By Sarah Beningfield
Stelth Ulvang, pianist of American folk band The Lumineers, will be gracing Grahamstown with his presence this week. Ulvang has added Grahamstown to his month-long solo tour of South Africa, much to the excitement of exam-stressed Rhodes students. He will be joining local indie folk singer, Julian Redpath, on the Lowlander stage this Thursday evening.
Artbeat got in touch with Ulvang during his road trip in our direction and, despite some terrible signal on his end, asked him a few questions about music, travelling and dogs wearing glasses.
Activate: You are most well known for your position as pianist for the Lumineers, but you’re also making a name for yourself as a solo artist. What made you decide to go on a solo tour?
Stelth Ulvang: I have been a songwriter for about ten years, and just put out my first solo album. It’s been fun to play these songs while Lumineers have been on break.
A: Do you write all of your own music?
SU: I do. I will do some covers, when playing live sometimes, but started out being really into writing short stories and poetry, before music.
A: We noticed that you play a huge variety of instruments! What made you want to learn so many?
SU: I originally started out on saxophone and clarinet. Eventually I really wanted to learn piano, and that pulled me into accordion. Writing songs became easier and easier with guitar as well, which led to banjo, mandolin, and bass.
A: Which instrument is your absolute favourite?
SU: My favourite instrument is probably pedal steel, kora, or bari sax [baritone saxophone]. Ha, all ones I’ve made an attempt at learning…
A: What made you first realise that you wanted a career in music?
SU: I initially really liked the concerts and events side of it. I did booking for a while, and met so many musicians that way. It seemed hard not to apply my musical upbringing in that direction.
A: If you had to describe your music in three or four words, which would you use?
SU: Haha – Piano Based Melodic Stories?
A: What kind of music do you enjoy listening to personally?
SU: I’ve been such a fan of American 90s indie rock (since the nineties) and still have yet to really apply it to my tunes!
A: What made you want to bring your tour to South Africa?
SU: The Lumineers toured here in November, and I met so many great folks that I absolutely needed to come back. My friend who I met then, Jon Inngs, helped set up an entire tour filled with touristy things too!
A: What has been your favourite part of your trip to SA so far?
SU: Writing to you now from the Transkei, which has been SO beautiful. I also went to Mozambique and Swaziland for some festivals I played, but this [the Transkei] takes the cake!
A: Of all the places you have ever visited, which is your favourite (and you’re not obligated to say SA, unless it’s true!)
SU: Well, it kind of is true! This, of all the places, I felt really compelled to return to as a solo artist. The music scene is expansive, yet self sustaining and supportive, as well as the recent history, which is very interesting to me (especially as an American with very intense race based social changes occurring now (hopefully)).
A: You have a bunch of adorable pictures of dogs wearing glasses on your Instagram Account. How did that come about? And do you have any animals of your own?
SU: Ha, I just added one now [on Instagram]. I started doing it on Lumineers tour with this big English bulldog we met in San Diego. It was an early Lumineers Instagram post and it has just sort of stuck. But no, I can’t be a good enough pet owner to have one of my own, especially the way I humiliate these poor dogs.
A: Can your fans look forward to any new music from you (and the Lumineers) in the near future?
SU: I just released my album to be found on my website. I am working on another album for next year AND we, the Lumineers, will be finishing an album this summer!
A: What can your Grahamstown fans expect from your gig this Thursday night?
SU: I will be playing solo, which means ANYTHING can happen. I absolutely love my band down here, two musicians from Cape Town, who have done most of the tour with me. But solo, I try to have as much fun as I can, a lot of storytelling (and heckling) is encouraged.
A: And finally, if you could perform with anyone in the world, dead or alive, whom would you choose?
SU: I would love to open up for Pavement some day – fingers crossed. Also I’m really stoked to be playing with South Africa’s very own, Albert Frost, at my upcoming Cape Town gig, I have blazed into a YouTube world of his stuff, and I’m really excited to collaborate with him soon!