INTERVIEW: Eli Smart talks Hawaiian roots, and playing with his grandma in his backing band
Hawaiian born, Eli Smart got lucky on the day he played Portland, with weather in the mid 80s and bright sun, after at least a week of on and off rain and cooler temps than a summer should have. We got the opportunity to chat with him in a sun soaked, side street park before he opened for Declan McKenna at State Theatre.
Your whole family plays music and you’ve been around it your whole life. What made you decide, “I want to do this seriously?”
It’s a combination of a lot of things. I think the main thing being observing my family’s passion for music and seeing how they all kind of found a way to put energy into it professionally, or you know, on a personal level. And when it came time to maybe go to university, I found a music school in Liverpool that I really enjoyed the look of and the whole idea and was lucky enough to get in. And yeah, going to music school right after high school helped shape it into a more career-oriented music direction.
Speaking on that, you went to the Liverpool School of Performing Arts, and England is entirely different from Hawaii. How did that help shape your writing style?
The two places, like Liverpool and back home on Kauai, they started to act like nice kind of creative foils to one another, in the sense that I could start something back home and if it really wasn’t working, I could take it away and revisit it in Liverpool. And having that drastic change of scenery really helped shape tunes and it just turned out to be a really cool writing tool.
What was your biggest take away from going to performing arts school?
Probably just on a cool personal level of gaining independence and spending time away from home. I think that gave me confidence musically and my own life in general. I think that really shaped me greatly. And the school itself, it being a performing arts school, I was around a lot of creative people and I met a bunch of wonderful friends who are some of my closest friends today.. and collaborators as well.
Living in the UK, you started playing a lot of festivals, you know, “British festival season.” What are some things you’ve learned from being on those bills?
Just, I learned to appreciate some cool English summertime, weather wise. Because the winter gets on the chilly side, it’s really nice to experience English humidity in the summertime. And musically, it’s cool, though, to play songs on outside stages. Whether it’s for 10 people or a proper crowd. There’s always something to learn there and the songs and how you do them live and what works and what doesn’t. It’s all been very informative.
This is your first time really playing the US and Canada? What are you most excited about getting to travel the States?
I haven’t been. It’ll be my first time going to everywhere we’re hitting on this tour. On a travel level, I’m excited to see mainland US. And we’re going to New York.. I’m excited to have a bagel and a pizza. I’ve heard those are the things to sample (we both laugh). I’m excited for a road trip. It’s just a lot of fun to be able to travel around and play music.
You’re hanging out with your friends and your grandmother. What is it like being on the road with them and making music with them?
It’s hilarious. I mean, tonight is the first night that we’re actually all playing together because we haven’t had a chance to like, rehearse, we’ve all been in different places. So yeah. I mean, we’ll see.. we can chat after the show, see how it goes.. No, it’ll be a good time, and everyone is such a good vibe and it’s just a nice, little family adventure to do.
Yeah! Not to put you in a box musically (No worries), but you do fit Declan very well as an opener (Thank you!) and you’ve played two shows already, what do you think the reception’s been like?
I’ve been totally blown away by the reception! Declan’s audience all seem to be really warm and engaged. It’s amazing watching them watch his set, because they like, I mean, first of all, his set’s amazing, but they’re so into it and it’s really cool to see such a symbiotic dynamic between him and his audience. And they’ve been really welcoming to me.
A lot of people over at the merch stand?
Yeah, yeah. Just giving everybody a lot of love, and it’s really cool.
You’ve had a bunch of singles and two EPs come out since 2018 (Yeah!) what are your plans for the rest of the year? Maybe a full length album or?
Definitely. Well, I put out a single Thursday, the 20th of July. And we’re releasing like a single or two more this year. Aiming toward writing and recording a full length record to be released next year in the spring or summer time. And just kind of working backwards from there. But yeah, a lot of music.
Nice! So, what are you currently listening to right now?
That’s a great question. A lot of Abba recently, actually (laughs) (Side note: a preview into Declan’s walk on music). Some tunes I haven’t heard in a long time, and it’s so much fun to hear on a loud speaker. Other than that, always a bunch of old Motown and soul. I love Gladys Knight and The Pips and I haven’t listened to anything as far as incredibly recently, but she always comes to mind.
Do you have the tour playlist already..?
It’s forming! Everyone is kind of getting an equal say at the Bluetooth right now, so it’s so interesting to tap into what everyone is listening to in the van. I’m getting a sense of where everyone’s at mentally and creatively by hearing what they choose to play. But I want to put together a proper playlist soon.
Yes! I always loved it when bands did that.
Me too! What are we listening to on the road, do you guys have suggestions?
Exactly, it’s like a nice little.. Puts it all into context, a little insight into the world.
Anything else you want to add?
Just that everybody in the band, they all have their own projects, which are fantastic. Like Jordan, who sings backup with me and does percussion, his name is Jordan Paul, his music is fantastic. And our drummer, his name is Hampster, his proper name is Chris Whiteroot and he also has fantastic music out. And then my grandma, her name is Denise Kaufman, and she’s in a band called Ace of Cups, it’s an all girl punk band, rock band..That opened for Jimi Hendrix, which is pretty cool.
Exactly! Everybody’s worth checking out, doing a deep dive on.