Kina Grannis has come a long way from her days as winner of the Doritos Crash the Contest in 2007. Since then, she has not stopped using social media sites like YouTube to propel her work. As an independent artist, Kina’s album, Stairwells, debuted on the Billboard 200 when it was released in February. Meanwhile, her single, “Valentine” has received more than two million views on YouTube.
She started playing the guitar at the age of 15. At the University of Southern California, she was selected by Thornton School of Music to produce a six-song EP during her sophomore year, Sincerely Me was released in 2005. Grannis now plays in front of sold out crowds in New York and has toured throughout North America. Her songs have been featured on ABC’s General Hospital and MTV’s College Life. Stairwells strongly showcases her sweet voice with melancholy tones, filled with hope.
She recently performed songs from Stairwells at Berklee College’s Red Room in Café 939. I was fortunate to speak with her about everything leading to her career up to this point and her newest CD, Stairwells.
BLAST: You have an interesting ethnic background (Japanese, English, Irish, French, Dutch, Welsh, and Scottish). Does this affect you as an artist or your writing?
KINA GRANNIS: I’m not sure that it affects the words so much because I’m just going through life feeling and thinking just like anyone else. In the industry, it definitely has played a role because you connect with different people in many ways. I’m kind of this in between weird thing, so finding that connection can be harder. I’ve always been proud of my heritage and I definitely feel ownership over both sides. I think it’s just a part of me that I grew up with and I carry along with me.
BLAST: How has your writing changed after you graduated college?
KG: I don’t know that it did not necessarily change now that I’m done. Ever since I’ve been writing, I have slowly been growing and learning how to do it better and honing in on my craft so to speak. I guess what I’ve really gotten better at since then is not being as afraid to write about the things that really scare me or are really personal. It’s easy to write about ambiguous things. To really open up and bear it all can be really hard to do, but that’s when you get the most meaningful songs. So, trying to get better at that is a little hard.
BLAST: Do you feel your education prepared you for your music career?
KG: Well, I studied social sciences and psychology, which I studied because I just find people very interesting. I had originally thought I would study music theory or music industry. Once I started studying those, I realized I wanted to do that but I did not want to learn it. I guess my college education has helped to prepare me in that in trained me to learn how to think and problem solve and be competent.
BLAST: What do you plan on doing with your degree in social science?
KG: I loved my college experience. It was great and I thought my classes were incredibly interesting but deep down I knew that I could never picture myself doing anything other than signing and sharing my music with the world. As long as I’m able to do that I will continue to do that.
BLAST: How has your life changed in the past two years since releasing Stairwells?
KG: Everything’s been amplified so much! The fan support they are just amazing and they have been there with me the whole way. Being able to tour the country and meet all these amazing people has been an amazing experience. I came from a place where I would play in my hometown and hope that twenty people came to now, where I can go across the country and 550 people come to my New York show. It’s just been an amazing transition.
BLAST: Winning the Doritos Crash the Super Bowl contest helped you to become known to the public. Do you think there are any negative effects of winning that contest?
KG: None that are too negative to outweigh the positives. The only negatives were that for a while people are going to call me “the Doritos girl” or “the super bowl girl” and things like that but I’m just a musician. At the same time, they launched my career and gave me the opportunity to do it full time. Whatever nicknames come along, I am fine with.
BLAST: What made you decide to stay an independent artist since you were offered a record label with Interscope Records after winning the Crash the Super Bowl contest?
KG: It was an interesting decision but when I finally met with the label, I was ready to go. I had an album written and I was ready to give it to everyone. Their plan was a slower one where they would have me be developed and write with a bunch of different song writers. I couldn’t give up these songs that meant so much to me and give up my creative freedom like that; it didn’t feel right. Especially having the amazing online support, I knew that if I go out by myself, I’m still going to have people who believe in me and supporting me in my decision.
BLAST: I read that you shipped your own merchandise, booked you own shows, and other tasks that normally a record deal would manage. Do you continue doing this and when did you find the time to write?
KG: I did, right until I released Stairwells. Thank goodness or else I would have died! I started doing it probably two and a half years ago. I had my three old CD’s and it was a fun way for me to really connect with people and thank them. I’d write little thank you notes in every CD, put some stickers in, and handwrite the thing. It was really fun for me and I was sad to give it up; but at the same time, it was like, well, you can postage things for five hours or you can pick up your guitar and be a musician again.
BLAST: I’ve also read that you taught yourself how to play the guitar. How hard was learning?
KG: I don’t remember it being too hard. I was so excited and wanted to do it so badly that I kind of locked myself in my room and did it, I played day after day after day. It’s kind of a blur in my mind, I don’t really remember. I’m sure I struggled but I do remember my fingers hurting a lot.
BLAST: What motivated your decision to allow free downloads of your single “Valentine”?
KG: Valentine was the first song that was getting out for the album. I wanted as many people to hear it as possible and have them give it to their friends and family and put it out in the world. At that point, my album was going to come out and people could buy it but I wanted to let people know that here’s this little gift from me, please take it and give it to everyone.
BLAST: You post cover songs on your Youtube channel. Why did you decide not to use any on Stairwells?
