Chicago’s KAINA Is a Healer: Interview

“Everything that I talked about on the album is real.”
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I could wax poetic about KAINA for eons.

There is an elegant and consequential quality to her music that strikes at the fabric of our anxieties and eases them. KAINA hears us; she hears herself. The 23-year-old Chicago native is so much more than the Latinx-songstress the media will peg her as; she is a healer, she is a lover, a giver, a full human being with a blossoming and stunning humanity.

After featuring on Saba’s “FIGHTER” off CARE FOR ME, KAINA is finally stepping into the spotlight with her debut, Next to The Sun, which is nothing if not an invitation into her endearingly cluttered head. KAINA pulls out a chair for the listener, and we settle into the room of her doubts and hopes, we commune with her, and it is beautiful. As she works through her identity, her depressive bouts, and learns to validate her humanity, we, too, learn something about ourselves.

Next to The Sun is a top album of this year, of the past year, and of years to come within and out of the Chicago scene. There is so much to say about the wizened, thoughtful, and ever-so becoming KAINA, but I’d rather let her tell it.

Our full conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: Our readers love your voice, but they might not know who Kaina is as a woman. How would you define Kaina, the person?

KAINA: You’re starting like this, huh? I want to think that as a person… It’s hard for me to be “This is who I am as an artist,” because this is who I am as a person. As a person, I try to live my life with honesty, and as you mentioned, vulnerability. Part of it is that it feels good, but also I can’t help myself. I can’t stop myself from digging deep into the things that hurt or feelings. I’m a big giver, caretaker, and healer. I truly care a lot. I am very intentional about who I am and who I interact with.

How do you make sure your humanity makes its way into the music?

For me, it’s the forefront of everything that I do. If my intention as a person is to get closer to myself as a person and to understand myself better, then naturally, that will be at the forefront. It’s like identity; I can’t help that I’m a first-gen Latina, that’s what I was born as. Everything I create comes from that place. I feel very similarly about my vulnerability and my quest for honesty and validating feelings.

In growing up and growing into my adulthood, I’ve learned that the most human thing is to be vulnerable and honest about all parts of yourself and your feelings. On the LP, it just happened that way. Everything that people will hear is not a show. It’s my everyday life. I’m a young woman who thinks about things like love, but I’m also a woman of color who thinks about daily troubles of life. All of those things at once and all of it is real.

I’m glad you mentioned identity because I feel like American media has just caught on to Latinx music. Talk to me about the importance of singing in Spanish.

I agree. The media has only just decided that people who are of Latinx descent make music [laughs]. When I wrote “Could Be A Curse” in Spanish, it wasn’t because I wanted to latch on to what sometimes feels like a fad, it was because I genuinely felt like I could describe my feelings more in Spanish than in English. It was about catching the energy and a particular thought that I was having. Relating to being human, I told Sen [Morimoto] it would be cool if we both wrote our verses in different languages. I don’t know Japanese, so I don’t know what he’s saying. He could tell me what he wrote about, and I could tell him what I wrote about. I thought there was something cool about being able to write in different languages and still being able to relate to what someone is saying.

I feel that way about my native Russian; sometimes it’s the only way I can communicate. There’s a whole range of emotions that aren’t available in English.

Totally. I can even admit to not knowing that people in my community have been doing this stuff for a long time. Those people will tell me: “We’ve been here for a long time.” It’s because of the internet and media finally understanding there’s an audience for [Latinx music]. It’s funny that only now is the media like “This is an audience that would like to see themselves represented.” I feel lucky to be in a time where people are paying attention to that sort of stuff, but obviously, there’s sadness since artists have been doing this for a long time.

After featuring on a major album like Saba’s CARE FOR ME, playing a major role in making “FIGHTER” a standout song, how does it feel to step out into the spotlight on your debut, Next to The Sun?

