INTERVIEW:  Already making waves in Hawaii and Japan, Justin Young makes a splash in the U.S
Justin Kawika Young in his recording studio.

INTERVIEW: Already making waves in Hawaii and Japan, Justin Young makes a splash in the U.S

Boasting three Hawaiian Music Awards including: "Best New Artist of the Year," "Best Performance By A Rhythm & Blues Artist," "Best Reggae Vocalist," a song debuting as the number one ballad in his state, and the privilege of opening for music sensations Brian McKnight and Big Mountain, Justin Young asks, “who's justified now?”

By Jennifer Chong

Hawaiian musician Justin Kawika Young has released six albums, since the start of his music career in 1995, at the young age of 17. His unique rhythm and blues style paired with traditional Hawaiian sounds has won favor with audiences. Several of his songs have spent weeks at number one on local radio stations throughout the Hawaiian Islands. In 1997 he won three Hawaiian Music Awards including, "Best Performance By A Rhythm & Blues Artist" and "New Artist of the Year." He also received the honor of being chosen by Brian McKnight as an opening act in 1998. Justin's soulful, mellow, and relaxing music captures the essence of Hawaiian lifestyle and tradition, which sets his music apart from that of other mainstream R&B musicians. Justin keeps "one foot on sand" as he aspires to step his way into the American music scene without leaving his roots behind.

Interview with Justin Young
November 14, 2003
Interviewed by Jennifer Chong
Transcribed by Jane Lee

Click here to watch interview in RealVideo.

Jennifer: Can you start by off introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about your background?

Justin: My name is Justin. I am a recording artist from Hawaii. I was born and raised there. I am 25. I started performing when I was about 17, which is when I released my first album. I have been producing music continually since then. I moved out here a couple of years ago.

Jennifer: What was it like to grow up in a predominately Asian state?

Justin: It's hard to say because I've only been raised there and I wasn't really aware of it, nor was it something I really thought about. But in general, I think there is a nice blend of cultures in Hawaii, that you don't get in too many places, which is because a lot of people here are mixed.
So, it doesn't seem quite as segmented as other places, which is nice; you get a nice blend of different cultures.

Jennifer: Did that foster in you any desires to maintain an Asian following for your music? Even when spreading your music across the nation?

Justin: Not in particular, I think the great thing about music is that it is universal. People love Stevie Wonder everywhere -- in Asia, Europe, Africa and here. I probably was more aware of that when I moved here, and people started saying, “I know someone who does Asian music or who promotes Asian music.”  At that time, I had no idea what that meant. In a way it is kind of nice, there is a lot more ethnic pride and people here are very supportive of their own ethnicity, which is cool, as long as it doesn't become a division. But that wasn't anything I really though about. To me, the beauty of making music is that it is universal and transcends all barriers.

Jennifer: Is there a reason why you chose to perform in Japan?

Justin: The opportunity came up for me to tour there. If I could choose to play wherever I wanted to, I would probably play all over the place. But I was fortunate enough to have that opportunity. And, it was a lot of fun. It was my first trip to Asia, and I really enjoyed it.  I hope to go back
someday. But, we weren't there for too long and it was actually a tour on the military basis. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to go back so that I can really see the country.

Jennifer: Which instruments do you play?

Justin: I play keyboards, guitar, ukulele…

Jennifer: Do you prefer to play one instrument over the other?

Justin: It depends. I started playing the keyboard, so that was my main instrument. As far as writing I still play the keyboard a lot, especially during music programming. Ukulele is fun to play, it is easier and I am more comfortable doing certain things on that. But now my main instrument is the guitar. So when I perform I usually play guitar. I write my music mostly on the guitar now as well. I'm getting better.

Jennifer: You say you want to go back to Hawaii to study more of the music industry. Why is it that you wish to study over there as opposed to anywhere else?

Justin: I'm not sure where you got that off of but I came here really, to study music. Having the opportunity to record and release and promote albums in Hawaii was a good learning process for me. Although that is not my ultimate goal, I learned a lot. Although, that is not my ultimate goal, it was a learning process for me because you work on a smaller, less cutthroat type of environment. Hopefully, it is just of beginning of my work, but, yes, there is a lot to learn there. I felt a little safer there than just jumping in the deep waters of LA.

