Photo: Theresa Ang
Kalani Pe'a & His New Album 'Kau Ka Pe'a' Are A Ray Of Sunshine
Two-time GRAMMY-winning singer/songwriter and producer Kalani Pe'a radiates warmth and joy in all he does, and his deep connection with his Hawaiian roots makes conversing with him feel like attending an inspirational talk, poetry reading and history lesson all in one. This inviting energy and depth are ever-present in his music and its effortless blend of traditional Hawaiian folk music, classic R&B and soul—not to mention heavy sprinkle of Kalani charm.
As an independent artist (and co-owner of Pe'a Records & Entertainment with his husband and manager, Allan B. Cool.), Pe'a encourages artists to own their masters, promote their work, be authentic to themselves regardless of what others think, and follow their dreams. And he sure is walking his talk. His first two albums, 2016's E Walea and 2018's No 'Ane'i, both earned him a GRAMMY for the Best Regional Roots Music Album, making him the first Hawaiian artist to win in the category.
GRAMMY.com caught up with the vibrant artist, who called in from his Maui home to discuss his new album, Kau Ka Pe'a, his deep Hawaiian roots, advice as an independent artist and much more.
How are you?
The word thrive comes to mind for me, like when I'm writing music at the beach here in Maui, when there's this particular cold breeze we call makani lave malie. This calm, cool breeze that embraces me and gives me a little chicken skin. When you get this feeling inside to write about something you love, while the sand and the rocks embrace your body, and the ocean swells, and the mountain is clear, and the sun rays warm your skin, you write about it like poetry.
I love writing music about people and places I love here in Hawaii. I love your [hair] color, by the way. As you know, purple's my favorite color.
Yes, I noticed when I was scrolling through your Instagram. I remember the sparkly purple blazer you wore at the GRAMMYs, that was good.
I'm a little loud. I'm a big boy who is loud and proud. I will wear my sparkly stuff, but yet stick to my roots, and this is who I am. I would never change my authenticity.
You feel that authenticity when you talk to someone, when you see someone, when you hear someone's music. It inspires others. None of us are one thing, we all contain multitudes, and it's so beautiful to see people living out those multitudes so seamlessly.
I've learned so much as a singer/songwriter, and as an independent artist who co-owns a label and publishing and entertainment companies with my husband. We do it all our own. I'm very proud to be a two-time GRAMMY winner that owns my music. And I think musicians should be at the forefront of encouraging other artists to own [their] own masters and take pride in [their] work. However, learning to collaborate and build bridges along the way is important too.
We had a songwriter summit here in Hawaii with dear friends of mine in the industry. We talked about what we call piko, our umbilical cords. We believe in three different piko. Our first piko is the head. And it's so sacred in Hawaiian. Whether you're a musician, an engineer or a producer, we're always reflecting on our ancestors and forefathers and the gifts and wisdom they've bestowed upon us. The second is the womb. That's where our mothers carry the children, that's where the water in that womb allows us to survive. Water is life, water is medicine, as much as music is medicine. The third piko is down there, our reproductive system, where life is made.
And so, when we are connecting ourselves, as musicians, with all of our piko, we are going through a self-care moment, self-reflection, self-evaluation, and we need that because, often, musicians, we're all over the place. We musicians have so much to offer to this world, that we often don't take time to take care of our piko. We need to take care of our health and wellbeing, so we can continue contributing to our fans. But how do we do that? We take our self-reflection time, go to the beach, write music, rejuvenate, cleanse our souls and bodies and swim in the ocean or the streams.
Let's talk about your new album, Kau Ka Pe'a. What does the title mean?
Kau is to be placed or to hoist. Pe'a is my last name, which means the sailboat or the sail of the boat. The theme of the album is to hoist your sail, create your own sailboat and voyage; navigate the world. And I needed to create this new album with a new theme song to instill the value of where we come from, having a sense of place, self-reflection and identity. We all have to chart our own journey. As we pivot and adapt in this pandemic, we put up our own sail, and we must move forward. Holo Ka Wa'a, which means we got to chart our journey no matter whatever we see in life.
My paternal grandmother, who I love very much, would say, "Nani a maika'i," "It's all good and beautiful." You know when people say, "It's an ugly day today, it's raining." In a Hawaiian perspective, the rain is a sign of procreation, wealth and beauty. We have songs about that. But I remember her talking about, when I was in fifth grade, how there's gold at the end of every rainbow, that there's beauty in thunder and lightning, there's beauty in the rain.
When there are earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and tidal waves, our earth moves and shakes, and we have to move with the earth because we can't control the earth. And when we move with the earth, we shift with the earth, we grow with the earth, we grow with the sky, we grow with the rays of the sun. And as Hawaiians, we see beauty in that. And my grandmother taught me that, "Never say today's an ugly day. Always remember that there's beauty all around."
