Manitoba Hal is a multi-instrumentalist with a special place for the ukulele. They’re also known for making unique cigar-box versions of their favourite instrument, to. This former bus driver from Winnipeg is very much an educator, craftsman, together with also being a touring musician – as you’ll hear in this chat. Hal’s latest album is called Vintage Blend, which is a collection of reimagined as well as rearranged numbers that spans across their musical life.
They joined radionotes down the line to Australia for this chat from their home in Shelburne….
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IMAGE CREDIT: Lisa Buchanan (Supplied)
SHOW NOTES: Manitoba Hal episode
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Feature: Manitoba Hal
- Official Site
- Twitter – Facebook – Instagram
- Patreon – a great way to support Hal and learn about the music
- Blues Is in the Water – Album (iTunes)
- Billie Jean – James Hill (YouTube)
- Many A Moon – James Hill and Janelle (Album – Official Site)
- Samantha Muir (Official Site)
- Craig Chee and Sarah Maisel (Official Site)
- This Condition – Song off Vintage Blend (Bandcamp)
- Come To Me (Official Video)
- Vintage Blend – Album on Bandcamp on Spotify on AppleMusic and physical copy (CD) direct from official site
Next Episode: 50
- Half a century of episodes, so a mix-bag of the past with a serve of the future
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[Radio Production – notes: Manitoba Hal takes the full episode and any tune from Vintage Blend would be great to play – Focus Cut: This Condition]
Theme/Music: Martin Kennedy and All India Radio
Web-design/tech: Steve Davis
Voice: Tammy Weller
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First version provided by REV team member Michael H – check to audio before quoting wider
John Murch: Thank you very much for joining radionotes.
Manitoba Hal: Well, thank you for having me.
John Murch: Your first ukulele, which I believe was a 1955 Martin Soprano, who gave it to you?
Manitoba Hal: Well, it was my grandfather. We were moving him from his lifelong home that he built himself into an assisted care home, him and my grandmother, and I found it in the basement. He had never played the ukulele as far as I knew. He was a piano player. But I found this 1955 Martin, and I knew the name Martin, but this was in the center of Canada, I had never seen a ukulele to save my life. I asked him about it, he told me what it was, and he said I could have it if I learned to play it.
Manitoba Hal: I always looked up to my grandfather. He was a prominent male figure in my life. So I agreed and accepted that and I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And it changed everything. At that point I was just a guitar player who had learned to play by ear, and when I got the ukulele I had to actually learn to read sheet music and learn music theory so that I could play this instrument that had no audio references. I couldn’t just put on a record and go, what are people doing?
John Murch: Was he the only male figure at the time, or were there others that shaped the life of Hal in those earlier years?
Manitoba Hal: He was the prominent, but there was also my uncle who was a drummer in a rock band. Those were the two male figures I had growing up. My grandfather was a carpenter by trade and a piano player part time through most of his life. So he was a huge inspiration in terms of what I wanted to be when I grew up.
John Murch: Describe for us what it was like visiting your grandfather in that house.
Manitoba Hal: I grew up right beside my grandfather’s house. We were raised in a little trailer mobile home that was just adjacent. He and my grandmother would take care of us after school. I say us, is my brother, my older brother and I. My mom was a single mom who worked. By all accounts, an idyllic perfect childhood.
Manitoba Hal: It was a small, small town. We had a big yard. My grandfather planted lots of trees and there was a lot of grass and places to play. He was a carpenter, so there was this extensive woodpile. There was scraps to build forts out of, there was tools to bang away at stuff. It was perfect for young boys.
John Murch: What was the first tool you picked up?
Manitoba Hal: Gosh, that’s hard to say. I would bet it’s a hammer. I’m sure that as a young boy, my grandfather let me bang nails into a piece of wood thinking I was doing something as he was working on a real project.
Manitoba Hal: One of the great regrets of my life in that sense is that when I had an opportunity to learn a lot from him about carpentry and about things that I’m passionate about now, I wasn’t interested, so I didn’t really do a lot with him in that way.
