In an era of digital disruption for musicians, Hawaii-born artist Kawehi has found her edge. Her music has blossomed through videos on YouTube and Vimeo. She produces music with her computer and digital instruments–known in the industry as looping–and has become a one-woman show phenomenon, especially with the success of her “Heart Shaped Box” Nirvana cover. She’s also formed part of her core following and created albums through Kickstarter projects and sells her own releases on Bandcamp.com.
This Saturday, July 5, Kawehi will perform at the Millhouse as part of her national tour launching her new album Robot Heart. We spent some time asking her about going viral, her recent Kickstarter success and how it all compares to performing in real life.
MAUITIME: First off, you live in Kansas?
KAWEHI: After high school I moved to Los Angeles for music–and after living there for 10 years, I was ready to leave. I think LA is a wonderful place when you’re young and needing that drive and competition–it’s a great place to discover yourself. But I was ready for a quieter lifestyle, and my husband had stumbled on this beautiful recording studio out in Kansas that was incredibly cheap, and we were broke living out in Los Angeles. So we moved, and I love it here in Lawrence!
MT: When was your first gig as a performer?
KAWEHI: Man, I can’t even remember! I’ve done some shows when I was a teenager. I think my first performance was in high school at Brown Bags! I didn’t win. But as an adult, I think my first gig was at a bar in LA. I don’t remember much of it–I was so nervous. I remember having a lot of tequila, but the rest is pretty blurry!
MT: Were there times in your career where you questioned your decision to be a musician?
KAWEHI: Nope, never. There were times I thought we’d lose our house though–times where we were so broke we were eating Top Ramen Saimin every day. But throughout all of that, I’ve never questioned being a musician. It’s my passion. There’s no Plan B for me.
MT: What inspires you to write songs or create mixes?
KAWEHI: I get inspiration from anything and everything. But I think it’s important to remember that you have to do the work, too. Some people just wait for inspiration to hit. Not me–I work at it every day. I set aside time every day to come up with a new idea.
MT: When did you start making videos, and why has that become an important to you as an entertainer?
KAWEHI: I realized after my first Kickstarter project–which failed miserably–that I needed content, and lots of it. So we started making videos, and I noticed that my fan base started to grow quickly. Nowadays with the Internet, everyone’s so hungry for content. I can put up a new video and someone’s asking me five minutes later when the next one’s coming out. I think videos are a great way to reach a larger fan base–I’d say almost half of my fans come from outside the US. It really is amazing how many people you can touch through videos.
MT: You make the videos look so easy, like it’s just one take and they’re done. How do you do them, and are they really shot in your living room? Who decides if there’s wine or no wine?
KAWEHI: Some of them have lots of practice behind of it–well, most of them, really. But all the videos are shot in one take. I usually practice first how I’m going to perform the loop live, and then we shoot. My husband shoots all my videos–edits them, shoots them, does everything. All of them are shot in our house, unless we decide to put on a pig suit and dance in the middle of a field.
But “Heart Shaped Box” was totally different. We literally had just ordered pizza and opened up a bottle of wine and did that video in one take as a test run for his new cameras. I was practicing for some shows in Austin, so it really was this spontaneous video. So it always blows my mind when I think of how big it became.
MT: “Heart Shaped Box” was picked up by the digital press–there were articles in Esquire, Spin and HuffPo, just to name a few. What was that like?
KAWEHI: It’s still weird. I have never done this to be recognized, so when it finally happened, I was like, “What?” It was completely unexpected and I wasn’t prepared for it.
MT: Were you prepared for your Robot Heart Kickstarter project kicking ass? Tell me about that moment when you realized that your $3,000 goal was funded for $28,900, and what you’ll do with the extra funds.
KAWEHI: I thought it was a hoax. Seriously, I kept thinking, “there’s no way this is real.” I’ve done six Kickstarter projects and five of them were over-funded, but almost a thousand percent funded? No way.
Doing these projects really show how much people believe in you. I think that’s why they are so hard to do (besides the loads of work that goes behind it). You’re asking complete strangers to believe in you, so much so that they are willing to back you financially to make this dream of yours come true. It’s an incredible feeling.