It's such a good perspective to have because it's the same thing happening, but the way you're looking at it shifts your mood and the way you engage with the world.
Like this pandemic, there's beauty in this pandemic, despite the amount of loss and people that lost their lives from it. This pandemic would not stop us, music creators, from creating music for the people who need to hear it. Music is essential, music is medicine. So, I did my crying over the year when I headlined a concert at the Lincoln Center, my first sold-out concert in February 2020. And when it came to March 1, 2020, and when they had about a thousand COVID-19 cases, I told my band, "Before we get home, sanitize everything, make sure you wear your masks. We don't know what's going on." But the pandemic affected us right there.
March 1, 2020 is when we all realized we all had to make changes. I lost every show, every tour, every concert, but I always had to remain confident. My grandmother and my parents have always taught me, "Through change, you have to be effective, and you have to be effective through change."
And it's been hard for me as a musician because I'm so used to touring, I'm so used to having live shows, not virtual shows. Artists feed off of ego, we feed off of people. I'm like, "Are you clapping? Do you like my song? Do you like me? No, you don't like me?" [Laughs.]
But I know that we have to chart our journey, and I had to create this album featuring legendary and upcoming Hawaiian artists because I believe in collaboration. I believe that if I work with other people in the Hawaiian music industry, we can thrive together because the Hawaiian music industry is really tiny, so we need each other.
So, I wrote about places I love here in Hawaii on the album. I also did a classical song that's been done by Nat King Cole, "When I Fall In Love," but I sing it in Hawaiian, too. I asked one of our legendary vocalists here, six-time GRAMMY-nominated artist Amy Hānaiali'i to sing it with me. She's won 18 Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards, which is Hawaii's premier music awards. And she's one of my mentors and advisors. To me, she is my Whitney Houston of Hawaii.
People asked me, "Why are you interpreting songs like 'When I Fall In Love' and Joe Cocker's 'You Are So Beautiful' in Hawaiian?" And I'm like, "I'm a modern Hawaiian, and I can." I feel confident, as a Hawaiian language practitioner, to translate or interpret whatever classic music I grew up with, whether it's an R&B song, or a love song of the '90s or '80s because that's who I am. I'm innovative, and that's what people love to hear.
My fans love it when I do Karen Carpenter's version of "Superstar." [Starts singing] I do it all in Hawaiian. People make those personal connections, but I do it in a Hawaiian way because I'm Hawaiian, and I can. So, if you feel that you need to rap in Spanish and Hawaiian, do it. Just do it.
What was it like working with Kimié Miner and Pandanus Club on the title track? And how does that song represent the journey of the album as a whole?
So, I started writing "Kau Ka Pe'a" and then I worked with my teacher, Larry Kimura, on the other verses. Larry Kimura is a Hawaiian language instructor and one of my mentors and advisors. He's very famous in Hawaii for writing Hawaiian music. He and I wrote this together, to acknowledge the people who shaped my Hawaiian identity.
In the first verse, I talk about my ancestors—little do people know, I'm Hawaiian, Filipino and English. My great-great-great-grandfather was a British commodore, and he came from England and met up with a beautiful Hawaiian girl, my great-great-grandmother—I talk about the arrival of my ancestors and how my ancestors met, and I give a little bit of genealogy and where I come from.
I wanted to highlight Pandanus Club, who are legends in Hawaii. And I was so touched that they said yes, that they were able to collaborate with me on this song. And the second verse, I talk about the seventh royalty, King David Kalākaua, was our last king of Hawaii, who brought back hula and Hawaiian music, which had been banned by Westerners. I thank him because he was all about innovation as well. He also gets on a boat himself and he did travel the world during his reign. He met with emperors and leaders all over the world, like presidents of the United States.
The third verse was working with my sista, Kimié Miner, my Hawaii island music queen, as well as Kalenaku, both of these women, I love and adore. They are educators, they're mothers. So, I wanted to have Kimié and Kalena sing the third verse about King Kamehameha Akahi. He was our first king, and united eight Hawaiian islands under one rule in 1810. And then the last paragraph talks about our kūpuna, my ancestors and forefathers, and how we always need to acknowledge those who have held that torch and had created our path for us to follow.
That's a big history lesson in there. That's awesome.
Yes ... People don't know so much about Hawaii. They feel like it's "you got to shake your hips, and let's go to Luau, and see some women shake their hips." That's not even Hawaiian, that's Tahitian. "Let's see fire knife dancing." That's not Hawaiian, that's Samoan. So as a Hawaiian language and culture practitioner and as a musician and music producer, I'm all about sharing the true authenticity of Hawaii.