John Murch: Do you get a sense that he’s looking over your shoulder now that you are more creative in that particular pursuit?
Manitoba Hal: Oh yeah. Actually, I know he is. I believe he’s looking down and smiling at the ukulele and the fact that I play it and that I now build cigar box guitars and I’m renovating an old house. I mean, I think these are things that he’d be very proud of.
John Murch: 120 years old and going strong?
Manitoba Hal: By all accounts. It’s a shack, and I don’t want to sound too immodest. I mean, it’s an old home that had been neglected, but what it had was good bones and a good roof. Literally every surface in the house has needed, and still needs in many places, attention. Which I thought was just perfect for a guy who spends most of his life traveling. I can slowly fix this thing up to make it a beautiful home, but in the meantime I’m warm and cozy when I am here.
Manitoba Hal: One of the principles that guided me when I bought the house was knowing my nature, which is to be primarily fairly lazy, if I bought a house where something worked well but I didn’t really like it, it would probably never change. But if I bought a house that needed everything to be fixed or adjusted or whatever, then even if it took me time, it would end up being what I wanted it to be.
John Murch: It’s also the case of fresh eyes, is it not? Do you get that every time you come back from a tour that you might look down the corridor and go, actually, the dining room, that’s the next thing.
Manitoba Hal: Well, it’s funny that you say that, because my manager, Nicole, has been here visiting my house a few times, and there was one project over the last 10 years that I’d talked about doing over and over again and never really got started, and that was that I have my upstairs is arranged. There are two rooms that are connected so you have to go into one to get into the other kind of story. There is my small office, was a separate room. I was thinking of closing the wall between the two rooms that were connected and opening a wall between my office and the other room because I use them in conjunction, and then the other room was my bedroom.
Manitoba Hal: One day she says to me, why don’t you just move your bedroom into the small room? Because all you do is sleep there. Of course, I’d never considered this in 10 years. So I did that. So now I’m sitting in the big room that used to be my bedroom, it is now my office, and it is connected to my TV room, which is of course what I always did.
Manitoba Hal: So fresh eyes is exactly the answer there. She saw it in a way that I didn’t, and therefore made my life better once again.
John Murch: Do you have a good view out to the [Simpatics 00:05:16]?
Manitoba Hal: I have a bit of a view into my backyard, there’s some trees and a little stream, but it isn’t a good view. But part of problem is that my house was built in a time when there weren’t standards, and so I’m right up against the road.
Manitoba Hal: The room where I have the best view would be now my bedroom, and I can look out from there onto the harbor, a beautiful view. But if I’m going to do any kind of recording or lessons, I do lessons through Skype and things like that, there’s always trucks going by and you can hear people talking on the street and everything. So it’s actually better on the backside with the worst view.
John Murch: Shelburne, what’s it like?
Manitoba Hal: Beautiful town. It was founded in 1783 by United Empire Loyalists, so people that were loyal to King George and were expelled from the United States. I’m probably not the best person to talk about it. It was a prime colony in its day, and we have about 13,000 people in the county and about 1500 in town. Primary industry in this area is fishing, notably lobster fishing. Other than that, it’s just a great community full of artists, creative craftspeople. There’s a wonderful group of painters here and everything, partly because we have such a scenic area. We have a beautiful harbor. One of the only harbors in the world where there’s only development on one side. So it’s a 12 mile harbor to the ocean, and when I stand in town and look across the harbor, there is nothing but trees and forest. It is not developed at all. So it’s quite lovely.
John Murch: Been there for about nine or ten years?
Manitoba Hal: Yes.
John Murch: Does it still give you a sense of home?
Manitoba Hal: Well actually, it’s funny you mention that. I was raised in the center of Canada in the province of Manitoba, which is where the name comes from. The town I grew up in is about 40 or 50 kilometers from the longitudinal center of North America. So it’s about as central in landmass as you can get. Now I live over on the East Coast on the ocean. And yeah, I’ve only lived here 10 years, but as soon as I arrived I knew I was home. This place absolutely gives me every feeling of home I’d ever looked for. I think I’ve belonged here my whole life.
