Hula Hi-Fi: A Talk With Steel Guitarist & Producer Josh Kaler About His Hawaiian Noir Project & New Single ‘Crooked Hearts’

If you tell your Uncle Jim you’ve been living in Nashville, the odds of him saying, “Ohh I just love that Hawaiian Noir music they’ve got down there!” is awfully slim. In fact, I would bet few people have heard that phrase in regards to a musical genre at all. Well lucky for us, that is something that exists here, and Josh Kaler and Danica Dora are the duo making some very original music in Music City. 

Hula Hi-Fi brings something special and unique to the table, and not typically if ever found in the greater Davidson County area. Hell, or Williamson County for that matter. Their latest release, which is a single titled “Crooked Hearts,” couldn’t reflect the term Hawaiian Noir any more fittingly. The song’s moody, dramatic delivery is only magnified by the music video in a most enchanting and cinematic way. You might even hear a sliver of Portishead in there, and it sounds like it could easily be the intro for the next James Bond film. I can picture the silhouette pointing the gun at the camera and digitized blood ooze down the camera lens while hearing the lyric, “cast a secret to the ocean floor.”

Barring any unprecedented setbacks, the band is also set to release their debut full-length album, The Isle of Forgotten Dreams, this June. Dora, who sings and plays ukulele, and Kaler, who plays steel guitar, hired the powerful backing of The Brno Philharmonic Orchestra of the Czech Republic to add an immense level of theater and lush melancholy already existing within the music. The contrast in the blending of such typically sunny, joyous island music and whisking in dark, ominous tones is captivating and musically badass.

Kaler is a Nashville multi-instrumentalist and producer who spent roughly a decade in the studio helping modern indie rock artists achieve their dream records, and now he’s getting his day in the sun with Hula Hi-Fi. He’s heavily steeped in the music world with a broad range of experience and ideas, and now he’s cultivated these in his latest musical endeavor with intent and precision.

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We had the chance to talk with Kaler on the phone about the new single, what inspired their unique musical direction, a sneak peak into their upcoming full-length album, Nashville eateries he misses, and much more.

Music Mecca: So can you talk about the formation and vision behind Hula Hi-Fi?

Josh Kaler: Steel guitar has always kind of been a focal point to me. I play a lot of instruments, but I feel like steel guitar is my most expressive. It’s almost like singing for me. I’ve been collecting old Hawaiian records for many years now, and that specifically set me on this path of Hawaiian steel guitar. 

Hula Hi-Fi originally was a cover band- we have an album out that’s all covers called “Hawaiian Noir: Volume One”.  The sound evolved a bit over the years and I thought it would be cool to start writing in this palette to see where it might lead, but use a modern approach. 

My day job is primarily making modern indie records, so long story short, the vision has been melding my influence with that genre of steel guitar, with the style and approach that I like to impart with the records I produce. 

MM: Do you have an affinity for Hawaiian culture, or maybe more broadly tropical culture, or is it more centered around the music?

JK: I don’t think this would’ve happened without me discovering the music. I love the breeziness and the lightness of the instrumentation that goes along with the culture. That’s certainly something that’s attractive to me. 

MM: So how did you meet Danica, and how did the idea to work together come to light?

JK: She’s one of my best friends, and I met her like eight years ago. I was recommended to produce a song or two of hers, because she’s a great solo artist in her own right. So that’s kind of how we clicked originally, just by working together in the studio on her solo stuff. Maybe two summers ago, I noticed she was writing songs on her ukulele, and sort of wanted to try collaborating on Hula Hi-Fi material, and it just naturally worked really well. 

MM: Can you talk about the inspiration and feelings behind your now released single, “Crooked Hearts,” and touch on the music video as well?

JK: I was writing the song on piano and picking inspiration from a real dramatic film sequence. I thought, “what if an orchestra could anchor a song of ours?” And that’s what started this idea of writing with an orchestra in mind. 

My general approach to songwriting is that I usually begin with a chordal idea, start humming melodies- the lyrics are always the last thing that comes. At its core, it’s a song about yearning for someone you shouldn’t be and the shame that goes along with that. It wasn’t necessarily autobiographical or anything, but I just had “Crooked Hearts” in my head for some reason, and I just kind of ran with it. The words, “cast a secret to the ocean floor”, definitely sum up the lyrical mood of the album. 

This was our first attempt at doing a music video and we love how it turned out! We were blown away with local artist Kit Kite’s work on the set design and was so much fun shooting at Pearl Diver and The Fairlane Hotel here in Nashville. 

MM: So where did you guys film the music video? 

