Waiting for birdsongs

Kina Grannis on creating authenticity in the music industry

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Kina Grannis
Courtesy of Kina Grannis

Songwriter Kina Grannis has learned to let songs creep up on her. They always have a way of finding her — even if she’s not consciously aware of their meaning when they fly from her mouth for the first time. She says if she tries to make herself sit down and write, the songs stay hidden. If she makes space for them, they come.

Grannis is preparing to travel across the U.S. and Europe for her album In the Waiting, which she released at the end of June. Containing ethereal ballads of longing and loneliness, the record is the first Grannis produced on her own, making it one she believes represents her at her most honest and vulnerable.

“It’s a lot of firsts for me,” Grannis says. “I’ve been slowly making it over this past year, and it’s been a lot of growing and a lot of reflecting and just trying to figure out how to do life better. I think all of my albums have reflected where I am in life.”

In the same way that songs seem to find the 32-year-old musician, the producing process came to her subconsciously. She’s worked with professional producers in the past, but it was through fiddling with various instruments and vocal airing while recording that she stumbled on the process of producing the album on her own.

“I have finally found that place where I know who I am musically and I know what I want my music to sound like,” Grannis says. “It’s not a super clean, shiny album, but it is pretty much just me sitting in my home. There are a lot of bird sounds coming through the window.”

While the album may not be polished, the nostalgic and dreamy tone of Grannis’ songs give the melodies a wistful shimmer. The album, at its core, presents as a meditation on the passing of time. 

In part, the album came out of a long period of personal waiting Grannis experienced in 2015. During the tour behind her album Elements, Grannis and her band found themselves detained in Jakarta, Indonesia, after discovering unexpected problems with their work visas. The musicians were told they could be held in jail for five years, but ultimately were fined and released after 100 days. In the meantime, all they could do was wait.

“It was definitely the scariest, saddest time of my life, and also the most powerful and beautiful time of my life,” Grannis says. “Living in a state where there’s no certainty and you have your freedom and the people you love taken away from you, it really starts to put things in perspective.”

Grannis says that though the first month was the most difficult, she was able to ground herself in meditation and gratitude, practices that she has carried with her as she continues her career.

“Once I stopped resisting what was happening, I started finding immense gratitude for things like being alive,” Grannis says. “If we’re breathing, we can use our bodies, our families are alive — we’re so lucky.”

Grannis’ success in the music industry came suddenly and in full force by way of a Doritos-sponsored contest for songwriters to be featured at the 2007 Super Bowl. After getting through the first round of the competition, Grannis decided to start a YouTube channel and make a video for every day the competition continued.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she says.

Grannis won the contest, and before the performance, her younger sister pulled her aside and said, “Kina, this is the moment. From now on you get to do music for your life. That’s so amazing.” It appeared as though she had achieved her dream: a major record label wanted to produce her work.

But six months later, Grannis felt reality setting in and her dream beginning to unravel. The label didn’t want to release the album she had written. Instead, they suggested she either co-write a new album — something she felt took away from the personal nature and magic of songwriting — or, if she wouldn’t become the type of artist they wanted her to be, she could leave. With her supporters from around the world on YouTube, Grannis felt it was an easy choice. A decade later, her channel has 1.3 million subscribers.

“For the last 10 years I’ve been doing music entirely because of these people who have been listening and supporting me,” Grannis says. “All of a sudden last year it felt so clear to me to just call it what it is. It’s not that I’ve been an independent artist this whole time. I’ve been supported by my listeners around the world, and so I wanted to take it to a new level.”

Creating her own record label, KG Records, using the website Patreon, Grannis found a way to stay true to the type of artist she wants to be, as well as a way to maintain an authentic relationship with her followers through her videos.

One follower recently told Grannis that listening to her music was a form of meditation. Another compared it to therapy. Above all, what the songwriter hopes the audience takes away from her music is hope.

“It’s so easy to get lost in our world and feel alone, but there’s something about feeling understood or seen in something you’re going through or having a feeling articulated that makes you think, ‘I’m not alone.’”

On the Bill: Kina Grannis — with Imaginary Future. 7 p.m. Sunday, July 22, Bluebird Theater, 3317 E. Colfax Ave., Denver. Tickets are $22.50.