All That Glitters Is Gold For Singer
Fresh off yet another Hoku victory, Natalie Ai Kamauu prefers basking in the light of her ‘shadow’ these days
Songstress Natalie Ai Kamauu has this uncanny ability to light up just about any room by herself, thanks to a dynamic and soul-stirring singing voice, and a glittery personality that often boasts fashionably cool nail art, brightly colored or sequined outfits, and blingedout electronic devices. And yet what’s making this accomplished Hawaiian music artist really sparkle nowadays is sharing the spotlight with her laid-back, unassuming husband, Iolani Kamauu.
These lovebirds have been making beautiful music together for a while now, with Ai Kamauu’s vocal talents understandably commanding the attention of fans while Iolani quietly operates in the background as her guitarist and music arranger. But at the most recent Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, Iolani finally stepped out of the shadows and into the limelight after receiving his own star for his, Ai Kamauu and producer-engineer Dave Tucciarone’s joint work on her latest album, Eia, which contains mostly previously recorded material penned by the singer-songwriter for her husband.
And no one could be prouder of this year’s Anthology of the Year honor than Ai Kamauu, already a three-time Hoku award winner herself in the Female Vocalist of the Year category, because this accolade officially recognizes the efforts of the man largely responsible for her star-filled career. “I was more excited for Io winning the award just because it was his first,” says Ai Kamauu shortly after the annual awards show was held May 23-24 at Hawaii Convention Center. “And yet Io doesn’t consider it his first. The first thing he said to me after we got home from the Hokus was, ‘Now we have five of them!’
“But that’s so like Io. He’s been overlooked for so many years, and that’s been so unfair to him because he’s always done so much of the work.”
This latest honor puts somewhat of an exclamation point on the couple’s past nine years as professional musicians, a period which saw Ai Kamauu’s first three albums respectively named E (released in 2005), I (2009) and A (2011) spawn several Hawaiian mele favorites, including Ka Wai Nahenahe and Ginger Blossom. Her next album, tentatively scheduled for release in November, has yet to be named but is expected to steer clear of the single-vowel theme. Eight new songs have either already been recorded or are currently being worked on at Tucciarone’s Seventh Wave Studio in Salt Lake, and Ai Kamauu promises many of the same Hawaiian chants and traditional mele that have made her so popular both here and in Japan, where she’s currently on tour.
And to think this collaboration between soulmates would have never happened had Ai Kamauu decided not to return Iolani’s phone call in 1990.
“Back then, Io was a deejay at KCCN and he decided to play a Christmas song I recorded with Dave. We didn’t know each other at the time, but Io had his eye on me after I won Miss Aloha Hula earlier that year, and told his friend that he was going to marry me,” recalls Ai Kamauu, who grew up dancing for her parents’ hula school, Halau Hula Olana, and participating at the annual Merrie Monarch Festival. “So on Christmas Eve of that year, I called to thank him for playing my song and he was trying to keep the conversation going, but I had to rush off. So he asked me to call him back and I said, ‘OK.’”
It took a week before Ai Kamauu made good on her promise and a subsequent phone conversation didn’t happen until 10 days later. “I’m not easy, you know,” she says, giggling at the memory. But when additional call-backs led to regular get-togethers at her home, the wheels were in motion for a long-term relationship. Two months later, Iolani proposed and the couple tied the knot in the fall of 1991.
Since then the duo, whose first musical venture together came as members of the Hawaiian/techno pop group Sunland, has been largely inseparable. “If I go out on the street by myself, people will expect to see Io with me,” Ai Kamauu tells me. And all that time together means countless opportunities for the two to continue reworking her compositions, jointly searching for the right words and sounds that will resonate in listeners’ ears and hearts. “Io will often play something for me and I’ll say, ‘That’s such a boring chord. Play something that no one else would play.’ And he’ll be worried that it’s going to change the tune a bit, and I’ll tell him not to worry about it,” she explains. “So he’ll go to his own quiet place and come back with something and play it for me, and I’ll say, ‘Yes! That’s such a pretty chord. Let’s go with that!’”
Here’s what else Ai Kamauu told Musical Notes about her marriage and ever-glowing personality:
MN: When Iolani proposed to you just weeks after you first met, did you immediately say yes?
NAK: Oh, no. I seriously told him shut up! I was surprised because I didn’t think there was anything romantic going on between us. I just figured we were going to be good friends.
MN: How long did it take you to finally decide that he was the one?
NAK: I think about an hour (laughing). When I realized he was serious about his marriage proposal, I had to breathe. Then I started thinking, OK, could I see myself spending my life with this person? Yes. Is he a good person? Yes. He plays Hawaiian music, and you love Hawaiian music. His mom is a kumu hula, and your mom is a kumu hula. You’re both deeply rooted in the Hawaiian culture. So I took a deep breath and said, yes, I’ll marry you.
MN: When did you discover your voice?
NAK: At age 22, after I learned how to chant and won Miss Aloha Hula. Before then, I was somewhat of a disappointment in my family because I sang like how I talk, you know? In this squeaky, little girl’s voice.
MN: What were you planning to be before a music career became a possibility?
NAK: A journalist. I loved to write, and worked for my high school newspaper. I don’t know what happened to the journalist dream along the way, but I still write these days, except my writing involves melodies that turn into songs.
MN: And your songs turn into sparkly awards, right?
NAK: Well, I did name my third album A, which means to sparkle. I have no idea how I came up with that title!
MN: Why do you love glittery things so much?
NAK: I travel to Japan a lot for performances and there, the people believe that sparkly things deflect what’s bad and unpleasant. So I started wearing sparkly things to be happy and, hopefully, to make others happy as well.