AOLANI: THAT’S WHAT I WANNA BE
illustration by stefano galli
At its deepest, romantic love is all-consuming—it’s something universal, and something powerful enough to provoke both fixation on another and contemplation of oneself. And it’s the inspiration for 20-year-old Gardena singer-songwriter Aolani—born Kalyn Aolani Oshiro-Wachi—on her new self-titled EP. Aolani is a fearlessly intimate project, the result of two years post-music-school spent defining and refining her own individual kind of R&B. From collaborating with Bane’s World’s Michael Seyer to upcoming shows with Inner Wave and Katzù Oso, she’s a natural fit among the like-minded teenaged and 20-something indie musicians sprouting from L.A.’s ever-fertile suburbs. Now with her EP debut, a new live band ready to perform, and her first-ever out-of-town shows on the calendar, Aolani’s more assured than ever in her ambitions. On a cloudless South Bay afternoon, she details her forthcoming release, indulges in childhood pop memories, and ponders how femininity and culture have shaped her complete creative identity. She performs at the Echo on Sat., Oct. 20. (She’ll also perform at Tropicalia next month in Long Beach.) This interview by Sydney Sweeney.
It seems like the visuals are as important to you as the music. The artwork you’ve released to promote your EP is very feminine.
Aolani: I feel like my whole album is very personal, and in those visuals, I’m wearing lingerie, for instance. I wanted it to feel very intimate and open and soft and feminine. I feel like that matches my music. Another random thing about those visuals that no one would probably notice is that I’m alone in them. A lot of my music is centered on being lonely and using love to fill that. And because I’m human, I’m insecure. I feel like on Instagram I probably always seem like super confident—I’m always posting selfies and pics with my butt out, like literally walking around a show with assless chaps on—but I feel insecure on a daily basis and I do struggle with relationships. I have a tendency to focus all my time on love interests, and that’s something I’ve done for as long as I can remember. It connects to my album because all the songs are about love—all of them. They’re about like boys, etc., etc. I just seem to drop everything when it comes to love interests. But right now, I’ve been in a relationship for a while and [my boyfriend and I] are past that stage where we’re attached at the hip. It’s a nice feeling. I feel like I’m at a place in my life where I feel secure within myself and I have my own things going on and I love feeling that.
Do you think you’ve curated an alter-ego as Aolani to portray a part of you that contrasts your everyday self?
Aolani: Of course. I think with social media, that happens naturally. On Instagram, I’m trying to put my best foot forward, and as a woman, that has a lot to do with presenting myself a certain way and looking a certain way. I can basically use my sexuality, and I consciously choose when I do that on my Instagram. It’s not like getting howled at on the street. It’s in my control—it’s my decision. If someone DMs me something gross, I block them or rip them apart. Sexuality is a really powerful tool for women. And outside of Instagram, I’m just really comfortable with my body. I guess people would say I dress risqué, but that’s just how I feel comfortable. I’ve always been like that. I love clothes and I love to look good! I love to walk into a place and have everyone look at me—not gonna lie.
The Aolani EP is going to be your debut. How are you feeling?
Aolani: I’m really nervous. When I dropped the lead single, ‘Medicate for You,’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m scared.’ As for the whole EP, I’m afraid that people are going to enjoy the singles and think the rest sucks. I worked on it for two years now, so I’m just putting it out there and they can like it or not—I just had fun doing it. I need to get it off my computer. I need to be like, over it, so I can work on the next thing. It’s eight tracks, which is nice and meaty. I’m hoping people will be surprised when they find out it’s that long.
Michael Seyer produced ‘Medicate for You.’ Have you worked on music together before?
Aolani: We’ve done old covers together before, but he produced the lead single and couldn’t think of anything to do with it himself, so he just gave it to me and was like, ‘Do good with it.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ll try.’
The track sounds personal.
Aolani: Well, yeah. Basically, I’ve been diagnosed with OCD since I was a kid, and I’ve been dealing with that my whole life. When I was a kid, it was more physical—like washing your hands all the time and things like that. But as I got older it got in my head. I tend to obsess on certain ideas and get stuck on specific things, so I wrote the song as an apology because I know [the disorder] makes my relationships significantly harder. I feel like I’m always having to deal with obsession. And you have to do compulsions, so it’s something I have to do. Like, if I crack my fingers every however many minutes, things like that. Now, it affects my romantic relationships and social interactions and makes those relationships difficult.
