Just before Kawehi's show at The Hotel Café in Los Angeles, I basically meet the internet—or her corner of it, at least: Kawehi fans and followers and likers and tweeters and posters and, probably, thanks to Kickstarter, a few collaborators. There was a dude with a man bun wearing checkerboard Vans and an off-white oversize floor-length quilted robe-coat thing standing adjacent to a six-foot-something tatted-up rocker guy with a ginger-red ponytail protruding from a hat that made me want to sing that Bon Jovi song from Young Guns II. He—super-tatted- and-tall Emilio Estevez—had the tightest red T-shirt I've ever seen on an adult male. I for real wondered if it was a child's rash guard. You could see hip bones, and the hair below his belly button was fuzzing around in full view at pretty much eye level with the Korean grandma-in-law in the wheelchair to his right. I know she was a grandma-in-law because I asked the lady pushing her wheelchair around why she was pushing around a lady in a wheelchair at a standing-room-only show in Hollywood on a Thursday night, and she said, "She's my grandma-in-law, big fan," then looked off at either the hipster guy with hair like a dinosaur armor plate or Karl Rove's twinnish brother. There was a Dominican softball player with a flat-brimmed cap and a lip-full of tobacco holding a spitty cup, a reported sighting of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Ghost Rider actor Gabriel Luna, and Kim and Richard, a cheerful 40-something khakis- wearing couple who met at the hospital she RNs at.
Amazing, I thought, looking around. My favorite bands—the Melvins, The Afghan Whigs—couldn't draw a crowd this diverse if they were playing a court-appointed appearance at the DMV. It was the most disparate group of people I can recall in one room, which makes sense when you consider that the majority of Kawehi's fans found her thanks to the two-million-views-and-counting viral Vimeo of her covering Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box" all by her lonesome using loops, effects, and a mini-keyboard.
Of course, that video and the 100 others of her DIY performing are just the sound-bite explanation for Kawehi's success. It cuts out the years of struggle, failure, frustration, experimentation, resilience, and reinvention—all things I spoke with her about a few hours earlier over a couple of horsefeathers. Our bartender, Darcy, didn't know what it was either, but a horsefeather turns out to be a kind of rabid Moscow mule with a stronger kick: rye whiskey (instead of vodka), ginger beer, Angostura bitters, and lemon juice. Kawehi says it was invented in Lawrence, Kansas, which is also where she and her musician husband and collaborator, Paul Wight, live these days, a place where they can "not be loud," she says. "Just chill and relax."
It's also a place where you can live a heck of a lot cheaper than you can in most metropolitan areas. Something else to thank the internet for: artists living wherever they please. That doesn't mean there aren't stresses in Kansas, especially for someone like Kawehi. Despite her and Paul's 40 acres being just north of Lawrence—which, because it's a college town, is "pretty diverse, for Kansas"—she's still usually the only nonwhite person in the room. They moved there after living in Los Angeles for ten years.
Kawehi, who is 34, came to L.A. from her native Hawaii in 2003 thanks to a seven-year record deal that almost destroyed her and the career she didn't even have yet—and which she would almost certainly never have had if she'd adhered to the industry's increasingly dumb, outdated terms.
"I signed a deal and got stuck. I auditioned for this band. It was a kind of American Idol thing back in the day and I made the band and they flew us to L.A. and we made an EP and a demo. I hated it. I just didn't feel like I was getting any better, as a musician and a writer. I needed a different angle." And then: "Have you seen Jon Brion?"
Of course I haven't, because, like most people, my musical tastes are pretty much frozen where they were in college. People like me are part of the problem for current musicians struggling to find their audience. (Likewise, as a novelist, I hate people who read books the way I listen to music.)
"He's this musician who does this one-man-band thing, sort of, but on a bigger scale. And I saw him and fell in love and really wanted to do it, too. So I bought a loop pedal. And then I tried it and was . . . terrible. Terrible," she repeats. "I mean terrible. Paul came in once, and he sat me down and was like, 'I don't think . . . I don't think this is going to happen.' That's how bad I was. But I'm just the kind of person that's like, no way. I'm gonna do it."
And now here she is about to go onstage at show number 18 on her 24-city tour. I ask her about the contract with her audience, about how she manages their expectations and how they intersect with her own creative, personal interests.
"I think what people are looking for nowadays is authenticity, especially with social media. If I'm struggling, I'm struggling, and I'm happy to say as much. I have no intention of being anybody else. I've done that before, when I was younger, in my 20s. I won't do it again."
A few hours later, and Kawehi is 47 minutes into her set, a set full of tech, talent, and a performative finger-pointing that the audience does along with her, smiling and sweating along with her too. Kawehi is following her own trajectory, and it stands apart from how things used to work: the tour as a way to promote the album. For Kawehi, the music Vimeos act as an advertisement for the live performance, which is surprisingly and ironically old-fashioned and immediate.
On the heels of the Nirvana cover that helped put her on the map, she tells the crowd: "We're gonna do something new, yeah?" And the whole room cheers her on as she picks up an acoustic guitar, and plays a song, or songs, a mash-up of fan favorites—a Depeche Mode into Katy Perry into Backstreet Boys kinda thing. I glance around and Korean grandma-in-law is swaying in her wheelchair while Karl Rove's doppelgänger sips his beer and does that old-white-guy non-dancing dance move where he kind of bobs his head and pumps his fist. Kim and Richard are laughing arm in arm while Dino Hair is sing-song-ing along, and just as Kawehi moves from Madonna into Bon Jovi, Young Guns Guy and all the rest of them start going down in a blaze of glory.
The Kawehi Primer
"Heart-Shaped Box," by Nirvana: Stardom.
"Anthem": Special effects!
"The Way You Make Me Feel," by Michael Jackson: Kawehi on a bed with two dogs, feeling good.
"Neda": A stirring song about an Iranian woman shot by authorities during election protests in 2009. The innovative video was filmed by Kawehi's husband. "Who says you can't accomplish anything DIY?" she wrote on Vimeo.
What Kawehi Uses
: A digital audio workstation (DAW) software/hardware used for looping layers of music. It allows for live overdubbing of an instrument over any individual track.
"Ableton makes it possible to do what I do: Take a song, deconstruct, and build it back piece by piece."
This story appears in the October 2017 issue.