- Words Louis Rabinowitz
Notion sat down with Hawaiian-hailing, Liverpool-based artist Eli Smart to discuss his trademark genre of Aloha Soul, Elton John's endorsement, and his self-directed cinematic music videos.
If your ideal genre of music doesn’t exist, why not go ahead and invent your own? That’s what rising star Eli Smart has done, creating a breezy and chilled-out niche of his own that he’s chosen to call ‘Ahola Soul’.
Smart was born into a family of musicians, whose influences he absorbed from a young age. He spent his early years in Kauai on the island of Hawaii, and the sunny vibes of the American island have clearly made their mark on Smart, who continues to prize his Hawaiian origins in his somewhat chillier current home of Liverpool.
He released his debut EP, ‘Boonie Town’, last year to acclaim, and gained the impressive bonafides of an endorsement from Elton John himself on the music legend’s radio show. Smart has also directed his own musicals, such as the Wes Anderson influenced, pastel-hued video for his song “Cruella Deville”. He’s just dropped a new music video for his song “Every Flavor”, a sun-soaked beach trip which uses warm colours to capture the carefree friendship felt by Eli’s bandmates and himself, which is available to watch below.
Smart is all set for another big year ahead, so we caught up with him to chat about his upcoming homecoming show in Liverpool, the meaning of Aloha Soul, and the importance of collaboration in his work.
What are you most excited about with your Liverpool show this year?
I’m most excited about reconnecting with all my Liverpool mates, I miss them all so much and haven’t seen them in so long. To be able to play a proper show and then walk around the town after will be a dream come true for me.
How did growing up in a musical family help build your sense of creativity?
It was really the most nurturing environment to grow up in, I always felt support with my creativity and that is the most beautiful thing. I’m truly grateful for having grown up in such a healthy creative environment. It’s had the hugest impact on me.
What emotions do you try and capture in your music?
All of them! I aim to write about all kinds of emotions, it’s so much fun to weave them all together, some are represented lyrically and some can be portrayed in such a subtle sonic way. Blending the literal meaning of the lyric and the subconscious emotion on the sonic side is the most fun thing for me. It’s so cool how a song can take on its own entire unexpected emotion after you do your thing to it.
Do you draw from your own experiences or those around you?
I try to draw from both, sometimes I’ll find it easier to riff off of observations I’ve made around me, and sometimes the truest thing to do is to dig inside myself and see what I’m feeling, that’s often the harder one for me though. Both are very satisfying!
Why was it important for you to direct your own music videos?
It’s important for me to be very involved in the making of my videos simply because I really care about how I present the songs visually but I wouldn’t be able to do much at all without the help of such creative friends around me. I’m very lucky to have a lot of driven and talented people around me who always come through to support me in my visions. All credit to them for making any of my videos happen.
How does that factor into your creative expression?
The visual side of music is a massive part of my creative expression, I wish I was more capable of creating visual content on a regular basis on my own but I’m also thankful that my limitations are what force me to bring other people in to help give life to my ideas. The grooviest thing is when collaboration clicks and there’s a mutual creative trust in the process and each other’s strengths, that’s always been the case when making videos and anything visual. Very grateful for my friends who always are down to try wacky ideas with me.
Your videos take a big influence from Wes Anderson. Why does that cinematic vibe feel right for your music?
This kind of happened by accident as we started filming the Cruella Deville music video, my mates Cliff Mello and Noah Nemeroff directed and made this video happen. They both have a beautiful eye for symmetry and creating quirky little scenes. Colour-wise it was definitely intended to reference Wes Anderson and then the more we shot the weirder we got and it turned into a hilarious Kauai take on Bottle Rocket.
Congrats on signing up to Universal/Polydor! What do you think the advantages will be for you working with a major label?
Thank you!! I’m so grateful to have found such a caring and driven team at Polydor who are so invested in growing my project. I think there are so many pluses that I’m only just becoming aware of as it’s a relatively new relationship but most of all I’m grateful for my team’s time. I’m always blown away to be surrounded by so many talented and creative people who are so excited to help spread my music, I’m really grateful for that.
What does it mean to you to put your Hawaiian roots at the forefront of your music?
I don’t have any Hawaiian heritage by blood whatsoever as my family is originally from elsewhere but I have spent most of my life on Kauai and it’s something I’m eternally grateful for. Growing up here within the beauty of Hawaiian culture has made me aware of a lot of meaningful things in life. It’s made me appreciate a strong sense in community, given me an affinity for music and an extreme appreciation for nature. All I’m trying to do is synthesize the richness and rawness of my surroundings into something sonic that can float around anywhere in the world and make sense in some new way to someone with an entirely different worldview. I really enjoy recording and writing with the Hawaiian lapsteel guitar as it’s such a magical sound that I grew up with that not many people know about, it’s really fun taking it out of context and running it through a distortion pedal, discovering new tones and moods is a blast. It’s important to me to pay homage to the sounds, the values and the beauty here on Kauai.
Times are tough at the moment. What role do you think bright and optimistic music – like your own tunes – plays in giving a release to listeners?
It’s important to me to try and pay attention to the positive side of things. I never mean to try to only preach “good vibes” and “positivity” because real life is much deeper than those two emotions obviously. I aim to be real through my music and I hope that that’s what connects with people, sometimes it’ll be in a positive tone or sometimes very melancholy or even cynical. It’s very fun to superimpose different emotions on top of each other when writing and recording, like taking an upbeat and cheery melody and groove and writing about something very rough and real. I guess I just want to offer freshness and realness to listeners, both those for me possess a positive connotation.
Elton John championed your song “Cruella Deville” on his Rocket Hour radio show in 2020. What was that moment like for you?
That was CRAZY!! It made my life to get that news. I was up super early Hawaii time to hear it live and I listened with my mom and grandma just as the sun came up. It was epic.
You’re a really self-reliant multi-hyphenate artist, but if you were to collaborate with other artists, what would you be looking for?
It’s really fun for me to understand every part of the process which is why I enjoy doing a lot of it myself but that being said there’s a particular kind of creative magic that happened when collaboration clicks and different people can trust each other in the creative process. Everybody has some unique creative viewpoint to offer, possibilities are endless!! I just want to work with people who will push me and are willing to expand their comfort zone.
How do you balance the classic influences like the Beatles and Prince with the modern sound you’re trying to create?
I’ll get a hofner bass tone and play it along with a crazy drum machine pattern and sing weird falsettos in three-part harmonies, then I’ll put lapsteel on it! There is so much good music to draw from and reference, that’s all I’m ever attempting and somewhere along the way it takes on its own weird version of what I’m trying to do and becomes a mutant tune! Thank you for having me! Stay safe:)