“Holy shit, I’m in Manchester!” exclaims Kawehi as she takes to the stage in front of an initially quiet crowd at The Deaf Institute. The tiny American, who hails from Hawaii but is now based in Kansas, already seems quite comfortable addressing the room and gets a rowdy cheer after a brief introduction full of enthusiasm and self deprecation with a loud ‘Hey y’allllllll!’ poking fun at her thick ‘trucker’ accent. On stage she is accompanied by her laptop, a keyboard, a couple of mics, some looping equipment and pedals – she is the quintessential one woman band.
Kawehi rose to prominence back in 2014 when her unique cover of Nirvana’s ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ went viral through Vimeo. Gaining thousands of new fans over night, today her YouTube channel has over 100k subscribers and her videos have combined views of over four million – it’s not a wonder she looks confident in front of less than a hundred people here at The Deaf.
What’s struck me as slightly odd since I’ve entered the room is the abundance of long haired, Kerrang tour T-shirt wearing rocker types that seem to make up a hefty chunk of the crowd. Before I can ponder too deeply about this anomaly, Kawehi takes a sip of whiskey, loops a familiar beat with swift and dexterous beat boxing skills, and roars from one or two of the long hairs around me begin. Then the bass line from Nine Inch Nail’s ‘Closer’ booms and everything becomes clear to me as a mass amount of hair flies around me.
The set is chock-full of covers with dabs of her original material thrown in between – there’s a ten minute mashup of songs from Taylor Swift and Beyoncé to Depeche Mode. Then there’s a flawless rendition of Michael Jackson’s ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ with which she encourages the crowd to join in and lead the vocals. Her YouTube video of this impressive cover has gained over three and half million views, by the way.
There’s also an original house-influenced song ‘Neda’ a tribute to women’s rights and specifically Neda Agha-Soltān, an Iranian woman whose death during the 2009 protests gained widespread coverage.
Each song has the same creative format and development. Every sound is created by Kawehi’s instrumentalism and voice alone which is all looped to provide a platform for her deceptively powerful lead vocals. It begins with the aforementioned awesome beatboxing then she tweaks her voice to become a booming bass line and everything follows on from this.
During the set you can hear her snigger and laugh between phrases – she’s clearly enjoying every minute. Between songs she continues to be a great presence on stage with stories of learning how to beatbox via tutorials on YouTube and slipping into charming and passionate geekery when describing her huge array of gear. Based upon appearances it would be easy to lump her onto the pop star pile. With another original song, ‘Anthem’ however, she proves that she’s anything but. Rather than a three minute, radio friendly smash, she allows the song to grow steadily with patiently sung loops that create the imaginary band around the her and the room. Once in full flow she engages the audience with the repeated phrase ‘So what are you gonna do?’
After what barely feels like an hour, she ends with ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ – a version that is worth all the hype and praise. Just when you think there is a little part or passage that it missed Kawehi loops it in and there’s literally nothing else you could do to top it. She even makes playing the guitar solo on the keyboard look cool.
Now technically to encore you have to actually leave the stage, she gets about half way and returns, probably realising there isn’t really anywhere to go at the bottom of the steps in The Deaf. She performs a sweetly sounding traditional Hawaiian song in honour of her granddad’s birthday, then during rapturous applause, heads over to the merch stand to chat with enthusiasts. It’s welcoming to see a young and fiercely talented artist really wanting to engage and meet her fans and be so outwardly indebted to their devotion – as she aptly put it ‘I wouldn’t be here without you guys!’ We’re very glad that she is.
Read the review on Silent Radio