The internet is a beautiful place, full of information and opportunities. Hawaiian-born singer-songwriter Kawehi is a great example. The combination of YouTube and Kickstarter has enabled her to have a career the traditional music industry wasn’t able to give her. Of course it still takes talent, creativity, hard work and dedication, but none of those are a problem for Kawehi, who has successfully used Kickstarter to fund her EPs and albums since 2012. Unfortunately, the internet can also be a very ugly place. So we sat down and talked about it all…
► How much of your current success do you attribute to the stellar performance of your two dogs in the video for your cover of Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel?
(laughs) Tons! They have to be some of the most requested dogs on the internet. Every time I’m on tour people ask, ‘Where are your dogs?’, ‘Who is looking after your dogs?’, ‘We miss your dogs!’.
► It’s the first rule of the internet: A puppy or a cute kitten never hurts.
Right? And my dogs are exceptionally cute, especially in that video. I mean, they know what’s going on. They’re like, ‘Whatever! We see you doing this every day. This is nothing to get excited about.’ And if my pug picks a spot, he is not going to move, come rain or shine.
► In all fairness, you had success before this video. More precisely, you already had your first successful crowdfunding campaign. After a campaign that failed…
Oh yes, the very first one I did sucked huge ass. It was terrible. I went into this one thinking it would just happen. It was very stupid of me. I thought, ‘Sure, complete strangers will give me money for no reason’. Crowdfunding was just starting to pick up around that time, and I had read something online about Kickstarter, so I thought I’d try this. My husband and I wanted to make records again, because I had been stuck in a contract for a really long time where I couldn’t do that.
► Okay, we have to take one step further back. Explain your experience prior to making it on your own, please.
Actually, that’s how I met my husband. So it wasn’t all bad. He was a producer at one of the studios that brought me out when I was really young – I was 19. I lived in L.A. for six month and I was with this band I had auditioned for. But nothing really happened, and I wasn’t happy with the direction the band was going. It was like Britney Spears on crack. I really questioned what I had gotten myself into. And after being under contract for seven years and not actually doing any music I was pretty ready to get back in there.
► And that’s where Kickstarter came in?
Yes. We were always broke and thought Kickstarter was the way back into making music. But I didn’t do any research, didn’t have any following, and just thought things would happen for me. Which, obviously, they didn’t. That was a good kick in the gut. You need to put work into it, just like for anything else. So that’s what I did. I stepped back, did my research, looked at everybody who had done a successful project and what they did differently, what kind of incentives they offered, what kind of following they had. I really did my homework. And so we realised we had to do more. These days, YouTube is there, you just have to use it. Plus, we discovered Vimeo, and videos on there look and sound so good. That’s how and why we started doing videos. My husband had never touched a camera before, but he has done every one of my videos since then.
► And they look beautiful. Definitely not like videos by someone who had never done anything like that before.
Thank you. He is amazing. But that’s how we do everything: We are a two-person team, so if something needs to be done, we figure out how to do it. It’s true for the videos and it’s true for the Kickstarter. The second project took only a day and a half to get funded, which was pretty awesome. I had gained a small following. A tiny following really, but people who were really into what I was doing.
► So how did the moment feel when you knew the project was successfully funded, especially after that soul crushing first experience?
It was incredibly fulfilling and terrifying at the same time, because now I suddenly had to deliver. A different kind of pressure set in. I had told myself that I wouldn’t fail the second time, and I didn’t, but now I had the pressure to give the people what I had promised them. I’ve seen successful projects go either way. Some people really get excited and try their best to deliver everything on time. Other seem to think, ‘Now we have the money, let’s take some time to get things done’. I’m strictly speaking of musicians now. Of course if you have a technology-based Kickstarter or an app, you usually need a bigger team and things are difficult to control. But when you’re making a record? That’s pretty basic. Of course things can go wrong there, too, but in the end it’s your job to deliver. Even though it’s something creative, you have to sit down every day and do your work. You know, for Evolution I took an entire month where I sat down and wrote. Some of it worked, some of it sucked. Some parts of something that sucked ended up working with something else. You just have to put the work in, which is something that easily gets lost in the excitement when you suddenly got all the funds to do it. For me that’s not the case. In general, I’m a bit of a worrier. I want to get things done on time and not disappoint people or keep them waiting. Maybe that is why I had so many successful projects since. People stick around when you deliver. Pretty much everyone who has backed the first projects has backed every project since, because they know they will get something out of it. They won’t have to wait two or three years until they get something in the mail.
► Another thing that might have helped is that you didn’t go crazy once you had your first crowdfunding success. You usually set your goal around $3,000 and didn’t suddenly start asking backers for $10,000 or more…
Yes. Each time we sat down and figured out what the bare minimum was. We always figured that we were going to pay some out of our own pocket.
I haven’t changed the approach. Just because I have a bit of a bigger following now doesn’t mean I need to ask for more.
► That is extremely unusual for crowdfunding.
But you should. At least I think so. And the thing is that Paul and I do almost everything. We write, we record. Sometimes we bring someone in to play bass, but the rest we record ourselves. We even have our own recording studio now. We have someone else master it, but Paul produces and mixes. That means our needs for producing a record are very basic. So if we figure we’re going to need about $6,000, we ask for $3,000 from the backers, and I come up with the other half. Yeah, I could ask for the entire amount, but then I feel like, well, what do I put into it other than the music? It just feels fair to me that way, which is why I kept it at three grand. Of course then things eventually got crazy, and I got way more than I asked for or I ever thought I would. And still I haven’t changed the approach. Just because I have a bit of a bigger following now doesn’t mean I need to ask for more.
► So what do you do when the end result translates into having more money available than you need?
I think about what else I can put that money into that is related, like going on tour, or doing even crazier videos, or buying a new laptop so it doesn’t take Paul hours to dump all of his footage from the camera into the computer. But that’s really just when I get more than I need. Asking for more wouldn’t sit right for me.
► Last year you had six projects, five of which were successful, the sixth really kicked it up a notch. When it comes to project number seven, with which you funded Evolution, were you sure that you’d be successful again or was there still some doubt?
Oh, there is always that feeling that it might fail this time. And I think that’s a good thing. The fact that the first project failed left a lasting mark. I will always remember that.
► But have you now accepted crowdfunding as your business plan for producing records or do you keep questioning every new project?
Well, in this day and age, there are basically two ways to go. You can either sign with a record label and get a whole team behind you that helps you with everything. Which is cool – when it works. Or you can do it the way I do it. It’s music DIY. This is my job. We’re not well off, so for us there is no other way to make music. You need to get those funds somehow. Maybe it sounds weird when I say that, after so many successful projects, but it is risky doing it that way. But then, instead of having a record label behind you, you have your fans behind you. If you ask me, it’s better that way.