Eli Smart

21 June 2021

Photography Sami Livé
Interview by Amy-Jo Breach

Plucking at nickel-plated steel strings, musician Eli Smart hums a mellow tune on his surf green Fender Jaguar. The guitar is at home in his hands as the strums ripple out into the amber air. A collection of Eli’s other guitars lie in wait for their turn with the 21-year-old Hawaiian singer-songwriter. Warmth glows around Eli amongst the stacks of vinyl on the familiar floor while his songs begin to take shape and form his recently released EP Boonie Town.

Hailing from a small Hawaiian island called Kauai, Eli’s music twines with his hometown in a genre he describes as ‘Aloha Soul’. Imagine sun-kissed scenes and honey-dipped chords under a compelling breeze to wash away reality. Building on his EP, Eli is set to drop a mixtape sharing the name Boonie Town as an extension to the initial record with additional songs to come over the following months.

After attending university in Liverpool and returning home to Kauai to finish his degree - receiving his diploma in the post - while lockdown seized the world, Eli connected with his mates to make music and art and have a little fun. Surrounded by the people he loves, Eli’s music video for his anthem ‘Come Down’ is a beaming example of their dream team at work. Dripping liquid gold along the hazy horizon, the mates use what they’ve got to make magic on the road up to the enchanting mountains of Kōkeʻe. Come and discover life in the Boonies…

Who is Eli?
Oh, that’s a small question that is quite big! Well, I’m Eli. He’s a dude. He’s 21 years old. It’s weird talking about myself like I’m a dead person! I love my family. I love my home. I love traveling. I’m passionate about art and connecting with people and listening to music, creating music, playing music, and sharing that with people who dig it. That is a big question. I feel like I’m shooting in the dark here!

What is your outlook on life?
I try to take things on the sunny side of the street. It never hurts being open to the positive things in life because we’ve all had moments where we’ve very much been on the other side of that. Generally, I’m a pretty content guy. I don’t have a lot to complain about and I’m loving what I’m doing right now. I love music and I’m grateful to be able to take a shot at that and approach it in a proper way. I’m a happy dude. It’s really not too deep! My family and my friends are the most important thing to me, so I wonder if they feel the same.

In your Instagram bio you have "My time is a piece of wax falling on a termite, who’s choking on a splinter". Can you elaborate on that?
Yeah! I wish I wrote that! But that’s a lyric from a Beck tune called Loser. It was his first hit and I have known that rap since I was nine. It was the line that made me crack up the most. It’s fucking hilarious and it’s so funny that you would ask me that question! Like, who is this dude and what does that mean?! You could think about it and really try to understand what he’s tapping into, but I just love how random it is and deep. There’s a lot to dissect there but I just love the way it flows. Listen to the tune! You can have a chuckle!

You’ve described your music as "Aloha Soul". What does that mean to you?
Music is a massive, beautiful part of Hawaiian and Asian culture which are all very present where I’m from - Kauai. I’ve been lucky enough to grow up around it and I’ve been nurtured within that very creative environment. It was a very small community and music and Aloha was a very present theme. That’s my way of paying homage to that very beautiful environment that shaped me as a person and musician. It inspired me greatly. That’s a deep part of me, where I come from - the adopted part of me obviously. I feel like Soul is present in any music that hits either you or me. So, 'Aloha Soul' sums up those authentic feelings behind the music I love. When creating music it helps me to have this little genre that I write within. I’m the kind of guy who, in the creative process, finds these creative confines freeing rather than feeling like you have to reinvent the wheel every time. To have this name like ‘Oh yeah this sounds like an Aloha Soul tune’, it helps me zero in on what I want to talk about and what I want to sound like. It’s fun having some weird little subgenre to call my own.

You were raised by a family of musicians. How has this influenced your experience of music?
In a very similar way to having grown up in the musical environment of Kauai, it was just around all the time and each of my family members had their own passion for it. It was never imposed upon me in any way, it was just always present. There was always an instrument around and a groovy record playing. It was that simple. I looked up to my parents and grandparents, as I still do, and saw them like ‘fuck yeah, music makes them so happy’. I naturally gravitated towards that and found my own passion for it - a passion for listening to music and playing music together. It was the ultimate nurturing environment for any young kid who is open to the world of music. I loved it.