Jennifer: Do you see Hawaiian music gaining popularity in other places other than Hawaii?

Justin: Yes. For the most part when we travel, for example on the mainland, the popularity of Hawaiian music is with local Hawaii people who have moved away, their offspring and their family.  But slowly I get people e-mailing me on my website from all over the place. These people have no link to Hawaii, but have stumbled on my music or have been introduced by someone who had traveled to Hawaii and picked up a CD. 

Jennifer: Why do you think Hawaiian music is so particular to the Hawaiian audience only, as of right now?

Justin: It is really different than anything else; its music is really unique to Hawaii. I think being in the islands is conducive to the sounds. So, I think a lot of people who travel there listen to
Hawaiian music during their stay. Although, I don't know if they necessarily bring it back. Also, a lot of traditional Hawaiian music is in Hawaiian, so there is that language barrier. It is foreign music, but some of it is more palatable to mainstream audiences but a lot of it is native to Hawaii.

Jennifer: Can you explain what Jawaiian music is?

Justin: Jawaiian music is kind of a dirty word now. It is not highly respected in Hawaii. It has gotten a bad reputation. A lot of music that is actually Jawaiian is no longer called that. The term came from a hybrid of Hawaiian and Jamaican music. It was really cool when I was younger, but it is no longer as popular. Groups like Kapana and Island Rhythm are groups that
are doing pretty much Jawaiian music. Some of my music is influenced by
Jawaiian music as well. So, basically reggae with island flair.

Jennifer: For you what personally appealed to you about Jawaiian and Reggae music that made you want to pursue singing?

Justin: My first love was R&B. What initially had made me want to make music was Boys II Men. Then slowly I went back into traditional style Hawaiian music. Then I gradually got into Jawaiian style music. I also love Reggae and Bob Marley. It's never been my main dish but I enjoy all kinds of music. I love certain aspects of Reggae. I try to incorporate the baselines and grooves from Reggae into my work.

Jennifer: How would you describe your style?

Justin: In Hawaii, the music that I have released is mainly traditional. I just released an album that was mostly in Hawaiian. I try to mix what I like, which is R&B, pop, with some reggae grooves. I am also making music outside of the Island genre as well. They are more singer/songwriter material, soul stuff. 

Jennifer: In 1995 you won first place in a songwriting contest. What is it about your lyrics that make them so great? 

Justin: Frankly, I'm not sure how great they are, but I think lyrics and songs that are great are written out of a place of sincerity. To me, when I connect with a song, I do so because I feel that it is genuine. They are expressing something that they feel or have experienced or know someone who has. To me, the only basis of judging music of being great or not so great is how real the music is. So I try to be really honest in the music I write.

Jennifer: Where do you get your inspirations from?

Justin: When I started, I was influenced by R&B and my writing was conceptual. I would have an idea for a song, then elaborate on it. Then, as I gravitated towards more singer/songwriter stuff I've been writing about my experiences or how I feel. I've even been inspired when my friends come to me for advice and tell me about their situations. I will sit down and start writing and all of a sudden that will spot an idea for a song. I have even gotten ideas from watching movies. Anything that moves me. I do not usually sit down and decide that I will write a song about a certain subject. Usually, I will just start playing music and lyrics will flow out that work. You never really know ahead of time, just need to be open to everything.

Jennifer: What is different about performing for a Hawaiian crowd as opposed to an L.A. or non- Hawaiian crowd?

Justin: There are probably less fights here. Just kidding. That is a good question. It depends on the venue. I think it has more to do with the environment of the crowd than anything else. I usually try to cater what I'm playing to the audience. If it is a crowd of people from Hawaii, then I will play more of the music that I know they are familiar with. When I play out here, I do a lot more contemporary music. Other than that, I don't really see much of a difference. I mean if you are playing at a club, it can get rowdy as opposed to a sit down concert, which can get more laid-back when you perform in Hawaii. 

