Aloha kākou nā hoaloha! Welcome to my ongoing blog-series “Anatomy of a Mele”. Each month I will feature a different Hawaiian Artist/Producer pairing and go behind the scenes to closely examine one song off of one of their albums, giving the reader a tiny glimpse into the sometimes magical, sometimes arduous creative recording process. The ultimate goal is to give YOU, the fans and music lovers a little insight into what it’s like to be in the studio. Hopefully it will inspire, educate and encourage the next generation of music makers!
This month I am very excited to feature my cousin, renowned Kumu Hula and musician Kāwika Alfiche (Hālau o Keikiali’i) and Engineer Forrest Lawrence who has worked with everyone from Norteno heavyweights Los Tigres Del Norte, to rock icon Chris Martin of the band Coldplay.
The mele: “Hoʻi Hou Mai” from Kāwika’s 2011 sophomore release “Kaleʻa”.
Purchase Kāwika’s Complete CD “Kale’a”:
Steven Espaniola: “Ho’i Hou Mai” is a very beautiful mele. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the song?
Kāwika Alfiche: First off, Mahalo! A couple of things were happening about the same time this song came about. We were on a cultural exchange in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and we were so lucky to be able to stay on the Marae at the University in Auckland. We spent our first night in a very familiar Hawaiian way, over beers and music. Wow can they Kanikapila. until sunrise! Freshly back from this trip, I had a kanikapila with a friend of mine and we exchanged songs and one Maori song in particular had a similar vibe to Hoʻi Hou Mai and out it came. The theme of the song like most. Love. I wrote Hoʻi Hou Mai as a gift to my Ipo on our 15th year anniversary.
Would you be willing to share any kaona (hidden meaning)?
Sure thing! The purpose of this song was also to celebrate love that has withstood the test of time. I’m always fascinated meeting people who’ve been together for a long time. And certainly always interested in finding out what the secret is. I wrote the line, “E pili kāua me ka mahina” (Let us be in company with the moon), my promise that we will always be together in company with the moon or my nights are to be with you, always.
Is there a hula that accompanies the song?
Oh Yes, I think every song I’ve written comes with a hula especially this one. All of my songs are written with hula in mind and meant to be choreographed. The interesting part about the hula to this mele. It was choreographed by the person whom I wrote it for! I think if you search Hoʻi Hou Mai on youtube.com, you can see the dance.
The vocal melody really sticks in your head at first listen and the instrumentation is very sparse. Was that intentional to bring focus to the vocal melody?
Yes definitely, for Hoʻi Hou Mai I didn’t want anything to take away from the vocal melody. I tried adding some other melody picking with guitar and ʻukulele and it seemed to take away and fight with the melody so I kept it clean and simple.
Describe your songwriting process.
You know, the process for me happens differently depending on the inspiration. Sadly, when someone passes away, the process seems to happen effortlessly. In my latest CD, Kaleʻa, two of the mele were composed for my Kumu, Rae Kahikilaulani Fonseca. They are track 1 Mele Aloha and track 14 No Kalopa. Both of them were written in minutes. So far every song I’ve written has been text first, then the melody. For me, the mana`o of the song makes the melody. This past year I’ve been experimenting with song writing in English, wow, a completely different process. We’ll see how that goes.
Is there a particular instrument that you normally use to compose with?
I think when I first started composing I was using my 8-string Kamaka which was a gift from my hālau. These past couple of years songs have come from my 12-string Seagull. Although I’ve only been playing guitar a few years I love love love my guitar and I feel sad when I’m away from her to long…is that normal???
Is there a particular method you prefer to record?
Definitely. I lay down ʻukulele tracks first, like in most Hawaiian music, ʻukulele starts it off and then everything else comes in after. After ʻukulele, I usually lay down the melody vocal tracks. After that the other instruments and the other vocal tracks.
What were some of the challenges recording this particular song?
I think going into the studio and tracking out the songs was difficult. We were so used to singing live. It took a few tries to get the same emotion out as if we were singing side by side.
Love the call and answer of the female vocal line. Who is singing that part?
My good friend Lehua Yim. She’s an English Lit. Professor at SF State Univ., a great guitar player and vocalist. Together we have great synergy and we play all kinds of music. We love playing Journey songs! We’ve spent a lot of time the past couple of years playing all of the San Francisco scene and beyond. She has a great ear for harmony and music!
Were any studio musicians or guest artists used on this recording?
My band consists of friends and students. As for this song, on guitar and vocals with me is Lehua Yim and on upright bass is my haumana, Kale Ancheta and I’m on ʻukulele and vocals. It’s laid out very simply. 2 vocal tracks, 3 instrument tracks (ʻukulele, guitar and bass).
Any anecdotal moments or bloopers you wish to share?
It’s funny cause my first cd, Nalei, I added a bonus track with bloopers. We decided to leave it out this time but man, I’m sure we had a handful. I asked Forrest (sound engineer) to keep them on standby. I think we’re going to add em to our website sometime soon, depending how embarrassing they are. I do remember the mic was so hot I think Forrest could hear every time I was hungry, which is pretty much always ;-(
Any lucky charms or superstitions when in the studio?
I have a little furry troll with rainbow hair, a lucky penny from the year I was born and I walk around the microphone 3 times before I record. I’m totally kidding I don’t have any…Now I’m thinking maybe I should. Do you?
[Steven’s reply: “haha…no, I don’t”]
Who is your biggest role model or influence music wise?
Wow, tough question. There’s definitely more than one and it changes but the one person I’m really thinking about right now is one of my Mentors/Kumus Aunty Harriet Keahilihau-Spalding. She loved to sing and entertain. She had so much life and energy when she did and captivated any audience. and I mean any audience. I remember she came to my housewarming party, my first home, everybody was there to have fun and go crazy (New Years Eve). Aunty Hariett had everybody singing and dancing hula at one point and all I could think was, amazing.
