It’d be hard for any Chicagoan to not root for Kaina. She’s been in the city’s creative spaces since she was 9 years old and established herself in the city through her work with the Happiness Club, Young Chicago Authors, and while assisting the O’My’s, Jamila Woods, and Noname. In her own career as an artist, Kaina’s been featured on some of the most notable projects to come out of the city in the past few years including Saba’s CARE FOR ME and Sen Morimoto’s Cannonball. Her two EPs, Sweet Asl (2016) and 4u (2018), also made a splash in their own right, garnering over a million plays on Spotify alone. She’s also released a pair of videos for singles, “Green” and “Could Be a Curse”. When her debut LP Next to the Sun drops July 12th, she’ll be joining a strong lineage of artists from Tasha to Jamila Woods to Noname who tackle hard issues with an honesty and soft cleverness that has become a calling card for some of Chicago’s most impactful music. But if you thought her only influences were R&B and rap, the Inner Wave t-shirt she was wearing the day I met her hinted that her musical background is much more diverse. We sat down for coffee on a sunny, crowded patio and talked about that diverse musical background, her family, her relationship to the Spanish language and much more in the interview below.
rubyhornet: Tell me about the process of making the music video for “Green”. What did it mean to have your family in the video?
Kaina: That was such a special day. It was really hectic and very DIY. I asked Jean Deaux to direct it because she’s a friend and she’s always talking about directing and film. It was a perfect opportunity because I really like her and her work and I wanted to see what she can do. We talked a little bit about the concept and then later she sent me a bunch of questions and asked me, “If you were a goddess what is your perfect day?”. She’s super funny. But I’m such a simple person, my perfect day is we go to my mom’s house and we have food and there’s good music and all my friends and family are there dancing and laughing. So that was super fun. She sent a really professional deck shot list, she helped build the set and set design. It’s cool to see people who primarily work in one medium be super good at other things they do.
It was really awesome having my family in the video. Both of my parents are immigrants so to me it still feels like we’re establishing ourselves in the U.S. even though I’m here and I’ve done a lot. It still feels really fresh for all of us. So it was really cool to have them in that video because it’s something that’s ours. The way the world is set up, it’s hard to feel like there’s a lot of room for us in the States. So it was really great to have this piece of art and have it centered around my family because it feels like something we get to own–it’s ours. And I feel like my folks felt that way too. It was really emotional for me at times because my mom kept saying “thank you”. It didn’t have any context, but you just know. Fucked me up.
rubyhornet: Do you feel that way about your music generally? That it’s sort of inherently political?
Kaina: Yeah absolutely. It’s tough because I’m first gen and got more opportunity than my folks. But I still have those times where I feel like I don’t belong here because there’s all this crazy shit happening with the government and there’s no actual logic to it. Every day I think about immigration camps or anti-abortion laws and the only way I get to feel like no one owns me or my decisions is through making music. I get to write this and no one else gets to control it.
rubyhornet: What does your family think about your music? Are they into it?
Kaina: I think so. They really loved “Green” because it was inspired by salsa and it sounds like a salsa song. It’s tough because they speak English and understand it, but I don’t feel like they’ll ever read the lyrics of a song and say “oh I get the symbolism here”, but they definitely get it feeling-wise. “Could Be a Curse” was sort of nerve-wracking to me and Sen actually because both of our families don’t speak English as their primary language. So it was really nerve wracking for us because I’m writing a verse about my feelings and my parents will understand it both lyrically, but also metaphorically. Same for Sen. And in that song I have this line, which says, “Tanto trabajar y no tengo nada” which is “all this work I do and I still have nothing”. I pulled that from a Venezualen band called Caracas Boys and so when my mom read that she said “You know that’s a lyric from ‘Tanto Trabajar’”. And I said, “Yeah I did that on purpose.” So it’s funny that now my parents get to read my writing and they realize that it’s symbolic and the understand the references.
