Friendly “Fire”: Uke Master James Hill Draws On The Passion Of The Multitudes

When one man honestly commits his emotions to record, that’s par for the musical course. But when he conscripts nearly 200 people to join him in it … well, you’re in for a lot of feelings.

And a lot of feelings is what we get on “Hearts On Fire,” a spotlight track from Brookfield, Nova Scotia-based singer/songwriter/ukulelist James Hill’s latest album, Uke Heads. Hill enlisted a legion of his friends and fans to appear with him on the record, with the new single as a particularly effective advertisement that an enormous collective can still convey the solitary sorrows and joys of an individual soul.

“‘Hearts On Fire’ is about feeling the feels,” Hill says. “Those gut-punching, skin-crawling, pupil-dilating moments that define us. When your blood runs hot, that’s it. That’s the feeling: Your heart is on fire.”

With lyrical references to everything from the George Floyd murder to the spiritual purity of dogs, the song paints those automatic responses he’s talking about in bold strokes:

Oh the mountain is high
I’m an eagle, I’m a stray bird
Hold me no more
I’m a lion, I’m a tamer
And a black sunrise
Comes over the blue-eyed hills
And my heart’s on fire
And my heart’s on fire

Hill compares his music to that of The Black Keys and Jack White, but your ear isn’t off if it also locates this particular track in the tradition of Big Country and fun. And no matter how much you might think you hear a guitar on it—or anywhere on the 10-song album, for that matter—you don’t: It’s the sound of Hill’s baritone ukulele, overdriven to the point of distortion.

“Who needs six strings when four will do?” he muses.

Besides, it isn’t as if the album is lacking in strings anyway—or much of anything else. A truly crowdsourced piece of work, Uke Heads was assembled over the course of two years from contributions laid down by 175 players and singers from 15 countries. In May 2022, Hill invited anyone to perform with him on his new record, as long as they purchased one of his self-created pieces of digital art as a ticket. Participants attended monthly rehearsals, practiced their parts, then recorded themselves singing and playing. Hill then mixed the album himself, blending more than 100 layers of audio per song.

The result is less cluttered than simply diverse, ranging from uke-based riff rock to jazz to sound collage to psychedelia to epic singalongs. It’s a major milestone for Hill, whose 25-year career has included discography entries like 2011’s Man with a Love Song and 2014’s JUNO-nominated The Old Silo. Along the way, he’s also picked up a Canadian Folk Music Award. And now he may be standing on the precipice of an entire movement:

“Could Uke Heads grow beyond a community of album supporters into a lifestyle à la Dead Heads or Parrot Heads?” writer Nick Grizzle wondered in a recent issue of Ukulele Magazine. “For some, perhaps it already has.”