When Tiny Tim sang “Tiptoe through the Tulips” accompanied only by his ukulele on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1968, few would have predicted the Hawaiian instrument’s rise in popularity. But decades later, it is positively hip.
“It’s been amazing to see,” says Gemma Gracewood, one of the 12 members of the New Zealand-based Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra, which plays McGlohon Theater Wednesday. “When we started, YouTube had just started. We didn’t know other ukulele acts were out there. Within the year, we’d discovered Jake Shimabukuro and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Now there’s a million teenagers playing Taylor Swift straight into their computer.”
Gracewood, a film and TV producer, jumped at the chance to return to Charlotte after working on a documentary at McColl Center in 2013 about New Zealand artist Joseph Herscher, who was in residence there.
“I felt closer to New Zealand in Charlotte,” says Gracewood, who spends six months out of the year living in New York with her boyfriend and his daughter. She stayed with an artist friend in Wilmore and “got to know the city beyond the banking space.”
“You can have a whole house with chickens in the yard,” she adds.
Her band mates are excited about absorbing North Carolina’s musical history.
“We’ve grown up loving bluegrass and Americana, idolizing the Carter Family,” she says. “We’re all chomping at the bit to be near the home of the music we love the most.”
Gracewood was a bedroom player who never intended to become a performer. When she moved into the same building as comedian Bret McKenzie (half of the Flight of the Conchords), he mentioned a friend wanted to start a ukulele band.
“I said, ‘Great,’ and the next day he knocked on my door and said, ‘Band practice!,’ ” she recalls.
“I’d been a journalist and a DJ. I knew what it took to get on stage, but when something like that happens, your body works before your brain. I immediately blurted out, ‘I’ll be there.’ ”
The 12 members – a mental health worker, a teacher and an “eco-warrior” among them – would gather in a Wellington café and share songs. One day, a customer suggested they go pro.
Nine years later, the ensemble has grown to international popularity, covering songs by Prince, Kings of Leon, Outkast and Toto (to name a few) with delightfully complex vocal harmonies and ear-opening arrangements.
“It’s simple to play, but you can be as sophisticated as you want,” she says.
“We do something like Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River,’ a song that was mainly created on computers. You have to figure out what you can do – not just on one instrument, but on 10. I’ve heard songwriters say if a song works on ukulele, they know it’ll work as a song. People think it’s a toy, but it’s quite sophisticated in the right hands.”