Heels & Picks: Kawehi’s heart-shaped life
BY ERIN SMITH / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Singer-songwriter and looping artist Kawehi Wight may have grown up in paradise right here on Oahu, but her current location is paradise for an artist.
“I was on the road, and my husband called me to say he found this house,” she said. “An old brick house with two recording studios in it.”
That’s right, TWO STUDIOS. Every musician reading this is now drooling.
After 10 years in Los Angeles, the couple was ready to relocate. The new house was in Kansas, which was unchartered territory for them, but they couldn’t pass on the idea of a new pad with high quality studios already built in.
As it turns out, finding that home would be the first step in a chain of events that has led to a life-changing year for the artist who performs as Kawehi.
But first, a little on what her music is all about. After starting her career as a singer-songwriter who played acoustic guitar (she has a Hawaiian language single on iTunes), Kawehi felt constrained by the limitations of that style of performance. That led her to learn how to use a series of looping pedals to create songs from the ground up. Like many loopers, she starts by beatboxing the drum line into her looping pedal and then builds the song, adding guitars, keys and background vocals.
Once all of that is in place, she has only to push a button to control the sonic landscape she just created and then sing the lead vocal over it. (I would also like to add that one of her electric guitars is pink. High five!)
This looping technique is fairly common. We’ve all seen people on YouTube looping tracks, and there are performers here and there from Waikiki to Kihei doing it. Kawehi stands out from the pack with incredibly detailed soundscapes and vocal performances are sharp and nuanced. She is unapologetically artsy, marching to her own drum. There is something about her performance that grabs you.
So how did life change this spring for Kawehi? After posting a series of live performance videos online — looped covers of songs like Nine Inch Nails “Closer” and Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” — Kawehi hit the viral jackpot with her cover of Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box.”
After posting the video, recorded in one of her home studios, she awoke one morning in April to find the video on the homepages of Esquire and Spin magazines. Courtney Love weighed in on Kawehi’s cover on Twitter, calling it “genius,” and was just a short while after she publicly tore apart Lana Del Rey’s cover of the same song.
It’s a dark song, an unnerving song, and upon watching Kawehi’s version, my thought was that she reappropriated the song for a new generation. The morning her video went viral, it was inescapable. It turned up constantly in my Facebook feed.
The video quickly garnered over a million hits, and of course, her phone started to ring.
“I felt like every time I turned on my computer, the song was showing up somewhere new,” Kawehi said of the whirlwind surrounding the video.
Labels, management, companies looking for tie-ins and even popular television show “The Voice” took an immediate interest in Kawehi.
“I’ve been talking to a lot of labels,” she said. “But it’s kind of not my vibe.
“All these reality shows, they’re all contacting me. If I wanted to be the next pop star, I would totally do it, but it’s not what I’m looking for.”
THERE ARE a few local loopers who are tremendously talented, some of whom I’ve had the opportunity to catch at a performance. Artist Kanoa, from Maui, comes to mind. He’s a friend and an outstanding looper, multi-instrumentalist and singer.
I’m not the only one to notice, as he is very popular on Maui and has been tapped to open Kawehi’s Maui performance at the Tropical Plantation on July 5. Two looping phenoms in one room bodes for an excellent night of music.
Over the phone from Maui, Kanoa weighed in on the difficulties and rewards of creating music live on the spot with looping pedals.
“The platform of looping, on a creative level, is endless,” he mused on the art form he’s become well known for. “(Though) if it takes more than a minute to start your loop, you will lose everyone’s attention.”
Using pedals to create loops is such an “in the moment” form of creating music, he said, which is one of the reasons it draws an audience in. Music lovers enjoy seeing someone build right in front of them, something that is usually built behind the scenes in the studio.
Kanoa’s words of wisdom for burgeoning loop artists?
“Do what you do with conviction. Do it like you mean it because moments pass and you only have one opportunity.”
Kawehi will be in Hawaii for an interisland tour next week. She plays Nextdoor in Chinatown on July 3 with local opener Erika Elona; Kona fans can catch her on July 4 at Amethyst Nightclub before she’s off to Maui for the July 5 show at the Mill House at Tropical Plantation.
With the release of her new album, the Kickstarter-funded “Robot Heart”, and her raw talent, there’s no telling where her path may lead. Kawehi is on an interesting journey, and this is just the tip of the iceberg for her and the music she creates.
“Robot Heart” is the story of a robot who wants to be a human. When asked whether or not the robot achieves this goal on the record, Kawehi said, “She wants to be a human, she’s just waiting for technology to catch up.”
When it comes to looping, let’s see if technology can keep up with Kawehi.
Erin Smith is a singer and guitarist who performs as a solo artist and with Maui-based Na Hoku Hanohano Award-nominated band The Throwdowns. Born in Canada, she moved to Hawaii in 2004 and now resides in Kailua. Contact her via e-mail or follow her on Twitter.