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Originally published May 28, 2011 at 7:04 PM | Page modified May 29, 2011 at 3:59 PM

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Eddie Vedder's 'immediate gratification': A Martin ukulele

An interview with Eddie Vedder about his little friend, a ukulele, who helped him write and record "Ukulele Songs."

Seattle Times staff columnist

Coming up

Eddie Vedder

7:30 p.m. July 15 and 16, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; sold out (www.benaroyahall.org).
quotes You see what happens, boys, when you live in mom's basement too long? You become angry... Read more
quotes crunchy and brotherdave, yeah, vedder sucks man he should be more like us and post... Read more
quotes I'm not a ukulele guy, it's not my thing. But, if he's into it, I'm okay with that. Cut... Read more

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Your heart is hurting. So the last thing you need is to listen to sad songs of love lost, played on a plaintive little ukulele by none other than Eddie Vedder. Has he no mercy?

Still, you take in every note, every word on his new album, "Ukulele Songs," and then settle in to talk with Vedder, admitting you're a bit of a mess.

"You really heard the record then," Vedder says, kindly, and then suggests you buy a ukulele and try to strum the soreness out of your soul.

That's what Vedder did with this, his second solo album, which will be released Tuesday.

"Ukulele Songs" is a collection of originals, one Pearl Jam song ("Can't Keep") and covers of the 1926 ditty "Tonight You Belong to Me" and the 1931 standard "Dream a Little Dream of Me."

Cat Power and The Swell Season's Glen Hansard turn up for cameos. But for the most part, it is just Vedder and his uke, a collaboration that seems to be just what he needed after 20 years of fronting the rock powerhouse Pearl Jam.

"How important that little instrument became to me," he said. "It was beyond a little batch of songs or how to express yourself."

On June 15, Vedder will kick off a 19-date tour in support of "Ukulele Songs," including July 15 and 16 stops in Seattle. Tickets sold out in minutes — seconds, in some places.

"My humility remains intact, even through hearing the shows sold out quickly," Vedder said. "I was also aware that Charlie Sheen's shows sold out in similar fashion.

"I am not puffed up about it."

Maybe the ukulele keeps him humble.

A few years ago, Vedder was on a surfing trip in Hawaii with a friend. His friend went to buy fish, and Vedder, two cases of beer. He was sitting on them outside some stores when he noticed a Kamaka tenor ukulele, displayed in a drugstore window.

"I went in and picked it up and it sounded great," Vedder said. "And I must have had the cash on hand because I walked out with it."

He sat back down on the beer, took the ukulele out of the box and started fooling around.

"Immediately, a melody came out," he said. "It must have sounded like something."

Must have; passers-by tossed money into the open case. First a dollar, then 50 cents.

"It was immediate gratification that maybe I could go places with this thing," he said. "That's just the nature of that instrument.

"This little four-string songwriting tool started changing the way I brought songs to the group."

Over time, that little uke would become Vedder's constant companion. On airplanes, where he would carry it on — once getting stopped by a flight attendant because it had (presumably dangerous) strings. Into the studio, to record his soundtrack to the 2007 film "Into the Wild."

"As far as inanimate objects being friends goes," Vedder said, "I think that is right on the list. My Martin ukulele is a work of art. It's going to live long after me."

At times on the record, the ukulele seems to speak for Vedder, who sounds vulnerable yet hopeful, like a suitor standing on the porch with a fistful of daisies. Other times, the strings are trying to cajole him, cheer him, like a child dancing around him as he plays.

"If these songs were written on a conventional guitar with drop-D tuning, it would send you off a cliff," he said. "So I feel like writing sad songs on a happy instrument is what keeps it in the realm."

The LP version of "Ukelele Songs" will include a songbook — Vedder encouraging people to play for themselves.

"Things like guitars and ukuleles, you should never part with it," he said, "because there will probably be good, healthy times spent, just playing and writing."

Speaking of writing: Pearl Jam is currently working on its 10th studio album.

"We're arranging the songs right now," Vedder said. "It's not my favorite part, not anybody's favorite part. But when the work gets done, we can get excited about how we work together, the new plateaus of communication and understanding each other."

Indeed, this summer, Pearl Jam will celebrate its 20th anniversary by headlining a two-day festival in Wisconsin and launching a Canadian tour. September will see the release of "Pearl Jam Twenty," a documentary made by friend and director Cameron Crowe. The film will have an accompanying soundtrack album and book.

"We are each happily part of a gang," Vedder said of the band. "Let's plug in and play loud and fast and hard, and that will keep us from getting old and boring."

Nicole Brodeur: 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

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