Kawehi’s obsession with automation bleeds from her sound into her lyrical concepts
Kawehi’s fascination with robots makes sense. In fact, the Hawaiian singer-songwriter’s artistic method must feel a bit like collaborating with a robot. It’s all right there on the viral video she uploaded last year to YouTube, a cover of Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box.” She builds a slow eerie rendition of the song live using keys, programming pads and a looping station.
That’s hardly a new thing anymore. In 2015, musicians can train themselves to be tech wizards, and this mad-scientist looping station set-up is becoming the new standard for solo artists. Some, like Reggie Watts, use it for comedic effect, others simply for convenience. But for Kaweki, it’s hard to imagine her operating any other way, as she seems fixated on the overlapping of artificial life and the human experience.
Her music isn’t exactly hard to digest. She writes soulful, chilled-out electro-pop music, with a voice that falls somewhere between Janet Jackson and Janelle Monae. It’s a little mind-boggling what straightforward radio-friendly pop music she’s able to make using such odd techniques.
Where it really gets weird is in the lyrical content. It may be her cover videos that bring in the heavy internet traffic (Nine Inch Nails, Michael Jackson, Gotye) but the Robot Heart EP she released last year is much more interesting. It’s a concept album about a robot that wants to be a real girl. While that might sound heavy-handed or even a little corny, Kawehi plays it straight and really allows herself to get inside the mind of a robot longing to be human. (“You’ve got the condition I wish I had/Knowing what love is/I’ll never understand the how or why/anything else could even matter”).
She mixes guitars, keys, beatboxing, drum machines, toy instruments and of course lots of looping into a musical sound that’s both human and obviously heavily aided by technology. This blurring of the line is precisely the point.
Robot Heart ends abruptly, and as we now know, it didn’t end at all, instead continuing in her recently released follow-up Evolution. Now the robot girl has become human, at least in terms of the record’s concept. Kawehi said on her Kickstarter page for the album that Evolution would have a more “organic” sound. I disagree. If anything, it’s more electronic, and feels more synthetic. Even the song titles suggest a more robotic feel. (“Corporate Disco Party,” “YouTube,” “Interwebz 2.0”).
The new album is also darker, and has a more foreboding quality surrounding it. The robot character in Robot Heart is endearing, with songs that are joyous and hopeful. On Evolution, she’s gotten what she wants, but isn’t entirely satisfied. On the track “YouTube,” a robot voice, over a dark piano ballad, reads unsettling YouTube comments: (“I would totally fuck you and I’m not even into Asian chicks. That’s a compliment.” “Shut your mouth and stick to music.”) While I can only assume these are actual comments from YouTube directed to Kaweki, hearing them read by a female robot voice has the desired effect, or rather creates the not-so-pleasant shock of realizing what being a female human being might be to someone not used to it.
The last song on the EP, Farewell, is a bittersweet ballad (“I’m ready for the last ride”). It’s unclear if she is singing about dying her human death, or if she’s finally shedding her mechanical skin for the complete human experience. However it’s intended, the song is incredibly sad, a release for subtly dark, ultra-catchy EP.
INFO: 8 p.m., Monday, Feb. 23, the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz. $15/Adv, $20/Door. 429-4135.