A particularly noisy lawnmower helped Dani Lewis dream up her next musical venture.
"I was mowing the lawn to get some extra money last summer," Lewis says. "I was just goofing around, singing because it's so loud I could just sing at the top of my lungs. All of a sudden I came up with 'Ahlou.' I didn't want to forget it, so I just sang it over and over while I was on the lawnmower."
Lewis's music has had several metamorphoses. She started out as a choirgirl as soon as she could read lyrics, then became a coffeehouse crooner in high school, playing the original songs she started writing at age 12. As an adult, she studied opera in college and fronted the now-defunct pop group My Oh My! But as soon as she started singing "Ahlou," which she released earlier this year with her cousin Angie Krube on the Chord and the Fawn's first EP, she says she knew she had entered a new phase.
"I ran inside and sang it for my mom. She said, 'You know, that sounds like a ukulele song,'" Lewis says. "I'd never thought about a ukulele before. So I went to good old Guitar Center and picked up the cheapest one they had. Instantly, I was in love with it."
Lewis has a special voice. Her beautiful vibrato bespeaks her years training in opera. Yet, in her pop songs, she pulls back, refraining from tripping up and down scales and making ff notations as she's composing. Her alto conjures sincerity, but its strength also demands attention. This is why, she says, discovering the ukulele was such a revelation after 20 years using piano as her main accompaniment.
"I never loved the piano," Lewis says. "With piano, I would always burden down every song. I would drown out my vocals. The appeal for me of the ukulele is that my voice is the main instrument. With piano it's a competition. The fact that [the ukulele is] so simple, it forces me to be simple."
"Ahlou" introduced her new methodology at its most bare-boned. The song starts off with a simple ch-ch-ch-ch-tsk electronic drumbeat, then comes quiet ukulele strumming and Lewis singing, "There was a girl who's 17/Drank lots of coffee, lots of tea...." A third of the way through, snippets of backing vocals appear as the song's only flourish.
With the duo's first full length, M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I, Lewis and Krube expand their instrumental repertoire, but keep simplistic songwriting intact. The album's single, "Love, Sex, and Rock and Roll," features live drums, flute, and bass with Lewis's ukulele and singing. Krube's Glockenspiels, tambourines, concertinas, kalimbas, and melodicas also make appearances throughout the record, but only as demure complements to the vocals and, of course, the ukulele.
The tiny guitar is seeing a new wave of notoriety, even in the Twin Cities, as it holds a place of honor in songs by Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles and is the only instrument in the uke love fest that is the Twin Cities Ukulele Orchestra. But Lewis says it has always had cyclical popularity.
"In the '20s, there was a huge surge of the ukulele in American music," she says. "If you look back at all the sheet music, they all had ukulele chords. They made it out of coconuts or a cigar box or whatever, so everyone could play one. In the '50s, Marilyn Monroe played the ukulele. Then it had another surge in the '70s because it was portable. All the hippies liked to just trawl around with it."
Now bands such as the gypsy-chic ensemble Beirut have focused more national attention on the ukulele. But, Lewis says, these groups tend to hide the true beauty of the instrument.
"People don't take it seriously," she says. "But it's a serious instrument. Usually they have these big, huge accompaniments with it, trumpets and trombones and tubas everywhere, trashcans. It's so much that [they think] the ukulele is not good enough on its own."
Lewis proves that if you have a beautiful voice, and a broken heart, the ukulele is a girl's best friend. As she sings about boy after boy who has let her down, the soft and tender ukulele chords make listeners' hearts break right along with hers.
"The last CD was about a particular person who pissed me off," she says. "It was one of those things where no one has motivated me to write music so much. When you're upset and frustrated, it just comes out of you. It's passion. If you're in a happy, monotone state, you don't feel inspired at all."
Lewis says she's single right now and contemplating making a Craigslist ad to help her find song ideas. "Seeks inspiration, muse to break my heart."
THE CHORD AND THE FAWN play a CD-release show with the Absent Arch and Will Tolle at 9 p.m. on SATURDAY, DECEMBER 5, at the KITTY CAT KLUB; 612.331.9800