A Star Is Born

Led by his daughter’s memory, Eric Lee found direction in the skies to produce his newest CD

In writing about life’s most difficult challenges, Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.”

Hawaiian musician Eric Lee would agree with the great American philosopher and essayist. After watching helplessly last fall as his 2-month-old infant daughter – born with brain disorders epilepsy and encephalopathy – struggled to survive on a breathing machine, Lee could bear the sight no longer.

Eric Lee

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Kawehilani by Eric Lee

So he did what most parents dread doing – say a final goodbye to their offspring – and allowed the energy from his tiny hoku to slip away and find station, and solace, in the celestial canopy above.

“The doctors weren’t giving my daughter a long life expectancy prognosis, and it took my wife and I awhile to come to terms with the situation,” Lee recalls. “In the end, we decided it best to let her go in peace.”

He continues: “When she passed, my wife and I would always go out to the beach, watch the sunset and look for the first star of the evening. We would imagine that it was her looking down on us, a time when she could see us and we could see her before the rest of the stars started showing up and it got real dark.

“It was the one moment when we could all be reconnected and together again.”

In looking skyward, Lee serendipitously found the inspiration needed for his next solo CD project: a return-to-roots album born out of initial despair but suddenly filled with heaven-sent goodness of seven traditional mele and four originals, including the CD’s heartwarming and therapeutic final track, Little Star.

“It was as if I was being led by a guided hand,” he says of the force that pushed him to layer his newest album with Hawaiian music rather than other genres he’s adept at, including blues and rock.

The result is Kawehilani, named after his daughter and released just weeks ago.

“The album is a celebration of my music in tribute to my daughter’s life,” says Lee, a former member of local groups The Kanilea Connection, The Kaala Boys and Na Kama, winning two Na Hoku Hanohano awards with the latter. “I knew that if she were still alive, she would one day ask me, ‘Dad, what is it that you’ve done with your music?’ And I probably would have ended up playing her something in Hawaiian.

“So that was kind of the clear road for me and what I needed to do for this project.”

Musical Notes tracked Lee down before he boarded a flight to Fukuoka, Japan, and got the veteran musician to discuss his solo career, which, much like a star, is on the rise these days.

MN: You’re taking a somewhat unusual approach to your CD release party for Kawehilani by moving the event back to November. Why the long delay?

EL: Because I’m doing a lot of traveling between now and then. I’ve got several tours planned to Japan, one to Sacramento for a hula competition, and maybe even a trip to Las Vegas. So once the traveling is out of my system, I’ll settle down and do the CD release party. But also, I’ve got a tour event planned for later this year and it just made sense to hold it at the same time. The Kanikapila Tour is something I hope becomes an annual event and involves an ukulele teacher and his students from Fukuoka, and several hula students as well. I plan on bringing them over and giving them an opportunity to play on stage with me. It gives them some exposure and they can craft their performing skills and just have fun – kanikapila style.

MN: What led you to cover traditional Hawaiian classics such as Ka Lama Ae One, Green Rose Hula and Hooheno Keia No Beauty (Beauty Hula) on this album?

EL: I’ve been doing classic Hawaiian songs throughout my career, and I’ve always wanted to record those songs. Kawehilani became the perfect opportunity to present these songs in a recording and pay tribute to great composers and the hula market. Ka Lama Ae One, for example, is a longtime favorite of mine that I’ve tried to record before, but I could never quite find the right arrangement. Part of the reason is that I didn’t want my version to sound like the Makaha Sons’ or Sunday Manoa’s recordings. But in the end, I got a real country-style version out of the song and really liked it. It was tricky to record, but a lot of fun!

MN: Speaking of fun, are you enjoying life as a solo artist?

EL: Oh, yeah! For one thing, I’m traveling more, and that’s something I really enjoy. But also, I’m able to express all sides of my music as a solo artist, something I wasn’t able to do a lot of when I was in a band. Playing live, I can go from Hawaiian music one moment, to entertaining audiences with Van Morrison and Bon Jovi the next. That keeps everything fresh for me, and that opens the market up to me for more gigs.

MN: You were 9 when you picked up your first instrument, a $15 ukulele purchased from Woolworth’s in Waianae. Was that when you first knew you wanted to be a professional musician – a star, if you will?

EL: Actually, I was a little younger when I first realized I wanted to play music. I remember being at a party in Waianae when I was maybe 6 or 7 and there was a family band playing He Aloha Mele while a family friend danced the hula. I looked around and observed the audience and everyone was really into what was going on, and in my mind everything just clicked. There was some kind of connection going on between the music, the hula and the people, and I knew right then and there that I wanted to be a part of that magic.

small-kine< note:

On Sunday, alternative rock group Vertical Horizon brings its string of radio-friendly hits to the Waikiki Shell for an evening of great music with the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra and conductor Matt Catingub. Joining this orchestral collaboration for the first half of the concert is local songstress Yoza. Led by frontman Matt Scannell, Vertical Horizon first achieved international success with 1999’s hit single Everything You Want, which was followed by You’re A God, We Are and Best I Ever Had (Grey Sky Morning). The show starts at 7. For tickets, call 593-9468.