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Contrast Magazine

Words / Daniel Ito
Interview / Lance Arinaga
Portrait courtesy of Kawehi

If the Internet was legendary French chef Julia Childs, then singer/songwriter Kawehi is Bouef Bourguignon. Her music is meaty, made with red wine, seasoned to perfection and multi-dimensional like the deceased culinary artist’s signature dish. Childs was not the inventor of the aforementioned French stew, and the World Wide Web did not create Kawehi. Rather, both introduced Bouef Bourguignon and Kawehi to the masses. In a few weeks, Kawehi’s music went viral online thanks to a creatively soulful rendition of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” on Vimeo. It was a classic, grunge rock song that was supposed to be impossible to remake, especially by a cute, indie Native Hawaiian girl from Aiea, but when featured it as a Staff Pick the video went viral. A tidal wave of posts, tweets and accolades for Kawehi washed over the blogosphere shortly thereafter. Huffington Post. Esquire. Spin. People. Elle. Ellen’s Good News Blog. Gizmodo. SourceFed. Vimeo. Maxim. Even Curt Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love tweeted her praise of Kawehi’s video. While “Heart-Shaped Box” showcased her numerous musical talents, it was her masterful use of the RC-300 loop station that captured hearts. Her Kickstarter campaign was successfully funded by 414% and concert promoters across the globe were trying to book the “one-woman band” for shows. It’s been a long and wild ride for the Kamehameha Schools alum, who moved to Los Angeles to pursue music right after high school. She has been pursuing a musical career for over a decade from Hawai‘i to California to Missouri with her dreams quickly becoming a reality.

Lance: So, are you a robot? Siren? Human?
Kawehi: My name is Kawehi and I am an independent musician to the core. I am a one-woman band. I make music through live looping, using beat boxing, midi keyboards, ‘ukuleles; pretty much any instrument that makes noise. I record every layer of sound that eventually adds up to a whole piece of music. I was born and raised on O’ahu/Big Island and moved to LA after high school to pursue music. After spending a decade in LA, my husband, Paul, bought a recording studio and We moved to Kansas where farmland is plentiful and people are scarce.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up mostly in Aiea, but spent a lot of summers on da Big Island in Waimea, where Pops ran an ATV touring company. It was the best summer job, ever. I went to the Kula Kaiapuni ‘o Waiau until I was in 7th grade, and got into Kamehameha.

Having grown up heavily in the Hawaiian culture what drew you to alternative music?
Growing up on bands like Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau, Ho’okena, Brothers Cazimero, and later Na Leo Pilimehana as a teen, it gave me a great appreciation for singing. A lot of my memories growing up involve singing their songs with my mom or pops while cleaning house. Along with Hawaiian music, I remember listening to The Beatles and Billy Joel. I think being introduced to such a wide variety of music while I was young really got me interested in music on a deeper level more than just singing. While I like sticking to the basics and creating music with conventional instruments like the guitar there’s something challenging and fascinating about creating music and making sounds with the help of technology. I think that’s why I’ve ventured into more of an alternative/electronic sound. The sky’s the limit when you’re creating that kind of music, but it’s good to have the more traditional tunes to fall back on.


Photograph / Lance Arinaga

For more about Kawehi:

Who are some artists you look up to?
I really enjoy Tom Waits. He’s one of those musicians who just don’t give a fuck, you know? I think as an artist, you need a firm grasp on that, or you’ll lose your way creatively. I’ve always been a huge Beatles fan. I don’t think I hear a single song nowadays that hasn’t stemmed from a Beatles song structurally. I dig Radiohead, Imogen Heap, Bjork, they are incredibly creative. I think I’ll always have a soft spot for Na Leo because they really got me into songwriting.

What drives you to make music?
Everything. I think I always knew music would be a huge part of my life, even at an early age. Music is the way I express myself, love, laughter, pain, anger, it all comes thru my music. All of my close friends have always said that I’m the best listener, but not really the best sharer, which is totally true. I’m a very private person when it comes to my thoughts and feelings and the people I trust them with. So I think music gives me that outlet to express what I feel. I couldn’t live without that outlet. I need it. So I think it drives me harder than I could ever imagine, that need to be creative, to make music. It drives me so hard that there’s no other option for me, no plan B.

What is it like being a one-woman band?
I love the freedom of being a one-woman band and the control. I get to make music the way I like, and the kind I like. I always learn something new and always try new things. It makes me grow as a musician, learning how to do the different parts and how to put them together. Being a one–woman band also means everything lies completely on my shoulders. No band mate to come up with the bass part, no band mate to say, “dude, that part sucks, let me help you.” There is no one to banter on stage with, or to hide behind while I’m up on stage. The pressure can get pretty unbearable. It’s terrifying to do everything yourself, but I like who it’s made me and I like creating this way.

What equipment do you use to make such awesome music?
In the MJ video, I used a boss RC-300 loop station. But I later graduated to what I have now, which is Ableton Live Suite 9, Macbook Pro, M-Audio Axiom midi keyboard, Novation Launchpad S midi controller, VoiceLive Touch 2 (for harmonies), Apogee Duet Audio Interface.

What is the difference in the music scenes in Los Angeles and Kansas?
I love LA! There’s so many people out there being creative and it drives you to be creative, but it’s so big. You have to drive everywhere, and it’s hard to convince people to sit thru LA traffic to see your show that’ll only last for 30 minutes. There’s so many venues, so many bands/musicians so it’s hard to get a real steady fan base to show up every week. And the people, let’s just say that while I met a handful of lifelong friends in LA, there’s a lot of bullshit you have to weed thru to get to the good ones. In Kansas, we lucked out. We live in a college town so there are lots of young people looking for the next indie artist to follow for life. I think they both have their advantages/disadvantages, and I wouldn’t change the time I had/have living in both cities.

How did Kickstarter affect your music career?
It gave me the ability to stay independent and the means to do so. Without Kickstarter there really wasn’t an option for me to keep making music. A lot of my backers have become lifers, donating to every project I create because it really is a great experience. You feel like you’re creating something together. It’s more than buying a record at the store and listening to it in your car. It’s about the journey of creating it..

Why conceptual albums?
I think in this day and age, constant content is key. People are hungry for the next thing you put out. I can release a video and that same day, fans are already asking for more! So after my first successful Kickstarter project, I decided instead of putting out an album a year, I’d continue to make EPs so I can put out new material every three to four months. Most people do one Kickstarter project a year; I do around three or four so to keep people motivated in my next project I use themes. I think it really motivates people to back your project when they get excited about the concept and creatively it helps keep my music ideas fresh.

This feature can be found printed in Contrast 12