John Murch: That gives a sense that possibly water is more in your bones then you may have initially have thought maybe when you were younger?
Manitoba Hal: Absolutely. It’s ironic that you touch on that, because my previous album was called Blues Is In The Water, and Nicole and I, when we were recording that record, we discovered that every single song had some reference to water in it, and of course that is definitely a part of my life.
Manitoba Hal: My ancestors were Nordic explorers. They would’ve been called Vikings by most people. In fact, some of my direct ancestors were the first settlers in North America in L’Anse aux Meadows, which is in Labrador now. It’s always been in Labrador, I guess, it just wasn’t called that then. We go back a long way as seafaring people, but I certainly didn’t grow up by the sea and know nothing about it other than it makes me feel good.
John Murch: But it also must connect with you now that you’re such a traveler of the music kind.
Manitoba Hal: The traveling part, absolutely. When I was really young and starting out in the music business, I used to get terribly lonely on the road. Then one day it just occurred to me that if the worst thing I had to do with my day was travel somewhere that people wanted to pay me money to play music, it really wasn’t a bad day. Then from that, it went on to having friends all over the world and seeing the world. I never imagined as a young man that I would actually see the world.
Manitoba Hal: I used to admire and be envious of the people who managed to take trips around the world and backpack in cities. I’ve got a friend who my whole time I’ve known him has taken off from trips in Europe and wandered around, and I never thought I would. Now, after the last 10 years, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing and it’s quite remarkable.
John Murch: What did you think you’d be doing as a teenager then, Hal?
Manitoba Hal: Oh gosh, there were many careers. I mean, I think I always dreamt of travel. I remember the first thing I really ever wanted to be was a pilot. It was the longing to not be in one place, you know? It was to see more of the world and of my area where I was. Then over time that faded away and I did the kind of things that every person does to get along. I had a progression of jobs in retail, of selling electronics, and I worked for a while as a graphic designer at a print shop.
Manitoba Hal: My only formal education after high school after my basic education was a audio video post-production diploma. So basically I learned how to make television, but I never worked in the television industry. I just spent a bunch of time learning about it.
John Murch: Having said that, you now do tutorials on Patreon.
Manitoba Hal: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. There’s no question that having the skills and the confidence to work with software and cameras has made a huge difference in what I do. Just as the time spent as a graphic designer has saved me all kinds of money and given me a creative outlet for doing the artwork for my CDs and posters and web design, all of that kind of stuff. Sure, absolutely.
John Murch: What was it like being a bus driver in Winnipeg?
Manitoba Hal: You know, it’s a hard job. I actually quite liked the job at the time. I lived about five or ten minutes walk from the transit garage where I picked up my buses. The shifts were split shift. It meant I would drive the early morning rush hour and I would go home for a few hours, then I would drive the afternoon rush hour. But it was really kind of neat to go and work for a few hours, go home, have lunch, play some music, watch a movie, do whatever I wanted to do, then go back to work and drive a little bit, and then come home for the evening.
John Murch: Did you ever sing on the bus?
Manitoba Hal: Ironically, I did sing a little bit on the bus. In fact, there’s one day I actually took a ukulele on the bus with me too and on my rest breaks, which were not many, I would sit and strum. Definitely a little interesting, for sure.
John Murch: You can play the guitar, but you choose to play the ukulele. What’s so special about the uke for you?
Manitoba Hal: It comes down to a combination of things. The first one is that I have a fairly low voice. I used to sing a lot in falsetto when I was younger, and that was an effort to bring my voice above the guitar. I didn’t really realize I was doing that, but as time went on my voice was deepening and I would end up singing in the middle of the guitar register. So arranging parts was challenging, to say the least. When I started playing the ukulele, what I noticed is everything I played on the ukulele, even the deepest notes I could get, were above my vocal range. So it was an interesting juxtaposition, instead of having the instrument below and the voice high, to flip it.