How do you think growing up in Hawaii affected your experience of music compared to growing up in a busy city like Liverpool or London?
Yeah, it’s a fun one. Kauai is a very small island, it takes you about three and a half hours to drive around most of it and then you have to drive back the other way, so it’s tiny. It felt like a very small town and you felt like you knew everybody. It was a relatively peaceful and safe environment to grow up in. It’s not like Liverpool - it’s a very different experience! Liverpool has its own charm. You couldn’t find anywhere else like it, but Hawaii was very different. The thing I was grateful for was my father grew up all over Europe but mainly in Northern Italy and I was able to toggle between Hawaii and Northern Italy my whole childhood, which gave me that insight into other cultures and the outside world. That was the ideal blend for me. Kauai was a very beautiful spot out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a lot of greenery. You’re outside all of the time. We didn’t have a TV! It was pretty mellow but it was great being able to explore London and Italy and great cities and develop an affinity for the outside world, and not just getting stoned on the beach all day!

Why did you choose to go to university in Liverpool?
I love the Beatles! I’m just going to say it! After high school I felt like I wanted to explore elsewhere. Schools in the United States are so expensive too - like insane shit. Especially because we would’ve gotten outside of state tuition fees, so financially that wasn’t an option. I was looking at Europe and I wanted to get out of the US anyway. I’ve never really been too fond of mainland America; it just hasn’t clicked with me. So, if I was going to leave home I was like ‘fuck it! Let’s go as far as you can! Let’s go to Liverpool!’. I found this school that Paul McCartney founded and it sounded like the coolest thing in the world! I applied to it and got in. It was the only school I applied to! It was one of those decisions you realise you’re about to not make because of how scared you are and that is the exact reason you have to do it! I forced myself to commit and that led me here. It was the absolute perfect place I needed to be at that point in my life. I did a music composition degree - a bachelor’s in music. Then I zeroed in towards songwriting and production in later years. Liverpool is like my second home because that’s the big city for me! I got off the train like ‘Woah! Oh my God!’. Then I came down to London and my head exploded! It was crazy. In Liverpool, I’d go see four gigs every night of the week. There are so many venues on the same street and I was buzzing. It was that extra stimulus I needed. I was like a sponge! Running around and playing in as many bands as I could – really soaking it up with all my mates. I loved it.

Can you tell me about Grandma Tutu?
Absolutely! Her name is Denise. I call her Tutu. I think it means ‘elder’ in Hawaiian and I’ve always grown up with her as Tutu. She’s the reason our family has been in Kauai too. She was in one of the first all-female rock bands in the 60s - San Francisco/Haight-Ashbury scene. They were called the Ace of Cups and they opened for Jimi Hendrix and played with Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane - those were all their mates at the time coming out of that scene. They totally went for it, but major labels weren’t signing all-girl bands back then, it just wasn’t happening. It’s fucked up. There were twelve or so bootleg rehearsal and live show tapes that got recorded over the years they were together. Then they all had children and Grandma had my mum and obviously, that became her focus. She moved back to Hawaii and raised my mum there. She started a school – the school that I went to – crazy shit! She was an EMT! She’s done everything! Oh my God, before that, have you ever heard of the Merry Pranksters? They would take acid with Ken Kesey and drive across the States on this big colourful bus – she was one of those! Crazy story! The band has remained the closest mates and a lot of them moved to Kauai. They got rediscovered and signed by a label and they’re re-recording all their tunes! They’ve put out their second double-vinyl and they’re playing festivals! They’re all in their 70s and living the dream! I went to a festival that they played at a couple of years ago and I could not keep up with them! They were playing sets, chilling, and having a party! It was wild! That’s my grandma - she’s the craziest one of the bunch! The rest of us are all pretty mellow!

What was the first CD you owned?
There are two that come to mind. I don’t know if I owned it, but my first recollection of a CD was a Beck CD. It was this record Midnight Vultures and I was four or five. It’s one of my earliest memories: the CD cover and when you listen to the record it’s crazy tunes. It’s like fusing every genre and it’s a mess but a fun one! You can tell why a kid would be like ‘I love this!!’ and run around and freak out. When I started getting into buying my own CDs when I was ten, there was this American bookstore Borders that was going out of business, and it was the last bookstore on our island, and I was like ‘Fuck!’. They were closing down and I went because they were selling everything. In the CD aisle, there was one last CD and it was that first Kooks record Inside In/Inside Out which is iconic and I bought that. My mum had told me about The Kooks before; that was the record for me for the next five years and still is! Iconic tunes!

