BY ERIN WALSH
MEET Alex Aiono- Youtube sensation and John Legend’s protege marks his latest mega moment, transitioning from the pop star of Gospel at 23 to mega movie star with a leading role in Netflix’s Finding Ohana. SBJCT spoke with Alex on learning to enjoy the journey and more. Read on below…
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Erin Walsh Hi Alex! Thank you so much for joining Team SBJCT. Let’s start at your beginnings. Can you give us a brief insight into your beginnings and the first cracking open of your career? I understand you started writing and recording at age 15. Exactly how did THAT happen?
Alex Aiono Honestly the cracking open and the beginnings happened long before I moved to Santa Monica when I was 15 years old. Even when I was living in Arizona and still going to school, nothing was ever prioritized over my love of music. I would miss birthday parties, family gatherings and even just hanging out with friends because I wanted to spend more time trying to get better at my craft. My entrance into writing and recording kind of just started up naturally; it was a natural steppingstone to express myself more.
EW You had quite the YouTube arrival on the scene. Can you describe it to us?
AA I don’t know about “quite the arrival”. I feel like my YouTube experience started out just like everybody else’s – iPhone videos filmed with absolutely no editing and no professional equipment included. From starting my YouTube channel at 16 years old with Maker Studios, to acting on YouTube series’ with AwesomenessTV, countless trial and error to find what my voice on this platform was, and finally finding that voice recreating songs, meals and shinning a light on other creators that inspire me.
EW What was most exciting about this explosive media entrance for you?
AA The most exciting thing was knowing that it wasn’t an explosion or an overnight success. Regardless of how the world sees it, to me it felt like I was finally able to taste the fruit of a seed I planted nearly 6 years prior.
EW Most disappointing?
AA The only disappointing part is that the perception of how I got millions of views was a fast process and I think that messes with the minds of kids who are seeking validation immediately or “overnight.” It’s disappointing how impatient some artists and creators have become, instead of just doing what they love for the sake of the art. It’s a set up for failure that in this surreal digital society, unless you’re the biggest artist in the world or at least bigger than all of your peers, you are not considered “successful.” But the moment I decided not to measure myself against anyone else, I’ve been able to experience amazing things under the surface of success. I wake up every day with a new adventure whether it’s filming a movie, releasing an album or writing a song for my favorite artist.
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EW Tell me about your journey from Interscope to The Gospel at 23. It’s quite a narrative of evolution and awakenings in the album- what brought you there?
AA I want to start with this, I love Interscope Records; I had a great label, and a great champion in Aaron Bay-Schuck who left the company not long after he signed me, and that’s life, ya know? Artists have to remember that executives have their own lives and that ultimately, they put themselves before you, but I would never blame anyone for doing what’s best for them, and the love has never been lost between me or anyone that I worked with in the past. That being said, I think a lot of the natural frustrations and self-doubt of moving on from Interscope actually helped me unlock my inner truth and reaffirm my own sense of being grounded. The Gospel at 23 is an absolute celebration of an adolescence behind me and the journey ahead of me.
EW I would love to know a bit about your main musical influences and what sound you were really trying to inject into the album.
AA I was really following the sound of my own voice, free of any need to be validated by an executive committee, free of layers and layers of tracks and overdubs and samples or any traditional format. I wanted the musical image to be true, like a photo without a filter, so I can always look back and be proud that I wrote my truth with organic ingredients.
The Gospel at 23 is an absolute celebration of an adolescence behind me and the journey ahead of me.
EW What were you most hoping to achieve with this release? You clearly aren’t afraid of taking bold artistic strokes, from the choir dropping f-bombs to your cover choice. How do you walk the line of provocation, and in terms of keeping your fans on their toes, how do you keep surprising yourself with what you create?
AA Honestly, I was just trying to achieve some therapy. Since writing this album, I’ve actually started seeing a therapist lol. But before that, this was my therapy to air out a lot of feelings past and present, and write lyrics that people actually feel and experience in their own lives. Some People know me by my big smile —and to be honest I love smiling, but it’s important to remember there’s a lot of people out there that smile but maybe aren’t always smiling on the inside. I was one of them, and I’m still one of them sometimes. But I’m evolving just like my fans, and the way that I keep them on their toes is by consistently telling my truth as it comes. They can count on me for that.
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EW Main musical influences? Both forever and most recently?
AA Finally, a question I don’t have to think about, haha! Recently, I’ve been so inspired by the musicality of Thunder Cat, Jacob Collier and Ty Dolla Sign. That being said, it’s the same musicality that I find in my earliest influences like Prince, Stevie Wonder and Erykah Badu.
