Welcome to KAINA’s dreamworld
The singer talks identity, music making and Mr Rogers ahead of her debut performance at Pitchfork music festival this weekend
14 July 2022 By Jacquelyn Lumley
KAINA is living in a dreamworld. It’s surreal and full of subtle messages, wrapped up in sounds that feel like memories viewed through a pair of tinted sunglasses. Making music is a narrative for the 26-year-old Latinx singer, who has been immersed in the arts her whole life. Today she calls everyone she works with close friends, from her album art designer Izzi Vasquez to NNAMDÏ on background vocals to the folks manning the puppets backstage (yes, there are puppets). A creator in her own right, KAINA will take the Pitchfork stage for the first time in her hometown of Chicago this Sunday, sure to sway us into some kind of daze.
‘I’m very vibe-sensitive and I almost feel like a little orchestrator of energy on stage. It’s a mutual exchange of energy with the audience,’ she says of how it feels to perform. ‘I’ve done so much stuff this year that I thought would happen later in life, like doing a Tiny Desk Concert or being awarded Artist of the Year by The Happiness Club or making my amazing music video universe,’ she enthuses. KAINA released her debut album, Next to The Sun, in 2019 and dropped It Was a Home, her second album, earlier this year accompanied by a three-part music video series. ‘I get really overwhelmed with keeping up. I just wanted to build this little universe that people could be a part of as they wanted to be,’ she says.
Songwriting comes first and foremost to KAINA – often through the medium of unsuspecting storytellers. ‘I’ve taken big inspo from Mr Rogers and The Muppets and shows that were on PBS. I’m pretty sure Sesame Street taught me English. Spanish was my first language and looking back I realised that I learned so much from kids’ TV shows. They have a way of discussing really difficult topics in a subtle way, or in a way that anyone and everyone is able to understand. Children’s shows make you feel seen and heard; they’re a friend to you. It was really comforting for me to re-watch these shows during the pandemic and recognise these lessons and these answers that we’re all still looking for as adults.
The album’s title track was, KAINA says, the first track she wrote when she sat down to create it. ‘I recently moved into my own place for the first time and realised that I learned everything about building a home from how I grew up,’ she confides. ‘I grew up in the Irving Park neighborhood of Chicago doing a lot of youth programming like After School Matters and The Happiness Club. I’m first-generation, so I don’t have a lot of family here. These groups, especially The Happiness Club, showed me the kind of people I want to be around. When you’re younger, you can’t wait to get out and move on. Now that I’m older, I see the impact that Chicago and my community made on my life. Having this perspective, I wrote the song, and in the lyrics, I say, “It was a home, not a hill,” meaning it was not a place to get through or get over, but a home that shaped me.’
Her second album also provided KAINA with the opportunity to push into new forms. ‘I’m also obsessed with the artistry of it all,’ she says. ‘This album has been the first time I’ve had the resources to reach for the stars. So, I reached out to my favourite video production company in Chicago, Weird Life Films, and told them I wanted to create a three-piece music video where the storylines all intertwined and then at the end, I wanted to release them all together like a children’s show and they were like, “Yeah, we’re down.” So now I’m building this fun little universe. We just went super campy and over the top, almost cartoony. In one video, I’m wearing extremely bedazzled Crocs and I just love the drama. I’m inspired by the queen of salsa, Celia Cruz, who wore crazy flair pieces. I’ve always had this sweet ethereal bubblegum pink type thing going on, which I’d say is just an exaggerated version of how I see myself. I’m obsessed with thinking about every single step of styling as its own art form.’
This weekend’s festival is another first to add to her growing list. ‘I grew up going to Pitchfork and it’s always been for true music lovers and people who are genuinely excited to catch whatever sets are around. I’m excited for the day that I perform; it’s full of so many cool people – Pink Siifu and L’Rain are both right before me. Then there’s Xenia Rubinos and Noname. It’s nicely curated and thought out. At Pitchfork when someone from Chicago plays, it always feels like a really big proud moment for the city.’
Catch KAINA at Pitchfork this Sunday, July 17 at 2:30 and also on Saturday, July 16 at Thalia Hall.