In another land where the sun is brighter, waters warmer and music bred into the souls who inhabit the land, a shy singer-songwriter from the islands emerged.
“You can take the boy from the island / But not the island from the boy,” a young Justin Kawika Young sings in one of his early 2000 singles, “Never Forget Where I’m From,” during his days of Hawaiian radio play.
As Young’s laid-back island swagger often comes through the music he creates and conversations he engages in, his knack for 90s R&B and acoustic-pop shines through his more recent material.
Last September 15th, Young arrived in San Francisco with fellow musician friends Melissa Polinar and Gabe Bondoc to play a night of intimate tunes in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District at The Chapel. And if there was anything I learned from that night, it is that each individual presented their unique sound to a loyal audience of new and longtime family and friends, with Young seeming to present a rebirth in his artistry.
“This last project I really was just like–what Kurt Vonnegut called–writing for an audience of one,” Young said to me.
“Instead of trying to think about what people are going to think or who’s gonna like this or is this gonna make the radio, write for an audience of one person. And that should be yourself,” Young explained. “That’s kind of what I did with this [new] record.”
With smooth piano riffs, funky bass lines and a newly introduced 808 drum-pad machine, Young took the crowd away with his clear-as-crystal voice that evokes the simple ease and joy he feels when playing music.
But Justin’s journey started years ago. I sat down with him to talk about his life growing up on the island, surviving life as a musician in Los Angeles and touring with wife Colbie Caillat.
Justin Kawika Young: I liked your Eminem cover.
Rachel Ann Cauilan: Eminem? Oh you saw that? Oh my god. How’d you see that?!
JKY: I was like, who is this person? Let me click on her website.
RAC: Oh my god. Ha well thank you for watching that! … So as an introduction, what can you tell me about yourself?
JKY: Yeah, I’m Justin. Now I introduce projects under my middle name Kawika Young. I’m from Hawaii and I grew up doing island music. I moved to LA and I’m trying to branch out into singer-songwriter soul stuff. So I’ve been living in LA for a while. About 10 years.
RAC: How would you describe the difference between Hawaii and here?
JKY: I think because I was born and raised in Hawaii I feel like there’s an appeal to living in a bigger city. The Hawaii music industry is really incredibly supportive of local artists. There’s multiple radio stations that pretty much play mostly just Hawaiian artists, which we don’t get in any other state, so that support is really special.
I grew up carrying a ukulele around school and every party turned into a jam session. I think everyone kind of plays whether or not they’re pursuing it or anything–I wish more people did that here. But I feel like there’s a little more opportunity for trying different things and expanding musically outside of Hawaii.
RAC: Like you’re stuck on the island and want to move out into the bigger realm?
JKY: Yeah. And I think it’s good for everyone to experience living away from where they were born and raised–at least for me it was. It kind of challenges you to grow.
RAC: So I know you came out with your first album at 17. What did your childhood look like to get that kind of opportunity? Like–how did that even happen?
JKY: Haha, I just fell in love with music from the 8th grade. I took piano lessons as a kid but I hated practicing. I’d learn songs by ear instead of practicing or reading music. And then for some reason I fell in love with 90s R&B [he cites Boyz II Men, Stevie Wonder and Al Green as influences] and I would sing. I had a karaoke machine, a little cassette-tape one in my room and I’d put it in my closet so the neighbors couldn’t hear me singing. I’d be in there overdubbing vocals from two cassette tapes for hours and hours and I’d come out all sweaty and–
RAC: Oh my god. You belted your heart out in that closet!
JKY: I just loved it. So I continued to play the piano and I learned ukulele as a kid and I picked up the guitar and was writing songs for girls that I was in love with that I was too shy to talk to. Then I [told myself] this is what I’m going to do and I focused in on it. I did a talent contest in high school and [there was a] recording studio that donated time for us and the next year [they] offered me a record deal.
RAC: Oh that’s nice! And then you transitioned to more music outside of the island?
JKY: I’ve been trying to slowly reach that direction. But I was living in LA and I had a couple things where it seemed like I was close to having things happen … but for whatever reason it could never pan out. It was a little rough. I was playing four-to-five-hour acoustic gigs at bars in LA by myself, bringing my gear and setting up for hours and playing for people while they’re watching Lakers games. After a few years of that I was a little burnt out. And then I met Colbie Caillat and we became friends and she asked me to join the band.
RAC: Oh wow.
JKY: So I hadn’t really released a lot of music. I had a bunch of Hawaiian records and I released something right when I went on tour with Colbie because it was done, but I didn’t promote it … I thought I was close to getting a record deal, but then it fell through [and] that music was never released.
RAC: How long have you been working on your new material?
