Viral Sensation Kawehi on Robots, Trolls and Life Online

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(Photo: Michael Lerner)

It’s all the rage these days — peering into the digital void and shuddering. From Arcade Fire’s Reflektor to EMA's The Future's Void, Millennial artists love to hate the 2D landscape that rules the world, painting it, by turns as, “a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection;” a dark playground for lonely trolls; a silicon echo chamber that is, really, “just a big advertising campaign.”

Kawehi, who performs at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz on Feb. 23, subverts this human gaze. Told from the perspective of a robot, her latest album — all hard loops and soft harmonies — comes from behind the much-derided screen.

“I’m kind of a sci-fi geek,” she says from her Lawrence, Kansas home when we speak on the phone. A fan of Firefly, Star Wars and Star Trek, the Hawaiian-born artist was never into what she calls “the teen romance kind of deal” growing up, and a fascination with robots ensued. Because each of her crowd-funded, self-released albums circles a central motif, artificial intelligence seemed like a natural fit for 2014's Robot Heart.

“I love that these projects give me themes, which help me centralize the whole story,” she says. “But I pretty much always go in with an open attitude, like: what’s it gonna be?”

What it is: an album full of longing and ambivalence, telling the story of a girl who thinks binary (“0s + 1s”) but dreams, Tin Man-like, of possessing a human heart. “You have a heart you never u-u-u-use,” she sings in “Human Heart,” adding “I’ll make it mine to feel alive.” With popping rhythms, layered vocals and harmonized crescendos, the short album features loop after mechanized loop, using only instruments that plug in.

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It’s interesting material for the singer (and renowned beatboxer) who’s built a career almost entirely from 2D platforms. As with her last three EPs (and upcoming Evolution), Kickstarter donations funded Robot Heart. After she’d secured $28,914 for the project — nearly ten times her original goal of $3,000 — an Adweek article praised her startup savvy and ran her tips for aspiring crowdfunders. When we speak, she’s home prepping packages for donors. According to the Kickstarter page, rewards include an Axiom Midi Keyboard, a Duet Audio Interface and even a giant pig suit.

“I started out with a small, loyal fan base and funded five projects before I ever went viral,” she says, adding that, to engage her fanbase, she’s had to learn what any hit-conscious BuzzFeed curator could tell you: quantity matters.

“You have to have constant material,” she says. “Everyone wants new stuff all the time.”

Kawehi
Kawehi, Feb. 2015.

As another thank you, she frequently takes donors’ cover requests and posts them to Vimeo, ranging from Britney Spears to Nine Inch Nails. Her moody, live-mixed rendition of Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” went viral after she put it up last March, earning nearly two million plays and a Vimeo Staff Pick. But though she’s dedicated to growing her base, she’s glad that it hasn’t yet exploded beyond personal contact.

“It’s still small enough where I can answer everybody’s emails and questions on Kickstarter and Facebook,” she says.

Glass and silicon do have their dark side, though, and the female artist says she’s hesitant to enter a few of the Internet’s more troll-dominated rooms.

“I never share content to YouTube,” she says, adding that unlike Vimeo, the site tends to become a forum dominated by “13-year-old boys who just want to be noticed.”

“I probably would make a little more money if I released videos on YouTube and I could put ads on them,” she says. “But I go the Vimeo route. It’s more tailored toward an artistic community and an older crowd…. even on Facebook, if you put up a comment there are a lot of people who don’t mind telling you exactly how they feel.”

But visit her Vimeo channel (or even YouTube, where most of her work has spread) and, of course, stay on the top half of the Internet, and you'll probably find yourself wanting to stay. You can watch her layer vocals and chants of “one two three drink” to mimic Sia’s “Chandelier” or beatbox, snap and grin her way through Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” sitting on an unmade bed with a pug asleep on her knee.

Because, yes, sometimes the internet looks like surveillance, narcissism and girl-hating vitriol.  But sometimes it looks like innovation. Sometimes it looks like an artist making her way, label-free, and finding a way to eat.

Commenting on the digital tools that built her career, Kawehi puts it best.

“I may not be the next Katy Perry," she says. "But I can make music and pay my bills.”