Ukulele Lockdown: The Numbers

Since we got locked down (locked in, maybe?) in the middle of March, our engagement with the exterior world has radically changed. Out less (not at all if you can help it, or once a day for exercise), not in groups, working from home, or perhaps furloughed. I don’t know about you, but I was online much more – for work, for social interaction, for entertainment, and of course the necessary doomscrolling, where we let the wash of awful envelope us with a relentless swish of the thumb. It’s been a time, and we’re not even out of it yet.

But alongside the well-intentioned physical habits we’ve been encouraged to take up – the daily constitutional or, when that doesn’t manage to happen, running up and down the stairs several times – and the Calvinistic improving ones (in my case, Spanish on Duolingo: going for a 90-day streak tonight!), I picked up an odd one: ukulele videos. It started at Easter weekend, when I decided to share some original songs of mine in an immediate fashion. “Daughters of Etobicoke” was written on Maundy Thursday, “Mercy” on Good Friday, and then “A Passionate Year” which was not written on Easter but name-checks it in the first line (“There’s a lesson we learn every Easter…”)

It was fun, and I fancied I might keep going for a while. I even gave it a hashtag, #UkuleleLockdown, which had been *very* lightly used at that point by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and someone who was learning the instrument during lockdown. It existed, but not in a major way. I learned that you can post a video directly to Twitter so long as it’s 2:20 or fewer (140 seconds, which parallels the number of characters you were originally allowed in a Tweet, in case you’re baffled at the seemingly arbitrary figure). That was a constraint I could work with, which made recording on the ol’ iPad pretty easy. I kept it pretty low-maintenance, so only one or two takes unless I was really struggling, and just a minimum edit, topping and tailing to make it fit and sometimes fading out at 2:19 if the song couldn’t be shoehorned into the time constraint. Even with the slow upload onto Twitter and Facebook, the whole thing could be accomplished inside half an hour.

My studio, during “This New Spark of Life”. Photo by Katie Munnik

Some people – especially those who would not identify as ukulele lovers – asked why: why this instrument, why this vehicle for sharing? Well, I didn’t want to obsess over a high-quality output, because I’ve put studio-quality recordings together that I have spent some time and effort on. This is meant to be free, quick, and easy. Maybe it’s a pick-me-up for someone (the ukulele is famously cheerful), and maybe some friends and family will make a point of tuning in. The smallness of the instrument and the enterprise gave some unity to the project, and it was something I could do every day.

And every day I did, bar one, up until last Thursday. Continue reading

“Everybody knows it can’t be good/ To spend all your money on what you should”: Guitar weeping, Part III

Michael Munnik's reflection in the glossy finish on a cedar-topped Tanglewood acoustic guitarOk. Having committed to the idea that I need a new guitar, the job is now to find one. A friend from my Nanaimo days, herself a guitar player, used the phrase “condolences and congratulations”, and that’s very much what it feels like. There’s excitement in trying out new guitars and figuring out which one might be the right one, even as it’s tinged with sadness that this is replacing my reliable companion.

My criteria were simple enough to define. I had a budget range – I’ll be discreet here, talking about money, you know, but it had to be in that sweet spot where it’s an improvement on the guitar I’ve already got but doesn’t blow the bank. This is not a purchase we were planning, and I can’t really say I’m using the guitar in such a way that commands the Martin that I’d love to have. For my price tag, I definitely wanted a solid top; some guitar promised all-solid woods, which could be great. And it needed a pickup inbuilt. A mate of mine suggested buying the guitar I wanted and then having one installed, but I didn’t feel confident that such a move wouldn’t inflate the costs. It also felt like the kind of thing I’d want to have a relationship with the shop or the guitar tech to do.

