Listening to the music of singer/songwriter Kina Grannis is like sitting down with a friend as she strums her guitar alongside a daydream. Her music is honest and unfiltered, yet dreamy and romantic. While her no-frills, acoustic soundscape makes for easy listening, you’ll often find the lyrics sticking with you, popping up every now and then to brighten your day. But that’s not to say that all of her songs are so happy-go-lucky. Her newest album is perhaps her most vulnerable set yet, as she wanders into topics of personal loss and falling out of love.
On December 11th, I sat down with Kina Grannis before her concert at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco. Kina found her mainstream beginning thanks to a little company called Frito-Lay. In 2007, the people over at Doritos announced their “Crash the Superbowl” contest, in which one fan-voted musician would receive a record deal and airtime for an original song during the 42nd Super Bowl. Kina began her YouTube channel in the hopes of garnering enough votes to win the contest.
During the show, she told the story of her 21st century beginnings and thanked the audience for their continual support — without it, she would never have won the contest, have toured Europe and North America, or released her two albums, Stairwells and Elements.
How much of your success do you attribute to social media and the internet?
Oh, all of it. Before this all came around, I had years and years of playing open mics and busking on the street and struggling. When Youtube came around and Facebook and Twitter and all these things, artists like me had an avenue where we could go to people directly. That changed the game. I owe it all to social media.
Before that, how did you deal with wanting to be a musician and dealing with this rejection?
I think at the time it was really exciting still. If I got just one more person at a gig, it was really exciting. So even though it was daunting to think about the future and how I wouldn’t be able to feed myself if it kept going on that way… it was still exciting. I was passionate about it and it felt like I was still making progress, even if it was very, very little progress. It was all just driven by my love for it, and the fact that I couldn’t imagine not doing it.
What song would you choose to be a representation of your music to someone who isn’t familiar with you as an artist? Would it be something off of this album or the last?
I would do this album. Elements represents current me. It’s hard. I wouldn’t even go with the single necessarily because it’s super happy and peppy, but it’s the only one on the album that’s so happy and peppy. I might say “Forever Blue” because it’s kind of like a mixture of the quiet and the big and the light and the heavy.
What’s the story behind “Forever Blue?”
That song is about losing people. I’ve always struggled with the idea of people dying, and I’ve never really had to deal with it until I lost my grandfather a year ago. So it’s kind of about loss and coping with that.
Kina was always smiling onstage. There was a charming, joyous smile for the love-y, dove-y “My Dear” and “Dear River.” There was a sad, bittersweet smile for the melancholic “Winter” and “Oh Father.” For “Forever Blue,” however, as the stage grew solemn and heavy with blue light, Kina’s usually saccharine tone was replaced by a palpable vulnerability. It was perhaps one of the most genuine moments of her show, yet even in this state of vulnerability, her guitar and the band behind her never reached new heights or created new textures. It was frustrating at times when the bubbly, sparse soundscape failed to match the intense emotion onstage.
Was younger Kina outgoing or shy?
In the context of me and the world, I was very shy. I was just not good at speaking my mind. Popcorn reading made me want to die! So that sort of thing was horrifying when I was younger. But at home, for my family and my stuffed animals I would put on shows a lot. So the seed was there but no one else could know.
How did that outgoing part come out later on?
A big part of it was just playing shows. I played my first show right after I graduated from high school and I played a lot throughout college. And… they were so hard for me. I would just cry in the corner after most of them, but there was that other part of me that was like, “but I want to do that again!” Like, I had to! So it just stems from growing up and, you know you want to become comfortable in life and you want to be yourself, but it take time and college is a really great time because everyone is going through that. They’re away from home and they’re like, “okay, I get to be me now.”
Did you change a lot it college?
I was still pretty shy but I just starting playing shows more and slowing started to realize that the people at those shows were not there to judge me. So I wasn’t as afraid. If I was just me then hopefully… well maybe they still won’t like me, but that’s okay.
