Spooky ukuey takes off from Dawson

Canadian singer and ukulele player Shelley O'Brien has to pack up her wall tent in Dawson City before setting off for Iceland, Finland, Italy, France and the Netherlands.

Canadian singer and ukulele player Shelley O’Brien has to pack up her wall tent in Dawson City before setting off for Iceland, Finland, Italy, France and the Netherlands.

The tent, with its canvas walls and open-door kitchen, has been home for the past three weeks at the north end of the Klondike town.

It’s not a totally new experience for O’Brien.

Two of the musician’s previous summers have been spent under the midnight sun: first in 1999 as a tour guide, and again in 2003 when O’Brien returned to work with the Tr’ondek Hwech’in helping co-ordinate interpretive tours and medicinal plant walks out at Tombstone Territorial Park.

“I fell in love with Dredge No. 4,” she said reminiscing about her first Dawson City summer.

“And I made a lot of bannock,” she said, laughing about the second.

But this time, O’Brien was in Dawson City as a full-time artist, no longer pushing her music aside as a part-time hobby.

Holding a series of songwriting workshops, O’Brien took the time in Dawson to work on a songscape project, which attempts to prove her hypothesis that when we take the time to go out into nature and connect with it, our creativity is let free.

It’s a theory that developed from O’Brien’s own music and the response she got from it, she said.

“It feels like, in terms of the audience feedback, that those songs that I’ve written about nature, being in nature, touch people in a different and deeper level,” she said, pointing out songs like Mountain Hymn on her new album Vivarium.

The song begins with a continuous piano riff and the sounds of what could be an old radio’s static filling out the background. Her whisper-like voice leads the listener to the oncoming array of sounds, including melodic ukulele picking and eerie drum reverberations.

It, like many other songs on the album, are not what most people think of when they think of ukulele music.

Sure, the instrument has a come a long way from just backing up hula dancers, but the full sound in Vivarium’s 11 tracks are much more than the shallow sound of four strings and a set of vocal cords.

In fact, O’Brien and her main bandmate, Matthew Rogers, boast a whole barrage of instruments from the harpsichord, to reindeer bells, to the glockenspiel, fingertips on wood, pencil on paper and the suitcase.

“I felt like we were two wizards throwing boreal herbs into a big pot and seeing what we could come up with,” said O’Brien. “Because at the end of the day, I want to create something that’s more than just a ukulele and a voice. I don’t feel like I’m very boxed in. I want to play; it’s playful for me. And if it works, it works, whether it’s conventional or not.

“First and foremost, I’m a songwriter. I happen to use the ukulele, and the piano, and I sing. I like exploring unusual ways to use them and express myself. But the songwriting is taking precedence. The expression trumps the typical sound of the instruments.”

Take, for example, the track Gather in the Clouds.

Like the beginning of a scary movie, the sound escalates like a spooky heartbeat getting closer and louder. O’Brien’s soft voice sounds almost eerie. Then the quick, repetitive ukulele picking comes in providing an almost manic, yet calm pace until the rhythm picks up for the chorus.

The song is about betrayal. That feels obvious even before the lyrics let you know. The sound around the words helps the listener feel that mystery and treachery. But O’Brien agrees few people would pin the word “spooky” to ukulele music.

It’s the emotion behind the instruments that is getting through, she said.

And that’s exactly what she hopes to get across in her songwriting workshops.

The focus is on the feelings behind the song, she said. The instruments are often an afterthought.

“One of the kids on Wednesday used two sticks that he picked up in the forest, so yeah, anything goes,” she said.

O’Brien will be in Dawson City, at the Yukon Riverside Arts Festival, until Thursday.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at