This mate had recently (like, a year and a half ago) done that, and moreover, he’d gotten the guitar second-hand. When you’ve got time and at least one guitar in your arsenal already that you trust, this is a fine option. Plus, he makes his living through music, so both his needs and his awareness are different. I wanted to be able to play the guitar I was going to buy, strum it, finger-pick it, and see how it sounded and felt on the kinds of songs I play. Continue reading

“I feel so gentle that the Lord seeps in”

John Mann of Spirit of the West, playing guitar live in a dark image with red glow in the foreground and blue glow in the background

Photo by Jackie M., from Surrey’s Party for the Planet 2011, found on flickr.com; CC BY-ND 2.0

It was news we knew was coming. John Mann went public with his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in 2014 and, like Gord Downie and his glioblastoma, we knew there was only one way this was going to end. Also like Downie, he endured with music and performance as long as he could. Fans were grateful, and their courage cheered us. A positive note to a terribly sad song.

It was just as I was clearing up breakfast this morning after everyone had darted off to school that I saw the notes of tribute on Facebook. All my friends from high school sharing videos and memories. Spirit of the West was not my favourite band at the time, but they were cherished and important. We were richer to have heard them and we’re sadder now that John Mann is gone. Continue reading

“…And this scratched up guitar/ We can go far”: Gently weeping, Part II

To say my guitar is a shit guitar is no shame. I always knew it. I described it in the blurb for a poster advertising a showcase at the Ontario Conference of Folk Festivals as “his cheap acoustic guitar … that he used to patch through a distortion pedal and play drop-d punk tunes on in Nanaimo.”

Yet people would say, “for all that, it has a nice tone.” Yes, I would reply. Guitars like being played. And I played that thing every day. Wrote all my songs on it. Gigged on it, with a cheap pickup that slotted in the soundhole. One summer, as a university student in Ottawa, I took some of my tips money and bought a nice Senegalese djembe from the Ottawa Folklore Centre. That night, there was a wicked thunderstorm, and I was awoken from my sleep by a loud noise. Checked in the kitchen but nothing was obviously wrong. Shrugged it off. Next morning, shuffled into the living room, and there was my djembe, gaping open-mouthed at me with the skin head half off. I rushed it back to the shop, where they said, “Whoa – that shouldn’t have happened!” But while they were fixing it up, I did some thinking of my own. I told them to put it back on the floor once they’d repaired it and instead had them install a Fishman pickup in my guitar.Michael Munnik strumming his guitar and singing at the Branch, Kemptville

Now it was superb and useful. Big, bassy sound. No tone or volume controls on the pickup, but it was active. It made the guitar sound better than it had any right to. The action was incredibly high. I just got used to it. I liked to tell people it made me a better player because anything else was like butter in comparison, but I think that was not entirely true.

Who cares? It was my constant companion, my entry to a whole gamut of social circumstances. On the bus coming back from drama festivals. On the BC Ferry, amusing a group of elderly Chinese tourists. At Saturday night parties and Sunday morning church services. Campfires. I will not lie – that guitar, my strumming and my singing were ingredients in getting every girlfriend I ever had, including the one who’s now my wife. (“Play the song called ‘Katie Hay’!” said a visiting friend of hers from high school. I subbed her name into a stupid little song I’d written called “Beavertails”, and she laughed so hard she knocked my lamp over and broke it.) Continue reading

Gently weeping for my guitar, Part I

My guitar is dying.

Michael Munnik playing his original guitar at Zaphod BeeblebroxOkay, that’s drastic. It is ageing. Guitars can run and run for a long time, though even so they need love and attention from experienced and knowledgeable people. Wood is a living thing, moving and changing with heat, moisture, and atmospheric pressure, no to mention the occasional bump against a table or crash on stage when the strap suddenly gives way. By dint of their excellence or their expense, some guitars merit every upgrade and remedial intervention they are confronted with.

The implication of that last sentence is that my guitar doesn’t deserve to be made well. That is not what I’m saying. But you have to know a bit about my guitar to get this quandary in the right context.

I bought my guitar when I was 15, in Nanaimo, BC. My best friend and I had resolved to start a grunge band. He was excited to play bass and I, having become quite nutty about Eric Clapton’s unplugged rendition of “Layla”, wanted to play guitar. We started writing lyrics right away, then got to learning how to play these instruments. Ira’s dad had an old Yamaha acoustic about the house, so Ira could start learning right away while he saved up. I borrowed my minister’s spare acoustic (thanks, Glenn!) and got going as well. Starting, for whatever reason, with C. (I know the reason: it was the first chord they show you in Ernie Ball Teaches Guitar.) Painfully changing from C to G7 to play “Down in the Valley”.

