An Interview With Maui Singer-Songwriter Dayan Kai & Look At His Song, ‘Giving My Time Away’

Authenticity in an artist is a crucial and not always evident trait. That could mean different things to different people, but to me, it means exposing yourself as human, being comfortable in your own skin, and not putting on heirs or fronts, which of course in the entertainment business, can be tricky.

Dayan Kai is one such artist that emulates a peak level of artist authenticity.

Born blind on the beautiful island of Maui, this Hawaiian Islander grew up with the forces and inspirations of the tropics. Kai’s visual detriment could very well have heightened his sonic skills, as he picked up music at a very young age and ran with it.

Kai and his music resonates with the common man and woman. He’s a down to earth family man with three children, and it’s clear his music is an extension of his everyday life. His single, “Giving My Time Away,” is inspired by his children and a homeless man they dubbed “The Purple Man”, who his kids thought ate children. A classic horror tale amongst children, if you will. Kai goes on to make his children aware he’s actually a nice guy, perhaps just a little different. He goes on to empathize with the homeless, noting how many of them were veterans and former protectors of our nation.

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Kai has a very unique perspective, and we had the chance to chat with him about his upbringing, his latest work, how the pandemic has affected him on the island, and more.

So who or what got you into playing and writing music?
I come from a family that appreciated the arts and exposed me to a range of music at a very young age. When I showed a musical aptitude at age two, they found me a teacher and encouraged me from then on. Given that I was born blind, they thought it was my best bet at a vocation. I started making up my own songs at about age four. By age seven I was performing my original music for friends and family regularly. I got my first paid performance opportunity at age nine. To summarize, I would say my family and community got me started. 

How does living in a place like Haiku, Hawaii, inspire and influence your music and sound?
I was born on Maui and being back home helps me connect with my earliest memories. I am surrounded by nature and beauty every day. I am inspired by the ocean, the mountains, the jungle, and our pleasant climate. This environment facilitates my propensity to express gratitude and to strongly defend our environment and communities, indigenous and otherwise. I feel this comes through my music in many ways. 

What’s the music scene like in Maui?
Locals primarily like iPop, reggae, Hawaiian, and old classics. There’s not a lot of opportunity on Maui for singer/songwriters or most popular genres of original music. There are a few grassroots venues, some radio, and an occasional opportunity at a street fair or festival. For the most part I perform my music abroad where I have a stronger audience. Back home I also held a weekly regular at a high-end resort (before Corona), occasionally played with other bands, and played for various special events. 

What is your songwriting process like? Is it more regimented and structured, or more loose and sporadic?
My songwriting method is to be open minded. I have no set routine. I find songs often come to me when I am in the midst of other tasks and my mind is free to wander. Also, sometimes during meditation, a phrase I hear will trigger a songwriting process. Some of my songs have come from dreams. I am also inspired by other songs. I am very rhythmically driven, so if I notice a rhythm pattern I like I often will begin adopting lyrics or grooves to it. I have never been very successful at setting out to write a particular song in a particular manner or for a particular audience. My process is by no means contrived; it is a spontaneous, abstract, universal connection that enables me to write songs. 

Do you mostly write alone, or do you take part in co-writes?
I generally write alone. I have done some co-writing, and really enjoy doing it. Co-writing can really take you in directions you would never go alone and often a writer’s talents are amplified by another writer. I think it is a really great exercise even if the end product is not something you would try to sell. 

So it was your song, “Giving My Time Away” that caught our ear. Can you talk about the influence and inspiration behind this track?

In the town of Lahaina there lived a homeless man who everyone called “The Purple Man” because he wore a purple suit in all weather. One day my two eldest children came to me and told me that the neighborhood children believed that The Purple Man ate kids. I asked them if any of their friends had gone missing and they said no. I thought I had taught them an important lesson about judgement of the homeless. About 15 minutes later, they came back and said, “Dad, maybe he only eats tourists, and that’s why no one’s gone missing.” A week or so later we had a chance to talk with The Purple Man and my kids learned that he was a pretty nice guy. Later, when the children planned to ambush him, my kids stopped them, saying, “No, that’s our dad’s friend; he hangs out with guys like that.”

Throughout my life I’ve had many friends and acquaintances who are homeless, and I have always tried to be an advocate for them all. At the end of the song, I borrow the line from the Joe Hill song which was popularized by one of my greatest heroes, Bruce “Utah” Phillips (the line “Hallelujah I’m a bum”). There is also a phrase that stuck in my head that may have originally started the whole song, which was “that first Bush war.” I remember realizing that the children who were marching off to the second Bush war were too young to remember the first. That always stuck with me, and I wanted to draw attention to it. There are also hobo references in the song, like “leaving on the old West bound,” which meant, “going to die, taking the last train.” There is a very corrupt labor history in the U.S., and some of our finest people, many of whom are veterans, live on the streets that they swore to protect. 

Is it a part of or going to be a part of an EP or LP?

Yes, it is part of the album, To Be Free, which I released at the end of June 2019, and is available at virtually all digital media outlets. It’s a completely solo, acoustic album with no overdubs or edits. 

What are you working on currently?

A variety of projects. I am hoping to release an album this fall, which is a collection of my original music with more elaborate arrangements. I am also working with “The Rockabilly Space Force,” a Spokane-based band which I’ve been collaborating with remotely since our live New Year premiere. We have released three singles, including a cover of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” by Pete Seeger, which is accompanied by a music video. I’ve been performing and creating new music with Bay Area blues guitarist and recent immigrant to Maui, Jimmy Dillon, who I met while performing at a local farmers market. I’ve also been doing some remote video work for the Zonky Jazz Band, the Hot Club of Spokane, KPIG radio in Watsonville, CA, various other online musical projects.

How have you been keeping busy and trying to maintain momentum for your music during the pandemic?

Surprisingly, I have been very busy with many creative endeavors, though few of them have been financially rewarding at this point. I’ve ramped up my online presence with multiple live performances per week, pushed to increase my Patreon subscriptions, and participated in numerous collaborations. In addition, I have three children, a multitude of instruments in a very moist climate, a productive garden, several animals, and a jungle that keeps growing up around us. I am also a radio operator. When I have a little free time I like to spend it with my sweetie in the ocean. I have never found myself bored or with extra time. There is always something new to learn and people who need my assistance. We are never alone. 

Do you feel the pandemic has helped or hurt your creative process? (or perhaps neither)

The pandemic has hurt my creative process because it has hurt my humanity to see the lack of humanity displayed. Also, stress is a mitigating factor in a person’s creative output. When you don’t know how you are going to pay for your living expenses and those who depend on you it can be worrisome, even when you know that there is no point in worrying. Still, I have continued to create new songs and musical ideas. It is possible that there may be more output as a result of all of the input, time will tell. 

What’s one of your proudest/accomplished moments as an artist in your career thus far?

One of my proudest moments in my career as an artist was hearing from people that my songs have brought great comfort in times of their deepest sorrows. Another highlight has been having my songs covered by other performers. In addition, there is nothing like hearing little kids sing your songs while at play.  

What can fans expect from Dayan Kai in the latter half of the year?

Fans can expect one, if not two new recording projects, a continuous stream of new content through my Facebook music page, Patreon and YouTube, more online performances, as well as live performances as soon as possible.

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