Manitoba Hal: Then I loved the challenge of making it do things that people said it couldn’t do. As a guitar player I played a lot of blues and I was a slide blues guitar player, and I did a lot of that kind of stuff. As soon as I started playing the ukulele I started pushing it into this territory where it wasn’t just a strumming instrument for me, it did do a lot of lead instrumentation, a lot of melody playing. I found ways to get more bottom end, more bass out of it than people expect it to have. All of those things together gave me this instrument that was really challenging creatively and inspiring.
Manitoba Hal: Over time, it kind of took over for me. When I first started playing, I would play it a lot, but I was still a guitar player. I would go out on tour with my guitar and I wouldn’t have a ukulele. I’d come home, though, and my guitar would sit in its case in the corner the whole time I was home and I would play my ukulele. After a while, that just sort of took over and it became the thing that I was doing, and friends started suggesting perhaps I should be showing that to the audience instead of trying to be a guitar player all the time. So I did, and it just took over.
Manitoba Hal: It started off where I would play one ukulele song in a night as a bit of a change of pace, something different to the show, and then I got asked for another and another. Pretty soon I was playing ukulele all night with one or two guitar songs as a change of pace. At that point I had just started to think I should just put the guitar away. It wasn’t quite immediate on that, but as the idea grew and I started talking with my manager, Nicole, about it, we made the decision that that was the right course of action, and that led to everything that people know about me today.
John Murch: The new album Vintage Blend, which has just been released in 2019, October, thereof, looks at a re-imagining.
Manitoba Hal: In my early days, I think every artist begins with false steps. Recorded a lot of stuff in the early years, in this case from 2002 to 2006, many of which are tracks that were not recorded to their best potential or not really heard by anybody. I mean there’s one CD that we chose tracks from that there were only 100 copies ever produced. Even though I played some of the songs live and people liked them, there was never a way for anyone to own these tracks.
Manitoba Hal: We sat down, Nicole and I, and we selected a bunch of tunes that we felt were the best stuff on it, some are songs that were more popular in later variations, and we re-imagined them all for ukulele and for cigar box guitar. So it’s really a combination of the two different things, changing the way they were done to something that more reflects who I am as an artist today.
John Murch: What is that relationship like professionally with the manager?
Manitoba Hal: When we started working together, the first thing we did a lot of was career visioning, where we sat down and talked about where I was, where I wanted to be, what were my goals and dreams. Then we would put together plans to get there and we would make decisions. Over time, it’s grown to be my most trusted relationship. She listens to anything that I think of, no matter how crazy or strange it is, and she helps me find the truth and the exciting good ideas in it and helps me to see what the best choices are for the moment.
Manitoba Hal: Then, of course, she’s also got a great year for harmonies and she’s been involved in the production at a producer level of a couple of my projects, helping me get the vocals right, helping me get the arrangements good, and the order of tracks together. She was instrumental on Vintage Blend from beginning to end. I can honestly say the album wouldn’t have been made without her.
John Murch: I can imagine as an artist sometimes it can be a bit tricky to know how things are sounding as you go along.
Manitoba Hal: Oh yeah. The biggest problem that I have is that I get bogged down in the muck and mire of my life. Once I’m booking shows and touring or I’m running around, I’m constantly bombarded by all sorts of ideas on all sides and challenges and everything like that. I lose sense of the big picture of what we’re trying to achieve.
Manitoba Hal: I might have a bad night somewhere where I’m playing, and for whatever reason the audience doesn’t get what I’m doing, or they get one thing that I’m doing. In my head will start to brew the idea that I have to go that way suddenly. Without someone like Nicole sitting over top of me going, well hold on, Hal, how does this fit into what you’re really doing here? Kind of like the dog chasing a squirrel, you know? It’s got full attention, full attention, squirrel. That’s sort of how my life goes is that I’m working away and then a shiny thing pops up, I lose focus for a minute, and she brings me back around to what I was doing and what we know works and helps me to make solid decisions that way.