With the extra funds, I was able to throw some funds back into the community I live in. I had a local graphics designer put together the artwork for the CDs and DVDs. I was able to get a little help making the rewards–usually I have to hand-make every single thing. But this time, I had help! And being that I had four times the number of backers as I usually do, I was happy for it! I also get to tour and play for my fans live, throughout the country. That is an incredible experience, and I couldn’t have done any of it without the support of the Robot Heart backers.
MT: You had done other Kickstarters, but this one seemed to take the cake. Was it the pink pig suit or robot theme?
KAWEHI: The theme definitely helped. That’s why I always have a theme to each project. It gives people something more than the music to get excited about. But really, it was the video going viral that took it to that next level. I think before “Heart Shaped Box,” my project was about 300 percent funded. And then with less than a week to go, the video tripled that amount.
MT: One of your Kickstarters funded a film. Is your USA, The Project tour documentary and live album completed?
KAWEHI: It is! I did it specifically for those USA backers though, so we’ll have to see if it’ll become public.
MT: Lucky backers! Tell me about growing up in Hawaii and how that affected and contributed to your being a musician.
KAWEHI: Growing up in Hawaii… Well, ask any Hawaiian out there and they will respond “Lucky We Live Hawaii!” I think growing up in Hawaii has given me a sense of roots, somewhere I know I’ll always have ties to. I’ll never forget that. I can’t imagine what it would feel like growing up without a sense of culture. Music is also a huge part of that culture, and I think growing up surrounded by people who love music really made a huge impact on my life.
MT: What advice would you give other aspiring young Hawaii musicians?
KAWEHI: Never quit. Work hard. Nothing (worth while) just falls in your lap. You have to work at it, everyday, always. I’m still learning.
MT: You’re original “Telescope” hypnotizes me, and I can listen to it over and over. What are your favorite original songs to perform?
KAWEHI: Thank you! “Telescope” is fun to do. I love doing “Anthem” off of my new EP–lots of vocal layering. Or getting quiet with just my electric guitar and doing “20 Years.” I have fun doing all of my originals, it’s too hard to choose.
MT: Who inspired you to get into the entertainment business?
KAWEHI: No one. I’ve really just made music because I love to do it and can’t imagine ever doing anything else in my life. But the business side of it? I have no fucking idea what I’m doing, yo.
MT: What was your most memorable performance?
KAWEHI: I think this whole Summer Tour that I’m on is the most memorable. For the first time in my life, I’m playing to hundreds, thousands of people who are actually there to see me. That’s never happened before. It’s more terrifying; I really feel like I need to do my best. Because my fans are traveling far and wide to come out to see me play, I don’t want to disappoint them. But that feeling–getting out there and people are just so pumped to see you perform–it’s an incredible experience.
MT: How did you get involved in digital production, looping sounds/music? Did you need an IT person or does that come naturally to you?
KAWEHI: I’ve always wanted to try looping, but never had the balls to do it. I was ready for a change–I got tired of just playing a guitar and singing. So I just jumped right in. No IT person: just a shit ton of practicing.
MT: Tech has been a big part of your music career, not just with your instruments and setup but also how you reach your audience and get fans. Do you have a strategy?
KAWEHI: Technology really gives me a sense of no limits, creatively. And that’s an incredible feeling to have. With the setup I have, the possibilities are endless.
MT: Will you have any advance copies of Robot Heart at the Hawaii shows?
KAWEHI: Yes, I will! Be sure to pick one up.
MT: What do you consider your greatest musical accomplishment?
KAWEHI: Doing all of this independently. No label, no management–no huge team behind me. Just my husband and myself. We’ve come a long way on our own.
MT: Will this be your first time performing in Maui?
KAWEHI: Yes! And I’m so stoked!
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Kawehi’s Upcoming Maui Show:
Saturday, July 5
Doors open at 7:30pm
$20 advance, $25 door, reservations for tables of 8 available
Special Guest: Kanoa
The Mill House
Maui Tropical Plantation
1670 Honoapi’ilani Hwy, Waikapu
Show presented by Odin Works and The Weekly Dish
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For more info on Kawehi:
Her Robot Heart Kickstarter project: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kawehi/robot-heart
Kawehi on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1F1EVFBl3Kg7_aUvQ-nBOg
Kawehi on Vimeo: http://vimeo.com/iamkawehi
Her website: http://kawehi.com/
Her Music Downloads: http://kawehi.bandcamp.com/#_=_