Summit speaks with Kawehi
Summit sat down with Hawaiian performer and recording artist Kawehi ahead of a three-island tour of Hawaiʻi beginning May 5 to talk about her craft, building a global audience and her new collection of songs. Kawehi was born and raised in Hawaiʻi—Oʻahu and the Big Island—and moved to L.A. after graduating from Kamehameha Schools, looking to get into the music scene. She now lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with her husband, fellow musician Paul Wight, and their three dogs.
Summit (S): How did you get started in music?
Kawehi (K): I've been doing music forever. When I was a kid, gramps called me “lēkiō,” which means radio in Hawaiian, because I was always singing or playing an instrument. So I always knew this is what I wanted to do.
S: How do you compose your music?
K: I write music in lots of different ways. The last project was a very unique one—it was crowd sourced so all of the song-writing and even the topics for the songs all came from the fans who participated. We created the project together as a collective group, which was a really fun and interesting way to make music. I think that was the most fun I've had with a project so far. But I like to mix it up, you know? I've done an all-vocal EP, I've done a project entirely with toy instruments—so my process can really vary.
S: Do you write with pen and paper? Do you use a laptop or a midi controller with a keyboard?
K: I have a room set up where we live—we live in this beautiful, 200-year-old, brick building and it has some recording studio space—and basically it's just this open place with a bunch of stuff. So I have, like, an upright; I have my whole Ableton setup; I have my guitar; and I basically just lock myself up in there and see what happens [laughs].
S: On your latest collection, Interaktiv—do you call it an album? What's the term these days?
K: Well there are seven songs, so I guess I'd call it an EP.
S: You have a track called “Robot vs. Girl.”
S: Is that a theme that runs through your creative process? The tension between organic and robotic?
K: Yeah, so pretty much everything I do now—with all the looping and production and what not—there's a lot of technology involved. Two projects back I did an EP called Robot Heart—and I'm a big sci-fi geek—so it was about a robot wanting to become human. And then the project right after that involved a human wanting to go back to being a robot. So this last album feels kind of like a conclusion to that story. So that's kind of where the robot versus girl theme happens. But it is kind of an ongoing theme throughout my song-writing; the struggle between technology and people, man and machine.
S: Would you ever consider covering the Styx song “Mr. Roboto?”
K: [Laughs] that would be really interesting. The wheels are turning already!
S: What's the story behind your track “C min?”
K: It's kind of like a break in the EP. Paul and I did that one together, actually. My early music lessons were on the piano. My other choice was violin; I know, typical Asian family situation [laughs]. Sometimes that classical element comes out, but with a strong electronic component to it as well.
S: You have another track on the EP, “Smoke Screens,” that has some really angular chord changes—and actually so does “Robot vs. Girl.” How do you think about harmony when you're composing?
K: I like to switch it up and be original. I have a piece of equipment—it's a VoiceLive Touch 2—that I like to write on. But you can write on anything, really. I think if you stick to one instrument than it's all kind of going to sound the same. But the VoiceLive really helps with harmonies and thinking about different loops and incorporating beat boxing and all that kind of stuff. I think of my vocals as another instrument. I don't really think of myself as, like, a Whitney Houston-type “singer.” I know my strengths and weaknesses.
S: Tell me about some of the musical inspirations that move you.
K: I feel like inspiration comes from everywhere. I'm kind of old-school—songwriting wise I was really into Kate Bush; a little more recently I've become a big Bjork fan. I think it's really about the eclectic mix for me. I love Radiohead and I love Nine Inch Nails—I'm probably not representative of the average Hawaiʻi kid's mix. But I really find it everywhere, even in rap. I think that's the great thing about music: you can find some piece of it to pick and learn from.
S: What are you listening to right now?
K: All kinds of different stuff. I like to find new bands and give them a thorough listen. Right now, I'm really into this band Lewis Del Mar—they're a Brooklyn-based band with kind of an alt-J sound. I'm not prejudiced against any kind of music, although I will say that I'm not a huge country fan. I kind of hate it. Not like Johnny Cash or anything, but the stuff being produced now days I don't care for much [laughs]. But otherwise, I'll listen to anything really.