John Murch: Let’s talk about dogs. What’s your favorite dog?
Manitoba Hal: All. I’m a real fan of all dogs. I did have, for a brief time, a pug. I’m a very big fan of small dogs because I like the fact that they think they’re big, that they are much more cuddly. But I love all dogs. Honestly, there’s a sort of a joke thing that people say that the more people I know, the more I love my dog. The truth is if I see a dog, I smile. When I walk by a dog on the road, I immediately say hi. I mean, I don’t necessarily bend down and pet it, but I absolutely say hi. I acknowledge every single dog. Yeah, I’m a bit dog crazy in that way. I see people walking down the street with their dog and I go, oh, why don’t I have a dog?
John Murch: You know as a touring musician that that’s not necessarily the best decision, as well.
Manitoba Hal: It absolutely isn’t. That’s why I don’t have one now, but I say I want one. I guess I’m looking forward to the day I retire, which I don’t know when that’ll be, maybe I’ll fall dead before that happens, but when I can get a dog to be my companion and we can just hang around and play music and walk by the harbor together.
John Murch: We’re currently in a conversation with Manitoba Hal. How easy is it to make a cigar box uke?
Manitoba Hal: Let’s talk the basic principle, because I think as soon as you start getting into specifics is where, as they say, the devil is in the details. All stringed instruments are essentially a piece of wood running a certain length with something on the end for the strings to attach to so that you can tune them up and a bridge running across some sort of resonant box. Now, cigar boxes do not make the absolute best resonant boxes, but there’s something cool and funky about using something that was built for one purpose for another.
Manitoba Hal: If you’re talking in a cigar in a guitar sense, just putting some strings across a carriage bolt at one end with some machine heads across another carriage bolt over the box, and you’ve got an instrument that you can play. Now when you want to get into something that you fret and that plays well, there’s a little bit more work involved.
Manitoba Hal: Fretting is an exact mathematical science. You need to put the frets in exactly the right place. You need to learn how to cut into the fret board the exact depth for the fret wires to sit so that they’ll sit well and that you won’t have high spots or things like that that make it the playing of it uncomfortable for the artist. So there’s a bit of work.
Manitoba Hal: What I like about it is there’s a reward factor that you put in the time to do this and you come up with something that plays well, and if you’re lucky, looks really good. A nice change of pace from the constant effort in my life to play an instrument well. I don’t want to sound like I’m frustrated with that or tired of that. But the reality is you work really hard to be good, you practice all the time, the last thing you want to do when you want a break is to play more music. At least this is my truth. What I love about building is that it’s something that is highly creative that uses different parts of my brain and keeps my hands busy, and in the end I get the reward of this beautiful piece of folk art that makes music.
John Murch: And it gets us back to your grandfather, does it not, that of actually crafting?
Manitoba Hal: I carve the necks myself and do all that kind of work, so there is a certain amount of the wood of in the building of. But I think my grandfather would have really enjoyed this. He was a piano tutor and he did house carpentry as well, so there was always instruments being rebuilt in his garage. He built all the furniture in the house that he lived in with my grandmother. I have some of his pieces of furniture in my house now. I think he would have been really intrigued and interested in building cigar box guitars. Although I think he would have listened to them and thought, well that sounds like crap, let’s build a real instrument. Because, you know, people have figured out how to make bodies that sound good. I do think he would’ve liked the process for sure.
John Murch: Well, let’s talk about the, quote, sounds like crap, unquote. Is there some sense of enjoyment out of that as well, that you know that it could go one way, but if you do the right thing you’ll hit the target?
Manitoba Hal: Yeah, absolutely. For me it’s a constant learning process. I think every time I finish an instrument, I learned something else about instrument making and about making in this particular milieu. Often what makes or breaks a cigar box instrument in my estimation is tiny decisions that are made at the very beginning. They translate along the lines.
