I’ve had to take a hiatus from Apsara for several months, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to interview folk artist Kelli Rae Powell, whose latest album has taught me more than a thing or two about the versatility and beauty of the ukulele.

Joe Brent, mandolin; Shaky Dave Pollack, blues harp; Kelli Rae Powell, voice and uke; and Jim McNamara, upright bass. (courtesy the artist)
Joe Brent, mandolin; Shaky Dave Pollack, blues harp; Kelli Rae Powell, voice and uke; and Jim McNamara, upright bass. (courtesy the artist)

Think you know the ukulele? Meet folk singer-songwriter Kelli Rae Powell, who since 2003 has made this much misunderstood “baby guitar” her instrument of choice.

Cradling it in her arms, Powell knows how to bring out the best in her ukulele. Its gentle tones nimbly carry the melody for her sweet, yet powerful voice on solos, and adeptly serves as lead instrument in an ensemble of blues harp, upright bass, and mandolin.

Powell, an Iowa-native now living in New York, draws inspiration from Dolly Parton and Billie Holiday for the musical poems about life that she weaves. Her latest album Live at Jalopy, is a flawless offering of wit and sensitivity, which also captures a special evening in Powell’s life at Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theatre and School of Music.

In a recent interview, Powell describes her love of the ukulele and her favorite music venue, and shares about the exciting next chapter of her life.

The ukulele is perhaps one of the more misunderstood, and underappreciated instruments. When did you first encounter the ukulele, and what about this instrument led you to make it a focus of your music?

In 2003, I acted in a play and the director wanted my character to play ukulele. I loved performing with the uke so much that I just couldn’t stop. The ukulele fits in my arms perfectly. I love its small size, its portability, and the beauty of its sound. No one expects the poignant tones a ukulele can make.

In my angry twenties I would go to open mics wielding my little uke and the guitar boys would always make fun of me, saying: “What a cute baby guitar!” They all shut their traps when it was my turn to perform, though. That was fun.

There seems to be strains of jazz, blues, and folk influences in your music—who are the musicians who most inspire you?

When I was very young, I used to listen to Dolly Parton on my record player. Then I would tape myself singing her songs and play them back—I was listening to myself and trying to sound just like her. In high school I had a CD of Billie Holiday’s Verve recordings. I listened to that album every day for probably three years. Those women shaped my taste in music more than any other artists I can think of. They are storytellers of the highest order.

Kelli Rae Powell's Live at JalopyHow did you come to record a live album at Jalopy, and what about this venue provided the right backdrop for it?

My first performance at Jalopy was in the midst of a huge blizzard. I opened for songwriters Al Duvall and Bliss Blood. We all trudged through the snow towards Red Hook [Brooklyn] fairly certain there wouldn’t be anyone at our show. Jalopy didn’t have a liquor license at that time, so we brought bottles of red wine. We basically played for each other all night and drank as the snow piled up around us. It was magical. The owners Lynette and Geoff Wiley never seem to care about how many people you can draw. They like my songs, so they let me book shows there.

The audience at Jalopy is extremely respectful—they come for the music. They sit in the old church pews and listen to your stories. There isn’t any other venue for me in the world. When I gathered the courage to record a live album, there was no question that I would record it at the Jalopy Theatre and School of Music.

Your songs range from beautiful, simple descriptions of the first moments of falling in love, to more humorous reflections on living and loving. Are you drawing on your own experiences, or more generally on the stories of others?

These are my stories. Some of the details will be slightly altered for dramatic effect or to protect the innocent, but, even if the details aren’t necessarily true, the stories are. The songs on this live album are the songs I wrote about losing my grandmother and finding my husband Jim (my husband Jim McNamara is the upright bass player on this recording and on my previous album New Words For Old Lullabies).

The experience of recording this album was an absolute celebration for Jim and me. Our favorite musicians joined us on stage that night: Shaky Dave Pollack on blues harp and Joe Brent on mandolin and violin. The occasion was made doubly special, because just days before the live recording we learned we were pregnant. We were giddy that we captured that special night.

What project are you planning next?

My next album will probably be full of lullabies written for my little girl. I’ve already written a bundle for her.

“Some Bridges are Good to Burn”