What does it feel like to be next to the sun? On her new album, Chicago-based singer KAINA gives her answer, embodying the complexity of identity with songs beautifully bathed in sunshine that both burn and replenish. Her music is colored with luscious language and heavy with heavenly harmonies. As a first generation American with Venezuelan and Guatemalan roots, KAINA doesn’t hold back on sharing her experience of being underprivileged. Her songs bring power to euphony, and she leads the listener closer to the sun, to a place you could imagine is home, or green, or everything you’re trying to be.
KAINA produced the entirety of Next To The Sun with Sen Morimoto. In her interview with FRONTRUNNER, she told us about their friendship, and we also learned more about which artists she is listening to, how her music aims to reflect the duality of life, and the importance of protecting your own culture.
You and Sen Morimoto worked a lot together on this album. What was that collaboration like?
It was super easy. It’s funny–I have to remember that people don’t know my life all the time. Sen is literally my best friend. It’s really easy to work with him because we hang out every single day. We’re actual friends. It’s one of those relationships where I don’t really have to explain a ton to him. He kinda just knows what I want, because we’re friends, and he can just feel it.
I could definitely hear your Latina identity in your lyrics, for example in the song “House.” Can you tell me more about what that song means to you and the often ignored Latinx community?
I wrote that song maybe five years ago. It’s pretty old. I’ve just had it for a while. To me it’s a song questioning why things are the way they are. I feel like there are a lot of immigrants that come over and make a home for people. Whether it’s peoples’ nannies or cooks, or just in the job industry. The chefs at restaurants tend to be immigrants. The song is like, “You want to get rid of immigrants, but we kind of make a home for you.” There’s enough space in this country, in this house, in this place, for everyone.
“Next to the Sun” was a song that stuck out for me, too. It has a dark yet upbeat vibe and earthy lyrics. What inspired this song, and why did you choose it to be the title of the album?
The inspiration of the song is the duality of identity. [That’s] kind of the metaphor for the entire album, which is why it ended up being the title. As people, especially when you’re not a white man in the world, there’s a lot of parts of your identity that you have to sort out. You don’t really get to see a lot of yourself in media, or you’re told that you have to be a certain way or act a certain way. I can’t be expected to be just one thing. There’s so many parts of me. On top of being a first gen Latina, I’m also a young woman who is thinking about stupid things like love, or [thinking about] being a young woman growing up. “Next to the Sun” is about the duality of life, or [how] in life’s lessons all the painful things–all the hard work that you have to do within yourself–also end up being the things that help you understand yourself.
One of my favorite aspects of the album is how you incorporate different languages. In “Could Be A Curse,” you sing in Spanish and Morimoto sings in Japanese. What role do you see different languages playing in your music?
For me it’s really important that–even in English–I’m not writing songs unless I have something to say. I’m the type of person who sits on an idea for a long time, because I like to thoroughly think it through. Language is part of that. In “Could Be A Curse” there were some ideas that I wanted to talk about that translated over really well in Spanish, or [where] I felt more comfortable singing about the concept in Spanish than English.
Language is fun. Sen talks about this a lot–in Japanese there are a lot of phrases that can’t be translated over, or there’s one word for a concept as opposed to [having to explain] a concept. It’s interesting to use different languages in music, because sometimes you can explain what doesn’t exist in English.
In “What’s A Girl” you sing, “If they find us in our little city, they want a piece of it–but we know better than to trust all the folks who be counterfeit.” Is it important for you to protect your culture?
I think it’s definitely important for a lot of people to protect their culture. That lyric was more like, “People are bound to want a piece of what you have.” It’s definitely talking about colonization, but it’s also a metaphor. There’s been a history of people stealing, as if something is exotic or beautiful or more culturally interesting, and wanting a piece of it, or wanting to own it. That lyric is being like, “Man, I feel like I don’t have a lot in the world, because of how things turned out historically or who gets to get ahead.” At the same time, I know that my talent–or my energy–is something that people would want a piece of, even if they don’t know that I’m struggling to pay my rent. It’s a metaphor, but [also] a fact that people have consistently wanted to take from others.
Chicago has a huge music scene. What genres did you grow up listening to, and what records to do you find yourself putting on repeat lately?
I grew up listening to so much salsa music–so much Latin music. But my dad was also super into disco and funk and Motown. So I grew up listening to Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. So much Stevie Wonder. He’s so talented. I think my favorite Stevie album is Innervisions. That’s a record I play a ton. He has like a billion songs, it’s really crazy.
Usually I’m listening to a lot of old music and salsa music. But lately I listen to my friends a lot. Part of being a Chicago artist is that we’re really spoiled here because everyone is so, so talented. You end up being friends because Chicago isn’t an industry city. We’re not LA or New York. It’s big but it’s also small here. I listen to my peers a ton. Sen’s solo music, I love so much. I’ve been listening to this band Divino Niño a ton. When it comes to contemporaries that aren’t necessarily my friends I really love Emily King–such an amazing songwriter–and Nick Hakim. They’re both based out of New York. They’re so good.
The harmonies in the album are so soothing to me, and it made me wonder if your songwriting process begins with melodies and harmonies.
That’s totally correct: I pretty much always start with melodies, because I don’t know how to play instruments well enough to begin a song. I tend to get a melody first, and then the harmonies; or, [I] try to sing the music that I will sing over. Then I’ll take it to Sen, and he plays every instrument so he kind of translates for me.
But for “Green,” the demo I have is just me. I came up with the hook and was tapping on my thighs to create the rhythm. That was all I had for that song to start with.
The album touches on some sad themes, but “Green” is one of the most vibrant songs and has a colorful music video, too. It felt like you wanted to end on a good note. What was going through your mind when ordering the songs?
I definitely wanted to end the album on more of an uplifting note for people who are sensitive to identity and can relate. I don’t want it to feel so heavy or that there’s no solution. The first couple of songs, maybe through “Joei’s Secret,” [are] kind of naïve or questioning or frustrated. The second half is more acceptance of yourself, or more comfort in your own skin–finding that positive balance that you deal with as a person in life. “Green” is kind of an anthem, saying you should trust yourself and things that you feel are true. You should treat your feelings like nature, or like physical objects in life. We tend to question ourselves–or our feelings–a lot as people, but we don’t do that a lot with other things. Once I made “Green,” I knew it was the destination point for the album. It feels like a journey from the rest of the songs to get there.