Words by David C. Obenour
Understanding yourself is a tricky proposition. We all navigate a mix of histories and emotions – happy moments and deep-seeded anxieties that we couldn’t even pinpoint their origin. To be able to know yourself is no small feat.
For her part, Venezuelan/Guatemalan-American singer-songwriter, KAINA has used the challenges faced over the last years as the space to move inward. Without the releases (and sometimes, the escapes) of shows and community and touring, the days were filled with developing who she was and who she aspires to be. This all culminates on her mature and fully developed sophomore album, It Was a Home and for as much personal growth as it showcases, it also resounds with her sense of community.
Off Shelf: You’ve described the new album as a personal evolution, coming from a newly formed sense of self. How do you feel you have evolved since your early efforts as an artist?
KAINA: I am much more confident in myself – in my personal life but also in my career. My first album Next to the Sun was much more about reckoning with all the feelings I had about being a first-generation kid, feeling displaced, lost and generally navigating being a young woman in this world – it is myself trying to find out who I am. It Was A Home stems from a place of knowing myself much more, it is more mature because I am getting older and the songs are much more current. I wrote some of the songs on Next to The Sun in high school so they are a distance away from who I am now.
The parts of this that excites me are sort of everything! It is honestly lovely getting older and more confident in myself. I love becoming stronger at my craft whether it is as a producer, writer or singer. I feel like I was able to level up in all ways with this new record which makes me so happy!
OS: Sophomore albums can be a tricky proposition – after having made your introduction – you’re now following it up in a way that people will use to think more about “your sound.” As an artist, what considerations did you have in following up Next to the Sun?
K: Ever since I started taking music seriously I wanted to be an artist that can be multifaceted and not stuck to one genre or sound. I think for me, making music is more about the intention. The intention behind my music has never changed even if the subjects or sound does. It has always been my goal to make music that someone can relate to. I want to make music that shows people that they are not alone in this journey of life and as long as that feeling stays in my music I think people will still be able to enjoy it no matter what! At least, I hope!
OS: Following that, your lead single was “Casita” – in which you sang in Spanish. I wondered if you could talk about the significance of that song and also in choosing it as the first one that people would hear from the album.
K: I chose this as the first single because it was relevant in subject matter. This track is about being far away from the people you love and not being able to see them. I write about staying up late talking with my friends and my home being full of people dancing, eating and drinking and that is not something we have obviously gotten to do in the last few years. Besides sharing it as a note to the people I love and miss, it was also like a little letter to my audience letting them know I miss them and they’re on my mind. I love how this track came out so much and I thought it would be the perfect rekindling of my relationship to my community and releasing music.
OS: The instrumentation on the album is lush and wonderful – and varied as well. I was wondering if you could talk about how you initially envision and then build your songs. Is it ever hard to know when you’re done?
K: The songwriting process varies for me but for “Apple” for example, I wanted to make something upbeat and we sort of just ran with it. My co-executive producer and partner Sen Morimoto started with drums and then I did the synth. Once we had this hypnotizing drum and synth we just kept writing and arranging.
The thing about me is that I don’t actually know how to play instruments enough to fully get my ideas out so sometimes I sing parts to Sen – the parts where I sing the words, ‘me and my angels hard at work’ are parts I sang to him to play and it was so fun to see them come to life. Because I don’t have a traditional background in music theory or even just playing an instrument I feel like I am able to sometimes come up with out of the box production ideas since I don’t have a set of fundamental tools. This coupled with Sen’s incredible production gave us what is the beautiful and chaotic world of “Apple”! Sometimes it is hard to know when we’re done but usually it’s when adding or taking away something ruins the song.
OS: Mr Rogers and Sesame Street both are referenced on the album, which feels meaningful. Can you talk about the impact that public television had on you? What do you hope to convey through the reference?
K: Public television had a major impact on me! It was recently I realized that I learned how to speak English from kids shows because Spanish was my first language.
What I love about shows like Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street is they have a way of letting you feel seen and understood. I love that kids’ shows explain complex feelings and issues in really simple ways and that metaphor was something I saw in my writing for It Was A Home, which then translated to the music videos.
It is also just one of my goals to be on Sesame Street one day so it’s really special to be able to create a little world that alludes to that for this project.
OS: You worked with some amazing players on this album, which I wanted to address each on their own, could you start by talking about how you ended up working with Sleater-Kinney? How did that collaboration go and not go as you expected?
K: I had the privilege of opening up for Sleater-Kinney in 2019 for their Center Won’t Hold album tour. When I got the ask to open I felt a little confused because I don’t really make music like them but then I learned that they have a tendency to have openers that are different from them on tour, like The Black Keys and Lizzo. Their show was one of the best shows I have ever seen in my life and I felt like in a way they showed me how music like mine could coexist in a space with theirs. I think having me as an opener at its essence was that we matched when it came to the spirit of things, like what we believe in and what we uplift in our music. Sleater-Kinney is all about breaking down barriers and I feel like they did that by bringing me on tour and I did that by asking them to feature on my track. I originally was hoping that they would only do some guitar but I was blown away and honored that Corin Tucker sent me a verse and Carrie Brownstein sent me guitars.
OS: Another amazing talent on the album is Helado Negro. Sharing proud latin heritages, what excited you about working with him?
K: Roberto’s voice is like a balm. His words and his music are so special to me and his project This is How You Smile really got me through some rough parts early on in the pandemic. When I think about him and his work it feels like I am seen. As I mentioned, my hope is that in my work I can help other people feel seen too. Working with him felt like a natural and organic thing. This track in particular reminded me of his energy so I felt honored that he agreed to contribute to it.
OS: Lastly is multi-instrumentalist and your collaborator, Sen Morimoto. How did that song evolve from his contributions?
K: Good Feeling is a track about how sometimes you just wake up and think I’m gonna have a good day or you wish on one! It was easy and natural to have Sen on a track because he works on everything I do and in his writing he has a nice subtle way of reflecting my feeling for/in the world back at me. The juxtaposition of me wishing vs him saying that we are creators of our own luck brings such a depth and balance to this track.
OS: Whether guesting on your album, or opening a show, bringing others in seems very intentional for you. What instilled that in you and how do you think it influences your approach to music?
K: I think Chicago instilled this sense of bringing others into my world, life, work and community. I grew up in youth organizations in Chicago and in retrospect I see how the older kids I looked up to became my mentors and how in a flash of a couple years I became that person for the next group of kids. There is a sense of giving back here and uplifting people as you carve out new spaces for yourself. It is really important to me to do this because someone once did it for me and it changed my life – it is a positive cycle. It doesn’t even have to do with music or even business and has everything to do with empowering people and uplifting their voices in places where that doesn’t exist. I love Chicago but it feels very easy to feel unseen or heard here – I want to make it very clear to those around me that as we reach new heights there is plenty of space and knowledge to share with others.
OS: For all this working together, much of your time as an artist has happened in the midst of lockdown and mandated isolation. How do you think these last few years have affected you as an individual and a musician?
K: The last few years have been very difficult. A lot of what makes the not as fun parts of music worth it to me has not been able to happen. I love touring, I love meeting new people and seeing my audiences. I love being around community and going to see art and shows. None of the things that fill me with inspiration and joy have been as possible. I’ve tried to make this time work for me as much as possible – I’ve had to be patient with myself especially in writing this new project. Some of this project was pulling myself out of the numbness of the last few years, part of it was giving myself time I never have, and part of it was celebrating all the clarity and growth I know about myself now. As it makes it way into the world I hope that people are able to see all of that and feel seen. I want this project to be something someone enjoys at their own pace with no pressure.