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Kawehi Gets Loopy & Finds Her Heart
Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Perfectionism can sometimes be a curse. Just ask looping queen Kawehi, who melted the internet with her version of Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box.” According to Kawehi, “I probably would have deleted (the video), but my husband was like, ‘I think that’s great.’”

The clip, which features Kawehi building the song from scratch through a series of intricate loops of her own voice, and sounds from her keyboard, was supposed to just be a trial run of new equipment. “It was really just kind of like a practice,” she explains, “We were waiting for a pizza to be delivered, and had opened up some wine, and Paul had gotten some new cameras, and I had gotten new gear for the first time. It was literally a testing of all sorts.”

The test ended up a wildly successful one, as between Vimeo and YouTube the video has more than two million views.

Two million isn’t the only impressive number Kawehi has reached, as her most recent Kickstarter campaign, which was for her upcoming EP, Robot Heart, earned nearly ten times the $3,000 she was looking to raise.

With Robot Heart due out in July, and Kawehi about to hit the road for a tour, I caught up with her to find out more about her music, her process, and how embracing looping has changed the way she listens to music.

Adam Bernard: All of your social networking sites say you’re originally from Hawaii, but I’ve noticed some have your current location as Kansas, while others have it as Los Angeles. I’m just going to ask you this once, are you on the run from the law?

Kawehi: {laughs} I know, everyone’s like usually the natural progression would be to move away from Kansas, toward Hawaii, but yeah, I’ve actually done the complete opposite. I am from Hawaii, born and raised. I moved to LA when I was 20, and I lived there for ten years, and just recently we moved to Kansas. It’s been a year now. Randomly, my husband found a recording studio out in Kansas, near Lawrence. He came out to look at it, and it was great, so we literally just packed all of our bags and moved out here.

Adam Bernard: I’m guessing from a financial standpoint it’s a bit cheaper to live in Kansas than LA.

Kawehi: Oh yeah. Infinitely. The cost of living out there was so expensive, and we both quit our jobs and wanted to dedicate all of our time to making music, and being creative, and it was impossible to do that. We tried that for a year out in LA, towards the end of my stint there. It was just too difficult. We were looking to move anyway. I was kind of looking in the Seattle, Portland, area. I’ve always wanted to be out on that side, but he just so happened to find this studio, and came in one day while I was in the garage practicing, and was like, “Hey, you have to check out this place.” I looked at the pictures, and it was this beautiful recording studio. Then he drops the bomb on me, and says, “Oh, but it’s in Kansas.” I was like, “You probably should have opened with ‘it’s in Kansas’ before showing me all these awesome pictures.”

He flew out and looked at this place that we’re in now. I didn’t go because I was traveling, and doing some shows, so literally the first day I set foot in Kansas, and saw the place that we moved to, was the first day we showed up with the U-Haul.

Adam Bernard: That could have gone horribly!

Kawehi: I know. Everyone says that. They’re like wow, I cannot believe you had that much trust, to just be like sure, let’s go ahead and buy a place that I’ve never seen before, and never been to, but it really turned for the best. I feel like as soon as we moved out here all that worry about eating Ramen every day, and being super broke, that worry just kind of lifted, and we had all this energy and time to put into our craft. It’s made all the difference in the world.

Adam Bernard: Speaking of your craft, music is oftentimes a communal thing, involving band members, producers, etc. For you, however, being that you’re a looping artist, it's a solitary thing. When, and why, did music become something you wanted to do completely on your own?

Kawehi: Prior to moving (to Kansas) I had done the singer-songwriter (thing), and I felt like I was really plateauing. I was at the best that I thought I could be for just a singer-songwriter playing a guitar. I’d always wanted to try looping. When I was living in LA I had seen a show, this guy named Jon Brion, who is amazing, and he did looping. That was the very first time I saw it.

I’d always had it in the back of my mind to try, but I'd never had the balls to do it, because it’s incredibly difficult to do, but after I did my first show in New York I was floored by how amazing everyone was. I came back home thinking OK, I need to up my game, I need to get better, I need to do something, so I finally just kinda dived into the loop thing.