Who is the Hawaiian monarchy? What have they contributed to the Hawaiian political movement? And prior to the annexation of Hawaii, prior to the illegal occupation by the U.S., what had the Hawaiian monarchy and our people done, what kind of legacies of the Hawaiian culture and the Hawaiian? So, education is so important. People think everything is Hawaiian in Hawaii. We have our own hula, we have our own dance, we have our own spiritual beliefs and values and practices as Hawaiians. People don't know that. So, through this song, I'm educating people about the monarchy and the arrival of my grandparents in Hawaii. I come from 25 generations of native Hawaiians. My grandmother and my grandfather are from Kalapana, Puna, Hawaii, but I'm proud to tell people I'm Hawaiian Filipino English. I'm proud to have descendants from Europe and from the Philippines.
I'm proud to be part Asian, and I'm proud to be 75 percent Hawaiian. And I grew up on Hawaiian homelands, which are equivalent to Indian reservations, but we were beneficiaries of agricultural lands. We grew guavas on our farms. We raised pigs on our farms, and cows. I know my roots. The roots and the values are so important to being a Hawaiian musician.
What does it mean to you to represent Hawaii and Hawaiian music, in this fresh, new way as you do it?
Whenever I get this gut feeling, I call it the whispers of my ancestors telling me what to do next. I always tell people, when I get this butterfly feeling to sing or write about this particular place or write about this particular person, it's not me just doing it. It's my ancestors whispering through my ears, guiding me to do it. And I always feel their presence around me. I feel them when I'm at the shoreline, I feel them when I'm up in the mountains or in the streams. They're always with me, especially my one grandmother who has Alzheimer's, my maternal grandmother. Earlier, I talked about my paternal grandmother who always uses the mantra "there's beauty all around."
And my maternal grandmother, Lu Kahunani, she's literally the love of my life, the big supporter of my Hawaiian music career, and my educational endeavors. She has Alzheimer's and she's 91 in November. She beat COVID-19 after four months, and she can't communicate with me anymore, but when I sang to her, her song, her eyes lit up. She nods at me, and I get that briefly from her, but I know spiritually, she knows that I love her, and she loves me. So, music is everything to me. Music is amongst my first loves.
"I do what I have to do through the whispers of my ancestors and forefathers guiding me. I'm very proud to come from the heart of the Pacific Ocean. I'm proud to share aloha through my music."
I love your and Amy Hanaiali'i's bilingual duet of the classic "When I Fall in Love." Why did you choose to cover the song and include it on this album?
I grew up listening to that kind of music. My dad is a bass player. He listened to Earth, Wind & Fire, The Temptations, Pink Floyd. Growing up in Hawaii, I grew up with diverse cultures and ethnic backgrounds. So, my childhood friends were just like me; native Hawaiian, white, Black, Hispanic, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and we all spoke Hawaiian fluently on campus. I wasn't introduced to racism until I visited the mainland. People thought I was Mexican. I was like, "No, I'm Hawaiian. I'm a Hawaiian Filipino boy." And then they were all, "We love Hawaii." I basically grew up in a melting pot of diverse cultures, so I love doing cover songs, and interpreting them in my own way and in my own fashion.
And I love musicians like Natalie Cole. God bless her heart. She's in heaven, singing. She sang at Irvine's Barclay Theater and I had my own concert there, too so it inspired me to acknowledge these artists in my own way when I did the covers. And when we translate in Hawaiian—I hate using the word translate, we say interpret. We interpret it in the perspective of a Hawaiian thinker. So, if we say we fell in love, we'll use showers. I'm showered by love, by you. This subject is Hawaiian poetry, Hawaiian composition 101.
Your last two albums both won the Best Regional Roots Music Album GRAMMY. I was curious what those wins felt like for you, and what it meant for you and the Hawaiian music community?
Oh gosh. You know in your [high school] yearbook? How you have wise sayings about what you want to do in life? In mine, at 18, I said that I wanted to win a GRAMMY. Yes, I did! We have receipts on that. [Laughs.] I live up to my goals, and I'm so determined and persistent about them. The accolades, I tell people; "Awards do not define my success. Awards do not define who I am."
I thank the Recording Academy and the GRAMMYs, I thank the indies, as well as those who are part of the labels, I have networked and built relationships with thousands of members of the Academy. I thank the Academy for elevating my career as a winner. Whether you're nominated or not, or whether you win, we're all artists in this industry, thriving together as one.
And I felt it, being a singer/songwriter making history for Hawaii, I cried about it, I cried and shed tears for the oppression that my people have faced here, in Hawaii, over 200 years. I cried because I am a representative of our people. I cried when I won because I was astounded that I won, to represent and bring Hawaiian music to this national platform ... But I am the same Kalani Pe’a that came from the guava fields of Pana'ewa, Hilo, Hawaii, with chickens and pigs and cows. And I'm still that guy today that is going to wear a purple sequin jacket at the Lincoln Center and sing you a Hawaiian song and "When I Fall In Love" in English and Hawaiian because that's who I am, baby, yes!
