A tiple is an instrument with four groups of three strings dating back to the mid-18th century. It has an otherworldly, delicate sound, though. you have likely never heard of it. Ed Askew ART ’66, now 78 years old, a lifelong musician, visual artist and New Havener living in Queens, New York, resembles his instrument to a surprising extent. Though Askew never achieved large-scale commercial success, his 1968 “freak-folk masterpiece LP” “Ask the Unicorn” is largely regarded as a cult classic of the era. I met Askew at his apartment to talk about what he’s been up to in the 50 years since, the ukulele craze of the 1930s and the liberating power of digital technology.
EK: So how did you get the tiple?
EA: Years and years ago, before the dinosaurs, there was a big craze in ukulele playing. The tiple, which happens to be tuned similarly, became part of that craze. My father used to play a uke, and there was also this tiple that we used to play with in the attic. Before it fell apart, I started playing it in picnics, family gatherings. At that time, you could get ukulele tabs for any popular song, and I would pick out songs from the TV show “Hit Parade.”
When I was at Yale Art School, I went down to a small music store in North Haven called Goldie’s. They had a tiple, but it was $25, more than I could afford. After Yale, I got a job at a private school, so I had some money. I went back and I talked to a [Goldie’s] employee, and they brought out this Martin tiple. I was dying to get it. I asked, “how much is it?” and it was a couple hundred dollars. I said — without mentioning that it was years earlier — “Goldie said I could have it for 25.” He calls out Goldie and explains it — looking at me like I was crazy — and Goldie looks at me, looks at his partner, at the tiple and back at me, shrugs his shoulders and walks away. The guy sold it to me for $25.
EK: You started writing when you became an art teacher at a prep school. What was it about your new place in life that inspired you to start creating?
EA: Well, I had the old tiple even when I was at Yale, and I had been writing poetry. So I thought it seemed like a no-brainer to start writing songs. So, I started with two-chord songs, simple stuff, and that’s where it began. … Once I got going, I stopped making art. I just started writing, whatever came to my head. … [“Ask the Unicorn,” a record picked up by indie record company ESP-Disk, and re-released by Tin Angel Records in 2015,] had fans across the world: England, Argentina, you know. I just didn’t know about any of them.
EK: How have your style and means of making music evolved since your first record?
EA: [In the beginning] I just would sit down with the tiple. And I would generally find chords and then look for words that would fit with them. At the time, I would just play and play and play and sing and sing and sing until I had a piece. Now, I can’t even do that physically.
EK: What do you mean by that?
EA: Hand problems make it difficult to use my thumbs because of arthritis in the joints. I’ve taught myself to play my synth and harpsichord without using my thumbs very much. I don’t play during shows; someone else accompanies me. When recording, I’m limited to playing a few bars at a time. I put up a stereo track and start playing. I then lay down short sections which I later combine to make progressions for new songs, and I capture all this using my computer with Pro Tools [a digital music interface widely used for recording and producing] as an interface. The pieces then form a collage. Then I cut it up and put it together, listen to it and find words, add a track, and then that’s pretty much a song.
EK: What was your transition from physical to digital media like?
EA: You know, recording on tape is complicated. I used to work with it and record using a little tape recorder. I’d make a master tape, and it’d be a big process of cutting them together. I went from sending tapes to friends, not really trying to sell anything, to having a Bandcamp where I could occasionally sell something and have my work heard by a lot of people all over the world. [Pro Tools] is so easy. I’ll make this stuff and put it on Bandcamp, then Jay [one of Askew’s bandmates] and I will listen to it and choose one to produce. I’ll make up other parts and play along and put it together like that.
EK: I’ve noticed that you’ve commented on almost all of your YouTube videos and Bandcamp postings.
EA: Or I put it up [laughs].
EK: I’d love to hear about your use of the internet, how you became so savvy at it.
EA: Well it was just a matter of time. My painter friend Bob was using an internet cafe. He thought it would be useful for me, so I signed up to Yahoo Mail. I had been doing home recording on tape, and two friends offered to buy me a computer — they figured I ought to have one for my music. This was the early 2000s. I got Pro Tools at the same time. At first I was completely baffled by it, but my friend Russell took me through some of the basics and I got used to it.
EK: To date, you’ve uploaded over 50 albums and singles to Bandcamp. How and when did you come to use the platform? What were your initial thoughts?
EA: I joined bandcamp in January 2001. I thought it was great from the beginning. Bandcamp was very easy to understand, very convenient, and they got back to you when you had a problem.
EK: Do you think using Bandcamp comes with a certain level of autonomy?
EA: I don’t know. They give you a set of tools and pretty much leave you alone to work with the platform. I will say that I am talking about home recordings; I have found that unless a recording is associated with a label, no one in the music media will review it. So it is limiting.
EK: What about YouTube?
EA: I got into YouTube when a friend told me I could use iPhoto to make simple videos for my songs, using pictures from the web. YouTube can be confusing — especially so since Google took over.
EK: What advantages do you think the internet has for artists today?
EA: Well, without the internet, one would depend on newspaper articles and word of mouth to get the word out. Someone like me who has a rather low-key lifestyle, without much notoriety, would have to set up tours through friends or calls. You can always get shows living in Brooklyn or Portland or Los Angeles. Being on a label that will promote you, getting reviews and touring all make a big difference. At the end of the day, if you want to get your music beyond your own town, having email and a cellphone is way better than calling people up on on a landline. … I adapt as best as I can.