Alison Self never goes anywhere without her ukulele. After buying one on a whim, along with an instruction book, she sat in her room for months on end looking up chords to Johnny Cash songs. “I was singing for a really long time and I always wanted to be in a girl band, be a pop star, or whatever,” Self says. “I really like to perform, but I was so sick of waiting for people to start bands with me.”
Once she heard about California chanteuse Janet Klein, her solo path was set. “She plays this old ukulele and has the sweetest little voice,” Self says. “I thought if she can do that, I can play ukulele!”
A year and a half later, Self played her first show on the instrument. Slowly her popularity has grown in acoustic circles and … punk circles? “I've played a few punk shows and I like it, because it's always a different crowd,” she says. “It's nice to play for people who have never seen me and don't know what I'm going to do.”
While she still gets asked to be the acoustic opener for electric shows, Self has found enough folks who play old-time music to finally be in two bands — Arise, Sweet Donkey and just recently the High Street Lowlifes. Ironically, Alison grew up in historic Petersburg with members from both groups, and old-time music is one thing that drew them together. For some, it took just a few steps. “Our friends who liked rock 'n' roll knew maybe Chuck Berry and then from Chuck Berry maybe found out about Johnny Cash and from that found out about the Memphis Jug Band,” she says. “Eventually, we would all hang out after work and play covers of jug band songs.”
Now that her first, self-titled solo CD has been recorded, Self is eager to challenge herself among old friends in the High Street Lowlifes.
Style: Tell us about that one song …
Alison Self: “Skin and Bones” is about two different people. It's about a friend of mine, Joe Amory, who died about two years ago. Him, this guy Ben, and his girlfriend, Casey, all died in a car accident coming back from tour. He was a pretty good friend of mine. So the song is about him, but also about a friend that I had in high school who I was really close with. We used to make short films together and we were each other's creative muses. Then, we just stopped hanging out. It's the whole thing where you have really close friends when you're younger and when you grow up, you're doing your thing and they're doing their thing. So the song is about losing friends in different ways, through death and growing apart. It's in minor chords so the music is a little eerie. I really like minor chords and I feel like they evoke feelings of sadness.
What are your first musical memories?
When I was younger than 5 years old, I used to sit in the back seat of my grandma's car and sing the theme song, “Scooby Do, Where Are You?” That was probably one of the first songs I ever learned to sing. My grandma thought it was really cute, so she always asked me to sing it. I also loved the “Wizard of Oz” as a kid. … so I had these little red sparkly shoes that my grandma got me from Kmart or something. I would dance and sing on the hearth of the fireplace at our house. There was a big mirror right across the room, so I could watch myself as I was doing it [laughs]. I found this old cassette tape about four years ago of songs I had made up and sung. It was hilarious. I think I made my grandma play the drum. “Grandma, you have to be my drummer.” She got a huge kick out of it.
You cover songs from Saves the Day, Christina Aguilera, Bessie Smith and Patsy Cline. How do you choose which songs to learn for your performances?
I'm the kind of person who, if I like a band or song when I'm 12 years old, I'm probably going to like it when I'm 30. I don't understand how people can say, “Oh, I was into that band when I was 13, but I hate them now.” Plus, it's funny to see someone whip out a Christina Aguilera cover. How many people cover Christina Aguilera who play acoustic instruments? So, it's the novelty aspect of it. I like for my shows to be fun and I like for people to feel like they can relate to what I'm playing.
A lot of the older songs were taught to me by my friends in other states. We'll be hanging out playing music and they tell me I have to learn this certain song. My friend taught me “Copper Kettle” when we were at an Earth First rendezvous in Ohio two years ago. Her and her friend played it and it was just gorgeous the way they harmonized. I had to learn that song. She wrote down all the lyrics and all the chords for me. I've never heard anyone else cover that song other than my friend. I think that's really cool — to not hear a song on the radio, but have it passed between people, through word of mouth.
In addition to shows, you do a lot of busking with your ukulele. Do you have any moments that stand out from those experiences?
I really like busking. I used to drive up to Carytown before I lived here and busk. That was before I knew how to play a ukulele and I was just sitting on the street reading the chords. I had like one song memorized by that point, but somehow I still made money and that was three years ago. I've busked in a lot of different places. I've played in New York on the subway, on the platforms and actually on the train itself. I've played in parks. It's fun and it's always totally different. It's interesting to see the dynamics of busking in different places, for different crowds. S