The National Alliance on Mental Illness
Who is Lee Henke?
A modern-day vagabond currently living on the road with no town to call home, Lee Henke continues to work tirelessly at his crafts. A midwestern born singer-songwriter and carpenter who is sincerely dedicated to quality and simplicity. With a constant demand for sustainable progress, he delivers well-constructed songs with an even blend of contour and grit.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness
He has struggled over the years to find a balance in the music industry battling anxiety and depression on the road. He is partnering with NAMI and Uku to help raise money and awareness for Mental Health in America. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
Interview: Meet Ira Wolf!
The American Dream was once defined as a cozy home framed by a white picket fence, earned through hard work and determination. But throughout the years, we have watched this dream transform as the idea of success gets redefined with each generation. Today’s American Dream draws influence from the ideals of individuality and creative freedom and is much more free spirited than the idyllic visions of our grandparents. The idea of forgoing a stationary home to live untethered in a van or RV has gone from a lifestyle that has been frowned upon to one that many younger generations strive and plan for. Living in a van and pursuing creative ventures is this generation’s white picket fence, and our most recent addition to Uku’s musical roster is a testament to all the good that can come from achieving this new-fangled American Dream. Ira Wolf has found her home in her Westfalia van since 2014. For the past six years, she has been traveling the USA, playing shows, and perfecting her craft. We were lucky enough to catch her between trips and chat about her music, what life is like on the road, and how living out her nomadic dream has changed her.
How has music shaped you into who you are today?
Well it’s kind of been a lifelong passion for me. I got started with music from a very young age. I started playing the piano when I was five, which then progressed to playing clarinet and violin in middle school. Then I started teaching myself guitar in high school and then song writing into college. My musical journey has been a constant process in shaping who I am because its always been apart of who I am. I’ve been passionate about music for my entire life.
How would you describe your music for people who haven’t heard it before?
The “sad folk songs” description seems to stick when people describe my music. I do tend to have a little bit more of a melancholy writing style just because it’s easier to express myself when I’m not happy. When I’m happy, I’m out climbing mountains and enjoying the sunshine. When I’m bummed out I’m writing passive aggressive love songs to people about things that I’ve never said but wanted to say. I guess that’s kind of the joke. Sad folk songs. It’s pretty fitting though.
Is music a form of therapy for you?
Oh absolutely. That’s essentially how I got into writing. It was kind of a dear diary format.
How has travel helped you grow musically and creatively?
Traveling started off as a necessity for what I wanted to do with music. Then it morphed into its own thing. It became an inspiration for my music and a way of life. Now it definitely motivates and inspires a lot of the songwriting that I do and the stories I tell. It’s who I’ve become.
Do you have any plans to stop or is this nomadic lifestyle something you plan to keep doing?
I love being on the road. I feel really really fortunate to be able to do it. It is starting to get to a point where I need a little more structure.I really don’t like to say settling down but maybe a little more permanence in my life would be nice. We just started looking into houses in Nashville. I’ve been essentially based out of Nashville for six or seven years. We are looking to buy a place down there this fall and then I’ll probably start doing a little more half-and-half. Stay in Nashville during the winter and then keep doing van-life in the summers.
Which location have you travelled to has had the biggest impact on your music? Where is the wildest place you have played music?
I don’t think there is one particular place that has had the biggest impact on my music. But, the first tour I did in my van was pretty big for me. I did the West coast to the East coast and then back to the West coast. I wrote an entire album during that tour. That tour was all over the place but it wasn’t one specific area – but it was that journey that was the most prolific for me and my music. In terms of the craziest place that I’ve ever found myself playing music – I was doing a trip in Southeast Asia five years ago. I was on this little island in Cambodia and ended up in a hostel that had a stage in the front room. I started playing a show for some folks because they had a guitar. That was really wild and memorable to be playing a show in Cambodia that I was not expecting to play. I was singing sad folks songs for people on a tiny little island. It was truly a cool experience.
I know your vans name is Ruby, want to tell me a little but about her and how you came to live in it?
Ruby is a 1988 Westfalia Campervan. It’s one of the old hippie looking buses from the 80s. I was introduced to van life through a company called GoWesty based out of california. They sponsored a tour of mine three years ago where they let me borrow one of the vans they were working on. I took it across the country for six months – the tour where I wrote an album. When I had to give the van back after my tour I was heartbroken. It was my little home that I had not known. There’s new places and new people everyday on the road and my one little space of familiarity had really become a comfort. It was really hard to try and transition back out of that. I ended up partnering a second time with GoWesty a while later and ended up buying Ruby.
In terms of planning your tour – do you look at cities/destinations you want to go to and book venues that way. Or do you base your travels on people who reach out and book you?
It’s an ever changing process – every year it’s a little bit different. It used to be based on where in the country I wanted to visit, or had not been to yet, or National Parks I wanted to explore. From there, I would book shows around that. The motivation for the shows was the travel that accompanied it. Now it’s starting to swap – more folk and venues are reaching out to me about doing shows and I get to pick and choose where I want to play. Now that I’ve been to basically everywhere in the country I get to determine what seasons I like in what parts of the country and what shows I really enjoy. Then I add “anchor dates” as they come in and start to build a route based on those shows.
How did you find Uku Global?
I saw a Uku ukulele hanging on the wall of our friends house out in Seattle. My partner saw it first and asked if he could play around on it. Neither of us have actually ever owned a ukulele. I knew nothing about how to play it. But my partner knew a few chords and it stemmed into this little jam session in the middle of our friends living room. My partner showed me how to play some chords. It’s a sweet little instrument for van-life. It’s small and compact which is perfect for the van.It’s such an accessible instrument that you don’t need to know much about it to play something.
What songs have you learned on the ukulele since you’ve gotten one?
We’ve been playing a lot of Gillian Welch. Pretty much anything that’s an old folky or bluegrass tune that only requires a few chords because I’m still working on my G, C, and Em chords!
Tell me about your upcoming projects!
I just started working on my fourth record. I have a few new singles that I plan on releasing this fall or winter. But, it’s definitely been a slow process. I’ve definitely been struggling with some writers block lately. This new album is gonna be different than the rest of the albums I’ve released. Those albums were kind of quick and I immediately knew what I wanted to do with the project and within a few months everything was recorded and released. This one has been a much, much longer process of just trying to get songs put together. Hopefully I’ll have it out within the next year. It’s been a musical challenge for me to write now that things have been really good in my life.