Bio

Bios of various lengths (75 words, 150 words, full-length) are available in PDF format in James’ Press Kit.

Worlds are about to collide. With the release of Man With a Love Song, James Hill, who has earned a reputation as Canada’s foremost – indeed one of the world’s foremost – players of the often-underestimated ukulele, stands poised and ready to take his place in the ranks of today's best young songwriters.

Hill stands poised and ready to take his place in the ranks of today's best young songwriters.

Barely into his 30s, Hill has already made a career out of knocking worlds against each other. His technical prowess on ukulele is achieved through attacking what is mostly regarded as a lowly folk instrument with the seriousness and nuance of technique usually associated with the highest levels of virtuosity on, say, classical violin or piano. His entertaining and unpredictable solo concerts have a world-wide audience that would be envied by many wannabe rock stars and his inspirational music seminars have made him something of a ukulele-based motivational speaker. Anyone lucky enough to have seen one of Hill’s recent live shows might also be familiar with his hip-hop influenced forays into heavily percussive, beat-driven prepared-ukulele “sound sculptures”: John Cage meets Chalmers Doane via Kid Koala.

But just when you may have thought you’d seen all possible surprises from Hill, just when you may have thought, through his powers as an instrumentalist, he had doomed himself to working up ever-faster renditions of “Flight of the Bumblebee,” comes a landmark record: Man With a Love Song. Ukulele World: shake hands with Songwriter World.

There were hints of what this record would turn out to be in 2009’s collaboration with cellist Anne Janelle: True Love Don’t Weep. That record saw Hill stretch his chops as a vocalist and, on three original tunes, songwriter. But whereas True Love Don’t Weep (which won a Canadian Folk Music Award) was a further impressive footstep forward in the career of an increasingly ambitious musician, Man With a Love Song is a quantum leap, a Star Trek transporter trip in which Hill has propelled himself to a whole new level, a whole new realm.

The central astounding fact of this album, the seat of this record’s power, is the poetry of the lyrics.

It took Hill twenty-odd years to climb to the top of ukulele mountain as an instrumentalist, but here, seemingly in a single blast, Hill’s songwriting has grown to rival his prowess as a musician. Multiple factors come together on Man With a Love Song to make such superlative work: the generosity of this record: 14 tracks, all original. The rock-solid musicianship of Hill and his collaborators. The clear strength of Hill’s singing voice. The playful breadth of the styles in which Hill has chosen to write (from the soulful big-band jazz of “What Would You Have Me Do?” through the barrelhouse-bluegrass of “Hand Over My Heart” and impeccable barbershop of “Lying In Wait” to the spoken-word-and-junkyard-percussion of “Soap and Water”).

But the central astounding fact of this album, the seat of this record’s power, is the poetry of the lyrics. The songs are full of wordplay and clever turns of phrase: “This dollar is an old-fashioned hell / A kink in the hose to the diving bell / I’m as rich as a thief in a deep wishing well…” There is great humour here: “You can’t trust a man with a love song / You don’t know how many lips that tune has been on.” There is rich imagery: “Whale in the deep blue / Elephant white / An arachnid clambering up a brass pipe / Like eyes in the jungle / That see through the night / Our love is lying in wait.” But most importantly of all, there is an honest poet’s voice in these words, unafraid to confront personal vulnerability and personal pain. The pain and vulnerability of these songs however, is not raw pain and vulnerability.

There was a time I was so young
The little voice inside me carried a gun
Those were the days I couldn’t lose
The only thing that didn’t dare come near me was the blues

But you should see me now
You’d barely recognize me my own true love.

Hill has not given us sophomoric weepiness, but a hard-won wisdom, which is what makes this record seem like the work of a much more seasoned songwriter.

Hill has not given us sophomoric weepiness, but a hard-won wisdom.

It takes guts to do what Hill has done here. The difference between playing musical notes, which he has done for the bulk of his artistic life, and singing words – especially words that one has written oneself – is that musical notes can suggest ideas and moods, but in and of themselves, they are devoid of literal meaning. Words carry the world inside them, and it is impossible for an honest artist to put words on a page, or in a song, without revealing a hitherto-hidden piece of self.

A virtuoso instrumentalist, which Hill has been up to now, especially a young virtuoso, especially a young virtuoso on a maligned and under-respected instrument, can make a career out of having something to prove. A songwriter, on the other hand, must have something to say. The James Hill we get to see in the songs of Man With a Love Song has said plenty and said it eloquently.

This is an exciting moment for the ukulele. A major songwriter has used the instrument to make an important record. This is also an exciting moment for songwriting in Canada. A powerful new voice has emerged.

Worlds have collided. Worlds are colliding. Worlds are about to collide.

- Leo McKay (April, 2011)


Background

How does a kid from Canada become what the Honolulu Star-Bulletin calls a “rare peer” of Hawaii’s premier ukulele players? James Hill grew up nearly three thousand miles east of Honolulu in the town of Langley, British Columbia, where ukulele instruction has been mandatory in many schools since the late 1970s. To his fourth grade classmates, the ukulele was a means to an end, a way for them to dip their toes into the vast ocean of music. For James, the uke was a sea of possibilities unto itself and inside its tiny wooden shell he saw his life in music. He was hooked.

During his teenage years he honed his skills as a key member of the renowned Langley Ukulele Ensemble and as a student at the Langley Community Music School.  James continued his study of music at the University of British Columbia where he earned a Bachelor of Music Degree in 2002.  In a full-circle plot twist, James – also a passionate teacher – went on to co-author the Ukulele in the Classroom method book series with J. Chalmers Doane, the trail-blazing teacher who pioneered the use of ukuleles in Canadian schools.

A seasoned performer with an ever-growing fan base in North America, Asia and Europe, James has garnered wide acclaim for his ground-breaking approach to the chronically-underestimated ukulele. Over the course of his first three genre-defying albums - Playing it like it isn’t... (2002), On the Other Hand (2003) and A Flying Leap (2006) - he re-wrote every rule that had previously kept the ukulele in the realm of novelty and obscurity. Then came the Canadian-Folk-Music-Award-winning True Love Don’t Weep (2009, Borealis Records), his collaboration with cellist/singer Anne Janelle, an album that pushed the budding singer/songwriter into new territory, topped folk radio charts in North America and opened doors to festival stages across the continent.  Hill's latest album, Man With a Love Song, is a sweeping panorama of original songs and instrumentals that more than fulfills the promise of his earlier work.

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