I persevered, and after about five weeks, playing every day for an hour or more, I was able to change chords more or less at speed. Yes, I would go ahead with this. Ira, similarly mastering the fundamentals, got an electric bass and amp. My parents, unlike Ira’s, could not give me a financial boost because my older brother had already declared his own desire to play guitar: for him, the tipping point was Nirvana’s unplugged encore, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Our grandmother in Nova Scotia agreed to ship out Uncle Gary’s old guitar, which wasn’t very good and had a hard time staying in tune. Dan quickly got discouraged or lost interest, but it was still this mighty gorilla houseguest. My parents simply could not buy me a guitar when Dan had the hierarchical claim on a guitar that was in the house. No matter. I delivered newspapers, so I had some income. I continued to save, and by the winter, it was time to buy my own axe. Continue reading

Where there’s music and there’s people and they’re young and alive

Had quite a journey to the Yorkshire Dales last weekend. We were camping – meeting friends, old neighbours from Edinburgh. Something like “halfway”, though we all acknowledge that halfway between Edinburgh and Cardiff puts us somewhere around Leicester, which is not so interesting for camping. So we push a little further than they do. It’s okay; I like the north.

This weekend was a doozy. One can never fully predict the weather, but even so, early May bank holiday is still on the dicey side of “it’ll be fine”. But when you’re making plans over such distances that accommodate the schedules of two families of five, you have to just throw yourself in. Weather reports that speak of zero or one degree overnight temperatures must simply be met with additional wool things getting packed. Friends here told us we were mad, and if it had just been the five of us camping, we may indeed have cut bait.

Grim view of cloudy skies and traffic on the M5

“And if a ten-ton truck…” Katie Munnik’s grim shot from the M5

The temptation was stronger still driving up the M5 and M6, with ominous clouds that occasionally chucked heavy rain on our windshield. Our friends texted us from the road, in Dumfries and Galloway: snow.

Then there was the traffic – expected traffic of a Friday before the bank holiday weekend, with an added helping of bridge works in Birmingham. We were late, and our youngest was puking into the bucket.

The sky looked a bit more favourable by the time we left the M6 near Kendal. We weren’t that late, really: we had decided on a pub dinner that first night, since we’d be arriving after a day of school and driving and who knows what weather. Our friends booked a table at the pub just across the beck from our campsite for 8pm. Without the bridge works, it would have been fine, but at this point in the journey, it was just turning 8, and we had only 20 miles to go to Hawes (Hardraw, really, but it was too small to turn up on the signs).

“20 miles,” I said. “Not long til dinner, gang!” Continue reading

Assemble, you bastards!

All weekend, my Twitter feed has been flush with people so excited about this new Avengers movie. The hashtag trends; it even has its own little icon. People seem gripped by the storyline, as they were tantalised when the trailer came out. People have been dressing up and going to see it late at night.

If you knew me at age 13, you’d think I’d be one of those people. I read comics – loads of them. I remember appropriating the habit age 10 with an issue of Avengers West Coast, thinking how cool it was that there was a guy dressed in purple who used a bow and arrow. My personal discovery, starting with Issue #1 and carrying on… well, I can’t tell you how long I carried on, but the answer is in a cardboard box in the closet of the spare room in my parents’ house – I digress: my personal discovery was The New Warriors, which had delightful invented circumstances bringing new superheroes and spare casts from other titles together as some teenage world-saving enterprise. (It’s coolness was all but certified when writer Fabian Nicieza quoted lines from the urgent coda of Pearl Jam’s “Rearviewmirror” in a kind of dream sequence about teen physical romance and fear/alienation regarding the parents in the house.)

Cosplay dressed as characters from Marvel's The New Warriors

“Dragon Con 2013 – New Warriors” by PatLoika, CC BY 2.0

Yes, if you knew me then, you’d say to yourself, “If the big studios ever get behind this thing – I mean really behind it, not like those Batman films – and they start filming X-Men and the Avengers, it’s gonna make this kid so happy.” Continue reading

What I’m reading this month- April 2019

This has been a big month for us.

