“I play pretty much anything that makes noise,” laughs Kawehi, who’s sitting in the empty bar next to New York’s Rockwood Music Hall, a cramped venue on the Lower East Side where she’s just performed for a packed house. The petite, 31-year-old Hawaii-native is so soft-spoken it’s hard to imagine that she gained overnight celebrity belting out rock songs, but that’s exactly what happened.
Often described as a “one woman band,” Kawehi works with a step sequencer, MIDI keyboard, and her own voice, using audio loops to sing backup for herself and build a rocking accompaniment. It sounds complicated because it is, but Kawehi likes complicated. That’s why she decided to cover the least cover-able band ever, Nirvana, and that’s why she’s in New York surrounded by fans of her YouTube videos.
“You’re basically building a whole unit – a whole song,” Kawehi says of the looping process. “You need all of the [elements] to line up and support each other, and if you fuck one up, then it all comes tumbling down.”
Kawehi’s shows are, in short, a high-wire act. She doesn’t have to worry about disappointing the crowd because she’ll either succeed ass-kickingly or fail miserably. Surrounded by a slew of tangled cords and clunky machinery, she moves quickly, maintaining her concentration and balance even while getting down.
Kawehi was introduced to this solitary, daring way of making music by Jon Brion, the composer behind the Grammy-nominated scores of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Magnolia. While living in California the musician would put on weekly performances which showcased his looping abilities. “He [would use] a bunch of different instruments and I had never seen anything like it before,” Kawehi says, remembering the first Brion concert she attended in LA. “When I saw it I was like, ‘Oh my God, I would love to do this!’”
Before her Cobain impression – it’s more of a tribute really – gained her a few minutes of internet fame, she launched a Kickstarter campaign, pledging to release two albums. Her initial attempt in 2011 was unsuccessful – she fell more than $10,000 short of her goal – but her total of five campaigns have raised enough money that she’s now a touring artist with a loyal fan base and four EPS, the latest of which drops July 15. Titled Robot Heart, the new album was recorded inside the music studio she shares with her husband on the outskirts of Kansas City, where she moved because – well – she needed a music studio.
As for what’s next, the singer is content to have that look a lot like what’s now. “Everybody always asks me, ‘What’s the dream?’ and I’m already living it,” she says, smiling. “If I could just keep playing for people, keep making records, keep a roof over my head, and pay the bills, then that’s all I ask for.”
Photos by Instagram