Manitoba Hal: If you have made a mistake or cut a corner on something that you didn’t even think you were cutting a corner on, it’ll have a dramatic effect at the end of the line. That’s not to say that it’s this anal pursuit. It really isn’t. I mean, you could build a cigar box guitar in a matter of two or three hours that as a slide instrument does everything you’d ever want it to be. But if you’re trying to make that exact playing instrument and you get one piece an eighth of an inch off, the whole thing won’t play in tune, and you might not know that until the end.
Manitoba Hal: So there’s a certain attention to detail that’s required. Think about all the details before you begin. Certainly the important details such as where the bridge is going to live, how far that is from the nut on the neck, how that is all going to fit together as mechanically in that sense.
Manitoba Hal: Then if you have the wood shop and the tools, there are ways to take cigar boxes and make them even better. There’s some people out there, for example, that take the lid off the cigar box and they run it through a planer to thin it down like a guitar top, and that makes for a much more resonant, appealing sounding instrument.
Manitoba Hal: I guess, not to sound like I think I’m better than that or whatever, my intention has never been to make beautiful sounding instruments. I know many luthiers who make beautiful instruments that are visibly very beautiful to look at, great characteristics, lovely wood, great workmanship and finish all around, and the tone is incredible. My whole idea is to take this cigar box, and I like the idea of taking something that was used for something not necessarily good for people and turning it into something that makes people happy. If you can take the raw materials and look beyond its aesthetics to what it does functionally and then push it beyond, it’s great.
Manitoba Hal: When we started talking about cigar box guitars, Nicole and I, one of the first projects we really wanted to do, I wanted to make a record just with cigar box instruments. We had this idea that I still believe in that there’s a huge financial barrier of entry to being a recording artist today. Now, of course, that barrier has come down a lot in the later years with digital technology. But just to be able to walk into a studio to record a song, a musician needs a certain amount of money for their instrument, they need to have been able to spend years practicing, all these things. The ultimate end is that just to get started, you need to have a significant cash investment into your craft.
Manitoba Hal: Now, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but I do think there’s a lot of creative people who don’t have money in the world. So you can take a cigar box guitar, I can build one without accounting for costs of labor, I can build one for about $50 to $60 with all the materials, and that will play as well as some of my more expensive ukuleles. Now it won’t necessarily sound as good, but you put a pickup on that, you plug it into a little amp, and you’ve got something that can make great music.
Manitoba Hal: I really wanted to do this project where I built all the instruments that I performed the record on and that every instrument cost me less than a hundred dollars to make. We never quite got that project off the ground, but the idea of it’s sort of carried through Vintage Blend in that I did record a lot of instrumentation of the record on cigar box instruments that I had made, including a two string bass that I made. We kind of captured elements of it for sure.
John Murch: Well over 15 years experience as a musician, you’re setting the example on your own records and knocking it out of the park by doing so as well by saying, this is how it can be done.
Manitoba Hal: Oh gosh. Well, thank you so much for saying that. I guess I had hoped that people would see that, but it was always more just following the creative muse, you know, and the challenge. One of the things about the ukulele as an instrument to make music on is that it’s actually a very difficult instrument to play well. Because it has certain limitations of scale, you have about an octave and a half of notes, everything can start to sound the same unless you’re really creative in how you put it together. I like the challenge of that, and that led me to using three and four string instruments where there are more limitations placed upon you.
Manitoba Hal: One of the keys to creativity is limitation. If you have unlimited options in front of you, it can actually stifle your creativity because you don’t really know what to do. But instead you take away all the options and say, now do something with this. Suddenly you find yourself being creative and finding a solution to something that shouldn’t be possible with what you have.
John Murch: Which ukulele musicians, apart from your good self, should we be listening to to get a good feel of how the ukulele should be played?
Manitoba Hal: Oh gosh. That is a difficult question because I think it comes down to a fairly subjective standard of what you think a ukulele should do.
