The sun was out and air cool over UC Irvine’s Aldrich Park last Friday afternoon. As classes were ending and staff dwindled in and out of the park to set up, students and guests patiently lined up to receive wristbands and get early access into UCI’s first annual Summerlands Festival. After having just grubbed at the campus pub with other headlining act Milo Greene, I went back to catch Kina Grannis after her soundcheck around 4pm, in which I was so thoroughly pleased and gracious for her company!
With almost 1 million subscribers on YouTube and 145 million views, Kina has become one of the most familiar faces on the Internet. With a long, illustrious career spanning from one massive Superbowl commercial airing in 2008, she has become a YouTube Internet sensation as well as traveling musician.
Upon meeting her, the first thing I told her was, “This is gonna be really informal, so…” With a laugh, she firmly replied, “Okay that’s cool.”
Me: So your album came out a few weeks ago. What kind of responses have you been getting from it?
Kina: It’s been a really good response. I feel like I was a little nervous coming into it because the music has evolved so much since Stairwells. But, for the most part, my fans have been even more on board with it than expected. They say it’s still you but it’s more you and it shows. People have been really excited about it and I’ve been obsessed with reading the comments online and I’ve been like, ‘Yaaaay! They like it!’
Me: So you toured how many cities after that?
Kina: I think about ten? Not too many yet.
Me: Okay, so how has that been?
Kina: It’s been good! It’s always a little weird readjusting into tour life.
Me: When’s the last time you toured?
Kina: Last time I really toured was around two years ago. So I’ve had little shows like college shows but not full-on touring in a while. The first couple shows were like, I don’t remember what I’m doing! And four shows in I’m like, okay, I’m getting the hang of it now.
As the current band on stage started to play louder, we decide to move further off backstage towards the corner. She lays her jacket down and we readjust ourselves on the grass (impromptu picnic-in-the-park?). I tell her, “Alright! Sorry…” in which she laughs and says, “No I’m sorry!” My first rule to self is to not be afraid to point out any discomfort because it makes things less awkward and–hopefully–your awkwardness will rub off on them too!
Me: So what are some of your favorite things about performing live?
Kina: For me it’s just the energy of being in a room full of actual people and feeding off of that, watching them actually react to the songs and stuff like that.
Me: What’s your favorite part about being on the road? Like, do you have any weird tour stories, or, fan encounters, or?
Me: I think people–sometimes they get a little starstruck or something!
Kina: [Laughs] Or sometimes people just want to make an impression, so they do something very odd.
Me: What are some of the things you’ve gotten?
Kina: Someone has given me an invisible pet rabbit before, at the meet-and-greet.
Me: That’s cuuute!
Kina: Yeah. I still have it somewhere.
Me: Haha, it follows you around.
Kina: Yeah. [Laughs] I get a lot of fake proposals, which are always a little awkward.
Me: How do you respond to those?
Kina: You’re just like… ‘Ahahah. Okay, you can get off the floor now.’ But also it’s just fun getting to see different places, and eat food.
When it comes to meet-and-greets, Kina is one of the few individuals I know who stays until the very last fan until she leaves. After Friday night’s performance, she mentions she could have stayed even longer, but that the staff had shut down the line for the festival’s eight-o’clock closure.
Me: Since it was 4 years since your last album, what kind of sound were you trying to go for in this? And what were you influenced by in making it?
Kina: Probably some of my favorite artists would be Bon Iver and Imogen Heap and Sigur Ros. And they’re all vastly different from me, but I did listen to a lot of them in the years leading up to this album.
I then go on to readjust my voice-recorder on top of my bag sitting between us, and she helps herself move it closer to her. Speaking into the mic, she continues:
Kina: Whereas Stairwells was very much a stripped down acoustic album, what I wanted for Elements was to create more of a soundscape, more atmospheric and then also a little more rhythmic and driving too.
[Peruse my album review of Elements, published in the New University, here.]
Me: What drew you to performing [at UCI]? Did you get a request or–?
