Like many young musicians today, Paula Fuga says she listens to all different types of music. Among them she includes Erykah Badu, Soldiers of Jah Army and Jack Johnson—who, she admits, has become a more tangible influence since she met him on Oahu’s North Shore last year.
The meeting took place during a kickball tournament Johnson was participating in, while Fuga was singing on the sidelines. When he was done playing, he approached Fuga and asked her to join him in this year’s Kokua Festival—his annual mega-concert to support a non-profit organization intent on raising environmental awareness in Hawai`i. Fuga says she was nervous and excited.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Fuga says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God! Jack! I know who you are!’ I was going off.”
The timing couldn’t be better. Unbeknownst to Johnson, Fuga was gigging regularly in preparation for releasing her debut CD, Lilikoi. The exposure Fuga would get from being in a lineup that included Johnson, Ben Harper, Henry Kapono, Damien Marley and Willie Nelson, was momentous.
“It was a surreal experience,” she says, “to share a stage with all of those people at this stage in my life. Somebody told me the biggest asset I have is people’s faith in me—that they love the music, what I’m doing. It’s the key element in my being able to make music.”
Born in Louisiana in 1978, Fuga’s parents raised her on Oahu in Waimanalo. When she was four, her parents split and her mother got involved with drugs. They soon sent Fuga to live with her grandparents. Though traumatized at the time, Fuga considers it a blessing now, choosing not to make the same mistakes her mom did.
Fortunately, Fuga also benefited greatly by her grandparents’ love and appreciation of music. While her grandfather played slack key, her grandmother played `ukulele and sang and generally supported young Fuga when she naturally showed an interest in music. She first started playing flute but then switched to `ukulele, under the instruction of Roy Sakuma.
“I’ve always made music, ever since I could remember,” Fuga says. “Whether it was with scissors or whistling or snapping my fingers. But my mom never knew I could sing until I was in high school.”
Fuga actually gave her first public vocal performance in the first grade. She remembers sitting at a lunch table in the cafe of her school in Kailua when some teachers asked her and a few friends to sing onstage.
“I sang every song I knew,” Fuga says. “‘Ten Little Indians,’ ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat,’ ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’ And then the next day, they asked us to sing again but I didn’t want to sing the same songs. So they brought out a microphone and I sang Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ and everybody laughed. I was so shame!”
The experience was not lost on her. Fuga insists that, to this day, every time she performs she makes sure to sing each song differently than the last.
“Music is alive,” she says. “It’s always growing and moving. I just groove with it.”
In 1995, when Fuga was a Kailua High junior, she competed in the annual “Brown Bags to Stardom” talent showcase in Honolulu. She sang Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By” and made a lot of friends.
“It was awesome,” she says. “I got to meet Richard Grieco and Natalie Cole, and a lot of talented kids around Hawai`i—a few of them have gone on to play music professionally.”
After high school, Fuga got a job teaching Hawaiian Studies at Ahuimanu Elementary. She also landed a gig as educational interpreter at the Bishop Museum.
And then there was the infamous American Idol audition. It was 2004—the same year Camille Velasco and Jasmine Trias had much of Hawai`i glued to their sets. That year, there were three rounds of auditions in Hawai`i alone.
Out of 2000 hopefuls in Round One at Aloha Stadium, 200 moved on to the Sheraton Moana Waikiki. Then out of those, 60 moved on from Round Two at the Sheraton Moana Waikiki. Only 20 would make it to Hollywood for the televised showdown spectacle.
By all accounts, Fuga sang an exceptional version of “Son of a Preacher Man” in Round Three. While she noticed that the AI producers and judges were referring to other contenders by their numbers, they were calling Fuga by her name. She was ecstatic.
Nevertheless, Paula, Randy and Simon didn’t pass her through. But when it came time to film the American Idol pre-season special “Uncut, Uncensored, and Untalented,” Fuga was flown to Hollywood anyway, along with other people who were rejected but had a popular response. CBS Studios put her up in a fancy hotel in Beverly Hills and asked her to write a song about the judges.
When the AI cameras captured Fuga and her `uke performing a reggae-tinged tune she called simply, “American Idol in Hawaii,” the Internet Weblogs and message boards blew up with new fans’ demands for a video or mp3 of the song.
She got a lot of offers—most of them bad—from her brief stint on TV. But she did make an important connection with Spencer “Bo” Toyama, a program assistant on American Idol. Toyama had gone to school for business management in music.
“He told me if I had any contracts or whatever, he’d look at them for me ‘cause he believed in me,” Fuga says. “He said, ‘You can do this yourself, you know. I’ll help you.’”
So Fuga started a record label with him, Pakipika Productions, and Toyama helped her get business loans.
“He’s a good person and I’m really, really fortunate to be in this partnership with him,” she says. “He’s so honest. You hear those stories about the music industry—the empty promises and like that. But I’m pretty street smart—you can’t just come in and blindside me.”
Fuga spent the rest of that year singing with reggae band Dubkonscious, honing her solo skills, and laying down tracks in the recording studio.
She produced and wrote all of the songs for her debut album. When she recorded the song “Lilikoi,” it was all very last minute. And yet, Fuga says, somehow everything “fit so right.” It only seemed appropriate to name the album after a song that conveyed so much.
“It’s about loving myself, being one with myself before settling down and beginning a new relationship,” she says. “It’s wrong to place my happiness in somebody else’s hands. But when you’re pono with it, you’re all good inside. ‘If I wanna catch a fish, I must tend to my lo`i… ‘cause a fish will come in, and then I will catch it correctly.’”
Fuga recorded a lot of the album at the Rainforest Room in Honolulu. But her time slots kept getting bumped because that was where the popular TV show Lost was also doing their sound. So Fuga finished the remainder of her recording sessions at Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco. And Lilikoi was finally released in May of this year.
It’s a soulful production, with Fuga’s vocals bringing a powerful, gospel-like passion to reggae grooves with Pacific Island instrumentation and an occasional string quartet added in for good measure. Her eloquent use of `olelo—metaphors and images in Hawaiian language—also add lyrical and melodic depth to subtle R&B tones.
A lot of press lately has been giving attention to the fact that Fuga’s music defies the categories of contemporary Hawaiian and traditional Hawaiian music. But Fuga resists categorization.
“I’m into a lot of different styles,” says Fuga. “I was reading this book—it was everything you need to know about the music business. One of the things it said was to do music that’s in your heart, because you’re gonna have to live with it, so that’s what I’m doing. There was some pressure to stick with one genre but I just couldn’t do it. I don’t just like one genre. No matter what rhythm, it’s all music. Lucky for me, I have creative freedom with the arrangements. I’m very fortunate to have that control.”
Up to now, while Fuga has been riding this escalating wave of fame, she has kept her day job. Since she manages her own career, Fuga must book her shows on her own. And due to rising demands this summer, she’s had to take a break from other employment in order to focus all her time and energy on both the business and creative sides of her music.
“I can always go back to the Bishop Museum any time, work with kids anytime,” says Fuga. “If I strengthen my music all of those areas will fall into place, too.”
But right now, with her schedule quickly filling up, and the crowds growing in numbers to match her steadily increasing venue size, Fuga is poised and ready for impending stardom with characteristic calm and humility.
“All you gotta do is just listen to your gut,” says Fuga. “Go on your emotion, clearly, and let it flow. You control your own destiny—all you gotta do is work hard for it.” MTW