From being named Female Vocalist of the Year in the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards to hanging onstage with Jack Johnson, musician Anuhea is one of Hawaii's favorites. We asked the Maui native to tell us more about how she got her start, how growing up surfing the laid-back Waikiki waves has influenced her sound, and why she loves Blue Note Hawaii.
(Q) Let’s start at the beginning! How did you get your start in music? What is one of your first “musical” memories?
I always loved music, but I didn’t really do anything musical or performance wise until I was about 10 or 11. I took a couple ukulele lessons as a kid, but when I was enrolled in a Theater summer camp with the Maui Academy of Performing Arts, I was hooked. Performing on stage and singing and dancing and making people laugh was SO much fun, and I knew I found my passion. In high school I continued in performing arts, and I learned to play guitar with my high school boarding roommate. I started writing my own songs, got my own guitar and took it to college with me. I continued writing and started performing in coffee shops and open mics. With every gig I think I just got more and more comfortable, and eventually was able to put together a demo CD. Each step of my career was so important to developing as an artist, and the hard work I put into it helped to make my foundation strong! So thankful for it all.
(Q) Your debut album had a radio hit in "Big Deal" charted in the top 10 on the iTunes Pop charts, what was that experience of success like for a debut album?
It was kind of a Big Deal (no pun intended), but I feel like I was so “in it” I didn’t even realize how big of a deal it was! I had been working hard and gigging throughout Maui and Oahu non stop, and then we started tackling touring on the mainland, so we were just go go go all the time. I am so grateful for my manager and team for all the help navigating the ever-changing music business, teaching me the importance of social media and keeping in touch with my fans. The AnuJammers following my journey through my first posts on like YouTube, Twitter and Myspace helped my songs get more streams, helped us spread the word about my music, and helped us generate fans around the world. Thank you internet!
(Q) How did your aunt Nalani Jenkins’ career as a member of Hawaii’s most successful Hawaiian female music group to date, Na Leo Pilimehana, influence your own musical career?
Na Leo was always a huge inspiration to me. I loved listening to all their albums and attending their concerts whenever they would come to Maui. I was always so proud to have an aunty that was a famous singer, and it definitely got me some “cool points” throughout school and stuff. Watching Na Leo navigate the music industry all these years and continue to be pillars in the Hawaii music scene continues to inspire me.
(Q) Now you’re also known as one of the top musicians in Hawaii yourself. What was it like winning your first (two) “Hawaiian Grammy’s” the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards in 2010 and then winning Top Female Vocalist in 2019?
Winning Female Vocalist of the Year was a big one, just cause it happened to come 10 years after my debut album released. I had released my “Best Of” album, which was a culmination of a decade of hard work and commitment. So to be awarded that year with something like that was really an honor.
(Q) You’ve performed and toured with artists ranging from Jack Johnson to Ziggy Marley. What is your best on-stage moment, either with a fellow performing artist or with your band?
My best on-stage moment would have to be performing with Jack Johnson at the Kokua Festival in 2010. It was very much still in the beginning of my career, but Jack Johnson was (and is) my favorite artist, and a big reason I started playing guitar. So to be on that festival was a true dream-come-true moment for me. After that, I’d say performing the half time show for the Pro-Bowl, and the national anthem for a Minnesota Vikings vs Seahawks game was another huge one!
(Q) Talk about your style -- how did you find your “voice” in a mix of pop and reggae?
Hawai’i loves reggae music, and I was raised listening to that, to Na Leo and other Hawaiian music acts, and also like Disney music, boy bands, and show tunes lol! I think my style is a mixture of everything that has inspired me. Writing songs with my acoustic guitar helps, and many inevitably have that reggae skank in them, since I’m just so used to playing guitar that way! Lyrically, I just write from my heart.
(Q) Today, where do you most find your inspiration?
I continue to find inspiration in my relationships and the relationships I hear about from people around me. I look back in time and write songs for myself in certain times in my life, or for things I was going through. I’m inspired by everything really, but love songs and songs to motivate or inspire people are my favorite.
(Q) As a singer and guitar player, what’s your songwriting process like?
I usually write down random lyrics on a note in my phone, or I’ll record little melodies that pop in my head into the voice memo app on my phone. Then when I have some time, I’ll sit down with my Guitar and kinda go through my notes and see what clicks. I used to write stuff in my Hello Kitty diary, and many of those entries turned into songs, too!
(Q) How has growing up on Maui influenced your music? Are you also a surfer, and if so what is your favorite Hawaiian surf spot?
Growing up on Maui was such a beautiful life. My dad is actually from the North Shore of Oahu and was a surfer, but he became a coach and PE teacher, so I grew up as a coach’s daughter! Grew up in the gym, playing under the bleachers, basketball camps and having to be a referee for my younger sibling’s games, haha. I surfed a lot in high school; when I attended Kamehameha schools, we would catch the city bus from campus to Waikiki and borrow long boards from the beach boys outside of Duke’s and spend the whole day just catching those fun easy Waikiki waves. That surfing lifestyle is reflected in my music just with the laid back vibe of some of my songs.
(Q) Tell us more about what your full name (Rylee Anuheakealaokalokelani) means?
My full name was given to me by my Tutu, my great grandmother, Elizabeth Kawohionalani Ellis. She was born and raised on the Big Island of Hawai’i and Hawaiian was her first language. She ended up on O’ahu and became a scholar, an educator, and was a pillar in the Kupuna community and helped in many aspects of the education system for Hawaiians. I am the hiapo, or the eldest of her mo’opuna (great grandchildren), and the first to be born on the island of Maui. Maui’s flower is the Lokelani rose, and I was born in Makawao where its nice and cool. So Tutu named me the cool fragrance of the heavenly rose. Anuheake’alaokalokelani. Anuhea means cool, like a cool breeze Ke’ala means fragrance, o ka of the, Lokelani, the heavenly rose, which is the Maui flower. That’s my name. Mahalo Tutu!
(Q) Any upcoming shows (either virtual or IRL) we can check out?
Our Thanksgiving week shows at the Blue Note Hawaii are coming up! Two of the nights we are performing (Friday November 27th and Saturday November 28th) are going to be available for live-streaming worldwide.
(Q) Speaking of upcoming shows, we can’t wait to have you back at Blue Note Hawaii! How many shows have you played here now – and what do you love about it?
I’ve played at the Blue Note so many times I’ve lost count!! We were blessed to be one of the first acts to play when it first opened in Waikiki, and have been coming back at least twice a year for a few days at a time every year since then. We’ve also played multiple times at the Blue Note in Napa, and also was the first Hawaii act to play at the Blue Note in Beijing China last year! We just LOVE the Blue Note- from the ambiance, to the staff, to the amazing sound system and stage quality, to the FOOD and WINE selection. We are just so excited to come back and perform for everyone in this safe environment!
(Q) Anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you for this interview! I want to encourage everyone to stay safe, stay healthy, and hang in there during these crazy times! Check out my Instagram or Facebook to stay in touch. And please take a peek at my scholarship foundation, the Aloha Always Foundation! I make face masks and merchandise that help grant scholarships for Hawaii students pursuing higher education! MAHALO!
Check out more best-of travel tips and our Surf+Music series at Outrigger Stories.