Jennifer: Do you prefer to play for one crowd over the other?

Justin: I couldn't say that. I like to play for anyone who is appreciative. Playing for local people on the mainland is really nice, almost better than playing for locals in Hawaii. When I say local people, I mean people from Hawaii. It is really enjoyable to play for the locals on the mainland because they really appreciate it. For the most part I think it is because they are starved for Hawaii. Back at home, sometimes locals are appreciative, sometimes not so much.

Jennifer: What do you mean starved for the real thing?

Justin: They are deprived. They appreciate anything from Hawaii, they appreciate the food more, and they appreciate the music more. Out here, for the most part, if you see someone from Hawaii, you have an affinity to go up and talk to them, because you have a connection. A bond that others do not have if they did not grow up there. So they appreciate seeing music and people from Hawaii. I do a lot of college luaus where all of the Hawaiian people get together. Parents even come down to join in, and they seem really happy to be together. I know how that is being here.

Jennifer:  Your latest album is titled “Postcard.” What is the significance of this name?

Justin: Originally the label company wanted to distribute an album through their connections on the mainland. They wanted to take some of the more popular songs off my previous albums and put it on a CD and do a few new songs. These songs would be a little more contemporary than “island-y.” So that is what we did. We produced five new songs and six to seven old songs that we re-mixed. It never actually got released in the mainland, which is fine. It was however, released in Hawaii. Conceptually, “Postcard” was about me being away, sending a little snapshot of where I am and where I have been, and catch people up on what I am dong these days, musically, and otherwise.

Jennifer: So how can people on the mainland get a hold of your CD's?

Justin: At TowerRecords.com. There should be another website coming up that will also be selling my CD's as well. You could go to my website and get that information which is Justinsmusic.com. And my new CD, which is coming out on the 25th, is called “One foot on Sand” and that's Hawaiian in Hawaiian. It mostly talks about being away and keeping in touch with your roots.

Jennifer: What are your future plans?

Justin: I'm working with a producer in New York at the moment. It has always been my goal to produce music outside of Island music, so I'm still striving to do that. I'll continue to write. Short term, I'll be promoting my Hawaiian album for the next month or so in Hawaii. I will be going back pretty soon. I will be there promoting, then back to New York where I will hopefully produce other types of music.

Jennifer: There was a duo, Keahiwai, with their song, “Falling.”  I thought, they are such beautiful singers and they have such a great CD. But there is no way we can get it on the mainland and I was thinking, why wouldn't they expand their music so that mainland people can listen to it? Why wouldn't they adjust their music to reach a wider audience instead of just Islanders? But then I thought on the one hand that maybe that is just their style and they want to maintain their roots in Hawaii and keep that Hawaiian feel to their music style. Is that something you plan on doing too? Because I know that you said you wanted to branch out to appeal to more of the mainland people too but also keep your roots. How will you balance that? Do you think that you necessarily have to choose one or the other? Island or mainland?

Justin: I do not know if they have aspirations of branching out further. Not that that is a bad thing. However, they do have their day jobs as well. Mailani just graduated, actually they both just graduated. Also, it is not that easy.  People always ask, “Have you thought about signing with a record label out here?” I've thought about it since I was a little kid, and it is still hard. It is difficult, because it takes a lot of money and risk for a major record label to find a group in Hawaii and sign them. They are signing a group whose music is not on the radio here on the mainland. Especially now, with deregulation of the radio stations, and corporations buying everything, there are very little independent radio stations that will play Hawaiian music. Hawaiian music does not fit the format out here. So it would be rough to try and market something like that to an audience that is not from Hawaii. But you can still find other music at Tower Records if they have a big Hawaii music section, or you could order them online. There are a lot of websites that sell Hawaiian music. But as for myself, I think I would like to separate the two. I would like to keep Justin from Hawaii apart from me doing my own thing out here. That was my goal before doing Island music.  Everything that you experience, where you grew up, the people you have met, is reflected in your music. So even if I am not consciously including Hawaiian music into my other material, I think it is there, somewhere.