That's awesome and so well said. If we're only striving for awards or external gratification, you'll never have enough. It's a balance of feeling, "Wow, winning this is amazing," and also knowing you're amazing no matter what, right?
Right. I've also got many emails and Facebook messages from musicians and upcoming musicians and students majoring in music or engineering and producing who are inspired now to become members of the Academy. I've inspired hundreds of musicians to sign up as members, and submit their music, whether it's in American roots or regional roots or reggae. That's a part of my legacy, and I'm very grateful to have encouraged Hawaiian artists. I gave them a broader perspective that we can do more. We could do more instead of just staying in the islands. We can grasp these opportunities and work with the Recording Academy and be very grateful they are giving us a platform.
Opening the door, yes!
Opening the door. Why? Because there's beauty all around. There's gold at every rainbow, girl. When you're chasing a rainbow, I think that is equivalent to chasing dreams. I think, the same as my grandmother, "Go and find the gold, but remember, continue chasing those rainbows and never be satisfied with what you have. Always find ways or seek ways to improve yourself as a person." Find a way to chase after that dream and accomplish your goals and do your best to strive for them.
I've always set short-term goals as a precedent and long-term goals, because, as a musician, mentally, physically, spiritually, we get drained. So, I'm going to be very transparent with you. People think our life is perfect as musicians, but it's not. We're human like everyone else, we have to find ways to take care of, again, ourselves and others in order to continue to thrive. That's what I feel. I hope that doesn't sound reactive or negative, but I feel like every musician has their own personal story and struggle, and we just got to continue finding beauty in everything. It's a tough industry.
You mentioned that you and your husband Allan have your own music business and publishing company. I was curious about your perspective as an independent artist, and any advice you have for either a young artist that wants to put out their music, or an artist at any point in their career that's thinking about making the move to be independent.
So many people complain and just don't do the work. And I really encourage people to not complain and just do it. And Allan and I believe in social media content, we believe in relevance and timing in life, and we believe that if you continue posting, it doesn't hurt you from getting the word out. If you can't afford a PR agency to post your work or promote you, do it on your own and continue doing it, and continue networking with people. It doesn't hurt to post five, 10 times a day, because we do it, sister. I mean, some people are like, "Oh my gosh, overflood." I'm like, "No, if you're promoting a new album, do it. If you want to promote a new music video, do it." Because why? No one else is going to do it for you, baby. Who's going to do it if you can't afford 20 grand to pay a PR agency to post once a day?
Allan and I do everything. If you are an independent artist, own your music, own your masters, work hard towards it by going to school. I've taken college courses on business and management and I got my bachelor's degree in public relations. Allan has a 20-year background in business. So, from business and marketing, we're able to create press kits and press releases.
Reach out to artists like me. I'm okay sitting down with people and talking these things over and guiding people. Don't be intimidated to reach out because I'm here when you need me.
What do you feel like a more equitable future for artists looks like?
From the first and second GRAMMY-winning albums, I realized that I have to reflect. As an artist, you have to reflect on your value and your time. And it's okay to say no at times, to really focus on your value. I hope that doesn't sound negative, but I recently said no. Because I'm a full-time touring musician and I have to really reflect on my value, my time and "how am I going to pay out my band, my staff, my venue?" And that's all with anxiety, but where do we seek the balance? Where do we find ways to really reflect on the importance of our craft, and how do we continue being creative in the process and in the making of things?
You have to understand your value and surround yourself with valuable like-minded people. And you don't have to have 100 people to love you or like you, but you can have at least 10 that can uplift your light, and you can uplift their light. You need someone to hold that torch with you because that light must continue to burn. You must continue to have that burning feeling as an artist. As much as I'm collaborating with you, we're building this burning feeling, the desire to create music, to do what we love. The question is, why do we remain passionate in our craft? Because it's who we are, it's what we do, it's what we love.
So, people are always going to find ways to bring you down, and I've had a lot of that, but don't allow them to not motivate you, to go down the drain. Allow that to give you the strength and the wisdom to surround yourself with just a few people who are like-minded to you at your round table. Collaborate with those people, build relationships with people in marketing, at news outlets. And I have built that little roster, and it's okay to have that little roster because those people are part of your circle. And so, I recommend other artists do the same, and whatever works for them.
What gives you the most hope right now?
[Creating] more music for the world to heal; that's my hope. To makes sure that the medicine is music and music is medicine for us all. I hope we can heal, as the years go by, from this pandemic. That is my hope.