Q&A / John Cruz’s music bridges the Pacific divide. A Grammy winner and Jack Johnson collaborator, Cruz comes from Palolo and a family of musicians that includes the Kaau Crater Boys, and his hit, “Island Style,” has become a Hawaiian standard. He talked with us about his process, what’s new, and how long we have to wait for album No. 3.
How’d your concert series at Marks Garage come about?
It’s a new thing that they’re trying, and we’re trying, because there are not many good venues on Oahu for singer-songwriters. Bars aren’t the greatest place, [neither are] night clubs and stuff. We’re just trying to look for a venue where we could do intimate concerts.
Is that why all our talented, young bands always seem to go off to Portland or San Fancisco to make it work?
I think it stems originally from tourism. As musicians, value is placed on how well you can play other people’s songs–here, more so than other places, I guess. Because if you’re somebody starting out to play, you’re not encouraged to write your own songs. What you’re encouraged to do is play Top 40 stuff [or] you’re judged on how well you can play these traditional Hawaiian songs. How well you can play these cover songs. These songs that are “everybody’s favorites.”
They give you a set list–“These are the songs our customers like.”
What’s wrong with local and original?
You’re not rewarded for it. You get stuck playing places that aren’t designed for live music of any kind. Believe it or not, it’s actually gotten better, but that’s why I left [for 12 years to NYC]. I was looking toward the future for myself. I’m either gonna be in a lobby with three guys in the same shirts, or I’m gonna be [playing] the top 40, and I wasn’t interested in either one. Time has passed and stuff, and now I’m interested in playing Hawaiian music. Some of my friends were playing Hawaiian music at home–that’s what was always on. I just wanted to play, you know, stuff that was funky.
So what were your influences back then?
Originally, it was my father, who played country music here in Hawaii, as well as cover songs, too, and my older brother Ernie; Jerry Medeiros, he was really influential; they were playing their own music that was soulful and relevant and, you know, only had like three or four chords.
Why four chords?
For example, in the pop form, music evolved. The best songs are one chord. They’re easy because there are no problems. Once you add another chord, you have to deal with that chord, so you have to keep the song interesting. You have to keep the listener’s attention. If you have to be so bold as to say, “Listen to me for three and a half minutes,” you better have something interesting to give them. And that usually works with three or four chords, at the most, unless you’re Steely Dan or Stevie Wonder and can tackle 14 chords.
What’s your writing process?
Ideally, when you’re writing, you’re not thinking about nothing. Something’s in your head. Something just comes out; it sounds right, it feels good, and if you’re super lucky, a melody will flow out at the same time. The path of least resistance is the best way. You want it to, ideally, flow. If it doesn’t flow, it’s a problem. You just have to solve that problem to get through the song. The songwriting process is wonderful. Recording the songs is a completely different animal. But it’s the same in that I look at it as just finding solutions to problems. And just trying to come up with what you know will work, or just having to come up with new ways to make something work.
I heard that you are recording your next album in analog. How’s that going?
Initially, we started the album out in analog. A friend of mine had an analog studio, and Jack Johnson has a two-inch analog recording studio at his place. Jack was kind enough to let me start recording at his place, and we worked on a song together. But it was a bummer, because I spent all this money on these tapes (and these two-inch tapes are expensive). We transferred all that stuff to digital. Then the vibe wasn’t right. Just couldn’t get inspired. Changing gears like that threw me for a loop.
I had a tour of the East coast, last June. I’d been working on [the album], on and off for at least a year–longer than a year. I was gonna be in New York City and I thought, “Hey, I got a good buddy of mine who played drums on half my last album. Incredible drummer. And I thought maybe I can work on some with him. He said he moved to Nashville, but I ended up going down there. I started from scratch and we worked on new tracks, managed to get some stuff done. I went back three weeks ago, got more good stuff done. The record is about two-thirds done, so I’m going back for one more week.
But you recorded analog at Jack Johnson’s place, too, right?
We scrapped all the stuff we did at Jack’s, except the one song we did together, because it wasn’t working out. So, you know, it’s all digital, what we’re doing now. It’s fine; I have no problem with that. I’m not an analog snob. If it’s great music, it doesn’t matter how it’s recorded. If the material’s great, you should be able to come up with something that’s workable. It all comes down to the people that are working on it. It’s so funny. Like, in Hawaii–I guess not so much now, but maybe 15 years ago–when these island music stations first started, a lot of the local music that was being put up on them was so poorly produced, the songs would have so much reverb on them–the wrong kind of reverb. It was pretty funny because a friend of mine was like, “It’s kinda [like] good karaoke, you know?” Put a lot of echo on it and you sound great.
