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’s pairing are Nā Hōkū Hanohano award winning singer/songwriter Mailani Makainai and Producer/’ukulele wunderkind Trey Terada. As an added bonus, I also took the opportunity to interview the song’s Hawaiian language consultant Keola Donaghy (Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawai‘i Hilo).
The mele: “Penei Iho, Penei A’e, Penei Nō” from Mailani’s 2009 debut solo release “Mailani”. Co-written by Keola Donaghy and Mailani.
Listen To Sample of Penei Iho, Penei A’e, Penei Nō
Purchase Penei Iho, Penei A’e, Penei Nō on iTunes
Purchase Penei Iho, Penei A’e, Penei Nō on Amazon
Purchase Mailani Makainai Complete CD:
Me Ke Aloha & Mele.com
Steven Espaniola: “Penei Iho, Penei A’e, Penei Nō” has a very modern groove and vibe. How did that come about?
Mailani Makainai: I have always been a rhythm guitar player and vibes like this one in particular got me going - I wanted the chorus to stand out as well so I went for a major chord - G and just sang along to it with thoughts in my head.
Love the arrangement of the song as it follows a very western style “verse chorus verse chorus” pop format. Can you talk a little about bit about that arrangement?
Sure! Yes it’s true that traditionally Hawaiian mele doesn’t typically have a chorus. In our older chants you will see some lines that are redundant or a typical ending with “Ha’ina” or a “puana” which brings you back to the first opening lines of the a mele.
However, when reading the Queen’s Songbook - Queen Lili’uokalani - I found a mele named “Keolalani” and it was just beautiful. In it had these lines of Pēnei iho, pēnei aʻe, pēnei nō…
And because of that it really answered my wanting of arranging a mele in this way.
Is there a particular method you prefer to record?
In terms of recording not really. I like to listen to myself and my voice on some earphones just to get into the studio mindset if I’m trying to create and write a piece. Vocally it helps me, musically instrumentally it pushes me forward because it just heightens the sounds you hear in your head and how you want those sounds to either be apart of your new creation or not.
What type of guitar did you play on this mele?
Hmmmm I can’t remember. I actually think I recorded with one of Trey’s Taylors but Larivee’s are my fav.
How did you meet Trey?
I met Trey years ago through Jon Yamasato along with Jaymie Lei Melket my first musical partner from Keahiwai. Jon was with the musical group known as Pure Heart at the time and we were just kids - like college girls that played music for fun. Jon took interest in us and I recorded a scratch track - “Over” with Dr. Trey and then I didn’t see him for several years. We started work together again on a podcast dedicated to the Hawaii music industry and we created a project called Mighty J with Jennifer Wright and Tiki Suan. It was one of the most inspiring and daring projects to date. I loved every moment of it and wish it could have done better than it did.
Were any studio musicians used on this recording?
hmmmm for Penei? I don’t think so I think it was just us.
Any lucky charms or superstitions when in the studio?
Trey has a few charms like his James Brown doll and idk for me I don’t have any charms really its go in and jam.
Tell us a “betcha didn’t know” tidbit about yourself.
I betcha didn’t know that I am a closet comedian. I love making ppl laugh even if the joke is on me, I just believe that laughter can cure diseases and illness and laughter is just one of the best feelings in the world. To laugh out loud and tear and being hunched over because of something funny - it just brings peace of mind into our lives and that’s why I would love to be a comedian. Plus, I love to laugh too!
Who is your biggest role model or influence music wise?
Teresa Bright is my all time favorite singer in the world. She has given of herself to our industries across the world and just has a majestic voice. There is no one like her. She is so humble and loving. She is magic to me I love her and am grateful for the time she allows me. She helps everyone and also teaches young girls on the techniques of using their voice in theatre as well. She is a true artist and can read music.
Any words of wisdom you would like to give to aspiring singers?
Find your own voice. Don’t copy cat too much. Yes - it’s good to exercise while singing to other people’s material but find your very own voice. I will always want to sing like Beyonce - but in truth I have my own voice that I can perfect.
Find what works and practice every day.
Steven Espaniola: Where was the mele recorded?
Trey Terada: It was recorded at my studio (The Doctor’s Office/Four Strings ‘Ukulele Studio) in Kāneʻohe and mixed at Mountain Apple Company.
What were some of the challenges of recording this particular song?
What was interesting was that when Mailani brought this song into the studio, she had a different melody for the chorus altogether. It was, in fact, almost chant like and I felt as though it wouldn’t have worked as written. So I gave her the melody for the chorus, and it became what it is today.
What was the instrument tracking order for “Penei Iho, Penei A’e, Penei No”?
Although I can’t remember the exact tracking order, I generally like to lay rhythmic instruments first and the voice last. In the case of Mai though, I always try to base the music off of her unique guitar strum. Therefore, we almost always record her guitar part first and vocals last.
Were there any obstacles or challenges along the way?
I think the biggest obstacle was convincing Mailani that her [original] melody didn’t really work for this song.
The separation of the individual instruments and vocals are very apparent on this recording. How did you achieve that?
Mailani’s sound has been pretty consistent in its very acoustic approach to Contemporary Hawaiian music. I like this because it offers space to all the instruments while not taking away from the vocals. Sound stage has always been important to me. I always try to imagine myself in the middle of things when we record and try to get each instrument to sit in its sweet spot.
What equipment do you use to record?
My favorite mic is usually the [Neumann] U87 so it’s very likely that we went in that direction. I was an early adopter of recording at 96khz 24bit. The sound was apparently better with that resolution. Mountain Apple took awhile to adopt that philosophy and although our original intention was to mix at 96khz 24bit, when the tracks got to MAC the sample rate was dropped to 44.1khz. I was disappointed but we worked it as best as we could. We recorded into pro tools 96/24 through apogee converters, and mixed and bounced at 44.1/24 using digital performer.
