Taimane Gardner is not only going viral on YouTube, she is also about to go viral in a different and better way: her energetic style, unique composition, and theatricality are quickly infecting the hearts and minds of anyone who listens. Playing her ukulele (pronounced oo-ku-leh-leh) with a passion, she provides audiences with an experience unlike any they have heard or seen before. “Performing is when I truly become alive,” Taimane says. It is clear that the passion she feels for her music has driven her to take on the world one song at a time. Make sure to watch the video below before reading the interview.
First of all, from watching all your YouTube videos, you have an enormous amount of energy. What are you eating and where can I get some?
[laughing] Um, I used to drink Red Bull before shows. But that’s not really healthy, so I stopped doing that. I don’t really eat anything before a show. It actually makes me tired. So now I just have a little ginger ale before I go on and I am good to go. Sorry — I have no great secret for you.
Too bad. Tell me a little about your background. How did you get started in music?
Well, my mom was a singer. She’s originally from Samoa and had her own band for a while. My dad is more of a businessman, so I have a nice mix of the two worlds. My dad gave me my first ukulele when I was five. I loved it — thought I was a rock star and played with it until I broke a string. After that, I started taking lessons. I did recitals and my teacher would take me to parties or events and have me perform there. I won my first contest when I was six, so I was performing from an early age and that really helped me to hone my craft.
When I was 13 I was playing on the streets and a woman named Angel who was a performer in [legendary Hawaiian musician and pop star] Don Ho’s show saw me and introduced me to Don. I ended up working for him for five years.
Who are your influences?
I play stuff that I like. I like classical. I like rock. So my influences are Johann Sebastian Bach, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin… Um, I love 80s music, too, actually. And Bossa Nova. And then, of course, I don’t know if you’ve heard of Jake Shimbukuro. He’s pretty famous in the ukulele community. He was one of my teachers and has definitely been a big influence.
Now you also compose right? You don’t just play other people’s songs?
I do compose. I wrote my first song when I was, like… six. It was on the piano and it was called, “I’m a Ducky Ducky Ducky.”
When you are composing, you seem to incorporate your influences into your songs. Can you talk about that?
I just write and I go with however it feels. I don’t have a specific, “Okay this is going to be classical.” “Okay this is gonna be, ya know, flamenco-esque.” I do have a tendency to like minor chords, which are darker, sadder. But I like that… that feel. [Contemporary classical, minimalist composer] Philip Glass — I like listening to him. And I like the movie The Fountain. The soundtrack is absolutely gorgeous. So I guess I am influenced by that kind of music and then I try to, you know, make something up of my own on ukulele.
Now your song “Taimane’s Toccatta” — would you say that’s your grandest work?
Definitely, it’s my own take on toccata. Toccata is a very old type of classical song. I listened to Bach’s and there are parts of his that I took and then I made my own little improvisation in between his parts. So it’s not really an original. It’s probably a toccata, but then I added my own stuff and made my own theme out of it. But it’s definitely the most popular with the crowd.
It’s getting a lot of YouTube attention. How does it feel to be a YouTube star on the rise?
Yeah, that one’s gone viral. It’s crazy. I put it up a few weeks ago; I don’t remember. But I checked it today and it’s, like, 250,000 people. It’s pretty cool, actually. I have my usual gigs here in Waikiki. A couple of people here now are like, “I saw you on YouTube,” “I saw you on BoingBoing.” I’m, like, “Wow, the internet really does work.” Helps to expose people to your art. My CD sales off my website have gone crazy. I have thirteen sales every day. It used to be, like, three sales every month.
What do you feel sets you apart from your mentors and influences?
I’m going through that now. I write my own stuff. I like to put on shows. I like to put little productions on. So, “Taimane’s Toccata,” I’m dressed up circus-esque. That was actually my first production. I had fire dancers and so it’s not just playing music, playing originals, it’s more putting on a show. So that’s the direction I’m going right now. As far as differing from my mentors, I haven’t found anyone whose energy is similar to mine except for a belly dancer and my boyfriend. Other than that, a lot of people when they perform have their own energy. I haven’t found anyone who is, I guess, as diva-esque. I like to get in your face and stare at you a lot.
You talked a little about your process of writing a song. How long does it take to write one normally?
It’s never really that. I like to play the songs differently every time, even the songs I cover. But for it to be done done… it really depends. If I have a fire under my butt, it’s different. It could be from a year all the way to two nights. I wrote a song last week that took me two nights to write — it’s pretty much done. You know, you can always grow on it, but it’s done. I’ll write something, but it won’t be finished, and I’ll come back to it and write some more later.
You say you play differently every time. Are you a strong improviser, or do you plan ahead?
I am a strong improviser. I used to be a planner. My dad is very businesslike, very logical. I used to be like that. I started playing in a couple of bands that were the complete opposite. They did not have a set list. They said, “Whatever, play what you want.” So I learned that from playing with bands. It really depends on the gig and how strict they are, but I like going on without a set list. I like to feel out the audience. Each audience is different. Some are rowdy and drunk and want to dance and party. Then there are the conservative ones who are there to watch a show. Then there are the people who want to have their dinner and have a conversation.
It seems like you really enjoy the performing and communing with the audience.
Yes, I do. It really depends on how I’m feeling that day — if I’m feeling feisty or if I’m feeling more mellow.
Do you play any other instruments?
I play the guitar. I just picked that up a couple months ago. It’s pretty fun. I actually wrote a flamenco song with my guitarist. I play a little piano, and I also experiment a little with different types of drums.
Where do you see yourself in five years, musically or professionally?
That is a good question. Definitely want to go to Europe. Travel. Share my music and be influenced by their music. And I want to keep going with these little productions I’m doing. Each one has a theme. My first one was Circus Freaks, my second one was called Aqua Marine. I want to keep going with that. I want to have these grand little shows with ballerinas or fire dancers. I want to see where that goes.
What do you do when you’re not composing, performing, or playing?
I like my wine. I like movies. Of course, I love the beach. I enjoy hanging out with my dogs (Napolian, Boo, and Jacks), I like to go hiking with them. I like watching live music, too. I take notes and learn from that. You know? I’m pretty normal. I am super energetic on stage and then find myself needing to wind down.
Who is your current favorite artist or performer?
I’m pretty set with the people I’ve listened to a lot already. I haven’t really been seeing what else is out there. Right now I’m cool with Lady Gaga. She has a good energy. And I do like Rihanna. And I do like my classical stuff. I love Chopin and Beethoven.
What can Daily BR!NK readers do for you?
This article is already helping. Any exposure on the internet I can get is welcome, so visit my website and visit my YouTube page. Of course, come and watch me if you’re ever in Hawaii!
Finally, is there anyone dead or alive whom you would love to play with? Or a dream venue?
Santana or Jimmy Page for sure. I really want to go to Portugal. That’s where the ukulele came from. I would love to go there and see how they play the ukulele.