The main reason, I guess [that it’s taking a while], is because I own my own record company, and nobody’s pressing me, except myself. When you sign a record deal, you have to put out an album and you have to record songs. I like to work on the material, play it out for a while. I’m still discovering new things on songs I wrote 25 years ago. Playing with guys who are forcing me to play a song a different way than I originally wanted it makes me look at it differently. I’m like, oh, this is nice.
So you like to spend time with your songs, playing them a bunch of different ways before you record them?
[It’ll be things like] finding out the best tempo. If you’re 98 beats per minute, as opposed to 100, it may not seem like much but it comes down to those details. This is what I do, and I want to do it well. Some people might think it’s kind of obsessive, but when I go out and play live, I like to keep things real loose. I just like to keep that element of surprise always there. But when I’m recording, I’m trying to capture a version of it. I’m thinking about how people are going to perceive it, but the main thing is how I feel about it.
Do you have an audience in mind, when you write or record?
Recording it is interesting because, that’s it; that’s what’s going to be there forever, theoretically. And so–I can’t do much, believe me–but I know that I can record music, and I want to do it in a way that I feel good about it, so that when the record’s done, I can say this is what I do and release it and feel good about it. Like I did the best I could do at the time.
Do you ever go back and listen to your old stuff?
I can’t remember when was the last time I listened to any of my records, but that’s because I don’t have to, you know what I mean? Because I know what’s there, because I’ve listened to it so many times. In the process of recording a song, you have to listen to this thing so many times. You pretty much know what’s there. You don’t really need to [hear it], to listen to it. I’m critical of myself, so when I make sure it’s time to write, I’m thinking about when I’m going to record it. How can I help the record when I’m writing it? How can I make it work?
Do you like the recording process?
Oh, I love it. I love it, man. Some musicians hate the recording studio. They absolutely can’t stand it. They get too frustrated. I like it a lot. I’m surprised I don’t do more of it. It’s just that you could spend a year and a half recording a record and be in the studio constantly. Or be done in 2 weeks, depending on what you record. It consumes your mind, so that you can’t really do much else. I like to go fishing. I like to have a life, too.
So what are your priorities right now?
Get this record recorded, that’s my priority in front of me. In general, still trying to connect with people, whether it’s through my music, or however. Just trying to be more in the present. When I’m hanging with my dad, really being with him. Not thinking about the tracks. When I’m hanging with my brothers, just trying to be real and meaningful. Because time goes by. I’m gonna be 50 soon. Time just moves on, man. As an artist, you want to be able to leave lasting work, work that should be able to touch people in some way, but you also want to have relationships with people you love. It’s funny: with your art, people have relationships with your art and feel like they have relationships with you through your art. I don’t know these people, but they feel like they know me. I want to be able to connect with those people and have them connect with me. My art isn’t that far from my life. It can be kind of confusing. If I did Japanese anime, it might be easier!
Easier to clock out at the end of the day?
Exactly! But my art is so far connected to me as a person, as a profession. But you know, I still gotta go to Foodland every day. It has to reflect who I am.
When people recognize your name or your face, how do you stay grounded and not let that sort of celebrity affect you?
That’s what I loved about living in New York. You’re just so anonymous. Even if you were super huge, people would still let you do your thing. Whenever I need a good ego boost, I go do a gig at an elementary school. (laughs)
So what happens once the album comes out?
Ideally, there will be a song that will somehow connect on a larger scale, and I’ll just go out and play it. I gotta go and support the album, go and promote it. Which these days means getting out there and playing live. The other thing I need to do is come up with some Internet plan. I redid my website a few years back and I’m super happy with the website. It’s a very good website, but I need to try to get a social networking person.
Spotify’s getting criticized lately for not paying musicians enough. Would you ever put your stuff on something like Spotify?
People are gonna have to start figuring out how to get paid. I look at it this way: If you’re a music fan, the internet is great. It’s wonderful; you have so much access to so much stuff. If you’re an artist and want exposure, it’s beautiful to you, too. But, if you’re somebody trying to make money selling music, like I am, Jesus. Then it’s challenging, for sure. But in the same way, I can’t bitch and moan about it, because if somebody likes my music so much that they wanna go download it illegally–who knows? It might turn it on to somebody who might go buy the thing.
Or at least like it enough to buy a ticket to one of your shows.
You gotta figure the industry is changing, and you have to be able to change with it. I mean, shit. Recently, I thought about it. I do this full time; I don’t have another job. It’s difficult. How am I gonna continue to just play music and make a living, and still have time to spend with family? I wish I could make money doing something else, but because music is how I make my living, it’s difficult, man. People don’t have extra money to spend to go to a show. It’s just another problem that needs to be solved. You have to come up with some kind of solutions.