We were also both thinking, “oh my fucking God I hope that we’re grammatically correct.” I actually did send it to my mom to make edits. And she did, but just one little bit.
rubyhornet: How were you able to branch out from your immediate community into so many other spaces in Chicago at such a young age especially given that first generation communities can sometimes be somewhat insular?
Kaina: So my mom, my dad and my little brother are the only blood family I have the U.S. It’s kind of hard say, “I just want to hang around you all the time” because we’d want to kill each other. When I was 9, my friends and I just decided to audition for this thing called the Happiness Club – it was made in the 80s, which is why the name is so corny. It’s a non-profit group where kids write their own songs and dances and then put on a show that they tour around Chicago. Some kids have really hard lives or a hard time finding space and community to talk about issues in their lives, their families, or their neighborhood. But Tangie Harper, the artistic director, made a space for kids to talk about these things and actually be heard. There’s something amazing about validating a young person’s art. It consisted of kids from all over the city of Chicago. So I was being exposed to so many cultures and neighborhoods because we had shows from Englewood to Skokie. And then I ended up being there until I was 19 or 20. So for 10 years this was my life. I went to the White House twice under the Obama administration and played at Lolla with them. I’m 15, backstage at Lolla like why the fuck am I there. It just put me in a bunch of spaces that I couldn’t have been in otherwise. Eventually I found Young Chicago Authors through it and a number of mentors who brought me in for internships.
The Happiness Club was the catalyst for me being cultured. I easily could’ve been assimilated and very white-washed but because of the group it provided so much culture that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise because I don’t have a lot of family here. Even when young people in the group ask me how I’m doing the stuff I do now, I tell them to stay in the group. I was in it forever. It taught me performance skills, writing skills, how to interact with people from all over the place, and how to be a good human. It’s super tight and they’re still going.
rubyhornet: So you’ve described how working with the Happiness Club lead you to YCA and internships with the O’My’s, Noname, and Jamila Woods. I heard that when you were doing all those you considered quitting music to just work on the business side. Is that true?
Kaina: Yeah I don’t know if I ever took that thought super seriously. But that’s another part of the music industry that I love. I love being able to help other artists produce shows and help run shit. I just got really good at it after all those internships. Managers wanted to sub me out for themselves. So I thought if I know I’m good at this why don’t I just pursue it. I don’t know if I ever took really seriously, but my thought was I could get hired for this and music is never really secure.
rubyhornet: So how’d you take that leap to do something that’s less secure?
Kaina: My friends and the people around me just pushed me. They told me it was stupid to stop music. And also music just kept on happening to me. I don’t feel like I ever pursued it. It’d be like “someone wants to book your shitty high school band” and then we’d get booked more. And I never imagined the Sweet Asl EP to do anything, but that blew up. Even now I don’t even know how I got here. I just kept doing things, but I never actively sought it. It wasn’t until this album that I seriously sat down and worked on music. Everything else was just fun.
rubyhornet: What’s it like being managed? And having to give up some of the responsibilities that you’ve had working with other artists?
Kaina: It was kind of hard for me at first. In the spaces I grew up in whether with Tangie at the Happiness Club or my mentors at YCA – those people all taught how to manage myself as a business but also do it while being a good person. So it’s not as if people were constantly asking to be my manager, but I had high expectations. Because first of all I’m good at it so they had to be just as good at it as me or better and they also they had to be a genuinely good person. It was hard at first without a manager, especially when things started picking up. I’m so bad at asking for help or support. It wasn’t until I met Eddie, my manager, that I realized that I should have been asking for help this whole time. I’m very much a person who likes to take on everything by myself because I can do it. But just because I can do it doesn’t mean I should do all of it.
rubyhornet: So I wanted to ask you about this quote from Latino USA in a story about you. It says, “Though many of her young Latinx music peers write songs in both English and Spanish, Castillo focuses on English. ‘It almost feels like I’m appropriating something that is definitely already mine,’ Castillo said of writing original music in Spanish, and instead favors incorporating Spanish covers into her live sets.” What did you mean by that?