I’m still in disbelief that I’m on CARE FOR ME. I’m the biggest Saba fan. I remember going to Saba shows when I was 17 with all my friends. I would go to every single Saba show I could. I remember watching him perform at Do Division in Chicago, and it was pouring, and him being like “Who are you? You’re at every single show!” That’s a metaphor for everything that has happened to me in my life in Chicago and outside of it. I’ve always shown up for the things that I love, and it’s naturally worked out as peers or collaborators.

Leading into my stuff is natural. Saba sat in on some of the early sessions of Next to The Sun, when I was unsure about it all. “Waiting On A Day,” he was there for that recording. “Green,” he was there for the end of that, which is cool because “Green” is the last and newest song that I’ve recorded. It’s refreshing to work [with] someone and have them become a peer, and someone I could ask questions. My 17-year-old self is in disbelief that I’m on CARE FOR ME because that album was my No. 1 of last year.

Maybe this is sort of a theme that runs through us Chicagoans—people like Saba, Jamila [Woods], and Noname. We’re just honest people. We’re not scared of being vulnerable because we’re not an “industry city.” All we have to offer is ourselves. It feels good to step into my own, and it’s natural. All of those things were happening to me. Saba was there when I was having doubts. At my core, as a human, I’m all about being real and vulnerable, and I want things to feel more accessible to people, including emotions.

There are a lot of feelings of isolation on this project, especially on “Ghost” and “So Small So Vast.” It’s like this big room, and KAINA is just at the center of it. Where were you at mentally when making this record?

Oh, Donna, you’re dragging me! It makes me so happy that you’ve said something like this because it’s been tough me for me to explain this project to people. Because at its core, it’s me in a room, telling you all how I experience my world.I was going through a difficult period. I am a very positive person and, again, my intention is always set in really good things and good wishes for people. I want to be able to be a vessel for people to channel their feelings. When you listen back to my earlier projects, you can tell I’m young. I have so much love and good energy to offer. It got to a place as I got older, I realized it wasn’t sustainable.

During this project is when I tried my first bit at going to therapy. It didn’t work out for me, because it didn’t work out, but it was my first attempt at opening myself up. So where I was at, you hear it throughout the project. It starts with “House,” which is a song about immigration, and it’s almost a prayer. Moving into “Ghost,” I realize I’m frustrated and feeling stuck and feeling jaded with the world. How I simultaneously have more privilege than my parents, but I don’t have shit because of how the government is set up.

The A-side is me being analytical and questioning things, and being mad and frustrated. The B-side of the album is me coming more to acceptance of allowing those feelings to live, and being honest about it. It ends with “Green,” which is the destination point of my whole journey. Like, “Hey, KAINA, you’re allowed to feel all the things that you want to. It doesn’t mean you’re fucked up, or anything. You’re just a human being.”

The whole project is about duality but also landing at a place like “Green,” where you’re okay with the fact that there’s not a streamlined solution to your identity. You’re all of these things at once [laughs], and also, like, nothing.

For all the haze of the project, there’s power in it as well. How do you find strength in yourself?

I’m a transparent person. This week feels scary and hard for me. And simultaneously, really beautiful. Part of this album and part of learning to grow up is learning it’s not healthy to think I could do all of this stuff by myself. When I need strength, I talk to my family, and I talk to my friends, and I don’t feel bad about spilling my worries. Sometimes I have to have a relationship with people where I can spill all my doubts, and part of it is I need to say it out loud so I can say “That’s not real, that’s not gonna happen.”

What does it mean to you, having this album out in the world for people to relate to?

I’m super ready! I’ve talked about this a lot, but I’ve told you: Everything that I talked about on the album is real. It’s either an emotion that I’ve made peace with or a situation that I’ve made peace with. In having this conversation with you, or with certain artists that I’ve worked with, that’s enough for me to hear you be like, “This is you in a room.” I’m super ready to share that feeling with other people.

Listen to KAINA's new album, Next to the Sun, on Audiomack.

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