It was something that instantly I enjoyed. I was able to learn a lot of new things musically, and learn how to listen to things differently, and play different instruments that I probably never would have picked up unless I absolutely had to. All these things became a good reason for me to do it, and I’m so glad I did because it’s really fun, and it’s really the way I love to create. I’ll probably stick with it for the rest of my life.

Adam Bernard: About how long does it take you to learn a new piece of equipment?

Kawehi: Oh man, I started with the Boss pedal, which is hardware. It was easy to figure out, but it was still hard to get the timing right, so that helped me get better with my timing, and all that kind of stuff. I feel like the more possibilities you have, it gets more difficult, so I started with the tiny one (which has two tracks), then I graduated to one that was six tracks. Now I’m working with Abelton, and with that the possibilities are endless. I’m still learning things on there. It’s like, wow, I never knew I could do that, good thing I figured that out. That’s the thing with technology, and software, the possibilities are endless, you can do anything you want, and there’s always something new to learn.

I’ve only been looping with Ableton for about a year now, and before that, with the Boss pedal, I probably had a year with that, so I’ve been doing it for two years, and there’s still lots to learn, but I'm getting there. I learn something new every day, and I definitely do it a lot. I practice a lot, and I can really go down that rabbit hole of finding new sounds, and just kind of tearing everything apart and putting it together again. I really enjoy it.

Adam Bernard: Is it strange, or uncomfortable at all, to sort of be at the forefront of this in a lot of people’s minds, while in your own mind saying, well, I’ve really only been doing it for two years?

Kawehi: Yeah, definitely. I know a lot of people, they’re like, “We’ve never seen this before.” It’s definitely a new thing, and I think it’s something that people either really really like, and really enjoy watching it happen live, or people really hate it, and they’re like OK, so when are you gonna start singing? It’s one or the other, and I’m fine with that, completely and totally. I enjoy it so much, and if other people enjoy it it’s even better, but it’s definitely something for myself that I really enjoy doing.

Adam Bernard: It’s clear you’ve found a lot of people who share in your enjoyment, as you funded the creation of your latest EP, Robot Heart, with a Kickstarter that reached nearly ten times its posted goal, boosted by someone donating $10,000. Did you ever find out who that person was?

Kawehi: I did, actually. I woke up the next morning and I thought it was a complete hoax. I was like OK, this cannot be right. Apparently it’s someone who was like in charge at Google, and was really into robots. I think he just saw it randomly on a technology site, along with my “Heart Shaped Box” video, and just donated. It definitely was not a hoax, and I couldn’t believe it, and I’m super grateful.

It was weird to see it go that high, just in general. I’ve done quite a few Kickstarters, I think that was like my fifth one, and I always ask for the same amount, because I do them all the time. I like to put EPs out because I like to constantly put new material out, so I do one every three to four months, and I always ask for just what I need. I see a lot of projects and the numbers are astronomical, and I’m like why would you do that? You’re not asking for someone to pay your bills, you’re asking them to help you make this creation.

Usually I set every project at like $3,000, unless it’s like the one I did that was a documentary and a tour. That was $6,000. I always ask for exactly what I need, so having it go almost ten times over was, I never would have thought that would have happened. I never would have imagined. It was amazing.

Adam Bernard: What was the $10,000 backer reward? Do you have to promise a first born child at that point?

Kawehi: I put it as a joke on my project, cuz that’s the highest amount you can pledge. In the description I said, “Just kidding. That’s so funny. Thank you for at least getting to the very bottom of my page. I couldn’t even possibly give you anything that would be worth $10,000,” so it was really crazy.

Adam Bernard: You’re gonna keep that joke on every single one of them from now on.

Kawehi: {laughs} Yeah, I guess now I should. Definitely.

Adam Bernard: You ended up basically selling a lot of your equipment as a part of that campaign. Was there anything that was especially difficult to part with?

Kawehi: It’s definitely difficult to part with these instruments, but a lot of people really enjoy having something that you created with, and they’re gonna use it in the same way. It makes me feel better to know they’re going to be using it, and they’re going to be doing their own creations, and it’s kind of cool that this piece of equipment is traveling hands, and being creative with different people.

Adam Bernard: Let's talk about the album. What was going on in your life that inspired Robot Heart?