What about the next single ‘Call Me Up’?
Aolani: I wrote it when I was in a friends-with-benefits relationship so it’s about that. I also touch on how I’m not ready for a relationship in that song—at the time I wasn’t. Usually I write songs during an experience; it’s like a coping mechanism so I don’t have to burden or stress the other person [with the issue]. I can just write about it and be done. But I really love that song. I think it’s my favorite off the EP. I think anyone who’s been in a friends-with-benefits-type relationship relates to it because it’s great, but it kind of sucks. It talks about how even though the relationship could be meaningless, there’s always a connection of intimacy—it sounds easy but it never is.
Most of your music focuses on romantic relationships.
Aolani: Definitely. Ever since I was a kid, I was really into poetry and I wanted to be a writer and a singer—but I really loved writing. And I was always boy crazy, since I was in elementary school. Then, once I started dating and liking boys—when I started writing music in high school and stuff—it was always centered around love. I think that’s a good thing because I’m not writing love songs … they’re more about my own insecurities and how I move through dealing with those issues in relationships.
Did you study music in high school?
Aolani: Yeah—I went to a performing arts school, but I definitely wasn’t the best student. I was in the classical voice conservatory at the Orange County School of the Arts. I enjoyed it, but I was a horrible student. I’ve never been good with school. I barely graduated—I didn’t get to walk, but I did graduate! All my teachers hated me and I never had my music memorized.
Did you want to go to music school?
Aolani: I mean, I did. Well, my mom wanted me to. I was doing traditional Hawaiian music from elementary school and throughout high school I did it too, and it was this thing called Hawaiian falsetto, where you sing really high and it sounds kind of operatic with lot of vibrato. So she was like, ‘You should try out for the opera conservatory,’ and I was like, ‘OK.’ And I got in, so I was like, ‘Great, I guess I’ll go!’ But it was great. Music school definitely got me started in producing and I met a lot of friends who produced as well. If I didn’t go to OCSA I don’t think I’d be making music. Once I started recording I had just gotten out of high school, and because I had gone to high school in Orange County, I didn’t have any friends in Gardena. But I met all of these people in the area who I didn’t even know were there. They were all musicians and I got introduced to writing and the show scene and just being surrounded by show culture. I had never really gone out while I was in high school. So I started going to shows—I started going out. I kinda went wild for a minute. I was just having all these new experiences like meeting new people and talking to guys, and all of that inspired me. I think I started having a social life! Then other musicians really inspired me, like Clairo. ‘Get With U,’ specifically, because I really love that song. And Raveena, I’m obsessed with her. She’s my idol. I’ve shown her to so many people. Joyce Wrice too. I’ve loved her since high school. 90s and 2000s R&B is another big influence for me because my mom showed me all that music when [my sister and I] were young. We would always listen to TLC, Ashanti, Mariah Carey. That’s what made me want to be a singer since I was a kid. At one point my grandma actually sat me down and was like, ‘You’re not good enough to be a singer,’ and was like, ‘Give up.’
Oh my God—how old were you?
Aolani: I was young. Like really young because I wanted to be a singer for as long as I could remember. And I used to watch MTV music videos every morning with my grandpa, and I was like, ‘That’s what I wanna be!’ And then my grandma was like, ‘You’re not good enough,’ and my heart was broken.
How did you parents react? I know your mom wanted you to go to music school.
Aolani: I was probably like … seven when this happened. She was like, ‘Oh my God, do whatever you want.’ My mom just wanted us to do whatever we wanted and have jobs that we loved. So I gave up singing until like the 4th grade. I did like everything under the sun from then—ice skating, gymnastics, soccer.
And nothing compared?
