11/08/2011 07:29 pm ET | Updated Jan 08, 2012

Singing Beyond the Stairwells : Kina Grannis

This Japanese-American singer-songwriter at just 26 has already been making music for over 10 years. From a young age she began tinkering with instruments lying around the house, but as of recently she's gone from playing alone in the stairwells at college to having over 90 million listeners. Her story is fascinating, and one that will inspire young music hopefuls everywhere. I introduce to you: Kina Grannis.

After graduating, Kina admits to wanting "music time," at which point she became a full-time musician, but just prior to finishing school she received a message from a stranger on Myspace asking her to join his band in Austin, Texas. Initially -- a bit freaked out by it all -- she declined, deciding to stay put in LA to work as a solo artist, but as the messages became more persistent, verging on begging, and even offering to pay her rent and provide her with a stipend, she decided to give it all a second thought. Eventually giving in, she made the journey. Despite the initial struggle, being in Austin gave her the chance to explore music in a way she had never done before, allowing her to also work with a variety of musicians. And after being there just five months, Kina entered a music competition that would change her life.


It was the Doritos Crash the Super Bowl contest back in 2007 that Kina entered. All she needed was an original song and video. And so it began -- in her bedroom. A couple of weeks later she received a call from Doritos to say she'd made the top 10. Now all she needed to do was get people to vote for her every day for two weeks. Easy? Well after some brainstorming with family and friends they came up with a website called Two Weeks for Kina, because that's how long the first voting period was for. She created her own YouTube channel and started posting videos, pledging to do it every day as a way to give something back to her voting fans. As she spoke about what is was like to make her very first video she laughed, saying it took around 50 takes because of how shy she was and how she didn't know what to do with her hands.


Despite the personal hurdles she knew she had to overcome in order to be in with a chance of winning, as well as getting passed the terror it sometimes made her feel, she missioned through it because music (and you can see it in her eyes) is what she loves most. A love like any other that is all-consuming, it was at this point that she says she stopped sleeping. But winning wasn't paramount to Kina, rather, she wanted to use this opportunity as an excuse to put everything she had into getting her music out there. It was at this point she realized YouTube wasn't just a video hosting site but a really powerful tool; a tool which would make her an Internet phenomenon.

After the schlepp and slog of it all, contestants would find out if they'd won after the first quarter of the super bowl; an announcement which would involve no words, only the music to the winner's song played -- to 90 million people. Kina said that this was both the most terrifying and exciting time of her life. With the prospects of winning and losing within an inch in front of her, she didn't know what she would do either way, how she would react, or what would happen next. And then, her music. Kina had won. All she heard was the sound of her guitar, and she admits to just bawling.

Almost instantly she was on the front page of iTunes, host to her winning song, "Message From Your Heart," and was offered a deal with Interscope Records. Although very soon she realized that -- whilst many would see it as a dream-come-true record deal -- Interscope's vision for her didn't quite match her own. She'd already, in just two months, created this enormous music platform for herself over the Internet and had found a global audience. Herds of fans were calling themselves Kinerds, collectively belonging to what they called Kination. Desperate to get her music out to her eagerly awaiting fans, Kina bravely decided to go it alone. She spent the next year self-funding and working with a producer on her album. First released in the U.S. in February 2010, her album Stairwells was an instant success. Following her positive reception she became hungry to break the international barrier and so she began her world tour. Personifying her music, she says she wanted it to have more of a life; she wanted people everywhere to listen to her work.


Her album Stairwells is evocative of the stairwells at college where she wrote and sang, a sanctuary away from everything and everyone, where her only company was her guitar and maybe a cup of tea. Struggling to think of a name that would encapsulate her collection of songs, she suddenly had an epiphany one day when she was driving. Smiling, she said how she though it would be nice to play tribute to the stairwells where she spent so much time.

With a voice that is often compared to Taylor Swift (although personally I think it supersedes it), her raw, soothing acoustic sound is tinged with recent influences from Bon Iver, Imogen Heap and Sigur Ros.

"Their music is super and magical. Growing up, though, my dad used to listen to James Taylor a lot, which is where I think I've got my vocal, guitar and song writing love from."

Another one of her influences she discovered when she was around 13, introduced to her by her sister, is K's Choice. She says she would just sit in the closet with the light off and listen to their album over and over, knowing all the words.

"At that point I realized that music was something pretty cool."

Unable to ever plan what she writes, she admits to just messing around and finally something rings true; words randomly float out of her mouth and turn into songs, which usually only takes her about an hour.

"And then I'm like, 'Ah, that's about my life.' But I don't feel like I write them, I feel like I find them."

Stairwells tells a story, a story about Kina. What she tries to do in her music is be totally honest and find a bit of hope in things. On the surface people might think her songs are slightly somber, but a lot of the time it's about Kina trying to find a solution. It's her talking herself through something, and deciding what she can take from it to move on and become better because of it.

"It's a person trying to be honest and trying to be better. Of course there's love and happy songs, but a lot of it is about growth and trying to find the positive in things."

And this honesty is apparent in her live performances, too. Its not just about listening to a collection of great songs that people love singing to -- it's more than that. She engages with the people who travel far and wide to see her. During her recent sell-out show at Bush Hall, Shepherds Bush, she asked the audience's permission to sing and dance in her socks because her boots made her feet too hot. The crowd couldn't help but warm to her -- naturally so, she is completely unassuming and endearing. For her first European tour she came alone with just her guitar. It was important for her to make that initial connection on her own, a personal introduction, if you like. The favorite song of the evening was "Cambridge," and others included "World in Front of Me" and "Valentine." Even hearing the songs a thousand times won't fail to make your hairs stand on end, it's a truly beautiful album.

Kina has recently announced that her next UK tour will take place in February 2012, despite being petrified of leaving glorious, sun-drenched southern California to brave the British cold. In the meantime she'll be looking forward to sitting with her guitar and writing; something she's not had the chance to do devotedly since the production of her album Stairwells, or during her tour. A young women who has such a huge talent vocally, lyrically and instrumentally, combined with a resolute determination to make herself heard, can only be destined for good things. Great things.