Are there any methods that you use to achieve results from artists?
This song practically sang itself for Mailani. Often times we go through a lot of coaching to get her to sing the part in her particular and specific style. My approach with Mailani is to generally give her a visual to think about to intensify her performance. When sheʻs on she is so amazing!
Describe the dynamic between artist & producer.
Mailani and I are great friends. This has contributed greatly towards our recordings. I like to keep the general atmosphere in the studio kinda fun. We know it’s ultimately work, but music is our passion and therefore, we keep our heads on straight and try to translate the fun that we have together into the music we put out.
Was it particularly difficult to record yourself on this track?
I actually find it easier to record myself than I do others. We have a general rule in studio, it doesnʻt leave the studio till we are both happy with it. When I record my parts, Mailani is often not there and I just sit in the room with my cans and a mic and I remotely control the desk so basically if I screw up I know exactly where it happened and I head back towards the measure, and punch it.
Who do you most admire as a Producer?
Although heʻs better known as an engineer, I am a big big fan of Roger Nichols. Roger just passed away a year or so ago, and it was very meaningful to me that I had the chance to talk with him via the internet.
Any words of wisdom you would like to give to aspiring Engineers/Producers and what advice would you give to folks wanting to break into the business?
I would say to aspiring engineers and producers to make certain that they’ve got what it takes. We are all born with a certain skill set and its very easy to buy into what others tell you youʻre good at but it may not be true at all. There are shitty engineers out there doing well and great engineers out there that are suffering. Which will you be? Don’t contribute to the steady decline of quality throughout our industry.
You don’t need schooling to hear, and realistically the only prerequisite for a producer is to be able to hear. So if you know what you like, try it out. Ask people what they think of it. If you get a lot of negative responses, chances are that you don’t have the ear to create something for the masses.
Finally, be certain to keep your files organized. I’ve heard way too many horror stories about people who lose tracks. Clients get pissed, and ultimately youʻll be out some cash.
Steven Espaniola: How did you and Mailani work on composing the song together?
Keola Donaghy: To be honest, I can’t even remember how she and I first became acquainted, it seems so long ago! It was definitely online, I remember that she was on some of Dr. Trey’s podcasts while they were working on her first album, we swapped a few emails, and later she ran for and was elected to the HARA Board of Governors, which I also serve on. It’s been an unbelievable pleasure to work with her in both composing and serving on the board.
I do recall she and Trey sending some early demos, with a request for my input into her pronunciation, I helped do some research on lyrics of some older songs that she wanted to re-record. Later she sent some of her own mele with the request that I help paka them. As we started to work together, it started to be come more of a collaboration than just paka, which is more directed at addressing issues of language and perspective in the mele.
For “Penei Iho”, she had a great idea for the hook and knew what she wanted to say in it. It was one of the first original mele she shared with me. She wanted to be very direct, as though she was speaking to this person. So most of the song is a fairly direct expression, very little kaona (hidden meaning) in there. I helped restructure the mele to make it fit the music she had better, chose words and grammatical structures that better suited what she was trying to say. There was a lot of back and forth, but obviously we were both very happy with the result.
Any advice you’d like to share with aspiring songwriters?
The most important lesson I learned from Kenneth Makuakāne through working with him was that our songs are everywhere, if you just pay attention you’ll find that every minute of your life is a song, look at it deeply enough and take the time to document it. Since the time that he and I started working together, I’ve never been in a situation where I felt inspired and said, “wow, this would make a cool song” and not been able to produce one. Ma ka hana ka ‘ike. You learn by doing. Write a lot of songs. Don’t wait for inspiration, find it. The more tools you have in your toolbox, the easier it is (credit to Puakea Nogelmeier for the metaphor). That doesn’t mean you have to have every mele recorded. I have a lot that haven’t been recorded and may never be, because I’m not totally happy with them. Remember, that once a song is performed or recorded, it’s alive in the world, has its own mana, and can never be retrieved. Be sure that you’re ready for the consequences of that before you record it or allow someone else to.
When it comes to haku mele, it took me a long time to get over my aversion to re-using common phrases, and always looking for a new way to express something. But those kinds of things are what help connect the listener to the rich archives of Hawaiian songs and literature. It instills a sense of connectivity and genealogy. There is plenty of room for creativity in Hawaiian language expression, but I think in our modern, very western-influenced society, there is a very strong inclination to establish oneself as a unique individual. It took me a while to be comfortable with reusing what some people might view as “cliché” lines and references. Sometimes they are the lazy way out; sometimes they are simply the best way to say something. The trick is being able to know when they are one or the other. To me, there’s a delicate balance between individual expression and being true to what’s been written before, contributing to that vast body of work.
Mailani is a great example for aspiring composers. She’s doing her homework and comes up with great, original ideas. But her songs are solidly grounded and have roots in the traditional literature. She’s building on that foundation, strengthening her knowledge of the grammar, vocabulary, and the structure of mele. She never stops striving to improve and is unafraid to share her work with others and get input. She puts the song before herself, and that’s great.
Tell us a “betcha didn’t know” tidbit about yourself.
I have thirty-something first cousins on my father’s side of the family alone. Three of us were born on the same day–two of us have Ph.Ds and the third is a rocket scientist at NASA. There is something magical about June 29 in our family. Haha.
Mahalo nui to Mailani, Trey, Keola and Mountain Apple Company.
For more info on Mailani, please visit:
Stay tuned for next month’s artist/producer pairing!!! A hui hou!