Who is your biggest role model or influence in hula?
Definitely my Kumu, the late Rae Kahikilaulani Fonseca. I am a formal ʻuniki of Kumu Rae. As they say Hula is life and he was my father/teacher/brother/friend/psychiatrist. He was and still is my world. I miss him dearly and think of him every day. I carry on his work in every way possible and try to be the best Kumu I can be.
Do you find it difficult to “self produce” in the studio?
Well, I don’t know any different. My first cd we did at our Cultural Center (Kaululehua Hawaiian Cultural Center www.apop.net) without any clue in how the process works. Although I am not at all opposed to working with a producer, I actually work well on my own. And, I just haven’t had the opportunity to work with one.
Any words of wisdom you would like to give to aspiring singers?
In the words of Hiʻiakaikapoliopele, “Mai paʻa i ka leo” - Don’t withhold/obstruct your voice. My take on this is: Sing from your guts, sing from your heart, this is what truly turns your voice and song into prayer. Something I try to live by.
Tell us a “betcha didn’t know” tidbit about yourself.
I owned a café for 10 years so I was a Barista for a decade and I bartend every so often at my friends restaurant downtown for a change of pace. It’s good fun and truly humbling. You meet all kinds of people bar-tending downtown.
Bonus Question by contest winner Aunty Wanda Certo:
What do you think is the best way to carry traditional style Hawaiian music into the future?
I have 2 answers to this question. 1: Be mindful of the past. I like to try to play the music that the kupuna nod their head to. 2: Be mindful of the future. The challenge is how to get young people to enjoy traditional Hawaiian music. I try to make it interesting in story-telling. I try to find something that refers to them so they can feel a part of the mele. Great question Aunty Wanda!
Check out some behind the scenes video from the session:
Steven Espaniola: What studio was the song recorded at?
Forrest Lawrence: The Annex Recording Studios located in the Bay Area of Northern California.
What type of equipment did you use to record?
The album was recorded in Studio A on a Neve V3 analog mixing console. We tracked to Protools instead of reel to reel tape so as to take advantage of the editing capabilities and the overall flexibility of the medium.
Are there any special microphones that were used? Do you prefer any in particular for vocals vs instruments?
Kāwika’s vocals were recorded using a vintage Neumann U87 from the 60’s. (It says made in west germany on it, so you know it is old!) All instruments were recorded using similar vintage Neumann mics, (ukulele KM84, guitar TLM 193, bass U47) this was done to maintain the organic qualities of the music and to avoid things sounding too sterile and digital.
What was the tracking order for “Ho’i Hou Mai”?
The order that the songs were recorded was pretty random. We would record whatever song Kāwika felt like doing that day, then at the end of the day, I would put all the best takes from that day on a CD for him to take home and review. Then the next day we would either record new songs, or sometimes try ones we had already done again to see if we could capture a better performance. Some were done in one take, some took many takes. Trying to find the right feel can be tricky in the studio since it is a foreign environment than what some performers are used to, so sometimes it takes a little while to get the right vibe going, then it is just a matter of me being ready to capture the magic.
Were there any obstacles along the way?
We had a lot of trouble with the bass if I remember. The group played live together, but they were in separate rooms to isolate their sounds, so they could see each other through the glass, and they could hear each other via the headphones. The upright bass that was used was pretty noisy. It made a lot of weird creaking wooden noises when certain notes were played, so thankfully, since we had the bass isolated, I was able to go in and edit out those noises. That is the trouble with using real physical instruments sometimes as opposed to synthetic instruments is that they are prone to sounding, well, natural, and that character is sometimes what makes them special, and sometimes, it creates unintended noises that would distract the listener.
Any superstitions or lucky charms in the studio?
Not really, Kāwika might have sometimes went through little rituals or meditations to get his head in the right place before recording, but I wasn’t really aware of this as I was usually fiddling with knobs and headphones.
Any advice or words of wisdom you’d like to give to aspiring Engineers who want to break into the business?
Do it for the right reasons, which hopefully, is love. Music, and sound in general, is a beautiful and powerful thing. So if you want to work on making audio art, do it, but try and not get caught up in the business side too much, because that can be very distracting. The hours can be long, the pay can be very little, but the rewards of helping create art are great.
This was your first Hawaiian project. Any difference in recording technique versus another music genre?
Not especially. I have found that it is important to quickly decode the language of any performer and find out what they like and don’t like sonically so that everyone is on the same page going into the process. Kāwika sent me some recordings of other similar artists that he liked so that I could get a sense of the audio spectrum he was looking for. Every genre has a general tonality, and so you want to honor that so that the listeners feel comforted hearing sounds they can identify and relate to. Working with Kāwika was a pleasure. He was very passionate and focused about his art, and so that made my job easy. All of the guest musicians were really professional and each brought something special to the project. Sometimes we would try experiments to see what could be added to a song to bring it to life, and generally, we found that less is more. I think the only issue we had during the recording was that there were a couple songs that were not finished lyrically, and so Kāwika delayed recording those until the end so that he had more time to finish the lyrics. I have found that the deadlines associated with the recording process can sometimes be very inspirational in terms of getting artists to commit to their ideas, which is key, because otherwise, those unfinished ideas may never see the light of day, and in the end, music is meant to be shared.
Behind the scenes at Annex:
Mahalo nui to Kāwika & Forrest!
For more info on Kāwika, please visit:
For more info on Forrest and The Annex Studios, please visit:
Stay tuned for next month’s artist/producer pairing!!! A hui hou!