It used to be that I always remembered 4 April as the birthday of my best friend’s younger brother. Why? Can’t really say. Before we all got into guitars and other stringed instruments, Ira and I were into comic books, and there was a comic book fair one Saturday in Nanaimo that we got a lift to from Ira’s mom. His brother came, too, and it was his birthday, and I think that, as a younger brother myself, I was sensitive to the mild injustice of him going along to something his older brother was interested in on his birthday.

Two copies of Katie Munnik’s The Heart Beats in Secret on a tableclothThis year, 4 April has a much closer resonance. It’s the day my wife’s novel was officially published. Like, you-can-walk-into-a-bookstore-and-buy-it published. This is a massive achievement, and one I’m incredibly proud of.

I might say “envious”, too, but that’s not really a dynamic. There was a time that I fancied myself becoming a novelist. I think pretty much all kids who like reading think they could do it. And those artistic pursuits, alongside “actor” and “rock star”, are just so easy for kids to spit out when asked what they want to be when they grow up. “Accountant” and “burger joint manager” don’t roll off the tongue so easily. Though it must be said, at the same time that I was saying “novelist”, I was also saying “journalist” (Hemingway having paved the way for me and so many others), and I was able to maintain that one. Along the way, I kept writing poetry, sometimes stories. I kept the candle burning.

And that burning candle, which was also burning in Katie, was not a small bit of what attracted us to each other. We shared poetry by e-mail before we’d officially declared our interest in each other. And we were well up on discussing writing and literature – it rather nerdily characterised much of our dating life. After we’d married, we had a brief venture in a writers’ group with some neighbours and friends, and at the time both of us were working on a novel. I really liked mine, but I didn’t get deeper than the second exercise book in longhand. She finished hers. Kept it in the drawer. I recall reading a good chunk of the first draft: there was a beaver, and someone’s house burned down. That’s kind of what happens in your twenties. Continue reading

Meet your heroes, Part II

Okay, so understanding how rubbish I am at a) remembering to get selfies with important people that I happen to meet and b) keeping this blog reasonably updated, let me tell you about the celebrity I met and got a picture taken with this summer.

Yes, I know it is October. This happened in August, and I did have the presence of mind to use the damn phone and get the picture. In my defence, the wifi at Calgary Airport was terrible, and then I was back in Nanaimo with my parents, my brother, my good friends from high school. None of which I’d seen, save for my folks, in eight years. So I was maximising time. (And then I was back home with my family, whom I hadn’t seen in a week and a half. And then, and then…)

Who cares? You want to know the story. That is Bruce Cockburn next to me in the picture. Though I love Colin Linden, I have to confess that Bruce is a much bigger hero of mine, and I think Colin feels the same way, so we’re good. (Linden, for the uninitiated, has been a long-time mando and slide-guitar sideman for Bruce, besides producing many of his more recent records and even sliding the dials for him on tour from time to time.)

I was hovering in the little concrete bunker that Calgary’s state of the art airport reserves for regional hops with WestJet. Mine was to Nanaimo, and the next one over was to Regina. I leaned against a post, watched an adorable puppy make friends with two little kids as well as basically everybody in the vicinity. Then this guy shuffled past with a walking stick and the case for a small stringed instrument over his shoulder. From his profile, I was pretty sure I recognised him, but I thought, with absolutely no authority whatsoever, “Bruce Cockburn doesn’t walk with a cane.” This is a stupid thought: the man’s vital, sure, but he’s still ageing. And I’ve never really seen him walk anywhere besides back and forth on the stage to change guitars. So how would I know?

Continue reading

Meet your heroes

On the streets of Cardiff, a week and a half ago, I actualised a long-held dream.

I was cycling in the sunshine, just past the Hilton hotel on my way through the city centre for some jumbo oats when I spotted a familiar figure – short, barrel-shaped, smartly dressed in black with round sunglasses, curly hair, and a black fedora.

Colin Linden playing guitar at Toronto PartiGras

“Colin Linden” by Kasra Ganjavi, found on flickr.com; CC BY-NC 2.0

“Colin Linden?” I said.

“Yes, yes it is,” he replied with a grin.

“Holy shit!” Continue reading