Celebrating the success of her tour debut in 2010, Californian acoustic pop singer Kina Grannis was holed up in her hotel room tucking into a batch of warm chocolate chip cookies when her grandfather’s ukulele, a precious heirloom he had passed down to her, was stolen from her car. Her fans banded together aghast and just a few months later she received an anonymous tip to watch a video while on tour, instructing her to open the drawer beside her. Confused, Kina pulled on the handle and immediately started crying. Inside was a ukulele made from the same Hawaiian factory as her grandfather’s, and with her name inscribed on its neck. The tears kept streaming down her face as she watched the rest of the video to see fans from all over the world waving in support.
Kina recounts this story from her latest hotel room, this time in Paris. It’s the night before her latest tour’s only European show and well past midnight, though you wouldn’t know it as the chirpy singer-songwriter openly gushes about her fans, or rather, Kinerds.
It’s this online community – which Kina has fostered since she posted her first video ‘Gotta Digg’ to the viral site back when, well, it was a viral site – that has been crucial for the singer/songwriter.
“It was very strange, surreal,” she says of the sudden appearance of her fans, the self-proclaimed Kinerds. “I kind of had stumbled upon the power of the Internet and these people just kind of came out of nowhere and became a huge part of my life,” says Kina.
Not only have Kinerds tattooed the label on their bodies, raised over US$78,000 for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (in support of Kina’s mum who battled with cancer), they’re also the reason she scored, and later walked away from, a record deal.
When Doritos launched their Crash the Super Bowl competition in 2008, Kina, who had recently made the move from California to Austin, Texas, was busking on streets and playing at coffee shops and bars all over town, but decided to throw all of her energy into online videos to ensure she won.
“I needed people to vote everyday, which is a horribly annoying thing to ask of your family and friends,” laughs Kina, who decided to make a new video every day to encourage and thank her voters for their support.
The strategy payed off. Winning the competition, Kina’s song was broadcast to 97 million Super Bowl viewers and it included the ultimate dream, a label deal. With an album already written, Kina was ready to jump into the studio but somehow a month passed, then another and another.
“By the time we started meeting it became very clear their plan for me was not my plan for me. Their plan would be for me to co-write a new album with songwriters they would choose for me,” says Kina. “Music had always been a thing to me that was for myself that I did alone in the middle of the night to get through things. So the idea of sitting in a room with strangers, and having to make a new album that didn’t really mean as much to me, didn’t sound appealing.”
Knowing that her legion of online fans wanted more of the music she was already making, Kina walked away from the label.
Focusing her energies on her online channel, Kinas videos have been viewed 147 million times and she regularly collaborates with other YouTube stars, including Boyce Avenue, Wong Fu Productions and Kurt Schneider (who she joined in a viral, a cappella version of Anna Kendrick’s ‘Cups’ last year that’s been viewed 18.7 million times). She’s also been savvy in using her online presence to promote her latest album by starting Kina Mondays, where each week she would post a new collaboration, original song or cover (her version of ‘Royals’, which she recorded with Fresh Big Mouf, was even used to introduce Lorde’s Grammy Awards nomination earlier this year).
Working independently has also given Kina the freedom, and time, she says to work on what her fans respond to the most – creative video clips. Taking the cake, or rather the jelly bean, would have to be the self-funded ‘In Your Arms’, the world’s first jelly bean stop-motion music video.
To film the clip, it was broken down into its 2300 frames and each shot was projected onto a table where jelly beans, which had been donated by Jelly Belly in 27 different flavours, were arranged to create the picture. Kina would then lie above the beans on a sheet of Plexiglas and be manoeuvred into the perfect position. And click, one frame down.
“But that could take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours per frame. And each frame is one-twelfth of a second so there were days where we would meet and we’d start working and have maybe an eight hour day and we would not even finish one second of the video,” she explains.
“We went into it pretty blind. Originally I was told it was going to take three months instead of 22 months, so there was this ignorance where you’re just like, ‘Oh we’ll be done soon, I’m sure it’s almost done,’ and you just keep going. Then a year goes by and at that point you’re like, ‘Well, there’s no turning back. I can’t have done this for nothing,’” laughs Kina.
All up, it took two years and 288,000 jelly beans before Kina uploaded the video at midnight in late 2011 and went to bed just hoping people would like it. By the time she woke up her once “secret, crazy project” had already been on Good Morning America and the next few weeks saw her on The Ellen Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live! as well as receive write-ups in the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The video has since been viewed 10.6 million times. With the popularity of her album skyrocketing, Kina took to the road once again, this time sponsored by Jelly Belly.
But performing for so long brought its challenges once Kina finally returned home.
“When you start with music you just do it all the time, everyday, and kind of when a career takes off you start having less time to actually write because you’re on the road and making videos and things like that. So I came back from the last tour and I was kind of rusty and I couldn’t really remember how I used to get to that part of me.”
So Kina applied the patience she’d learned from ‘In Your Arms’ to the making of Elements, taking a year out devoted to just songwriting. She created 60 songs over that time and has whittled it down to 12, which she describes as her most honest songs yet.
“It’s worth it to really put time into something and to make something special. It’s really easy in this industry to think you just need to work on the next album and just get something out as soon as possible,” says Kina.
But she’s also wise enough to know there are some moments that all the patience in the world will never bring you. While on a writer’s retreat she recorded ‘Little Worrier’ and though it was riddled with mistakes, her studio rerecordings never got as emotionally raw so she made the decision to release that first version to the public, which was recorded in a little cabin in the woods.
“Sometimes you just can’t recreate a thing again.”