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How Aidan James Became One Of Earth’s Mightiest (And Cutest) Heroes

It’s up, up and away for YouTube sensation and 2015 Na Hoku Hanohano Award nominee Aidan James, the adorable ukulele-playing kid turned serious songwriter who’s composed a super song just for HBO’s earth-conscious docuseries ‘Saving My Tomorrow.’

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How Aidan James Became One Of Earth's Mightiest (And Cutest) Heroes | Nathalie Walker photo nwalker@midweek.com

The kid seated inside Island Sound Studios with the hair teased high and the eighth note symbol freshly shaved into the sides of his head may be growing up fast, but man, can he still melt hearts — still pluck away at the beating four-chamber organ like few others can and turn it into an instant gob of goo. It’s like some kind of superpower of his to control others’ emotions, and do it all with an innocent blast of cuteness.

He flashes a gummy smile, and pubescent girls grow weak in the knees, giggling uncontrollably. He flexes his forehead and eye muscles — allowing his Gotham-dark eyebrows to hang for a few precious moments above his oversized Clark Kent-like eyeglass frames — and hyperventilating, middle-aged women morph into teenage girls. Awwwww, they sigh, whimpering like puppies discovering their first love.

And heaven help us all if this kid should ever break out his almighty Kamaka and start riffing and singing in front of the faint of heart. He pulled this stunt five years ago when he was but a pint-sized, beret-wearing cherub covering the Train classic Hey, Soul Sister at the Ukulele Festival. That three-and-a-half-minute-long performance, perfectly captured on video by an unknown audience member, proceeded to go viral and attract nearly 20 million rabid viewers on YouTube — among them, Train’s own lead singer Pat Monahan, who purportedly called it his favorite cover version of the song.

Repeat that kind of performance anytime soon and you might as well hide all the women and children — ’cause hearts are gonna explode, websites are gonna crash. And all that will be left is more putty in the kid’s hands.

But as cool as being cute can be, the truth of the matter is, it’s no longer desirable for this fast-maturing teenager to just be a super-de-duper adorable heartthrob. What he prefers is that people recognize he’s got some substance, some depth to his soul, and that he’s fully capable of taking a mighty stand on pressing issues, like the health of Planet Earth, while inspiring others through his own thoughts and lyrics.

And that’s what makes musician Aidan James all the more super these days.

Handpicked to be a part of HBO’s current six-part docuseries Saving My Tomorrow, Aidan joins a throng of young environmentalists from around the globe for the network special. These activists, many of whom are around his age of 13, are unified in their desire to clean up the planet, protect its resources and deliver their call-to-action messages through a mix of science, animation and music. In Aidan’s case, his song, Back To Where We Came From, was written just for the series. The track is tentatively scheduled for worldwide release on Earth Day, April 22, with proceeds to go to a yet-to-be-determined charity. Meanwhile, the music video of Aidan performing his original composition at Sherwoods Beach in Waimanalo is expected to be aired sometime next month in the series’ fifth episode. That show will focus on endangered animals and ongoing efforts to protect these creatures and their habitats.

I always knew that if I wanted to keep being a musician, that I would need to write some songs and actually release my own material.

For the fledgling singer-songwriter, Back To Where We Came From represents his first attempt at composing a song all by himself. The music and its lyrics — Woke up this morning and stared out my window; a beautiful, colorful rainbow staring back at me … Is nature calling me? Love this land we live, keep it safe, continue to give, back to where we came from … — came rather easily to him, requiring less than four hours to complete. And although familiar with many of the environmental issues facing the planet, Aidan admits the assignment forced him to reflect on the beauty of his island surroundings, and ultimately led him to feel a sense of responsibility as a caretaker of the planet.

“It was natural for me to write about Hawaii. I see rainbows a lot and get to go to the beach anytime. I live in a valley surrounded by green mountains,” explains the Kalama Valley resident, whose recently released debut EP, Live Again, comes housed in a CD jacket made of 100 percent recyclable materials and green-friendly ink, and packaged in a crystal clear, reusable eco-bag. “Something as little as picking up trash on the ground or finding junk in the ocean and properly disposing of it can help. I’m thinking we all need to be more aware (because) every effort counts.”

