I had a special connection to music. I had a speech impediment up until the age of four, with very limited word vocabulary, but music helped me through it.
Starting when I was three years old, they started taking me to Jack Johnson’s Kokua Festival concerts every year in Hawaii. I loved his music and listened to his CDs all the time. He is an awesome songwriter who sometimes incorporates the ukulele into his music. Jake Shimabukuro was also a big inspiration. Just watching him perform, he would mesmerize the audience every time. He’s been supportive of me all these years and is a good friend. Then, in 2010, a song came out called “Hey, Soul Sister” by Train. I was eight years old and hearing the ukulele infused into a major pop-song changed my world. When I heard it, I thought, “Hey, let me try to cover this song,” and I started singing.
I started dabbling in songwriting when my first single came out at age 11. Not having a lot of life experiences yet, I wrote about what I knew. Now that I’m 15, I feel like a much more mature songwriter and I’m inspired by artists like James Arthur, Jon Bellion, Ed Sheeran, and Chris Martin of Coldplay.
You have a pretty wide and eclectic repertoire. What kinds of music do you listen to?
I listen to all different styles of music—artists that include Jon Bellion, Ed Sheeran, James Arthur, Coldplay, Mumford & Sons, X Ambassadors, DNCE, Charlie Puth, just to name a few.
How much time do you dedicate to practice?
It’s hard to say—at least three hours a day. I basically pick up my uke throughout the day and night.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Five years is a long time away; I’m looking more towards five months! I want to be a successful artist, making the music I love to create with the producers that inspire me. I want to be able to produce and engineer my own music, and keep learning that part of the business along the way. I want to keep having fun, doing what I love to do and, hopefully, my fans will continue to grow with me.
Where do you want to take the ukulele?
One of my goals as a ukulele player is to show the world that you can do so much with this instrument—not just the normal four-chord “ukulele is a toy” type of song, but actually incorporating it into real pop singer-songwriter music, adding in looping and effects to create a big sound. I hope I have inspired and continue to inspire people to pick up the ukulele and take it to new heights.
What do your friends think about you touring the world?
They are really happy for me because they know this is what I want to do. Seeing it happen in front of their eyes, they think it’s super cool.
Aidan on the Challenges and Opportunities of Looping
Part of Aidan’s appeal is his prowess in building music from layering ukulele parts using a looper. A looper is a device (usually in the form of a pedal) that records the output signal from your instrument, or vocal, and then repeats, or “loops,” that signal until the musician decides to stop the pattern. The musician can continue to add loops indefinitely, forming layers of musical parts much like traditional multitrack recording, but in real-time. In the right hands (or feet), a skillful looper can make it sound as if he has an entire backing band playing with him. It’s a technique that requires almost as much skill, discipline, and dedication to master as playing an instrument.
What kinds of pedals are you currently using in your pedalboard?
Dedicating time to the looper can take almost as much practice as your primary instrument. How much practice time do you set aside for looping?
I usually take an hour or two of my ukulele practice time to focus on looping.
It can be difficult to create a good loop in front of an audience. How do you handle timing mistakes when you’re looping?
I’m a perfectionist when it comes to timing. If it’s not terribly off, I’ll just keep going and most people won’t notice. If it is terribly off, I usually crack a joke and restart the song.
Why use a loops and not a full band?
I do have a band and enjoy having them perform with me, but it’s usually based on the venue and audience size. I do have a guitarist, Gino Romano, who performs with me quite often. With looping, I can experiment on my own. I like being able to create different sounds, like bass or percussion with my uke/vocals.
Any advice for people wanting to get started with a looper?
Keep practicing and learn new things with the looper. I continue to learn every day and I have so much fun experimenting with what to add to my loops. And always try different approaches, styles, and sounds, so that your songs don’t all sound the same.
How do you select the perfect songs for looping?
Usually, I hear a song I really like and will try to create a looping version of it. It can be something new on the radio or a song from the past I just heard. But I really like finding new songs and artists that are not mainstream. I’ve tried many songs that end up being either too boring or too complex, and then other times, the song works out just right. I perfect the song first before I go out and perform it.
Do you like to keep up with all the latest gear and tech gadgets, or is it merely a tool to ultimately help move the song forward?
I love experimenting with the new toys! It’s great that products continue to be upgraded and technology keeps changing, mainly for the better. Just being able to stay on top of the game is important whether it fits your music or not.