Kina: I got an e-mail one day, from my manager, asking do you wanna take this show and it was perfectly right between getting back from one tour and leaving for the next. And for me, I grew up in Orange County so, this is like a hometown show for me. I live in L.A., so I think it’s fun for me to do things close to home because it just feels special. So it was a pretty easy ‘Yes!’ for me.
Me: Have you played for a college crowd before? What do you hope to expect or like–get from this performance? Just have fun–?
Kina: Yeah! I think I just want to have fun, and hopefully say hi to some people afterwards and hang out a little bit. [laughs]
Me: I know–I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz that people are very excited to meet you.
Me: Especially since UCI is such like a big Asian-American community. I know you’re big within that community, so…
Kina: Yeah, totally.
Me: So–watch out, you might get some more weird fan encounters!
Me: As college students with all these different kinds of dreams that we probably have, how and when did you realize that you wanted to do music?
Kina: It’s something that I was slowly realizing my whole life starting around 2nd-grade. But, I’ve always loved singing and I was always drawn to music, so, from throughout elementary school I played violin and I played piano and I sang a lot and then… It wasn’t until high school that it really hit me that–I need to sing. But I was really shy, so I would just sing in my room alone [laughs]… But then I started teaching myself guitar as kind of an excuse to sing more. And then within a month of picking up the guitar I wrote my first song and–I wasn’t ever really planning on it, but–it just happened. And it felt really natural, and was the first time in my life I was able to express myself because I was so shy. So I was like, oh!
Kina: Yeah. That’s exactly what it was. So at first it was kind of a therapeutic thing where–I need this! And then I played my first show right after I graduated high school.
For a 2-hour long coffee shop show, she mentions she had played every song she had written and known and adds:
Kina: [Laughing] It was so awkward though because I didn’t know what to do between songs! But, despite the awkwardness, it triggered something in me and I was like I need to do more of this. And that was kind of all of college, was me just writing and playing a lot and really experimenting with that stuff.
Kina: It was good, I mean I thought that I was gonna go into music school, so I was undeclared at first and I–
Me: Oh so you were kind of like, discouraged in a way, when you got there or?
Kina: No. I took a music theory class and I took a music industry class. And what I took from music theory class was, I don’t wanna learn about music, I want it to be magical and I just want to play it. [Laughs] So I was like never again.
Adding that I have realized that at UCI as well, with music classes being very technical for composing, she continues:
Kina: Yeah, it’s like math. So that I was not a fan of. And music industry stuff was just really depressing, you know. It’s not art, it’s a product and it’s a business and everyone in it was so cutthroat and wanted to be either a superstar or manager to the stars. And I was like, I don’t want to be around that. I’ll learn it when I get there, but in the meantime, I will write and sing all the time–
Me: Do it the very organic way.
Kina: Right. And so, Psychology and Social Sciences I feel, were still relevant to me, because it’s just a lot about life and–
Me: Yeah, you study yourself in a way.
Kina: Right. So that’s why.
As someone who has long been in love with music–facing young naive dreams that scare even myself to death yet loves the way the guitar is something that resonates something deeper within–I wanted to, perhaps, gain her words of confidence and reassurance.
Me: So this is kind of like a weird question. Feel free to interpret it any way you want, but, what is your personal philosophy on music, and like, why do you do what you do?
Kina takes a moment and replies: I think that music is very… Powerful and important to humans. For me it made me alive, you know. I’ve lived off of music my whole life and it’s just very clear to me that that’s what I need to be doing to feel alive. And then through doing that I’ve realized how I can connect and help other people. And I think that that’s the thing that keeps me going, because I would still always write and play in my room for myself, but, getting emails from people on the other side of the world hearing that a song helped them. It’s like, oh. Music is…
Me: Something more.
Kina: … It’s craaazy and something more. And so, I really like that it just connects you with other humans, you know.
Me: So do you have any favorite songs on your album, that particularly–I mean it’s hard to choose, I’m sure, ’cause you love all of them–
Kina: Yeah. It’s so hard. They’re like all my children.