So just how did Aidan earn a spot in the HBO special? Here’s what happened: Saving My Tomorrow producer Beth Aala, who also produced the 2014 documentary Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, approached the musician’s camp last fall with the idea of using his music in the series. Immediately, Aidan forwarded a couple of songs he had already been working on to the network for consideration. But although HBO found the songs inspirational, none fit the topic. “So, they asked if I would be interested in writing a new song for the show and if I could be featured in it. I was like, of course!”

In December, Aidan made reservations at Island Sound Studios in Hawaii Kai and, in a move that would make his hero Ed Sheeran proud, recorded the track with just a handful of instruments: his voice, an ukulele and, naturally, a loop machine. Soon after, Aala received a copy of Back To Where We Came From and, along with members of her team, including series director Amy Schatz, gave it a listen. The result: The song absolutely melted their hearts.

“Aidan is a very talented musician and we found his song so inspirational,” says Schatz. “What’s so moving is that he wrote this love song to nature, and to the beauty of the world. And that’s the underlying message of the series, which is: The nature around us is beautiful, so let’s all work to keep it so.”

Born just five days before 9/11 to a pair of local indie film producers, Aidan James Laprete Powell seemed destined for a life played out in front of crowds. Beginning at the tender age of 18 months, he was cast in a number of commercials and print ad campaigns, with organizations such as Aloha United Way and D.R. Horton hoping to capitalize on the kid’s inherent charm and hapa-haole good looks (an ethnic mix of Japanese, Italian, Irish, English, German and American Indian inherited from parents William “Chico” Powell and Angie Laprete). Since then he’s remained active in the acting scene with bit parts in movies (he played the character Rico in Under The Blood Red Sun), TV shows (Hawaii Five-0) and other artists’ music videos (Train’s Mermaid). He even came oh, so close to landing the role of Eddie in the TV comedy series Fresh Off The Boat, but ultimately lost the gig to New York native Hudson Yang.

“I wasn’t disappointed,” says Aidan of the setback, adding that the show’s producers tried to find another part for him, but every turn led to a dead end. “If I got a role it would have been cool. But really, if I’m going to be known for something, I want it to be for my music.”

Being able to articulate his thoughts and feelings through songwriting is what Aidan really wants to be super at, even though many only think of him as “the cute ukulele kid” who plays cover tunes.

“I always knew that if I wanted to keep being a musician, that I would need to write some songs and actually release my own material,” says Aidan, who picked up his first ukulele at age 4 and, thanks to his music videos on YouTube since then, has attracted the attention of many giants in the industry beyond Train, including Jack Johnson and Mick Fleetwood, both of whom he’s shared stages with. “I felt that if I kept doing covers, I would turn into a cover musician, and that’s not really what I want to do.”

And so he’s worked diligently at his craft, taking every opportunity to collaborate with other, more experienced songwriters, including Jeff Dayton, Yoza and Johnny Helm, who helped co-write material with Aidan for Live Again. Additionally, he flew to Nashville last year to work with several songwriters who, like him, are signed to the large Japanese talent agency Hori Pro. Their joint effort produced several super-catchy, Taylor Swiftesque pop tunes, including one in which a smooth-sounding Aidan can be heard singing about wanting “the girl on the TV screen” and driving around “in a Maserati with a million-dollar body, baby, singing la-di-dadi (’cause we like to party!).”

All of these collaborative songwriting sessions actually set Aidan up perfectly for his next big project — his first full-length album, expected out no later than early next year. And they might just help deliver his first Na Hoku Hanohano Award in the EP of the Year category at next month’s show.

Should he be fortunate enough to walk off with the honor, he certainly wouldn’t mind being introduced as “the cute ukulele kid” that night. Just as long as he gets the award, he says, and he continues to make fans feel good when listening to his songs.

“If I can make people smile with my music, I suppose that’s all that matters.”

Spoken like a true heartthrob.