JKY: Pretty long. Some of the songs are from this past year and I just finished recording them and I’m happy with them. Some are maybe even over five-years-old. So I was finally like, I gotta let them out into the world and let it go!
This last project I really was just like–what Kurt Vonnegut called–writing for an audience of one. Instead of trying to think about what people are going to think or who’s gonna like this or is this going to make the radio, write for an audience of one person. And that should be yourself. That’s kind of what I did with this record.
RAC: So what does your life look like when you’re not playing music? Unless you’re always playing music, that’s cool!
JKY: Yeah, it’s not a job you just clock-in clock-out. But the job is so many things, especially when you’re an artist. You kind of figure out how to make an album cover, what can I post on social media. There’s so many different things. But I also love documentary film. I went to a documentary filmmaking school in New York last summer, so after this tour in October [with Colbie Caillat] I have a private thing in the works that I’m really excited.
RAC: Oh cool. Are you allowed to say anything about that?
JKY: It’s a documentary film. I have a friend in Hawaii that has a really interesting story. But I probably won’t say anything else.
RAC: So I know you’ve been touring with Colbie Caillat. How’s that been?
JKY: It’s been great. It’s weird because [in the beginning] they wanted someone who could sing backup really high. I grew up singing Hawaiian falsettos so I had like a falsetto voice. And there’s a song where they needed someone to play ukulele and I was able to do that and play guitar and sing backup vocals. It was the perfect gig for me. And it just happened to have all of the things in my life that fit.
I left her band for a couple years to go back and do other stuff and now she’s doing an acoustic tour for her new record, so I’m gonna back her up and her other friends are also backing her up [Justin Young and High Dive Heart, comprised of longtime collaborator Jason Reeves, will be playing on her tour this fall]. So I’ll play a set and her friends will play a set and we’ll all back her up.
RAC: So as an artist myself, what do you think is one of the most valuable things you’ve learned in this industry? From being a musician or actively living a life of surviving in this kind of industry and art?
JKY: It’s good to be versatile. Arm yourself with a lot of tools. You may not be a music lawyer but it’s good to know the basics of those things. I think the main thing I wish I knew sooner [is that] a lot of people say you’re either born with this talent or you’re not. And I really truly think that most of talent is earned.
RAC: What do you mean by that?
JKY: I sounded pretty horrible when I started singing but I just loved it so much.
[A resident’s dog comes up from behind Justin and licks him. “Awww what a treat!” Justin says.]
JKY: That saying of 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration–when you meet people that are good at what they do, it’s the simplest thing. People that are good at shit have put in time. Sometimes it’s circumstances that have given them opportunities or given them access … I think I used to assume that I wasn’t born with a good voice or I wasn’t born with the same talents as someone else, but now I really feel like if you want to be better, then you need to work harder and better. It’s empowering when you realize that.
RAC: Yeah. I’m at this point in my life where I’m really trying listen to things–because I feel like my whole life I’ve kind of played with the idea of doing this. I do have to work at it. And there’s still lots of parts in me that I do want to work on before I feel ready, but it is a journey and it is what I want to do.
JKY: Yeah. And if you love it, it’s not really hard work. That’s why a lot of people don’t get too deep. ‘Cause they don’t love it enough. I was in my closet singing and sweating and I sounded horrible. I was singing for hours and hours and hours everyday just because I loved it that much.
Justin went on to close the night with an hour-long set opening with newer material off his 3-song EPS Tomorrow From Yesterday and Million Breakers with a full live band and drum-pad machine. Songs like “Until The Morning Comes,” “Don’t Throw It Away” and “I Don’t Know” showcased his feel-good singer-songwriter vibes and swoon-worthy R&B/soul chops. (A good portion of his set was dedicated to new material written around breakups.)
He then on to play music from his earlier roots, with the mellow up-strums of his guitar, sweet vocals and nods of sunshine-inspired island music apparent through “Never Forget Where I’m From” and “Leaving On A Jet Plane.” His last song was a sweet medley of Boyz II Men songs, the group he mentions as his biggest inspiration growing up.
As I concluded the interview, Justin asked me about my own pursuits and offered his words of encouragement:
“You’re young, so be fearless, get out there and try stuff. That’ll all expedite the process and timing of whatever it is that you love and getting better at it… I think you’re gonna be alright. You’re already on the right track. Asking the question what do I wanna do, and then giving yourself permission to figure it out and do it–that’s it.”
Also, be sure to pick up his new EPs, available to purchase via iTunes:
Million Breakers EP (https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/million-breakers-single/id1146103497)
Tomorrow From Yesterday EP (https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/tomorrow-from-yesterday-single/id1154345756)
Catch him on tour opening for and playing with Colbie Caillat and friends on The Malibu Sessions Acoustic Tour, beginning Sunday, October 2nd and playing through November 2nd.