This is part of our weekly series titled “Columbus’ Own,” where we profile a local band every week.
The Ukulele Cowboy Society has played plenty of venues, usual and unusual. The Columbus-based husband and wife duo of Michael Kaplan and Jesse Chandler landed its first gig at a hair salon two years ago and has since performed at retirement centers, festivals, house parties and even cemeteries, to name a few.
Chandler, lead singer, recollected how hesitant the band was when it performed for the first time.
“A gig came up for us (at) December’s Gallery Hop, two Decembers ago, and we didn’t want to let it go because it’s Gallery Hop,” Chandler said. “It was in a hair salon and I thought, ‘A hair salon? How degrading will this be?'”
She recalled calling Kaplan while he was at work to discuss whether they’d take the hair salon gig. Even though Kaplan and Chandler didn’t have a band name at the time, they decided to take the gig.
“We were tossing around ideas for names and I have always liked the idea of something kind of suggesting a group … something like a society,” Kaplan said. “Jesse was tossing around some other ideas and we came up with The Ukulele Cowboy Society.”
Chandler later designed a logo they felt explained the purpose of the band and stood out — a skeleton holding a ukulele with the band’s name encompassing it in red.
Chandler chose a skeleton, which is symbolic of the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead to pray for dead family members, as the focal point of the logo because she loves “all things Mexican.” Chandler said the skeleton represents the fact that life is really short, so it is important to be fully invested in it while living.
“We hope that people recognize us based not only on our music and performances, but as they begin to see the logo present and the name, they will begin to start making connections,” Kaplan said.
Chandler brings a soulful sound to The Ukulele Cowboy Society, which is complimented with Kaplan’s ukulele strums.
For its debut album, “Phantom Heart,” the band drew inspiration from artists such as Billie Holiday and Judy Garland.
Initially, the band performed covers, but it soon came to the agreement that performing original music was necessary.
“I realized that I needed to write some original music that was in keeping with that genre, so now we have a combination,” Chandler said.
The Ukulele Cowboy Society works with public domain jazz and swing music, specifically music made before 1923 that is open for use unless someone has licensed it, Chandler clarified.
Over the years, The Ukulele Cowboy Society has attracted a certain type of audience.
“The people that seem to respond the most are people who are open to something that is different,” Chandler said. “The kind of people who are cool, weird … the artistry type, which is why galleries are always nice for us. Also, the people in the gay community respond really strongly and positively to us.”
Kaplan said the band is pleased with the reactions it gets from audiences.
“It does take an audience that wants something a little bit different,” Kaplan said. “With vocal and ukulele a lot of people certainly aren’t prepared for what they are going to hear. I think that once they sit down and hear us play, they really enjoy what they are listening to.”
The history of the music it performs is very important to them. It likes letting its audience know the background information on the song and the artist. It does not just want to play the song, but it wants to educate as well.
“Jesse’s educational storytelling between songs helps the younger crowds that are hearing the song for the first time,” McCutcheon said.
The duo owns a large collection of ukuleles, and during its performances, Chandler and Kaplan like to explain the history behind each instrument.
“We bring ukuleles from our collection, talk about them and let the audience come up and see them afterwards – the different sizes and how they are connected to history,” Kaplan said.
Even though The Ukulele Cowboy Society is a local band, it hopes to expand internationally.
“We really want this to be international, just with people very excited about it.” Chandler said. “In our hearts we have the attention to use it as a vehicle to contribute to the world in major ways.”