Blame Zooey Deschanel, Jason Mraz or maybe those Japanese kids flaunting their talent on YouTube for making the ukulele irresistibly popular again. More people are momentarily parking their bulkier instruments in favor of the easy convenience of the uke, churning out covers of every tune you could think of—from heartfelt renditions of the Beatles’ “I Will,” to lighter, more cheerful versions of “Wrecking Ball.”
For someone who started playing the piano at age 4, was raised in a family of musicians and who graduated with no less than a music degree, playing the ukulele should be fairly easy. Kai Honasan has been exposed and inclined to make music all her life. Formal training in classical music and a mix of influences comprising the musical preferences of her siblings, themes from Broadway musicals, and doses of ’90s OPM and bubblegum pop laid the foundation for a musical aesthetic that would soon become her own.
From concocting tunes with the piano and a plastic kazoo in grade school, writing her first formal song when she was barely into her teens, to doing the high school band thing like everyone else, Kai has beaten all boundaries in order to exhaust all avenues that would lead to improving her craft.
In 2011, she attended a songwriting workshop at Berklee College of Music in Valencia, Spain. She was also mentored by the likes of Ryan Cayabyab, Joey Ayala and Noel Cabangon, among others, as part of the third batch of graduates from the Elements Singer Songwriter Camp in 2012. Last year, she wrote one of the songs for Ballet Philippines and Rock Ed’s “Rock Supremo,” the only female contributor from a roster of 11 well-known Pinoy artists.
Kai credits the people who have been with her during these milestones, from her first piano teacher down to the people who influenced her at Berklee and Elements, for helping mold her into the musician she has become. Her instrument of choice these days is the ukulele, but instead of transposing pop melodies to simpler ukulele varieties, Kai writes her own songs.
She has accomplished yet another musical venture with the launch of her debut album. Kai will be releasing “In Your Face” (and other songs about other faces) tonight at B-Side, The Collective. The album contains eight original tracks including one of the first she has written with the ukulele, “Go”; the titular track, “In Your Face”; and the lead single, “Tongue Tied.” Also part of the album is “This City,” a song she wrote while attending a workshop in Spain, and inspired by the people and experiences she encountered during her stay.
Recording for the album started only in November last year, about a month after Kai’s 25th birthday.
In a one-on-one interview, Kai ecstatically recalled how veteran producers and seasoned musicians in their own right, Buddy Zabala and Sancho Sanchez, and sound engineer Shinji Tanaka helped make the album special, along with a few important people in her life. “What made it special is that I was so unprepared for this. I was so scared because my producers and the sound engineer, Shinji, Buddy and Sancho, they weren’t aware of my songs, they heard them for the first time when we were working together… It was such a good combination of people. I had my band, my brothers and my family friends whom I grew up with, and we had these people, (like) Sancho, who just met me. These songs were three years old, and we got these guys to put a new spin on them. So I think that’s what made it special. We knew the songs so well, and they put a new perspective on it. It was fun to put those things together, plus those guys are legends. Just to hear what they think about your style was a pretty big deal.”
One of Kai’s key musical influences is her sister-in-law, Barbie Almalbis (Honasan). Aside from the fact that she had been a big fan of the latter since high school, it was Barbie who advised her to try writing songs every day and provided the first opportunity for her to play at a live gig.
In 2011, Kai had the chance to perform her first two uke songs before Barbie’s set at Route 196. Kai hasn’t looked back since and has worked toward finding her place in the local indie music scene.
If one’s compositions are in any way reflective of the artist’s personality, then Kai isn’t boring. Her tongue-in-cheek, animated persona manifests in her songs. I have yet to hear the rest of the tracks from the album, but the few I’ve listened to so far are indeed indicative of the young singer-songwriter’s well-grounded talent. The lyrics are painfully honest; Kai’s candid, spontaneous ramblings make the perfect verses once laid against a bed of her bright and refreshing musical arrangements. The honesty comes as no surprise, as it is one principle that Kai applies in songwriting:
“You can never make songwriting a science. Even if you go to places like a songwriting camp, there’s no actual structure in teaching it. In terms of putting stuff into melodies and tapping into whatever inspires you to write, that’s something you can never teach. It’s more of training just to get into your brain. If you write your truth, if you write what you know, that’s all you really need.”
It remains to be told whether the rest of “In Your Face” will succeed at quenching the appetite of listeners and critics. The best way to find out whether Kai Honasan’s refreshing brand of ukulele-flavored music suits your palate is to have a taste of it yourself. Catch her album launch tonight at B-Side, The Collective in Makati. Watch bonus performances by Halik ni Gringo, Barbi Almalbis, Yosha, and Jensen and the Flips if you arrive at the venue by 9 p.m.