Hong Kong welcomes YouTube singing star Kina Grannis back for an encore
Kina Grannis has more than 1 million YouTube subscribers
If you spend much time on YouTube, chances are you’ve come across singer-songwriter Kina Grannis.
In one video, she’s playfully skipping across a beach in California with friend and fellow YouTube star David Choi. In another, she’s harmonising with Canadian band Boyce Avenue. And in her latest, she’s plucking her guitar with the blonde Gardiner Sisters as they sing sweet harmonies. Grannis, who doesn’t seem to have met a chart-topping pop song she couldn’t retool into a honeyed acoustic pop song, has more than a million subscribers, has made more than 350 videos and is the perfect ambassador for the power of social media.
In many ways, the internet helped make Grannis, who is set to return to Hong Kong on September 20, the artist she is today. Less than a decade ago, the 30-year-old Southern California native was, in her own words, “doing the starving artist thing, singing at open mic nights”. Then, in 2007, she entered a nationwide talent competition titled “Doritos Crash the Super Bowl Contest”, sponsored by US snack food company Frito-Lay.
After the audience voted Grannis into the nationwide top 10, she started experimenting with the relatively new YouTube platform to see how she could make the participation process fun for other people. “At some point it started exploding, and that’s when I realised that I had stumbled on something very powerful,” she says. “Fast forward two months, I end up winning the contest, thanks to the following on YouTube, and I sign up with a major label.”
Grannis suddenly had everything she ever wanted – but soon realised she didn’t. “I realised that the family I had was the internet,” she says. “The label [Universal] wanted me to be a certain artist, and write with certain people and scrap the album that I already did. They were thinking I was a female version of [US soft-rocker] Jack Johnson.”
Grannis decided to leave the label and see how far social media could take her. And as it turns out, that was quite far. She has 150 million views on YouTube. The stop-animation video for her track In Your Arms, which took two years to make and used almost 300,000 jelly beans, has received more than 10 million views. “It’s a path that’s constantly changing,” she says about forging a career via the internet. “On top of that, when you’re on a label, you get to be the artist; when you’re on your own, you’re the businessman and the artist.”
But being a social media star also has its problems. Grannis’ videos, once shot on the fly, now need to be created professionally. Then there’s the constant internal struggle about what to share with an audience that constantly wants updates or you’re yesterday’s news. “I’m partly a slave to it,” Grannis says about her constant need to Tweet and update Facebook. “And I’m partly in love with it. I’m one of two extremes. Sometimes I’m in a healthy place and won’t do it, and then I’ll overcompensate, and my husband says: ‘Why don’t you talk to me for a second?’”
That husband is Jesse Epstein, who performs under the pseudonym Imaginary Future and opens for Grannis when they are on tour. After knowing each other since high school, even the news that they got married led to a storm of Tweets among fans. Grannis, naturally, unveiled the news in a video for her song My Dear, which features wedding footage captured on the big day. “It was one of those things where I thought people don’t need to know every part of my life,” Grannis says, chuckling. “It was a little bit out of nowhere.”
Epstein and the rest of her band will be touring with Grannis for the first time when she returns to Asia this month. Grannis last played Hong Kong in 2011, but promises a bigger show now that she’s part of a quartet. It may come as no surprise that the tour dates were even selected via a public survey the singer conducted with fans via her site. “I finished my tour everywhere else and thought I had to get to Southeast Asia,” she says. “The survey started a conversation, and luckily promoters saw it happening. I’m really excited.”
The full band will give Grannis fans an opportunity to hear more of the full-sounding pop on singles such as Fire that featured on her fifth album, Elements. In turn, Grannis gets to explore the Asian side of her roots. “Being Japanese-American is part of my identity, which makes playing in Japan particularly special,” she says. “When I’m there, I feel connected in some way.”
Grannis, who claims not to have struggled with issues of race growing up, does recognise that her YouTube status has resonated with fans from a similar background. “First and foremost, you want to share your music,” she says. “But one thing that is amazing about YouTube, and being Asian in general, is that I have never had such a connection to the Asian community, and the internet has really connected me to that. It’s a group of people that I wouldn’t otherwise be connected to.”
Kina Grannis, Sept 20, 7pm, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$380, HK$480, HK$580, HK$780 (includes meet and greet session) Cityline. Inquiries: 2111 5333