You’re a multifaceted artist - as well as being a singer and songwriter, you’ve also written, produced, directed, and starred in the music video for your recent single Cruella Deville. How do the different creative elements fit together for you?
I would love to take all the credit for that music video but it wasn’t all me! All my mates were the crazy photographers and had the great ideas, so it was very much a collaborative thing. But I was very happy to star in it and for it to be about me! Haha. When writing a tune there’s this sonic element that starts the process. Then there’s the lyric side of it - what are you going to talk about? The visual element of it is another equally important part of it. I guess a music video is the ultimate synthesis right? You’re seeing it, you’re listening to it, and you hear what the person is saying. It all fits together and flows naturally for me. That’s what I love about it. It’s bringing a song to life to the max. For that music video, I wanted it to be some sort of Napoleon Dynamite prom/dance DJ’d by some 70s funk Beatles remix! That was the little image I had in mind, like how are we going to make that work? That’s probably very confusing!

When you’re writing a song, do you think about what the music video will look like?
Oh, for sure! I don’t know if I’m always consciously thinking it’s the music video, but there’s definitely a strong visual element when I’m writing it. It’s usually a tune where I’m walking, driving, or biking down the street. It’s always moving, I don’t know why! Maybe it’s because my go-to listening is 'headphones in and walking down the street'.

Your friends seem very involved in your music, including playing music with you and featuring in your videos. What is it like working with close friends?
It’s amazing. It’s amazing and it’s something I’ve always grown up with. Growing up in Hawaii, we’ve always had our little group of creative mates who are down to do anything. It’s really taken on a different form this last period of time because we’ve all been locked down here and we’ve had a lot to do. I’ve been able to meet different mates who we were never in the same circles growing up but now we’re all home after uni. Just connecting with different people from different sides of the island has been amazing and we’ve stumbled upon this total dream team of people. Our mates behind the camera, recording the sound, musicians, people creative directing it, people designing it, yeah it’s all of our mates and it’s amazing - that’s the dream. It’s a dream to be able to make art with the people you love.

How different is it working with a studio compared to working with your friends?
You never know, maybe you totally gel and some totally cool thing would happen. I’ve got to always be open to that, but I know I prefer a more intimate environment without too many people’s opinions. When you all trust each other, you can let each other do their thing and you learn to create some cool situations out of necessity. Like we don’t have the fanciest gear, so we’ll put a sock on the microphone or something. Working in limitations brings out the different elements in your performance so that’s something that has worked to our advantage.

Your new mixtape Boonie Town is releasing in June. Can you tell me about it?
Yeah, it’s an extension of the initial Boonie Town EP. We are going to announce the mixtape and then release the first track off it and then continue to add a track every couple of months. Then at the end of the year, it’ll be a larger body of work which will be the extended Boonie Town mixtape. It’s going to be a collection of tunes that I’ve written, some in Liverpool, but mostly all back home during this time. It’s going to be a little time capsule of that musical moment in my life. I’m very exact with the tunes that I want to be putting out and it feels right. It’s going to be an additional five or six songs plus the already existing EP. That’s also why it’s called Boonie Town because it’s fusing the mixtape and the initial EP. The tunes are all under that sonic umbrella of Aloha Soul but they’re all different themes and weirder versions which I love. Have a listen and let me know what you think! I don’t know what I can say to prep you for the songs...but there’s going to be some cool songs, there are some weird songs. All the feels!

What does ‘Boonie Town’ mean?
For me, the umbrella that these tunes fall under is very much that juxtaposition of home and the UK, like Liverpool and London. ‘Boonie Town’ is something my mates and I would all say growing up referring to Kauai. It’s definitely part of its charm that it’s a small town out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. You feel like you’re on a rock but it also feels like you’re out in the Boonies. It’s the middle of nowhere. That’s definitely its magic, so calling it Boonie Town and these songs have been my way of understanding that magic and the beauty of that. Accepting that and not fighting that feeling of feeling stuck or so lost in your hometown. It’s been a funny time being home in your childhood bedroom and I’m sure we all feel it. So calling it Boonie Town, it's these tunes which I wrote in that time and it’s a proper little moment for me. These songs feel right for that.