S: You have done some more traditional Hawaiian music; I have a recording of you doing “He Aloha Nō ʻO Honolulu (Goodbye to Honolulu).” Why did you pick that particular tune and some of the other Hawaiian songs you've recorded?
K: “He Aloha Nō ʻO Honolulu” was my grandpa's favorite song. I pretty much will always bust that one out at a show. The first instrument I actually learned music on was an ʻukulele—I think, in Hawaiʻi, that's pretty common. Most kids, from elementary times, have some exposure to that instrument and a lot of early introduction to music happens on that instrument. But I think it's just great to go back to your roots sometimes.
S: How did you end up in Lawrence, Kansas?
K: Why, isn't that the normal place we all end up?
S: It is the center of the universe.
K: [Laughs] yeah, when you Google search “Earth,” it lands you right in Lawrence, Kansas, which is really strange! No, but we lived in L.A. for 10 years—my husband is from there—and it was just really expensive. We couldn't make ends meet and we just needed to move somewhere more affordable.
We were looking for a new place—originally the idea was to move to Portland—and he came to me one day and was like, “hey, I found this really great, old, 10,000 square foot brick building; it has recording space, living space and everything.” So I'm looking at the pictures and I'm like, “wow this place is awesome! This is in Portland?” And he's like, “no, it's in Kansas” [laughs]. And I'm like, “you buggah, you should have told me that before I fell in love with it!” I actually hadn't set foot in Kansas until we showed up in the U-Haul. It was definitely a shock at first, but it's a great place; lots of open country. I kind of mesh well with it.
S: How much of your year is spent traveling versus being at home?
K: Too much time is spent traveling. Most of my year is being on tour; that kind of bums me out. I like to be home with the dogs, I really miss them when we're on tour. Sometimes we bring them with us, but Hawaiʻi is pretty hard for bringing pets.
S: What kind of dogs do you have?
K: We have three; two of them are mutts—they're pit mixes we rescued—and the oldest one is a pug. He's really old and grumpy [laughs]. Lots of people like him though. They're pretty much in every single video I make and the fans really love them.
S: How has the changing nature of the music industry affected you as a performer; social media and the ability to sell and interact directly with your fan base?
K: I think times have changed for a lot of artists in all sorts of different mediums. With platforms like Kickstarter you can fund yourself and not go the traditional record label route. You can earn a decent living and do what you love and you don't have to be some huge rock star to do it. The Internet has changed everything. Social media is a great way to get your music out and eyes on you but it definitely still comes down to putting out content. A lot of content. People are so hungry for new material these days and so there's more room for artists to work at continuing to meet that demand. Everyday there's something new that comes out, and I think that's really cool. It's going to be interesting to see where it goes from here.
S: How would you like to see Hawaiian or Hawaiʻi music evolve or change?
K: I think it would be great to hear more original stuff. A lot of Hawaiʻi music tends to be this Jawaiian remake of other songs, and it's all kind of the same. It would be great to hear a whole new genre emerge that still incorporates the ʻuke, but branches out into electronic production.
S: You have a really strong live component in your performances, with the live looping and mixing. When you compose music, do you have that in mind? Do you write music specifically to fit your live act, or do you write the music and then figure out how to perform it live after?
K: Yeah, 90 percent of my act is live-looping, so when I'm writing any piece of music I definitely keep that in mind. I have to be able to get through different sections of the song without each taking five minutes to build up the loops. I definitely write knowing that I'm going to be doing that. But sometimes that takes a back seat to just wanting a song to sound a certain way. And sometimes that can be better—to work the other way and figure out a different angle or a different approach. That's certainly how the covers go. When people request a song, I have to figure out how to make it my own right then and there. Sometimes that's even more interesting than writing originals.
Catch Kawehi live, in concert, at the Kahilu Theatre on the Big Island on May 5, at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on May 6 and at The Republik on Oʻahu, May 7. Details here