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More Than Cute

Aidan James at 13: Still adorable, but sounding and looking more mature | PHOTO COURTESY AIDAN JAMES

Aidan James at 13: Still adorable, but sounding and looking more mature | PHOTO COURTESY AIDAN JAMES

YouTube sensation Aidan James finds his voice in his coming of age debut album, Live Again

The problem with being Aidan James is no one ever wants you to grow up. It’s what happens when you’re an adorably perfect 8-year-old who reminds some of the cute kid from the mid-’90s movie Jerry Maguire.

You smile and any room lights up.

You pick up an ukulele and sing the Train classic Hey, Soul Sister, and instantly the song has gone viral, resulting in 20 million-plus melted hearts from here to Timbuktu.

For the past five years, this has been Aidan’s life — with everyone and their mother wanting to run their fingers through the young entertainer’s spiked hair, poke at his oversized eyeglass frame or pinch his Pillsbury doughboy-soft cheeks.

But now that he’s 13, those touchy-feely moments aren’t so cute any longer. These days, Aidan wants to be more than just a YouTube sensation, more than just a darling little kid with a Kamaka ukulele.

“I’d like to be taken more seriously as a musician,” he confesses. “I don’t want to be just cute anymore.”

With the release of his debut EP Live Again, he may be getting his wish. The four-song album represents Aidan’s maiden voyage into unchartered waters as a fast-maturing artist. His voice is deeper and more refined, while his playing chops are rhythmically and tastefully on fleek (as teenagers his age might say). And although the cuteness factor is still present on the album, thanks to his pop rock-friendly melodies, Aidan’s growth as a musician can be heard in his burgeoning songwriting abilities. For Live Again, Aidan solicited the compositional assistance of other notable writers, including Nashville producer and session guitarist Jeff Dayton and R&B vocalist Yoza.

In Dayton’s case, Aidan met him a couple of years ago at the Kauai Music Festival. They immediately formed a friendship and began writing what is currently the album’s most recognizable track, One of the Ones, which was featured on an episode of Hawaii Five-0.

“It was the first song I ever wrote,” Aidan says. “For inspiration, Jeff said he had gone on my Facebook page and found a quote from Steve Jobs that I had posted. It’s the one that goes, ‘Here’s to the crazy ones, the troublemakers … because the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.’ Jeff thought it would be something we could write about, something that everyone could relate to besides love. So we decided to write about helping out people. I did the first verse, and me and Jeff came up with the chorus, and then we both wrote the second verse.”

Despite not having a whole lot of life experiences to tap into for song direction, Aidan says it was important for him to begin developing as a lyricist now. After all, he didn’t want to be stuck playing cover songs like the Foo Fighters’ My Hero, or Ed Sheeran’s Don’t and You Need Me, I Don’t Need You, for the rest of his life.

“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’s shared the stage with such artists as Pat Monahan of Train, Jack Johnson, Jake Shimabukuro and Mick Fleetwood, and even performed at such legendary locales as Whisky A Go Go in West Hollywood. “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. People like to hear new material.

“Hopefully, my songwriting may prove to some people that I’m more than just cute!”

Here’s what else Aidan told Musical Notes:

MN: Do you remember when and where you first performed live?

AJ: I started playing ukulele at 4, and at 6 I performed at the Ukulele Festival in a group. My first solo performance came during a talent show at Hahaione Elementary. I think I was 7 at the time and I played Hey, Soul Sister. And then I played at a baby luau and that’s when someone made a video of it and put it online and it got a million views right away. Then someone else made a video of me playing the same song at the Ukulele Festival and posted it on YouTube. I think that one has over 19 million views.

MN: What would make you happiest — winning a Na Hoku Hanohano Award, or continuing to brighten people’s days as a singer-songwriter?

AJ: I’d like to win a Hoku and be recognized because it would be nice. But it’s not really that important. I love performing and putting smiles on faces. Hopefully, it makes their days better.

MN: What’s your favorite song from your just-released EP?

AJ: Well, I like them all! But if I had to choose one, I would say the title track Live Again. I wrote that song with (local songwriter) Johnny Helm in two hours. It was written for my shiba inu dog Taro, that died while I was on a trip and that I ended up dedicating the album to. I also really like that song because of its groove.

MN: Your album cover has a bit of a Nirvana feel to it. Do you even know who Nirvana is and, if so, do you agree with the observation?

AJ: Oh, yeah! I like Nirvana! But really, the photographer (Amanda Finn) we worked with just happened to do a lot of underwater shots, so we decided to try it. It was fun, and I wound up using a cheap ukulele for the photos. But yeah, so many people are saying the same thing about the album cover. It’s like, hey, the Nirvana kid grew up!

(See Page 48 for photos of Aidan’s EP listening party. )

Maisey Rika

Maisey Rika

SMALL-KINE NOTES: Upcoming performances for Aidan James and his band Rising Sons (made up of Chord Medeiros on bass and Logyn Okuda on drums) includes Saturday from 4 to 5 p.m. at Windward Mall’s center stage, and Feb. 6 at 8:30 p.m. at Fresh Cafe … New Zealand singer-songwriter Maisey Rika (pictured above) drops in at Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre for a one-night performance Sunday. Rika, whose singing style has often been compared to Tracy Chapman, Sade and India Arie, fuses English and Maori lyrics into her easy-listening acoustic sets. Since going pro at age 13, she has released albums that have charted in the New Zealand Top 40, gone double platinum and captured several Waiata Maori Music Awards, including “Best Maori Female Solo Artist” and “Best Maori Pop Album.” Rika’s “Out of the Box” show begins at 7:30. Tickets cost $30 for museum members, $35 for general admission.