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Big rock star falls for a tiny instrument

Eddie Vedder goes solo with help of his ukulele

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By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / May 22, 2011

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For Eddie Vedder it was love at first sight.

The Pearl Jam frontman was standing on a corner on a Hawaiian island with some time to kill about 14 years ago. He glanced at the window of a nearby drugstore — the kind where you can get your prescription filled, buy bait, and, while you’re there, rent some snorkel gear — and he spotted in the clutter a ukulele, the only one the store had.

“I was just sitting on a couple of cases of beer waiting for my friend to grab some fish from across the street and then,’’ says Vedder, with a laugh. “By the time he came back I was midway through the first song.’’

Since then the relationship between the singer-songwriter and the tiny guitar-like strummer has remained strong, so strong that on May 31 he’ll release “Ukulele Songs,’’ a 16-track solo album that includes originals, covers, and a reworking of one track from the Pearl Jam catalog.

“I feel like I’m devoted to the instrument and it’s always been there for me,’’ Vedder says on the phone from Seattle. “After that we started taking trips alone together and I’d leave the guitar at home,’’ he says with another chuckle, but only partly joking about his clandestine affair. “I think the ukulele is more OK with the guitar than the guitar is with the ukulele.’’

There’s no need for instrumental jealousy, however. Vedder is bringing both on the road for his solo tour, which includes a sold-out stop at the Citi Wang Theatre on June 16.

While the shows are solo gigs, Vedder did recruit some assistance for “Ukulele Songs.’’

Oscar winner Glen Hansard of the Frames and the Swell Season — who also serves as opening act — joins Vedder for a gently harmonious rendition of “Sleepless Nights.’’

“When I heard Glen was going to be in town that morning,’’ Vedder says, “I was working away at the studio and I thought, well if he’s coming down, then we should have him jump in the pool with us. So, he did like a double backflip and pointed his toes and nailed it.’’

Also nailing it is Cat Power’s Chan Marshall, who adds her sultry purr to a duet of “Tonight, You Belong to Me.’’ The recording dates back to sessions for Cat Power’s 2003 release “You Are Free,’’ to which Vedder contributed vocals on a couple of tracks, convincing Marshall to do a two-for-one swap. “I’m such a devotee of the way her voice sounds,’’ he says. “She just has her way with me every time she hits a note.’’

It was one of several older tracks in his arsenal, having written the project over several years with no specific endgame in mind.

“I had an old tattered notebook that I kept with me,’’ he says. “By the time it filled up to what it is now it was like, ‘Alright, I guess that’s it.’ Whoever the guy is in the songs, it seemed like OK that’s the end of the story. We’re good to go.’’

While the ukulele is the kind of instrument that can sound both chipper and mournful, Vedder tends toward the latter on the record with a good deal of romantic longing, scarring, and confusion.

“Yeah, that was maybe part of the challenge, not necessarily make this sappy little instrument sound evil, but to give it something that wasn’t chipper.’’

But that same plucky sense is also what keeps the scales from tipping too far into the darkness. “It’s a bit of an antidote to what those songs could’ve sounded like written on another instrument,’’ he says. “It would’ve been like, ‘I don’t really need to hear this and that’s what diaries are for and that’s what locks on diaries are for.’ ’’

One of the little-known benefits of playing the ukulele is the ways in which it changes the songwriter’s style, he says.

“This little friendly instrument was really writing this stuff on its own, you know? I was there,’’ he says with a laugh. “My hands were on it. But it just taught me so much that changed the way I wrote songs. Whether anybody was going to hear these songs or not, it was assisting me and furthering whatever direction I had as far as writing songs for the group.’’

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

EDDIE VEDDER With Glen Hansard

At: the Citi Wang Theatre, June 16. www.citicenter.org

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