EW Let’s talk Finding Ohana and starring in a Netflix film- what an insane leap! Can you tell us a bit about the film and how this came about?
AA It still doesn’t fully process for me when you say, “starring in a Netflix film.” The whole experience of filming Finding Ohana was surreal. Getting to be on such a massive film set for my debut feature and getting to work with legendary producer Ian Bryce and the insanely talented Jude Weng, was both exciting and intimidating at the same time. I jumped straight into the big leagues working with such a professional group of accomplished people in the film industry. Without ruining too much, Finding Ohana gives you the importance of family and culture, while also giving you an adventure that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
EW The preparation process for a film must be vastly different than for your other career- what does your process look like? In terms of physically and mentally approaching a character?
AA You’re absolutely right. Preparing to film a movie was so much different than anything I’ve ever done. You have to imagine I had just finished writing an album that was so undeniably who I was to the core. And I went from being so true to myself, to having to prepare myself to be somebody else. Thanks to Jude Weng (love you Jude), I had such great guidance and tips as to how I can best become somebody else while applying the emotions and experiences that I felt in my own life.
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EW What about ambition? How do you manage the own expectations you may hold for yourself, and all you want to do and be and become, with the sacred element of remembering who you are and who you wanted to be at the start? Is there a process or tool that keeps you centered or grounded in general?
AA For a while, the ambitions of wanting to be successful and wanting to be me weren’t 100% aligned. Thanks to my more recent experiences in the industry (The Gospel at 23, Let’s Get Into It podcast, Finding Ohana), I’ve fully connected with the idea that success is about being able to reflect back on having created a ton of art that I’m so proud of and can say with my whole heart that it is a representation of who I was and who I still am.
EW What do you consider your responsibility to be as an artist with a tremendous platform?
AA Not only for me, but for anybody with any size of a platform, we all hold some responsibility to influence change even while we entertain or inform. When somebody chooses to follow you, they’re saying that what you have to say matters to them. Especially in tumultuous times like 2020, it’s imperative for anybody with any platform to stand up for unity, positivity and love for all other humans regardless of how different they are from you.
Especially in tumultuous times like 2020, it’s imperative for anybody with any platform to stand up for unity, positivity and love for all other humans regardless of how different they are from you.
EW What are your favorite ways to be an instrument of activism these days, both through your work and outside of it?
AA I want to preface this answer by acknowledging first that i might not be fully equipped to answer every question about activism; because if I’m a good activist I’ve got to start by being a good student. That being said, my father always told me that I should trust my heart and stand up against bullying any time I see it happening. I’m constantly listening, reading and unlearning/re-learning so I can follow my father’s advice as best I can.
EW Favorite causes and/ or charities you would like to point us to?
AA I just finished my virtual concert series during the month of August and partnered with NAMI: the National Alliance on Mental Illness, to help raise money and awareness for their incredible organization. NAMI provides advocacy, education, support and public awareness so that all individuals and families affected by mental illness can build better lives. I would encourage anyone who is dealing with mental illness to visit their site and see everything they have to offer!
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EW Anything in the way of a 5 or 10 year plan we should be aware of?
AA With everything 2020 has brought us, the biggest lesson I have learned is that 5-10 years, let alone tomorrow, isn’t promised. So right now, I’m enjoying every step of my journey to its fullest, telling the people I love that I love them and living my life like tomorrow isn’t promised.
EW Go to quarantine routine these days?
AA My latest quarantine routine is assessing how I feel that day and acting on the feeling. When quarantine started, I had such a strict routine and I learned that in such taxing times it’s important to be patient with yourself and not beat yourself up over the small things.
EW On rotation musically?
AA I’ve been bumping SiR, QuinnXCII, The 1975 and this dope artist Keys Open Doors.
EW Film or series keeping you up at night?
AA Naruto has been controlling my life recently lol. I used to watch it as a kid, and when I saw it was on Netflix, I knew I had to re-start all 722 episodes from the beginning.
EW Any motto or quotes that you find particularly resonate with you?
AA In the past year, I’ve expressed my true self more and more and it has been super nerve raking being real. So, my favorite motto that I live by was given to me from my good friend Dee Wilson (writer of “The Medicine”), “God would rather me be real, than right.”
EW Alex Aiono, what’s your SBJCT? What really moves and drives you?
AA Truth. Being true to myself, being true to my art and being true to all of you.