"I don't want to jinx it," Eddie Vedder says from a Los Angeles studio, taking a break from recording Pearl Jam's 10th studio album, which is coming together faster than the band expected. "But it's on!" At the same time, he's preparing to release Ukulele Songs, a delicate solo LP played almost exclusively on the title instrument. "There's one song with a cello," he says. "I let that one in under the four-string rule." After hitting the road behind the album in June, Vedder has big plans to celebrate Pearl Jam's 20th birthday, including a band-curated concert in Wisconsin over Labor Day weekend and a Cameron Crowe documentary about the group's history that will premiere this fall.
Why a solo record now?
The ukulele thing started as a writing exercise that I thought would be kept to myself. I've been kind of collecting songs over the past 10 years, and it wasn't till the last few that I thought of maybe putting this stuff in an album. It's not really my solo record – it's the uke's solo record. I was just there to guide it.
What made you want to focus on that one instrument?
I just wanted it to be the one sound. At first it was kind of a joke, and then it became a little bit of a challenge, a puzzle, to see if I could create 11 or 12 songs with just a ukulele. It's like painting with one color. You can really appreciate the subtleties and changes in tone.
The most memorable rock ukulele song is probably the Who's "Blue Red and Grey," which you've covered.
Yeah, hearing that song when I was maybe 13 legitimized the instrument – it was just a beautiful piece of music.
Did that inspire you to play uke on Pearl Jam's "Soon Forget" in 2000?
The open chords are unabashedly "Blue Red and Grey." After that, I felt like I almost had to make a whole 'nother batch of songs to make up for the fact that that one was 30 seconds of plagiarizing [laughs]. I thanked Pete [Townshend] profusely, but I should probably send him some dough, or a nice ukulele. I think I owe it to him at this point.
You and Chan Marshall [a.k.a. Cat Power] duet on the standard "Tonight You Belong to Me" on the album. Did you first encounter that in The Jerk?
Didn't we all? Man, there's something about that song that just stuck with me. When I was singing on Chan's [2003 LP] You Are Free, late one night I asked if she would record something that I was working on, so we did that one. Later, my mom said that she and my dad used to sing that to each other before I was born, specifically on a trip through Seattle.
That's a little spooky.
Yeah – in a good way. It's a good ghost.
You're about to start a solo tour this summer. Do you get nervous facing a crowd by yourself?
It makes you really appreciate being in a group and just being able to ride with no hands every once in a while. Playing with the band is like being at a party and talking really loud – the solo shows are like when you find a quiet back corner to have a deeper conversation.
You've pulled out James Taylor covers at those shows.
I was always impressed by the amount of sound he could get out of a guitar, and the melodic lines he was drawing, like a surfer on a wave, were something to aspire to. At the same time I was listening to the Sex Pistols and the Clash, I'd still listen to James Taylor, or Rickie Lee Jones or Tom Waits.
Did you hide that side from your punk-rock friends?
Oh, I didn't give a shit at all. Punk rock is saying what you want and not giving a fuck.
There's a lot of Nineties nostalgia going around – with Pearl Jam's anniversary, are you feeling it yourself?
I feel like we have to keep our eyes on the road. Being nostalgic is like taking an offramp and getting a sandwich – and then you get back on the highway. I don't want to be spending the rest of my life at the gas station.
Is that why the band is back in the studio already?
Good call, that's exactly it. That and nothing else.
Are your kids into your music yet?
They are, and it's amazing what they pick up, like, "Is this the live version?" We've kept them away from Disney pop, but there's one other artist that they really, really like. All I can say is, it's hysterical watching a two-year-old singing, "Let's go all the way tonight/No regrets, just love" [laughs].