Those of you heading to the Cairns Ukulele Festival on 25-28 August 2016 must not miss the inspirational, extraordinary Taimane Gardner. Taimane lives on the island of Oahu in Hawaii and she was there when I spoke to her recently.

I’ve just watched you very impressively playing some Bach in a Youtube video, and playing some other music too. So clearly your style is eclectic and diverse. What music will you be bringing to Cairns with you?
I am bringing the ukulele in an innovative and modern way because I play Led Zeppelin, I play Beethoven – I play things that most people think the ukulele wouldn’t be capable of playing. And the reason why I do this is that for me it’s such a versatile instrument that can do anything. I’m hoping people will be able to see that it doesn’t play just Hawaiian music. I want people to be open and see that the ukulele can be just as serious a piano or a guitar. I feel like it’s underestimated. When you think of an ukulele most people think, Oh, it’s a souvenir from Hawaii or it’s a toy. But it can play beautiful things – it can play classical, it can play all sorts of different things.
Certainly watching you on video, you’re so expressive as you play and you convey that physically as well as in the notes that are coming out of the instrument.
Well, the ukulele was the instrument that was given to me when I was five. I never thought of it as an ukulele that needed to play a certain type of music. It was just the instrument that I was able to express myself out of. I enjoy playing music that I like to listen to. I love to listen to classical. I love to go crazy and listen to metal, and the ukulele was just the way I was able to express this.
Some people might play an instrument just the way they’re taught to play it, but the way you play the ukulele suggests a lot of exploration and experimentation. So at what age did you start to experiment with the instrument?
Good question. I started in college, when you’re exploring a lot of different things at that time. So I would say about 18, 19, is kind of when I started going into theatrics, writing original music. At the time I was playing a lot in Waikiki and I was playing surf music, I was playing things that go really well with Waikiki, and it was amazing but at the same time I didn’t feel like I was artistically growing so I was kind of getting burnt out from the ukulele. Thankfully my girlfriend took me to a place in Chinatown, which is more of like a seedy place in Hawaii, and we went to this underground art gallery and they had all these musicians creating, improvising on the spot, collaborating with dancers and it kind of just rekindled the creative fire inside of me and I started going with that and playing the ukulele in a different way that was satisfying what I was looking for.
Have you found that – when you’re playing an instrument in a non-traditional way, like Bob Dylan going electric – any audiences have been resistant to the way you play?
I have, actually, and it’s funny you bring that up. I remember playing in Tahiti – that was the first time I had that reaction. I guess they’re very set on the ukulele being played traditionally and I wasn’t quite sure how to handle it at the time. But, you know, art is going to get a good reaction and a bad reaction, that’s what makes good art is that people will have a reaction in their own way. What I’m doing is weird, it is – it’s something that’s never really been done. I accept that and I’m just going to keep doing what I enjoy doing. And you’re going to have people who love it and you’re going to have people who don’t like it, and you just have to keep living your life.
It’s true, because if you listened to everyone else’s opinions you would lose yourself in all that.
Exactly. Everyone has a different opinion and you can’t please everyone, so you might as well enjoy what you’re doing.
So in terms of your own creativity, do you let things come to you or do you actively seek out pieces to play or write new music? Some might say they follow the muse – or do you let the muse follow you?
That is so hard, because what I do is my passion but it’s also my work. I have my boyfriend who’s always saying, ‘You’re always working! You never have any time for me!’ But at the same time it’s what I love doing, so I’m just constantly surrounded that I automatically think, That would be a great place to shoot or Oh, that’s a great melody. So I have to choose whether or not I listen to that muse or whether I’m going to be like a normal person and try to enjoy a show as a regular person – which never happens, because I always have a notepad where I scribble ideas. So it’s all over the place.
I think it’s the challenge of the creative life – there’s no off switch for it. You’re clearly so passionate about your work, but it is also part of you – and that probably comes up more for passionate people than non-passionate people.
You’re always working but I guess it’s never work.
I also saw in your videos this element of performance you bring – you don’t just stand at the front of a stage playing your instrument and looking outwards, you really bring this great performance sensibility to it. Do you plan things or do you let the moment decide?
I do both. I go into it with somewhat of a set list – some bread and butter so if something were to drastically go wrong I would have something. But most of the time I see what the audience is feeling – if they’re in a rowdy mood or if they’re in a really dark mood. For me it’s a symbiotic relationship – I constantly am giving the audience energy and then the audience will give the energy back, so it’s an exchange and that’s what I love about performance. It’s not just me – everyone is included. If you’ve seen me perform, I always like to give the death stare – I stare people down while I’m playing music, and they’re either creeped out or they really enjoy it, or both. It goes well in concerts.
So you give the death stare to be deliberately provocative?
Yes, well … I wouldn’t say deliberately – I think it just comes from me and I realise a little later when I’m doing it, This is probably a little weird for people. But at the same time I’m already doing it, so you kind of just have to stick it, go with it. I don’t try to make it a little provocative – it just kind of comes out that way and I go with it.
And that energy exchange you describe is a mysterious process and it can be hard to get it right. For some artists it can happen quite instinctually and you can hone it over it. Is it something you found you were just able to manage the more you performed?
It’s a good question. Yes, the more you do it the more you get a feel for it, but I still have some problems trying to figure out what the hell’s going on. I hear things in my head and then trying to put it into my fingers so they’ll play the right notes is still a little bit of a difficulty, but it gets easier and easier, and then I kind of just go from there after that. But it usually starts either from a dream or an idea that I’ve had, I make a story out of it – I write a little story with these different characters and then I perform it. I perform songs that go into that theme that I’ve thought about.
You perform in four different languages: Japanese, Maori, Hawaiian and English. Do you have a favourite?
I actually do a lot more. I do Hindi, I do French, I do Chinese, Italian, Tahitian. The most recent one I’ve been having a lot of fun with is Chinese. I just learnt that about six months ago. It’s really fun! It’s fun to sing in Chinese, and they have some beautiful songs. Every language is fun but I have to say the hardest is French. I’ve been going to Paris about four to five times but I still can’t get their back-of-the-throat pronunciation.
Particularly to put it in song.
For me, in song it works easier. But when I try to just say things it’s hard. I don’t understand that. I just listen to the songs that I want to learn over and over and over in my head until I get every pronunciation right – that’s how I learn the songs.
It seems from talking to you that you have this incredible creative expansion going on – there’s no limit to what you’re prepared to take on or explore. So after the festival, what comes next?
Today is August. I’m going to Samoa and after that I’m going to California. But regarding my life, I’m writing a new album and I’ve decided that I really want to do this full on. I’m ready. At first I was, like, ‘I kind of enjoy my routine. I enjoy being here in Hawaii and my privacy.’ But now I’m ready to travel the world and see where the ukulele’s going to take me.