A chat with Erika Elona

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Erika Elona by Peter ChiapperinoBy Kate Greennagel
Special to Nonstop

Erika Elona, a local singer-songwriter armed with a wailin’ voice and an acoustic guitar (and just a few fabulous supporting local artists along with local producer Shawn Livingston Mosley), recently released her first full-length album, “Things to Break.”

The 25-year-old, who’s been playing shows for the last decade, typically performs at open mics, bars, coffee shops and other intimate venues. Recently, she’s had some high-profile gigs, including opening for Matchbox 20 at Blaisdell. Her sound has evolved from laid-back, bare-essentials, girl-and-her-guitar to a more multi-faceted sound with reggae back-beats, ‘70s guitar licks, her token Jewel-like inflections, and R&B backing tracks with subtle Motown influences.

Elona’s album is available on iTunes. She’ll also be performing on Feb. 15 at 7:30 p.m. at Tiki’s Grill & Bar, and at a unique 10-year anniversary show at Coffee Talk in Kaimuki on Feb. 22 at 7:30 p.m., and at Surfer, The Bar on March 21 at 8:30 p.m.

I had a chance to talk with Elona about her first full-length album.

How did you come up with the album title?

Erika publicity shotErika Elona: When I first started recording the songs for this album, I really didn’t have a working title, that is, until I wrote the song, ‘Things to Break,’ and the first version of that song didn’t even include that line. The song itself stemmed from me waking up from a bad dream where I dreamt that I was on a train ride going to be judged to determine if I would end up going to heaven or hell. And all I could take was one suitcase of stuff to be judged on. So then I woke up and freaked out about it all day, and I asked myself, ‘If this is how the judgment works, what would I bring with me? What could I show for myself to say that I deserve to go heaven? Or to hell?’ Then I thought about all the stuff in my life that weighs me down and doesn’t deserve to go in the suitcase and envisioned just breaking it all instead of carrying it with me. So basically the gist of the song and the album and to an extent my life is weighing what is worth and what is not worth carrying with you through your life.

What kind of sound or artistic vision did you have in mind before going into the studio?

Before I ever set foot in a studio, I thought my album would just be me and my guitar, honestly. I had never worked with other musicians prior to this process, and I assumed I would walk in and do what I do at gigs, except it would be just me in a room with a mic. Well that turned out to be completely wrong. I ended up revising, rewriting, re-thinking things over and over and over. When the band and myself and my producer Shawn Livingston Moseley finally zeroed in on the “sound” it came out to be a very eclectic mix of influences that I think reflect on my wide music tastes. I grew up in the 90s and I was amazed at how ‘90s female singer-songwriter’ it sounded because that’s what I loved listening to as a kid and it wasn’t even a conscious direction we were going for, it just happened to turn out that way.

Are you pleased with the final outcome?

Absolutely. For a lack of a better way to describe it I would say that it just feels like me. Is it perfect? Maybe not, but it’s perfectly me, and that’s all I want —that authenticity and honesty in everything I do.

How would you describe the overall sound of this album?

The sound is hard for me to really describe… but I will say that it definitely has a strong ’90s influence that I didn’t really recognize until maybe 75 percent of the way through, and I was listening back and thinking, Wow, this sounds like I would have listened to this when I was eight.’

Who are your muses when it comes to writing/singing/recording/performing music?

I started singing because of Jewel. I remember my dad giving me ‘Pieces of You’ when I was seven years old, which, by the way, was inappropriate for a seven year old. Lyrically, there was a lot of material I didn’t understand. It scared me, but it intrigued me and I was a curious kid. Since then, I’ve always gravitated to the singer-songwriters. I almost think of them as poets with instruments. I am a bleeding heart fan of Joni Mitchell, listening to ‘Blue’ when I was 12 changed my life forever I think. Right now, Patty Griffin is my muse. Her authenticity and honesty in her words, music and performance never fails to punch me in the gut. She is everything I strive to be.

Where do you see yourself headed, now that the album is complete? Any upcoming tours, future album visions, or evolutions of your sound as a band you want us to know about?

I hope to take this album on tour, even for a little bit. Now that we’ve created this album, I want to see what kind of experiences it can unlock for me. Not necessarily in terms of fortune or fame, but more in terms of people and places to get to know. I think my sound will change. I’m so eclectic in my influences that I don’t think I could stay with one sound. I find inspiration in so many things. I’m thinking that I do want to do a very back to basics, me-and-a-guitar EP soon though, just to get it out of my system.

You opened for Matchbox 20 recently. How was that?

It was amazing! I grew up listening to Matchbox 20, so it was a real trip to be in front of Rob Thomas extending his hand and saying, ‘Oh hi. I’m Rob; you must be Erika.’ Then going out to a sold-out crowd at the Blaisdell was surreal. I had to remember some advice I received years ago to never lock your knees, cause you’ll be more wobbly. I don’t even really remember what performing up there felt like. I just remember going up to the stage and coming off the stage and feeling relieved that it was done. Then I got to watch the show front and center in front of Rob and sang along to all the stuff I knew… Afterwards we chilled out and had a few beers, and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I am having a beer with Matchbox 20.’

Hawaii has recently been undergoing a renaissance in the arts scene, especially in Kakaako and downtown. Do you think Hawaii has the potential to be ‘on the map?’ What would it take for a small town to grow into a full-fledged artistic community like Nashville, NYC, L.A., etc.?

I think that in order for Hawaii to have a full-fledged artistic community comparable to those cities, there has to be more venues for those communities to be built around. Venues geared towards fostering artistic expression, where musicians are given a stage to do what they love and are compensated fairly, and also where fans of music know they can go to listen and are willing to pay a fair cover and support the musicians and venue. There are a few of these on the island, but not nearly enough at this point to compare to other cities.

About Kate Greenagel:

Local musician and creative writer Kate Greenagel, aka Kater, is well acquainted with Honolulu’s music scene, as both the keyboardist for Honolulu band Mano Kane and a lover of live music. A double major in Political Science and German from the University of Hawaii, she is always curious and never content with the obvious. With a keen eye and a down-to-earth personality, she is dedicated to finding the art behind a wide array of topics including music, food, culture, history, and travel.
Follow her on Tumblr at Musical Musings.