Born and raised on Oahu, songwriter and performer Brad Watanabe (aka BW) is one of those fortunate individuals for which music has become life. Just 23, Watanabe—tall, thin and unassuming despite his rockstar style—has been playing keyboard for the Oahu-based reggae band Ooklah the Moc for five years. In the past year he has released two full-length recordings. He caught the eye of Icon Records, which put out his most recent effort, Through the Storm. While Watanabe stays close to his reggae roots—especially by collaborating with Ooklah, Paula Fuga and Next Generation on a few tunes—he breaks formula on a few tracks, namely “Qualify,” on which he layers a string arrangement.
The tracks on Storm are more heavily produced than those on his other record, Upflow. Because of this, they sound a tinge less organic, but Watanabe maintains his thoughtful yet mellow island style. Also not lost despite big label status are Watanabe’s fiercely wistful and ponderous lyrics; love and freedom are merely the tip of the iceberg.
We caught up with Watanabe just ahead of his Maui performance with Ooklah the Moc. The band is celebrating the release of Vault, which hit the shelves earlier this year. On Maui they’ll be performing their latest, as well as a few of BW’s tunes.
What made you choose the title Through the Storm for your latest release?
[The album] is about getting through rough times in life, whether problems in love or struggles with everyday things. Life’s not that easy, and I feel that these are songs of hope and strength.
This is your first release on Icon Records, which is a pretty big label. How did that come about?
Yeah, I’m really thankful that Icon picked me up for this album; I guess they liked the music I’ve put out in the past and wanted to work with me on this one. It was a good fit for this album, working with Kirk Thompson of Kalapana, because I wanted to branch out with a different musical style and he really got me playing outside my norm.
What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of being on a bigger label? Did you have to alter your approach to songwriting?
Not too much, I chose all the songs for this album and did most of the arrangements. I like being on a label where I can focus on the music and have someone else handling the business. I guess everyone’s record deal is different depending on the artist and the label, so it’s kinda hard to say. But I’m happy with the way things are going so far.
What made you choose reggae as the primary vehicle for your music?
I’ve loved reggae from the first time I heard it. It’s so catchy and it just makes you want to move to it. Living in Hawaii, reggae has a huge influence so I think it was natural for me to want to play it and write songs in that style. As much as I love reggae though, I am influenced by a lot of different styles of music and I think it comes out in what I write.
What made you decide to include string arrangements for part of Through the Storm?
I think that’s the song Qualify that you’re talking about? I originally had no idea how I was going to record that song because it was so different from anything I’ve written. I just started with my guitar and vocals and added what seemed to fit. Kirk really helped with this one too, suggesting different parts I could add on. It might have been his idea to add the strings.
I read that you got started playing at around age three. What instruments?
Yes, at the age of 3 I started taking ukulele lessons and at 5 I started piano lessons. My parents were really supportive of my music and got me lessons and instruments from a young age. After that, I taught myself guitar and bass and started jamming with a few friends and in a few different bands.
I noticed a few references to birds on Storm. Was this something you consciously weaved into the record?
Well, I like the idea of a bird flying free or a bird perching on a tree. It reminds me of being free, the way we were supposed to live, not trapped in a cage like most people end up being.
You probably get this all the time, but what’s the story behind the band name Ooklah the Moc?
Well my bandmates came up with that one way before I was in the band, but it’s a cartoon character from Thundarr the Barbarian. I’ve never really seen it so I cant say much. MTW