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An interview with singer/songwriter Kina Grannis

You probably saw her a few years ago when an excerpt from the video “Message from Your Heart” aired during Super Bowl XLII. With a newfound national audience, corporate backing, and a hit video, singer/songwriter Kina Grannis seemed destined for instant fame. But a funny thing happened. Grannis walked away from all of it. After shunning her deal with Interscope records, Grannis went back to the grassroots movement that got her there and began recording her first LP, Stairwells, independently.

Kina Grannis
Photo by Elliot Kaplan

Has she been successful? Well, her most recent release, “Valentine”, has garnered over 10 million hits on You Tube, and her fan-base has been steadily growing throughout the globe.

On the eve of her European tour, Grannis took a few minutes to discuss how she’s making her tunes her way in an ever-changing musical landscape.

Matt Thomas: You had, what sounds like, a sudden transition to the national stage. Describe how you handled that transition.

Kina Grannis: Lately I’ve been in the thick of it. It’s been a little nonstop. The transition was not slow, definitely not sudden, but gradual. There wan’t one day when things just exploded. It’s been a nice steady growth. Constantly steady growth. I’ve slowly become more overwhelmed just to keep on top of things.

Since the beginning, it’s always been about interacting with fans and genuinely wanting to speak with them. That type of involvement started with the Doritos [Crash the SuperBowl] contest, and since then I put out Stairwells by myself, and a lot of what I did is Tweeted and directly connected to people. It’s something I couldn’t have done without all of these social networking sites.

MT: Is there still a place for labels in a social networking world?

KG: I do think there’s still a place for labels. Labels have a bunch of money and can still do crazy stuff that an artist can’t, but there’s nothing to hold an artist back. If you’re looking to make a basic living selling and playing your music, the Internet is all you really need.

MT: “Valentine” has gotten over 10 million hits on You Tube. Were you surprised by the video’s popularity? And how do you think sites like You Tube have impacted music videos as a whole?

KG: I mean, yeah I’m definitely shocked at the number of views. I can hardly grasp and understand that amount of people. It’s such a large number. I do really believe in the video genre as a whole. When I found Ross Ching [the director of “Valentine”], and he explained his concept to me, I really believed in it and I was excited about doing it.

But You Tube has done an interesting thing for videos. On one hand, I’m getting content to people constantly. Not “real” videos, but ones I can make quickly and show to fans, and these are just less special than an official video with a director and a concept and a budget.

Making a video is one of the most exciting things for artists and fans. It’s like a payoff. [A fan or listener] sees the video, and is like, wow, it’s real now. So, I think there’s still a place, a need really, for the professional video.

MT: Your lyrics seem to come from a genuinely emotional place. Describe your writing process.

KG: There’s no logic to it. It’s kind of a strange phenomenon that happens. If I try to write a song, I will completely fail to write a song. But if I’m just holding my guitar and I just start humming, then I’ll have a song in an hour.

Half of it doesn’t take a lot of thought, and the other half is taking a step back and guiding it. Considering where it’s going and how to make it work.

MT: You have a wide array of covers; from Rihanna to the Fleet Foxes, and I recently saw the Foster the People piece on your website. What’s the value of covers and why do you do so many of them?

KG: I guess there’s several reasons. One of them, being an artist, it’s just a really good challenge to stretch out of my comfort zone. I’m going to learn this song and own it and make it mine.

On the other side of things, where the Internet is, in a sense, a record label, I’m not getting on the radio. People have the chance to happen upon me. If they look for another song [on the web] they might listen to [my cover of] that song, and then my other songs.

I remember a couple of years ago, a fan talked to me at a signing and said, “I was listening to your Missy Higgins cover, and now I have all your CDs.”

It all happened accidentally. I needed people to vote for me everyday [to win the aforementioned Dorito’s contest]. So I said to myself, OK, I can’t just e-mail people everyday. They’re going to kill me. So the setup was if you go to this website I’ll post a new video for you to watch everyday. At first I just posted originals, and i quickly realized I didn’t have enough originals to last the rest of time. I needed more material, and I started doing covers.

I knew it was working, because people kept on coming back, so I kept on making them.

MT: You’re currently on tour. Is touring part of the musician’s dream or a necessary evil?

KG: Laughs. I mean. . . it kind of has a little of both. You can’t deny that on one hand it’s amazing. It blows my mind that I can do this everyday for a living and I get to meet and talk to people who allow me to do this. And the fact that I get to see the people who are paying to listen to my music is beyond rewarding.

On the other hand, it’s really tiring and really stressful. So it has its highs and lows.

MT: Describe the crowds at your live shows. Who are they? What’s their reaction? Are they growing in size?

KG: They’ve been amazing. I’ve been totally shocked by the response. For our shows in New York, we had two back-to-back sold-out nights. One was 600 and the other 700, and I’m looking out and they’re all singing the songs with me, and I’m like, “Who are you?”

I’ve started bringing out my band for the bigger shows. It has a more dramatic feel to it, and it’s nice to fill up the whole stage in those bigger venues. I mean, I love the super intimate thing and being on stage by myself and being so close to the crowd, but I think it’s been exciting for people to see the whole band up there.

MT: What’s the best band your fans should be listening to?

KG: Imogen Heap

MT: What’s your dream venue?

KG: Ah, I definitely have a few in mind, but if I say it out loud I’m afraid it won’t happen. I like the Greek in LA. I think if that happened I’d die from happiness.



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