Manitoba Hal: One of my favorite musicians is another Canadian, James Hill. I think he is definitely one of the best ukulele players on the planet. He has a facility of using the instrument as a whole instrument. One of his most famous pieces is an arrangement of Billie Jean, Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, where he plays the bass rhythm, a chord rhythm, and the percussion of the piece all at once with one hand, without a looper or any other tools. It’s incredible the kind of things he’s done with an instrument.
Manitoba Hal: But if you want to look at the instrument from a traditional standpoint and where the music was originally made on it, there’s some great players out of Hawaii. Aldrine Guerrero is one of my favorites, and he’s tied in with a whole series of great players on the Islands that are incredible.
Manitoba Hal: But then going to the classical world, there was a gentleman who’s now passed away named John King who did a lot of classical ukulele and played campanella. There’s a woman in the UK who is taking up that mantle. Her name is Samantha Muir, M-U-I-R, and she’s a fantastic classical player. I mean her whole thing is these classical arrangements for the four stringed instrument. Then if your whole thing is jazz, a duo from the West Coast of the United States, Craig Chee and Sarah Maisel. They do a lot of jazz arrangements and things like that.
John Murch: How do you see the ukulele into the future and the future of music?
Manitoba Hal: Well, one of the things that I hope and have hoped for many years is that in North America specifically, much less so in the rest of the world, but in North America specifically, the ukulele is seen by an awful lot of people still as a joke or a kid’s instrument. And there’s a lot more people who are interested in playing it, and I’m kind of hoping that as far as the future goes, it’ll lose that stigma and it’ll just be seen as an instrument. Instead of a novelty, you know? Instead of a toy, where, oh, I’m going to play ukulele, ha ha. Or that’s really fun and cute, he plays ukulele. I want it to just be he’s a great musician. Wow, this person is a fantastic artist. Oh yeah, well, they happen to play ukulele. That’s what I hope. I hope that the growing crop of young people who are playing it, enjoying it, just pursue it as an instrument that is worthy of performance and play and recognition. The instrument moves beyond novelty into just being yet another thing.
John Murch: Hal, your latest record is called Vintage Blend. I’d like you to choose a number off the album and tell us the story behind it.
Manitoba Hal: This Condition. This was a song that took me a little bit of time to write. I co-wrote it with a friend of mine named Steve Johns in Winnipeg. The reason it became a co-write was that I had written the first verse, the lead in and the basic introduction to the song, and then had nothing. I sat on it for about two years continuing to try to write something. Initial lyrics, and the initial verse was so compelling to me, I knew this was something, but I didn’t know where it was going.
Manitoba Hal: So the lyrics starts, “40 days and 40 nights of dust bowl tears in neon lights. She held a bottle to her lips to drown the pain. The love she had was sanctified, it was washed in the blood and then baptized.” This verse really stuck with me, but I didn’t know where to go.
Manitoba Hal: Steve came along and we started talking about it, and we realized that there was a bit of a modern retelling of the Mary-Jesus mythology in it, in that Mary was a single mom who had to deal with all the problems that single mothers have to deal with today and not having enough money. The point was there was this idea just sitting there within it, and we took it that way and it became this powerful metaphor for love and how even when you’re broken, you’re really worthy of love, and you’re worthy of support.
Manitoba Hal: I was really pleased when we completed that. The song hung around for a lot of years, it was performed in various states, but I do believe that this recording is the most powerful recording we ever made of it. We added some background voices. There’s a local friend of mine here in Shelburne who is alto singer, and she did this amazing humming part. You have to hear it to believe it. Her name is Mary Howell.
Manitoba Hal: Wonderful recording session for that track, I have to say. There was this silence. Everybody involved in the project was just sitting there vibrating, but not saying a word. It was quite something to experience.
John Murch: Had your mother ever heard you sing or play the uke?