Me: They’re all your babies!
Kina: [Laughing] Yeah. I can never actually choose just one, ’cause they are… They are my babies and I’d be a bad mom if I had to do it.
Me: I noticed that you’ve collaborated with a lot of different like, online artists… What draws you to doing that? And do you have fun doing that?
Kina: It’s really fun.
Kina’s phone starts to ring. “Uh-oh. Hmm, I’ll give this to someone else instead… Hold on one sec.” I tell her that’s totally okay. “I have to make one quick call. I’ll start talking until this person answers,” she says.
Kina: Collaborating with people is just really fun. And I think especially within the YouTube community, even before we’ve met, we all feel like a family. So when we finally meet someone you’ve known, we’re both like, ‘Finally!’ and so excited to see each other.
Me: How did you come across Dia? [Dia Frampton of Meg & Dia; I’ve grown up listening to her music since I was 12 and have then gone to become very close with those individuals!]
Kina: Dia! … How did that happen? Dia was a random one. Dia was…
Me: ’cause she never does YouTube stuff.
Kina: Yeah. Myspace Tom… Do you remember him? He became friends with me, and he knew Dia. And one day he said you and Dia should know each other. And I said, ‘Okay!’ [Laughing] And so we went out to coffee and were like, ‘Hello!’
Me: [Laughs] How was that? Was it awkward?
Kina: It was good! It was fine because we’ve both known of each other and we have a lot in common. So, it was fine. But it was a pretty funny way to be set-up, you know.
Kina looks up with her phone. I tell her, “You wanna find your…” signaling to someone else. She nods and calls, “Hey Jesse!” quickly getting up and returning.
After mentioning that she had met her husband Jesse Epstein 12-years ago in high school, who also plays with her band and opens up for her as Imaginary Future on tour, I ask:
Me: How does it feel to have someone, or be in a relationship with someone who knows what you’re doing and going through the whole process? How is that?
Kina: It’s really nice, I think about that a lot. It’s such a crazy… world that I’m in? And having someone who just understands it and has known everything since the beginning is really good for just keeping you sane, you know.
Me: That’s nice. So, when you’re not doing music, what does your life look like? What do you do?
Kina: When I’m not doing music… When was the last time I wasn’t doing music. [Laughs]
Me: Unless you always do music, that’s okay!
Kina: I mean I always do music but… When I was making the album for the past year, I had a home for a while which I hadn’t had in some time, so I kind of got into a routine and stuff. Which includes things like hiking, or running. I really like cooking–I mean I hardly ever do it–but I like eating, a lot. [Laughs] But, pretty much my life is pretty simple.
Counting on her fingers, she says:
Kina: It’s music, food, exercise, and friends…
Me: That’s all you need in life!
Kina: …And that’s it. [Laughs] Yeah.
Me: So do you have any pre-show rituals that you do or?
Kina: I never really have until I started playing with a band. And we have recently begun freestyle rapping before shows.
Me: Oh okay!
Kina: Which we are all horrible at, [laughing] so it’s very entertaining.
Me: That’s cool. Maybe that could go in like your next song or something.
Kina: Ha yeah! Throw in a verse.
With the show having fallen just right after her slate of U.S. performances, I ask what her what some of her upcoming plans are:
Kina: On Wednesday I leave for France and I’m touring all of Europe.
Me: Wow. Have you ever been there?
Kina: Yeah. Europe has been really fun. We did a couple tours there on the last album and, it’s just really fun. It’s really amazing to have those chances and see all these cities. This is the first time back in a while so it’ll be good to see everyone… eat some baguettes. [laughs]
Me: Yes! The best.
Reaching the end of the interview, I bring up a question from a friend:
Me: Are you still involved with anything regarding your street team? And are there any plans for a KinaCon?
Kina: Yes! There is a KinaCon happening this summer. So, KinaCon is something that started six years ago by a little group of my street team, because it was around the release for Stairwells. And we’ve had an annual KinaCon ever since, where Kinerds from all over the world kind of congregate in Southern California.