Kaina: Yeah this quote kind of bothers me because it’s a little out of context. I think I was just talking about how in the current state of music, one of the hot trends is to pitch artists in the Latinx community as Latinx artists. I’m very intentional about everything that I do so it feels gross to me to jump in on this trend and write a song in Spanish just because I could. Not that I primarily want to focus on English. I take a long time to process my feelings and Spanish isn’t my strongest language where I get to express them but there are moments where Spanish does feel like the best way to express myself. Spanish is mine to claim; it’s mine to own; it’s mine to use in the way I see fit. But if someone said, “Hey you need to write more songs in Spanish because this shit is popping right now”, I wouldn’t feel comfortable. I think that’s just disgusting. That feels like appropriation to me. But it doesn’t mean that I feel like I’m appropriating myself, I just meant that I don’t want to ever do anything because it’s trendy. I want to write songs in Spanish because it feels right or because I had a dream about it not because I’m gonna hop in a trend.
rubyhornet: Yeah, so tell me about the dream you had that lead to “Could Be a Curse”.
Kaina: I had a dream that Sen and I wrote a song in Spanish and Japanese. Sen Morimoto is my main producer and bandmate and also my best friend. It just felt perfect. So we wrote “Could Be a Curse” in Spanish and Japanese.
rubyhornet: I agree with you that Latinx music is really trending right now nationally. But it doesn’t feel like that’s the case in Chicago despite a big presence of Latinx people. Do you have any idea why that might be?
Kaina: I don’t know if I have fully formed thoughts on this, but there are Latin artists in the city like Tatiana Hazel or Victor and whenever there’s a Latinx centered show us three tend to be the main acts. I’ve heard so many pitches for shows that are just me, Tatiana, and Victor. And that’s cool, but there’s been a huge presence of Latinx folks doing music in this city for a long time before I have. Like the Latinx punk community or huge salsa bands, but they’re not prominent in the Chicago scene. But I think there is a future where you can mix these people together with someone that you wouldn’t put on a Latinx bill and it would fit just right.
As much as I think identity is really important, one of my dreams is that we could live in a world where we can stop doing all Latinx shows. Like throw Tatiana with another cool Chicago pop singer and it’s just a show. I always tell people that I remember around the time I started college, people started putting together all women bills and that was really cool. But then it becomes the thing you’re trying to avoid. It got tiring. And now I’m at a point in my career where people ask me to be a part of an all Latinx bill. I did that and it’s cool and that’s always fun to build spaces for just these people, but there comes a time where you’re doing the thing that you’re trying to avoid by not breaking apart bills and bringing people together. You should bring that pot together and throw everyone in there. It would be the sickest show.
rubyhornet: So let’s go back to Sen Morimoto – how did you guys link up and why do you think that collaboration has been so fruitful?
Kaina: I was playing a show with Nnamdi Ogbonnaya and my friend Brian. Sen came to watch and Nnamdi and Brian mentioned that he was opening for Badbadnotgood, which I thought was super cool so they introduced me to him. But it was funny because Sen and I had actually met earlier that night. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but someone said something really inappropriate on stage and Sen had this really concerned look on his face. So I went up to him and said “Hey man, that really messed me up, do you want to sit with me and talk about it?” So we talked about it and then he walked away. Then when Nnamdi and Brian introduced us I realized we had already met.
So Sen asked for my number to rehearse for Badbadnotgood show. I didn’t think much of it–you know, people say “let’s link and build” all the time. I didn’t think he was gonna hit me up, but then he texted me “Hey do you want to rehearse tomorrow?”. I listened to his music and the parts were so hard. I remember just sitting on my kitchen floor practicing so much because they were some of the hardest harmonies I’ve ever had to sing. And then at the rehearsal, we just hit it off and we’ve been best friends ever since. We hang out every day. For a long time he would ask me if I wanted to make music and I wasn’t sure because that’s vulnerable for me. We were becoming tight friends, but I’m shy when it comes to collaboration. But we finally ended up working together. I think it’s been an amazing relationship because we both support each other super hard. I play in his band and he plays in mine. He pushed me to finish the For You EP and pushed me to finish Next to the Sun – he’s a great person.
rubyhornet: So did he produce most of the songs on the album?