You’ve recently dropped your anthem “Come Down” with a honey-dipped one-take music video from the magical mountainous region of Kauai. Can you tell us more about the song and video?
That was a song I wrote in Liverpool and sonically it’s a very Liverpool tune for me. A little rainier and a little darker with the sun setting at like 2 o'clock! Writing it in Liverpool and then coming back home, I wanted to find an authentic setting to film a live version of it on the island - but it’s not a song you can play on the beach! You could, but you could find a more fitting setting. There are these gorgeous mountains on the far west side of the island called Kōkeʻe and the music video was the drive up to them. It’s overlooking the ocean and the sun happened to be setting. We planned it but that take was kind of perfect, it was wild! It’s a poignant tune and I wanted to stumble upon the most evocative setting with nostalgic and darker environmental themes to it, and that setting for me was the one. We got all my mates in the back of a truck, had a couple takes and that was it! Pretty loose but it was a blast.

At one point there’s a group of girls on the side of the road cheering at you. Was that planned?
No, not at all! That’s why we were laughing! We all messed up the words after that because we were cracking up! They must have seen us on the take before because it seemed like it was planned perfectly. They must have been waiting for us when we were coming up again like ‘Wooooo!!’. It’s a sad song but ‘Wooooo!!’.

You’ve also released the EP as a record. Why have you included an analog version of your EP in the days of streaming services?
It’s always been a daydream of mine to hold a piece of my music. Not just to have a little streamable link - which is a very convenient thing to have walking down the road and chilling - but to have a record was always my dream. I always try to make music with that old-school analog mentality and try to refrain from one million punch-ins just to get the part right. I am all for whole takes. It’s the same as when you talk about filming with limited gear: recording without endless takes brings something else out when you’re playing. All my favourite records are recorded that way – two-track reel to reel tape machines. You have to be very decisive in your planning and what you want to do and I think that brings out a different kind of magic in recording than just using loops and endless takes. Being the move behind the creative process for me, it felt right to opt to get it on a record like a proper piece of music. Today in this streaming age it’s all about playlists and listening to one tune at a time, which I am so guilty for - I do that too! I love my playlists but it’s fun to sit down and listen to a record and commit to that. The combination of tunes on a record is such an overlooked part of the end result. So much time and thought for an artist go into that, so for me to put out a record it’s cool to hear it from start to finish - even though you have to flip it after two songs! But if you get a proper record, you can hear six songs at a time and hear the other six. That’s the dream!

When you announced the EP as a record on Instagram you mentioned the scratchiness of a record. I miss that.
Same! When I put it on and you hear the intro to a tune and the opening drum fill, and there’s that tape crackle like that vinyl hiss that’s – oh my god, you can’t make that up! I love that. It’s those little ghosts in the recordings where something’s a little warbly – that’s absolutely the magic. It’s cool to hear artists embracing some of that in today’s world where we can make it sound as crystal clear and perfect as possible. It’s cool to bring in some mistakes and authenticity.

What does the future of music look like?
Ooof that’s a big question! I think people will always be making authentic music and people always have. It’s obviously on different levels because it comes in different ways, right? There have been periods we were all stoked about, and periods we’re not so fond of, but there’s always something happening and people are always going to have something to say. I’m very interested to see what the future of music holds. I hope people aren’t afraid to be original - which is easier said than done. With so much new music it’s easy to be swept up in the 'newness', and not look beyond to the sea of beautiful music which preceded all of this. That’s what I get stuck in - I love hearing what’s new but I can’t keep up with it so I run in the other direction because there’s so much good music! That’s what I also love doing, I love digging for old music and there’s so much magic there that influences you and you can resynthesise that in a new way. So, the future of music: it’ll be very interesting. It’ll be some blend we’ve never heard before.

How do you think social media influences the music industry?
It’s cool, I love that social media now has a strong music theme to it. It’s a great thing. It also means that there’s going to be a lot more of it so it’s going to be increasingly difficult to percolate to the top of that. There are so many avenues now for discovery and for finding music which, again, is a good thing. I don’t think I would trade that for, say, only one DJ out there that you have to pay and won't play African American artists or girl bands... That’s not ‘the good old days’. Artists now can actually make a living, and they don’t have to be playing stadiums – there are so many different ways to make a living through music and that’s a great thing. Again, I’m curious to see what direction we head in and I think it’s better than it’s ever been. I’m interested to see what artists make of that like "Okay, now what?". Let’s hear some tunes!

