Last time we checked in with Jim Clark, he had headed off to San Diego’s Comic-Con to promote his Eisner Award-nominated comic book, “The Guns of Shadow Valley.” But this Santa Barbara resident who writes about cowboys and aliens is also a father of two and is exploring another creative outlet that runs closer to home. In his guise as Ukulele Jim, he has just released a homemade selection of children’s songs, called “Ukulele Jim’s Jumping Flea Circus.” The 12-track CD of gentle ukulele strumming, Mr. Clark’s mellow voice, and catchy songwriting has been carefully designed to appeal to little ones without stressing out their parents.
Ukulele Jim was born out of a desire to be a good father. In 2005, Mr. Clark’s wife, Lisa, was pregnant with twins and he wanted his children to grow up in a house full of music.
“That’s something I did not have growing up,” he told the News-Press. “There were no musicians in my immediate family, no live music.”
So Mr. Clark, 41, director of information technology at Santa Barbara City College, decided to learn an instrument for the first time in his life. The ukulele seemed the obvious choice. First, it seemed like an easy one to pick up. Second, Mr. Clark was a big fan of the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film “Joe Versus the Volcano,” especially the scene where Mr. Hanks sits on a raft and sings “The Cowboy Song” on ukulele. It’s a movie both Mr. Clark and his wife share among their favorites, and Mr. Clark wanted to at least sing “The Cowboy Song” to his kids.
He bought a ukulele, learned chords online, started strumming and practicing, and — a few months and replacement strings later — he was soon singing and playing. In a year, he was writing his own songs and being told by friends that he wasn’t that bad. He bought himself a four-track recorder and began submitting his tunes to the kompoz.com website, where people all over the world can collaborate on tracks, adding their own instruments to uploaded demos.
“Before I knew it, my songs that were just these things I was creating were becoming these real fleshed-out songs.”
Eighteen months later, there was enough material for an album, and with the help of a British producer, “Ukulele Jim’s Authentic Down Home Marital Aid” dropped in June of 2009.
People who bought the album, Mr. Clark said, began to tell him their kids loved the album, maybe more than they did.
“I hadn’t written anything particularly for kids. There are no swear words or adult material, but I was told kids were reacting with the rhythm and the melodies.”
Mr. Clark started thinking about a children’s album. He wrote not just for his kids, but with his kids, Tristan and Eva, who just turned 5 and are fraternal twins. Songs that tell a story, set a mood, and are danceable are the three elements most important to children’s music, Mr. Clark said, based on his homegrown research.
“Simple is good for kids, but I wanted to make it interesting,” he added. His version of “Rock-a-Bye Baby” steals its opening riff from The Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and even includes a new refrain. “Wheels on the Bus” is usually repetitive and endless, but Mr. Clark added a bridge to take it to a new place, while trying to sound a bit like Fats Domino.
His children acted like a barometer for the music, he said. “If the kids walk over and start dancing along, I know I’m in the right area.”
His children also have their say in the writing of the lyrics. “The Hero Song” talked about being a super villain in its second verse, but Mr. Clark’s kids vetoed that. They debated him about having superpowers. “I had a dialogue going, so I used that. They inspired me to move in a different direction as I moved along.”
Mr. Clark wanted to make sure the songs on the album were also perfect for parents, who wind up listening to them as much as their kids. Mr. Clark should know, as he’s suffered through some of his kids’ own CDs.
“There’s good kids’ music out there — Ziggy Marley and Elizabeth Mitchell — but the bad stuff talks down to them. Good stuff introduces kids to complicated stuff, without making it hard. My kids love the Rolling Stones, too.”
Plus, Mr. Clark said, his children have totally different tastes: the boy likes what he calls “rock star music” and the girl likes soft, gentle lullabies. Listening to the CD, one can hear Mr. Clark tailoring his music to a middle ground between the two.
Although most of the songs on the album are Mr. Clark’s own or new arrangements of classic lullabies, he also turned to his original influence and covered “The Cowboy Song,” getting in contact with the song’s composer, John Patrick Stanley, and receiving his blessing.
“That really meant a lot to me. It was really special,” Mr. Clark said.
The music world also overlaps with Mr. Clark’s comic-book world. Dave Wachter, “The Guns of Shadow Valley” artist, designed the first Ukulele Jim cover, and Chris Fason, who designed the art for the “Jumping Flea Circus” album, is working with Mr. Clark on another project. Mr. Clark takes a stack of CDs to sell at comic book conventions — he says he does quite well — and now Mr. Fason and Mr. Clark are looking into turning the album into a children’s book.
For those interested in hearing Mr. Clark play live, he isn’t restricted to kids’ birthday parties. He looks for open mics around town, and has played at Live Culture in Paseo Nuevo. Usually, that is to play the pop, adult material, but he has started to play at various schools around town. He’s also available to give lessons, he said.
The upcoming album, written alongside the “Flea Circus” album, promises to be more complex. Influences include Mike Doughty, Ray LaMontagne, Marcy Playground, Cake and Jack Johnson, while he’s calling on friends to add mandolin and other instruments. He continues to shy away from anything Hawaiian, he said.
For somebody who picked up the ukulele rather quickly, Mr. Clark also seems to have no problems singing in public. He doesn’t push his range but, he says, being in tune was never a problem.
“Singing is something I found came rather natural,” he said. “My mom had a good singing voice.” Mr. Clark also sang in high school musicals and plays.
“I think the singing is important,” he said. “I’ll use 10 or 15 takes to get it right. The ukulele is really the vehicle for the voice.”
The first run of “Jumping Flea Circus” — 100 copies — have sold out, and a second batch has just been released. The CD is available for $10 at CDBaby.com and through Jim Clark’s website, music.ukulelejim.net. The digital version is also available there and through iTunes.
Mr. Clark says his children know the album is not just for them, but for everybody. They have taken it to show and tell, and they call it “their album.” They probably have also helped sell a few dozen copies, telling people they’re on the record. How could one resist a 5-year-old’s sales pitch?
“I really dig the fact that I have this memento of their childhood,” said Mr. Clark. “And they’ll always be able to go back and remember making the album and being part of it. I think it’s really special for them to have.”