Kaina: I actually composed most of them myself. This is the first time that I’ve ever produced and composed for myself. I’m not a producer but I started making loops and little crappy beats. I’d show them to Sen and he’d tell me they were so cool even though I thought they were trash. When it came time to make an album, he helped me expand some of those beats that I produced from scratch while keeping a lot of the parts that I had originally made. Like the drums in “Ghost” are the ones I made. He showed me how the ideas I thought were crappy could be expanded and gave me insight into how I can actually produce my own things and feel more comfortable in my ideas.
rubyhornet: Is that a goal for you? To be the solo producer for your work?
Kaina: I don’t think so. I love collaborating. It’s fun to bounce ideas back and forth. With Sen it’s fun because he can literally play every single instrument so I could be like “Sax here would be cool”. And he puts down his guitar and picks up a saxophone. And I can’t play all those instruments. I think I’d like to do more songwriting and get to a place in my career where I can write songs for other people. If I end up producing for myself that’s super cool, but it’s not really my ultimate goal. I think songwriting is.
rubyhornet: It seems like there’s a big difference in not only the production, but also the content on Next to the Sun and your earlier work. Do you feel like you’ve evolved as an artist?
Kaina: Like I said, most of these songs stemmed from bedroom beats – some 3am, in your feelings, sad about the world shit. Sen and I were able to turn them into such cool things and it still has some of the sweeter, what I call Lullaby Funk, aspects of my older stuff. But even before Sweet Asl, in my high school band I was doing weird rock, soul, almost math-y music. I feel like Next to the Sun combines those things; the sweeter stuff and the weird rock stuff I was playing in high school.
Also, I think I’m always super honest in my music, but Next to the Sun is honest in a different way. For a long time I felt like I had to be a positive, happy person in my music because that’s who I wanted to be for the world. I want to be something that makes people feel good. But as I grew up, I realized that it wasn’t really sustainable as an artist or as a person to ignore the rest of my feelings. I’m a positive person, but it’s not ok to just shove feelings you don’t want to feel into the corner. For a long time I didn’t want to make new songs because the things I was making didn’t sound like me, I didn’t know how people will receive it, and I didn’t like that I was writing stuff like that because I don’t like feeling it. But it’s such a disservice to myself and my art if I’m not being honest about the kinds of things I’m making. It’s just me right now, or it was me in that period. So the title track “Next to the Sun” is about how happiness and sadness are as intense as the other and you need both to evolve.
rubyhornet: So you said you were unprepared when you dropped Sweet Asl. Do you feel more prepared now for Next to the Sun?
Kaina: No, not at all. Sweet Asl was a bunch of diary entries. It feels the way it was – a sweet, young, summer day. Next to the Sun is a lot different. I think it’s good, but I don’t know. I feel like life just keeps happening to me and I’m not fully prepared. I don’t internalize a lot of my successes and I’m trying to slow down and appreciate my efforts, but I don’t necessarily know what will come from this. I’m such a hard worker and always thinking about the next thing. I’m trying to slow myself down and appreciate it especially in the time left that there is. We’ve done all the work that we can at this point all I can really do is sit back and watch the fruits of my labor. But then I’m like I don’t know what to expect. The internet is a crazy place – you never know who’s watching you. People have said to me, “oh so and so talked to me about you,” which is crazy. I don’t expect any of that. I’m always just trying to be honest, vulnerable and make something good that I enjoy for myself. I never expected all of this to come from it.
You can catch Kaina at her release show with Kara Jackson, Sen Morimoto, and Luna Luna on July 14th at Lincoln Hall or at her restaurant pop-up on July 12th and 13th. Or if you’re not in Chicago, she’ll be touring with the O’My’s in July and August and Cuco in September and October.