Kina Grannis at Northwestern, 11.10.13
McCormick Auditorium, Northwestern University
There is an interesting thing happening in the music industry. It would appear that the days of soul-breaking struggle for an artist trying to land a record deal are lately becoming the stuff of old legend, thanks to the onslaught of TV-talent competitions like American Idol, X-Factor, and The Voice. To some, it's almost a cop-out. More and more, young artists are handed major record deals and managers just because they created a viral video on YouTube (looking at you, Rebecca Black..). Others don't even want a major label. Is this becoming the norm? Should young musicians expect a success after merely posting a few songs online, without ever having to step foot in an open-mic night? I won't even get into the fact that many are sadly substituting real studio time for in-home production on a laptop. It's no surprise that once-legendary labels and recording studios are struggling. Are record labels even the good guys anymore? Now don't get me wrong, the majority of artists who have been able to reach that certain level of mainstream fame, one way or another, have worked hard to get there. I am in no way trying to discount anyone who has been discovered via this type of public media (Kelly Clarkson, Justin Bieber..); we all know that they struggled before their discovery, and currently work really hard to be where they are today. I'm just trying to say that the game has changed. The entrance fee is no longer as difficult to save up for as it once was. These musicians are just lucky enough to have started their career on a platform that already exists on the public's radar. It's easier to build from say, the 4th story up, instead of from ground-level. You know? (That famous "started from the bottom" Drake lyric comes to mind..except, wasn't he on that slightly popular, hit TV show called Degrassi? But I digress..) At the same time, sharable social medias like YouTube and SoundCloud can definitely create and attract attention from a much broader audience than one's geographic beginnings might have otherwise allowed. Argue whichever side you want, but technology and the internet have been something of a catch-22 for the music world.
With all of that being said, Kina Grannis is the perfect example of an artist who has taken full advantage of the powers of YouTube. Her career really started after she won the Dorito's Crash the Super Bowl contest in 2008, which landed her a record deal with Interscope Records (who she's since left) and an on-air music video during halftime. Since then, she's uploaded dozens of videos to her YouTube channel, which features both cover song performances and original songs. While the majority of her fan-base probably originated thanks to the popularity of her cover songs on YouTube, it by no means discounts any of her hard work before or since the competition. After graduating from USC (where she had released a few EPs), Kina's first album to reach mainstream listeners was Stairwells, released in 2010. Interestingly enough, despite winning a major record deal, she chose not to work with Interscope, due to a clash in creative control and writing of the album. The re-release of that album actually has two CDs, one with original Kina songs, and the other with some really nice cover songs (Rihanna, Fleet Foxes, Simon and Garfunkel, etc). [[Side note:: to argue the other, more positive side of technology and the internet.. check out her TEDx talk that she gave on "finding community through the internet" -- so is it good or bad? ha who can say, really..]]
Kina is an overall creative spirit - one of her most popular music videos for an original Kina song "In Your Arms" gained a lot of attention - it has 9.9 million views to date! Nothing short of dedication, the stop-animation video took about two years and something like 250,000 jelly beans. Another creative music video of hers that I really like is for the song "Without Me" - newspaper clippings contribute to a sort of lyric-music video and it must have also taken her some time to find all of those headlines. She definitely works hard - Kina still has a very strong presence on YouTube, frequently uploading videos of cover songs (check out this "Cups" by Anna Kendrick cover, which took them an entire day to get one clean take, you'll see why) and is constantly in touch with her fans via Twitter and Facebook as well. Oh, she was even featured in thisYouTube Mash-Up video for "Everybody's Got Somebody But Me" by Hunter Hayes and Jason Mraz, which I love. Some of my favorite cover songs that she's done are Imogen Heap's "First Train Home", "Better Together" by Jack Johnson (might like her version better..) and Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" with Boyce Avenue. Anyway, I'm most excited for Kina's new album to drop since it's been awhile since Stairwells - she has finished recording it, but the date of an official release is still TBD (sometime in 2014).
Kina Grannis hasn't been on tour recently, and when she does play a show, she mostly stays out in the California area, so I was really excited to see an announcement on Facebook that she was coming to play at Northwestern. I've never seen her live, nor have I been to Northwestern's campus (in Evanston, IL), but it's only about a half hour drive from where I live, so I figured why not take a drive (plus, it was a free show!). Unfortunately, it was already really dark when I got to campus, so I couldn't enjoy it too much, but I hung out at the student center (pretending to be a student), so it wasn't too bad. The show was in McCormick Auditorium, and it must have been sponsored by a Chinese student club, because everyone there was Asian! I found that to be really funny for some reason..but Kina is half-Japanese, so I guess it made sense, haha. I had gotten there early enough that when we were let into the auditorium, I was able to sit in like the third row and thanks to the stadium seating, had a clear, perfect view of the stage (which as you know, thanks to my height, is rare!).
When she finally came out on stage, Kina looked so little and dainty, but her voice is definitely not small. It was just her and her guitar, so everyone could really hear how amazing her vocals are. Plus, the crowd was really attentive and quiet - very different from all of the rock shows I've been going to lately. I was definitely not surprised at her talent though, she's got a very consistent voice (sounded just as good as, if not better than, her studio versions! rare) and her tone is really pure and beautiful. She played songs off of Stairwells, like "World In Front of Me", "Strong Enough", "The One You Say Goodnight To", "Valentine", "In Your Arms", and even a Britney Spears cover of "Oops, I Did It Again". She also played a new song called "Winter" that was really pretty and slow and gentle. Another cool part of the show was that Kina answered a bunch of questions from the audience in between songs. There were some funny questions, like "What is the nicest thing a guy has done for you?" and "What are the best and the weirdest presents you've gotten from fans?" (a personalized uke, and an imaginary pet bunny); others asked about her experience with Wong Fu Productions and who her favorite collaboration was with (notable: David Choi, Pentatonix members, and Boyce Avenue). She also recently married to Imaginary Friend singer Jesse Epstein, and she admitted in a roundabout way that some songs on the new album were inspired by him. Kina ended the show with an unplugged version of the song that started it all, "Message From Your Heart".
Regardless of how it all began, Kina has certainly won over millions and gained a very supportive fan base over the years on YouTube. I can't really decide which side of this technology debate I am on..because while it does seem to contribute to an unrealistic expectation for aspiring musicians today, who might dream of uploading a video and then being handed fame, it also helps people like Kina Grannis to reach a larger audience and touch the lives of millions. But no matter how it starts, the only thing that will actually translate into long-lived success is talent. Kina Grannis is an artist with an impressive song-writing ability and really emotive vocals. Her covers are always really well-thought out and her originals are even better. The girl can sing! She easily captivates the audience with her voice, and is also super sweet and appreciative of her fans - did I mention she also did a meet and greet, and met/took photos with basically the entire audience after the show? Be on the lookout for her new album in 2014 and probably a tour as well - trust me, you and your musicsoul won't want to miss out on a live Kina-performance!