Manitoba Hal: She says she’s my number one fan. My brother also says he’s my number one fan. So those two have to fight it out for who really gets that role. I’m going to give it to my mum, though. Yeah, she quite likes it. She’s a big supporter of me.
Manitoba Hal: There’s actually a story going back to 2005, when I was still trying to put some sort of full time career together. I got invited to an international ukulele festival actually out here in Nova Scotia. So I was living in Winnipeg at the time, and there’s a festival out here called the Ukulele Ceilidh in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, and they invited me to come and play for that same weekend. Steve Johns, who helped me write This Condition, was getting married, and he had invited me to his wedding. So I was in this dilemma for a few days trying to figure out what I was going to do.
Manitoba Hal: I talked to my mom. Without a second hesitation she says, well, you have to go. I said, but what about Steve and his wedding and family relationship and things like that. They mean something to me. She says, yes, but you don’t know when you’re going to get invited again.
Manitoba Hal: Whether or not it would have been different, I have to credit my mom with the fact that I developed my first fan base in a big way outside of Winnipeg by coming to the Ukulele Ceilidh and meeting players out here and an audience seeing me play.
John Murch: in early October, you went to the eighth one of those?
Manitoba Hal: I did. As a matter of fact, I was back at the old haunt playing and teaching with them once again. It was quite lovely.
John Murch: Did your mother end up going proxy to Steve John’s wedding or not?
Manitoba Hal: No, she did not. But Steve, he understood as well. When I told him, he said, well yeah, you have to go. And he was completely fine that I didn’t come to his wedding. He gave all of his groomsmen ukuleles, which I thought was an interesting choice. Photos of all of them pulling their ukuleles by the Assiniboine River in Winnipeg.
John Murch: When did you and Steve John’s first meet?
Manitoba Hal: I was working at a music industry association in Winnipeg called Manitoba Music, which was a center for business development for artists. Steve came in because he wanted to be a songwriter. I love the way he tells this story, so I’ll endeavor to tell it the way he does.
Manitoba Hal: He came in to consult with me. I was the member services rep, so I was the guy just about everybody talked to. He told me that this is what he wanted and we started talking. I basically did everything I could to discourage him. I told him he should look somewhere else. I mean, apparently he said I was passionate.
Manitoba Hal: But through the course of that visit, what I discovered, and I believe he did too because we became fast friends, was that our sense of humor was oddly very compatible. That I would make jokes that he was right on top of. We would talk in song lyrics sometimes. He would just start saying some esoteric song lyric that I knew and would follow up with an equally esoteric and have a conversation.
Manitoba Hal: It still goes on to this day. I don’t know exactly how that works. He’s about 10 years younger than me, but we were separated at birth or something.
John Murch: Who’s your favorite comedian, Hal?
Manitoba Hal: Oh, what a great question. I don’t know that I have a favorite. I think I can ask that easier by saying what I don’t like. I really have trouble with any kind of humor that has to make fun of someone or essentially be hurtful in order to be funny. So I don’t really like shock comics or people that prey on stereotypes like that. I prefer intelligent stuff. I think right now I would say Jerry Seinfeld is right up there. Although it’s hard to even point a finger at it. I think I just like funny things. I like good comedy writing more than comedians.
Manitoba Hal: One of the great things about your question, not that you specifically asked this, is I have long held that if a songwriter wants to become a better performer, there are two people they need to watch and study, and that is comedians and magicians, and not musicians. Those two people hold an audience with very little in the way of artifice. A comedian stands up there by themselves with a microphone telling a story, and they have to hold an audience’s attention and they have to craft their language in such a way that leads to their final point, and a good one is amazing.
Manitoba Hal: A magician has all the tricks of slight of hand and distraction to get away with the illusions or deceptions they’re trying to pull off. I do believe that that’s also an important skill for a musician to learn, is that there are sometimes things you have to do that distract from the show, and you have to find a way to distract the audience so you can do them and have that be fundamentally part of what you do.
John Murch: Hal, thanks very much for your time.
Manitoba Hal: Thanks, John.