Imagine that you become a household name in the next 10 to 20 years, what would you want your image to be?
I mean, I’m not one to try to create something, you know? I want to be as me as possible and other people can feel like they can be as them as they want. I guess who I am in ten or fifteen years is who I’d want to be. Just like, a human, a normal person doing what they love. I guess… genuine.
At one point during the show, Kina brought out a half dozen or so volunteers from the audience to join her onstage to “help” her perform her song, “Message from Your Heart.” As these bold fans proceeded to take center stage, Kina proceeded to hug every single volunteer. After she and her chorus was done performing, she again hugged every single member as they exited.
Those early shows, were they mostly original music or covers?
Mostly original music. Although my first show ever was at the coffee shop I worked at and they gave me a two hour long set! So I basically had to learn a bunch of covers to fill the two hours.
You talked about how daunting it was for you to play those early shows. Besides a passion for music, what made you want to go back time after time?
I’ve always had this dichotomy. More than anything I just wanted to connect with a stranger and that was a something I could never do. I would walk around campus at USC and see someone sitting on a bench and think, “I want to know you! I want to know about your life!” But then I would just look at them… and so when I started playing shows, that barrier went down and someone would come up to me afterwards and be like, “that one song that you sang connected with me,” and they would tell me a story about their life and so for the first time I was like, “I’m doing it! I’m connecting with someone!” I think that was what really got me into it.
So Kina, now if you saw a stranger sitting on a bench would you go and talk to them?
(she laughs exasperatedly) Oh no! I still wouldn’t. I wish! I hope that someday I will be that brave… Like, if I were that stranger I would love for someone to talk to me, but I always think, what if they just shut me down? Just like, “please don’t talk to me,” and I would be like, “sorry!”
There is something intrinsically quaint and charming about a Kina Grannis concert, and the simplicity of her acoustic sound brought music back to its essence: words and melody. Every song was a story and every story was an element of Kina’s life and personality. Even at one point, when her voice cracked, there was no flash of worry on her face. She covered it up so well that I was left wondering if it even happened. It was easy to tell, from just looking at her face, that onstage, she is doing her favorite thing in the world.
When you are onstage, what’s going on in your mind? The notes and chords, or something else?
It’s weird. You never think about the chords. You never think about the words. I can be having completely different thoughts and be like, “oh my gosh, I’m singing.” One of my favorite things to do is just scan the crowd and find the people that make me happy. Like someone who is singing along to every word or someone who looks really happy. Those are the people who feed me throughout the show.
Besides the sound, what was the biggest change between this album and the last?
I think the sound got more personal. I really tried to talk about the things that scared me and that I would have shied away from in the past. I hit on some things that really made me vulnerable and it felt good to do that.
Is there a story behind naming your album Elements?
Well, I was thinking about the album and how it had songs like “The Fire” and “Winter” and “Dear River” and “Write it in the Sky” and I realized there were a lot of elemental themes in the songs and the word elements came to mind and it felt really right. Then I starting thinking about the songs in another way, more like, the meaning of them for me. This album boiled down, for me, to the most basic, important elements of life, like past and future, and beginnings and endings. It just felt right for me in a lot of different ways.
Has there been a song you’ve been listening to on repeat?
One that I’ve been listening to a lot, not so much because it’s catchy, it’s more just a crazy strange piece of art to me. I have been really liking Imogen Heap’s new album Sparks. There’s a song [on the album] called “The Listening Chair.” It basically writes her life up into five year segments and each section of the song she writes from the point of view of herself in that age and just what her life is. And the production starts really simple and as she grows up, gets really complex and weird. It’s this crazy thing where every time I listen to it I hear a new lyric or I hear this other piece of nuanced production.
We thanked Kina for giving us her time. And as we were about to leave, a tour organizer brought in a cheese and meat platter. An excited Kina exclaimed from behind us, “oh yay! Food!”
Photo credit: Albert Feng with help from Stephanie Hughes