Kawehi: I do projects quite frequently, and I always give them a different theme. I think it’s easier for people to want to be a part of your project if they can get behind the concept, and think it’s a cool idea. I did one called VOX where everything was all vocal, and I was really starting to learn how to beatbox. Another one was TOY, which was all toy instruments. This one, I’m a big sci-fi geek, and I’ve always had that idea of robots, and during this long stroll, my husband and I were walking, and we were both like, why don’t we do something about robots? I was like yeah, what about a girl who wants to be a robot? It kind of snowballed from there.

I’ve had so much fun coming up with, and writing from, a different perspective. I’ve written a lot of songs, and 90% of them are about me, and my life, and the shit I’ve gone through, and I’m like OK, yeah, I’m ready to start writing about different things. It’s really fun to expand your horizons as a writer, and as a musician.

Adam Bernard: You mentioned you’re a sci-fi geek. I’m one, as well, so I gotta know, which TV shows are you watching right now?

Kawehi: My favorite TV show of all-time was Firefly.

Adam Bernard: You’re a Whedonite! I’m a Whedonite, too. One of my favorites was Dollhouse.

Kawehi: Oh yes! I’m definitely a huge fan of his, and a huge fan of Nathan Fillion. I watch pretty much all the sci-fi shows on the SyFy channel. I was into Haven, and Warehouse 13. I just have a real interest in science and technology, obviously with all my gear and stuff. I’m definitely a big fan, for sure.

Adam Bernard: Are you an Orphan Black fan?

Kawehi: You know what, that’s actually one that I haven’t seen yet, but you’re like the fifth person who has said that to me in a matter of two weeks. That’s so weird. A lot of people have said, “You have to definitely see it,” so I definitely will be doing it.

Adam Bernard: You’re gonna love it! Moving back to music, your cover songs really helped you gain notoriety. When you’re listening to music now, do you hear a song like everybody else hears it, or are you breaking it down in your head, figuring out each little intricacy of it?

Kawehi: I definitely do listen to music that way now. I didn’t before I started picking up looping, but when you loop you have to. You have to listen to the song and completely break it down. A lot of songs aren’t loopable. You can’t loop them because it would just take too much time. You have to figure out, maybe changing the chords a little bit, maybe doing this and that, and OK, what sound are they using? Whenever I listen to music I do try to figure out OK, if I do cover this, how can I do this? Would I use the same sounds? Most of the time I don’t because I approach covers, I’ve said it a billion times, it’s a cover, which means somebody else has already done it bad ass, so why do it exactly the same way? It’s already out there in this form, and everybody loves it, so why not try to come at a different angle?

I think looping already forces me to look at a song in a different light, so it’s definitely a win-win situation, but yeah, sometimes I’m like OK, why not just enjoy this song? You don’t have to think of, “Oh, that’s cool if I do that there, and maybe I could do this and that.” I definitely have to turn that side of my brain off sometimes.

Adam Bernard: When your cover of “Heart Shaped Box” blew up it made you famous on the internet. At what point, however, did it become real for you? What moment made you say, “Oh, people know who I am?”

Kawehi: The Kickstarter thing was definitely surreal. The last day of the project, and seeing how many people were a part of the project, I couldn’t believe it, I was definitely floored. Living in Lawrence, it’s a smaller town, and everyone knows who I am, so that is very strange, especially coming from LA, which is such a big place, and no one knows who you are.

Before “Heart Shaped Box,” my husband and I talk about it all the time, I had like 4,000 YouTube subscribers, and 6,000 likes on Facebook. I had a really small, but amazing following, and now it’s three months later and (I’m up to) 87,000 likes and 40,000 subscribers. I mean, it’s just crazy.

Adam Bernard: Finally, you're about to embark on a tour. With all the music coming from you, how do you set up the stage? How much equipment, and set up, is involved?

Kawehi: There’s a lot of equipment. I think I have three different MIDI controllers, and I use VoiceLive Touch for harmonies, and keyboards for different sounds. It’s definitely a lot of stuff for one person, but it probably only takes me ten minutes to set up, and maybe an equal amount of time to break down, but it changes. Every time I do a show I feel like I have more gear, and it’s just because I can’t say no to something new, so the next time I go on tour I’ll probably have twice as many pieces of gear.

Interview originally ran on Arena.com.


posted by Adam Bernard @ 6:23 PM  
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