Aolani: Yeah! I couldn’t—I sucked! Then I went back to music, and then I started singing and eventually I got better and then my grandma started supporting me. I was in the 6th grade when I started performing Hawaiian music. I played ukulele, and my teacher heard me sing and then he started putting me in shows. So I got a lot of great opportunities through Hawaiian music, and I got to sing with big names in Hawaiian music, but it just wasn’t satisfying playing those gigs. I remember I would go and just wing it because I just didn’t care. I went through it for my parents. I told them, ‘I don’t want to make this kind of music, I wanna make R&B’ and then my dad was like really angry about it. He’s still salty. He’ll bring it up to this day if we fight, and he’ll sprinkle it on in there. I’m just like, ‘Get over it! How are you still on that?’ But my mom has always been OK about it. Now that I’m starting to play better shows they’re a lot more understanding, and now my dad’s like, ‘OK, keep doing music.’
As a person of color, do you feel like there’s an obligation to incorporate your cultural roots into your music still?
Aolani: Honestly, not really. I don’t. I think it comes out in there without me knowing because I don’t actively put forth I’m like Japanese or Hawaiian, or Chinese or Vietnamese, and I also don’t actively talk about issues like being a woman of color and being a musician. I think part of that is just because I want to make a name of myself as an artist first and foremost. The most important thing to me is that I’m represented as a musician. I don’t know. I think it sprinkles its way in though, for sure. Just because it’s part of who I am and what I go through.
Aolani: I think you can hear [my cultural roots] in my voice because I don’t have the typical R&B voice, and that was something I definitely struggled with. For a while, I resented my voice so much because I was like, ‘I don’t have what it takes to make the music I want.’ And I don’t know if you’re familiar with city pop—it’s a Japanese genre and it’s very jazzy music—but I feel like I have a very Japanese voice, very soft and straight-toned, kind of. But with a lot of hard work … I just practiced for years. When I was recording the EP I was shut away in my room just singing constantly and I got better, and I was able to work with my voice to make it fit my music. Now I love my voice.
What are you most excited about that’s coming up?
Aolani: I’m excited just to go to San Francisco. I was telling Miguel [Michael Seyer] and he was like, ‘It’s just San Francisco,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t care! Why do you have to ruin this for me! I get to travel!’ I’ve never gone away for a show before. The farthest would be like … I don’t know, L.A. or Santa Ana. And of course I’m excited for Tropicalia.
How did you react when you found out you were booked for that?
Aolani: I was really nervous. When I was waiting to hear back from Goldenvoice, I was super-anxious for days, just waiting by my phone. And then they asked me to play the festival and I was like, ‘What the heck!’ At the time, I had an even smaller following than I have now, and I was like, ‘What do they see in me, is this real?’ I’m pumped to have my all friends there—I feel like it’s gonna be a big party. I’m hoping I won’t be too nervous. My nerves have been good lately.
Between your EP coming out, your release party at The Echo, your show in SF and Tropicalia, you have a lot going on right now—how are you preparing?
Aolani: Just practicing with my band, really. This is my first time with a live band. I’m really excited to make the switch and it sounds so great, because before it was just me and my boyfriend’s brother DJ’ing for me, but I thought transitioning to a live band would up the whole performance. It’s easier to be into it when I have a whole group of people who are also into it. It’s coming together really well and sounds like how I imaged it in my head. They’re all jazz guys, which really fits my music. I feel like I really need a tender touch.
I can’t imagine your band consisting of a bunch of hardcore guys.
Aolani: I’ve dealt with that before! I had one drummer who used to be in a full-on heavy metal band. He went a little crazy, but now the band is perfect. I’m so excited. I’m excited because before I was releasing singles and the project really didn’t get much traction, but with this new EP I’m trying to be really smart about when I’m advertising for things and when I’m posting on Instagram. I’m trying to be smart about it—or I ask my friends who are under management, ‘When should I post?’ and stuff. I want music to be my livelihood. Unfortunately, it’s not right now. I’ve been working two jobs for like, the longest time. But I feel like my hard work is finally starting to pay off.
SPACELAND AND PRETTY BUT WICKED PRESENT AOLANI WITH SOPHIE MEIERS AND BOX DREAMS ON SAT., OCT. 20, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD, LOS ANGELES, CA 90026. 6 PM / $8 PRESALE / $10 DOOR / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! AOLANI’S SELF-TITLED EP IS OUT NOW. VISIT AOLANI AT SOUNDCLOUD.COM/KALYNAOLANI.