You were recently involved in a project to gift approximately 700 graduates with ukuleles. Can you tell me about that?
Yeah! My mum is the one behind all of that. We have our ukulele/record shop on the north shore of Kauai and the same year that I graduated from university, we did this project for the high school graduates. So, for every senior on our island, we raised money to get them a ukulele and a music book and a hat – ‘2020 Grad’ and it had a little mask on the side! Graduating from university is one thing, but graduating from high school and then making that leap is an even more daunting transition. Especially coming from a small island where everybody is leaving and going at least six hours by plane somewhere else, it’s a big thing and for that to happen right at the beginning of a global pandemic is daunting. The motivation behind that was an offering of love and congratulations towards these kids who were living in a very particular time. We live on a small island so it was actually manageable to do that and to raise that amount of money. I’ve never tuned so many ukuleles! We set up different stations to help the island for a month and the kids could come and pick them up. It was lovely. It was really sweet. It was beautiful to be a part of that. Again, it was all my mum. She comes up with these insane ideas and actually manages to pull them off. It’s awesome.

What does masculinity mean to you?
What does masculinity mean to me? That’s another big question! I’m not going to lie, that’s something within myself I don’t think of a lot. In my family there is no emphasis on macho masculinity, it’s just not about that! I have very, very strong female role models in my life – my grandma and my mum who are amazing women around me. I feel like it’s all about breaking down the barrier of masculinity and the feeling that you have to be a certain way because you’re a guy. It’s something every male has to navigate and some have an easier time of it due to their environment. I’ve been lucky enough to have been nurtured in an environment where there’s no negative connotation to that. I’m trying to make sense of what I’m thinking. What is masculinity? Being a male is a strong part of my identity but with that being true, it’s being open to the idea of not restricting me to feel certain things, or feeling like it has to affect your worldview. Learning how to live with that in a healthy way is everyone’s journey. I feel lucky where I’ve had really positive male and female role models to guide me through my own realisation of masculinity. Does that make sense? That’s a deep one! It’s unfortunate because you see some people having a hard time with that from external pressures to feel one way, or feel like you have to show up in a different way. Not everyone has an easy time with that. The more open you can be about anything and lead by example is good.

What do you think it means to be a ‘good person’?
Just don’t hurt people. Don’t inflict hurt! Everyone owes themselves a good time and to be happy in life. I feel like it’s part of my purpose to enjoy life and try to be happy. I think everyone’s purpose is to spread love where you can and be kind and inspire positivity – not in a preachy way at all, but everyone has the capacity to show love and be kind. A lot of people try to be a good person and it’s beautiful. Be a good person to yourself. Realise it’s okay to have a good time and be happy.

How do we make the world better? If only by a little bit?
Love your immediate people around you. Everyone is connected. You have your pool of people and if that’s a healthy pool of people and you’re inspiring each other, spreading love, and doing what you can to help someone who needs it, that’s massive. We can all afford to help other people and we need to be helped. We all need love and we all need that support. What do we need to do to make the world a better place? It sounds cliché but just on that micro-level like you and me, your family - it’s that connection. Some people are going to have wider reaches and I hope that they inspire positivity too. I hope the assholes of the world don’t have loud voices! I hope for that, but I feel it’s often a couple of steps forward, one step back kind of thing. In certain ways, it’s better than ever. There is still a lot of crazy shit going on, but the more and more people are aware and interested, that’s the way forward. It’s no longer an option to be ignorant or not care. That’s going to infect your own self if that’s your view of the world. So, how do we do it? Inspire that goal for a better world through love and through your immediate connections.

If you ruled the world for one day, what would you do?
I don’t think it’s possible to solve everything in one day so my choice would be along the lines of some really cute idealistic little gesture. It would be bitesize but, if everyone did it, that might be something nice even if just for a day. I think we all need to understand what it's like to be in someone else's shoes, how different people live their daily lives. If only there was a way for people to swap their worldview for a day. There would be a massive, global understanding of the different privileges we're each used to, and what we’re used to having or not having. I can just imagine if there was a Global Empathy Day; that would hopefully inspire a massive wave of connection. Maybe people would worry less and not get so swept up in hurting each other. Does that make sense? Just a global day of empathy!

Anything else you would like to add or put out into the world?
After all these massive questions?! Anything else? Oh, God! Have a good day. Spread some love. Listen to a tune. It’s been such a wild year and we’ve all experienced different versions of it. Back home we’ve had a very mellow version of the pandemic and being such a small island, we just shut down completely and it’s been very manageable for us, but that’s not the experience of other parts of the world. Everyone has been through some crazy shit. Take it easy on yourself. We’re getting there. A big hug! It sounds so wishy-washy but I mean it!

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