Me: How is that?
Kina: It’s awesome. They do a bunch of stuff leading up to it, but I’ll usually come and stop by, like they have a bonfire on Friday…
Me: Oh that’s cute.
Kina: …and on Saturday they have a banquet, where it’s dinner and performances and speeches, which is the best part.
Me: So it all surrounds around you though?
Kina: I know. It’s crazy.
Me: How do you feel about that?!
Kina: It’s so surreal, but it’s really cool because this core group, most of them I’ve known for six years and have been there through everything, so I feel like I really know them and am very comfortable with a lot of them. But it is very strange. Like what–what is this?!
Understanding a lot within the trials of her being a musician and ourselves having gotten comfortable within the conversation, I then go on to ask:
Me: So what are you excited about right now? What do you look forward to at this point in your life? ‘Cause you’ve lived a lot and you’ve gone through a lot, what can you hope for at this time?
Kina: Musically obviously it’s a very exciting time because I’m still in the very beginning of sharing this album with the world, you know. So there’s a whole lot ahead of me there. And then I feel I’ve also just reached a place in my life where I’m finally starting to get it, you know. I’ve lived most of my life just worrying and being really shy and worrying about what people thought about me. And then at one point I reached a time where I’m like, oh. I can just be myself and that’s way more fun than worrying about what people want me to be, you know.
Me: Yeah… That’s nice.
Me: So any last comments?
Kina: I feel like you were pretty thorough. You’re pretty good. [Laughs]
Me: Oh thanks.
Kina: Yeah! This was much better than our tent.
Having had a good deal of awkward moments, Kina went on to ask me, “So are you actively pursuing music?”
Sighing, I wasn’t quite prepared for this and just told her that–like she said–it is scary. A lot of my own young life was lived in denial of saying I wanted to pursue music, simply because it’s something that I had so much more room to grow in, grow confidence in, and believe that I could make something of a life out of.
As I went on throughout the rest of the day, I bumped into Kina here-and-there backstage. I caught her hanging behind the generator, walking to-and-fro.
But, perhaps what was most touching was the moment her band was setting up on-stage and she patiently stood mentally preparing herself–or warming up.
With her in-ear monitor hooked, she paced back and forth behind the stage and, at one moment, smiled and waved out to me. I smiled back and gave her a thumbs up as she was just about to go on.
As they introduced the next act, the beginning of “Dear River” started to play. Kina was still behind the stage, peeking out onto the stage. And, at a moment’s notice, something clicked and Kina turned around with a huge smile on her face and ran directly up the stairs. As the audience wooed and cheered at the sight of her appearance, she picked up her guitar and began to rhythmically strum the chords for “Dear River,” in which she would then go on into her song.
It was as if something turned on in her, as she gracefully and blissfully-as-ever performed each of her songs with the brightest smile I’ve ever seen.
She was really professional. But also very personable. And a real person.
Me: So what are you gonna do now until the show?
Kina: Umm, probably try to make my hair look less crazy, do some make-up… Write a setlist.
I had seen a real individual get up on that stage. As thousands of guests lined up directly after her set to meet-and-greet with her, the sun began to set as she met every fan until they began to shut it down by 8pm.
When asked about the show, she went on to say, “I’m just so, so happy to have been brought out today. I played UCI once like seven years ago and, it was like a 20-person show. It was before YouTube [and] my friend’s club had a thing and I played. So it’s cool to be back and play a real show here.”
As someone who naturally does her job, performs well and does all the necessary actions but enjoys it all the same–it was a treat to draw all of the lines together; but also take something from her for myself, as well.
A part of my love for writing and chatting with musicians is finding a piece of myself to identify with; and the best part is in seeing the real individuals that lie underneath. This was probably some of the most fun I’ve had in a long time.
I had then run into two of her friends since high school and I ask them, “So how you do feel about her having gotten so big?”
“She’s still the same person,” they reply. “She hasn’t changed a bit.”
Thank you to YouTuber wumangorocks for this video compilation.