KG: This was a really important album in that it was my first legitimate whole album I was putting out by myself. I wanted it to be all songs that I had written and meant a lot to me. While I love doing covers and they are all great songs, they are not my words and my emotions and it was not the right time for that but it’s something that I’m open to.
BLAST: What is the significance of the title Stairwells since it isn’t a song on your album?
KG: When I was in college, I had already started playing guitar and singing and songwriting but I was still very shy. At that point, I had this huge desire to be writing and singing but I didn’t necessarily want to be doing it in front of anyone or disturb the peace. So I found myself retreating to random stairwells and my dorm and lecture halls and I would just sit there and play for hours. The stairwells were the place where I grew into an artist and I just wanted to pay it tribute.
BLAST: I’ve read you’re an avid supporter of cancer research. Is there a personal significance for supporting this cause?
KG: Yes, my mother was actually diagnosed with polysithia vera about maybe ten years ago at this point. Obviously it’s something that is really important anyways but when that happened, it really hit home. It’s such a scary and unfair thing and I like to fight it as much as I can.
BLAST: Is she well now?
KG: She is ok. It’s under control right now.
BLAST: I’m glad to hear that.
KG: Thank you.
BLAST: Now that you’re album is out, what can we expect next from you?
KG: I’ve got another tour coming up in the fall on the west coast and a little tour date next summer. Other than that, I’m going to try to get back in the writing process again because I’ve been in release mode for so long.
BLAST: We want to congratulate you again with your tour and your performance today because you were really amazing.
KG: Thank you. Thank you so much!
Kina Grannis should be dubbed America’s New Sweetheart. I mean, I’ve never seen a musician so grateful towards her audience. She must have thanked us for being there between every song, and she was totally genuine. At one point she even asked to videotape US on her phone (isn’t it supposed to be the other way around)? She actually seemed surprised to be playing a sold-out show in NYC, but she really shouldn’t have been. This singer-songwriter has worked hard to get where she is, and she seems to have perfected her live performance to a T. Well, Grannis does ramble a bit, but let’s attribute that to some Big Apple nerves.
Grannis’ voice sounds like a mix between Colbie Caillat’s and that of the lead singer of The Corrs. Her style is soft, honest, and piercing all at once, and her quality of being undeniably adorable seeps into her live performance like honey. On Friday, she played songs from her album Stairwells, and opened with the song “World in Front of Me.” A good choice, for it is upbeat and peaceful at the same time – much like the overall feeling she generates. No matter what song she was playing, whether it was her sweet love song “Valentine” or the passionate and quiet “Make Me,” she was smiling and so clearly happy to be there that you really couldn’t take your eyes off of her.
She of course played her infamous “Message From Your Heart,” which was the song that won her the Doritos “Crash the Superbowl” contest and a deal with Interscope (although she recently left the label and is now an independent artist). The real show-stopper, however, was her cover of “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Yeah, you read that right. She started out straight rapping the song, which was a little bizarre given her cuteness factor, but eventually her cellist and keyboardist came in and the song instantly morphed into this cool, soulful, singable cover.
Props for that one, Kina. Props for the whole night!
In 2008, Kina Grannis “Crashed the Superbowl:” in a Doritos-run competition aimed at finding a singer/songwriter to showcase during the half-time break, Kina beat aside other talented artists with her song, “Message From Your Heart.” In a way, this song is symbolic of everything I wish to say about Kina and this album. Stairwells is a simple and understated album that will nevertheless blow you away with its beauty and truly heartfelt essence. Kina’s Californian roots and background are undeniable. While her sound is unique, you can almost hear the same inspiration that set Colbie Caillat and Tristan Prettyman on their roots: the acoustic guitar playing in sun-swept afternoons in the park and sunsets on the west coach beaches alike. The optimistic and cheery nature of “World in Front of Me,” “Stars Falling Down,” and “Mr Sun” will inevitably bring a smile to your face. “In Your Arms,””Valentine,” and “Heart and Mind” are so saccharine that they are practically Valentine’s Day cards in audio form. The more dynamic tracks, “Strong Enough,” “Back To Us,” and updated version of “Message From Your Heart,” are prime soundtrack or single fodder that will have you grinning and tapping your toes. The album overall feels like an evening spent outdoors under a shared blanket. Perhaps this is the only potential falling point of the album: Grannis is so adorable therein that Stairwells never hits the emotional depth it could, especially given the more varied nature of her previous albums. Think more Caillat than Prettyman in tone. However, what we do get is an album that is guaranteed to make this reviewer smile insanely at least a half dozen times per listen and another snapshot into the talent and potential superstar that is Kina Grannis.
Last week Kina Grannis – a Youtube celebrity that has garnered 145,000 subscribers (the 31st most subscribed Youtuber of all time) and 36,000,000 upload views – debuted on the Billboard 200 at #139 with her new album Stairwells (one above Pearl Jam’s Backspacer). This is quite amazing considering how she has no label and no publist – purely just fan support. She was given the opportunity to sign with Interscope Records (the label that produces No Doubt and the Black Eyed Peas) when a video of her song was entered into a contest and won a placement during the Super Bowl XLII, but she turned it down in order to pursue her own songs, and not those of a hired ‘writer’.