JK: We filmed it with a local genius by the name of Casey Pierce, who also goes under the moniker Plastic Diamonds. I went through the Rolodex of musical buddies in town and asked who would be a good fit for the video, and I got a lot of recommendations. I went on his Instagram profile and I immediately was taken by the colors and lighting. They were all really evocative. I felt he could bring the drama, and we wanted it to be colorful. His use of color and lighting in particular were really beautiful. 

MM: It almost has like a David Lynch feel to it.

JK: (Cheers) Yeah! I mean that’s exactly what we’re going for. It’s like if James Bond and Twin Peaks and Hula Hi-Fi collaborated. That’s what we’re going for. 

MM: So given everything that’s going on, are you still envisioning your album to be released in June, or are you debating postponing?

JK: (Sighs) That’s a great question. I’m not even sure if I’m supposed to say anything yet. This has been planned pretty much since the beginning of the year, to have this big roll out, right? And then the shit storm happens, and it’s been difficult for all artists to feel- we’re all having to adapt in how we’re contributing art, you know? It’s a very conflicted feeling of being stifled by the climate, but you feel like you want to offer something beautiful, that’s yours and honest. At the end of the day that’s where I landed. I thought, let’s just try to release this single we’ve worked so hard on. It’s an honest offering, and we’ll just see what happens with it. That’s where we’re at.  

MM: Going back to the recording of the album and the orchestra, can you just talk about getting the idea to do that, and how it all came to fruition?

JK: I was listening to a podcast called Song Exploder and the focus was on Ramin Djawadi (the composer for Game of Thrones). He was talking about the opening credits theme and he mentioned using an orchestra in Prague. And I thought that was interesting, I would assume they’d use like, the London Symphony, or you know- the biggest TV show in history would use the go-to [orchestra]. But he really preferred their musicianship, and the more digging I did, I thought I may be able to do this. I wanted the album to have that timeless sound that you can only get with an orchestra playing together in the same room. I ended up traveling to Brno, Czech Republic last year to attend the recording sessions. An experience I’ll soon not forget.

MM: Does the whole album have that “Crooked Hearts” feel, like that dramatic cinematic haunting quality, or are there maybe more uptempo songs?

JK: In general, there’s a yearning and lonely feeling across the album. The opening track is called “Tropicali Sunset”, and the last track is “Tropicali Sunrise”, so lyrically all of the content is based in like a dream-state in the evening. It’s already placed in this moody… dream-state I guess is what I’m going for. There’s some uptempo tunes, but in general it’s a real lush, moody album. 

MM: Now do you have any special plans to maintain momentum for these releases other than maybe live-streaming?

JK: We have this fun idea where we’re going to collaborate with Chopper, a tiki bar in town, and for each single we release, we’re going to have a cocktail featured on their menu that represents the mood of the song. We also definitely plan on releasing some socially-distanced duo performances in the coming months. 

MM: Now are you bothering to make tentative touring plans whenever this thing may wind down, or are you just hunkering down and focusing on new material?

JK: The latter. So we were in the process of submitting for opening tours in the summer and fall, but the thing with us is that we’re very new, and it just feels like the safest thing to do is just ride this out and be a non-touring entity for now. We’re working with a company that’s been gracious enough to help us try to get our music in TV and film, but we’re focusing on having an online presence and that kind of thing. 

MM: So what’s the songwriting process like with you and Danica? 

JK: Danica became involved in the project after all the songs for this record had been written- so we haven’t had much opportunity to write together yet. I do know, however, that we are inspired by similar subjects and usually both need to feel really connected to those subjects in order to write. We’ve also worked together in many other capacities and it’s always so much fun! For all these reasons we are looking forward to writing more together soon!

MM: What Nashville establishments are you really missing the most throughout all of this as far as restaurants, bars, venues, and such?

JK: (Ponders) I’m trying to think. There’s so many. I sure miss- well, I don’t want to leave anybody out. (Laughs) I definitely miss Rudie’s, the restaurant not the jazz club. I love Rudie’s. Every time I sit down there, it’s just always good food and a solid hang. And Dino’s of course. I just miss the ease of those places. 

MM: What do you hope the world, or at least our country, will learn and take away from this pandemic? 

JK: There are so many things we want the world to take away from this pandemic. Since there isn’t enough room on this page- here are just a few. 

1.) Hope we stop taking so many things for granted. 

2.) Hope that more attention and resources will be given to struggling people and neglected communities so that we might all equally have the support and mental/physical health needed to survive such a crisis. 

3.) Hope we will be kinder to the environment and animals.

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