Wide-Eyed and Stoked: Hundreds of Musicians Attend 2019 Hawaii Songwriting Festival

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An overview of the Songwriting Festival, and comments from those who attended.

It’s a new record— over 200 musicians attended this year’s Hawaii Songwriting Festival at the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort. They came with guitars on their back and ukulele in hand ready to improve their songwriting techniques and learn more about how to be heard in the busy competitive world of music.

Charles and Julia Brotman

The annual event began as The Kaua’i Music Festival in 2002, and in 2015, it moved to the Big Island. The conference is now called the Hawai’i Songwriting Festival (HSF) and is a non-profit, run by award-winning musician, and president of Palm Records, Charles Michael Brotman, who has been successfully organizing the multi-day event for five years now. About three-weeks before the Festival takes place, Brotman, along with assistance from his wife and daughter, start with a series of open-mic contests staged on several islands with the grand prize of free attendance to the Festival. There’s also a scholarship program available.

Hawaiian cultural practitioner, Daniel Akaka Jr. blesses the festival

After everyone registered, an opening ceremony began with a traditional blessing from Hawaiian cultural practitioner, Daniel Akaka Jr. Brotman then introduced all 26 members of the HSF staff. The group included a wide-range of music business professionals and seasoned Hawaii musicians like John Cruz and Henry Kapono, who were there as mentors.

Kenny Loggins

Grammy-winning singer/songwriter legend Kenny Loggins was back for a second year, both as a mentor and the headliner for the Hit Makers Concert, which caps off the three-day event. Loggins discovered his teaching skills when he worked on a local benefit fundraiser concert (Teens Sing For Santa Barbara) for fire and mudslide victims. That benefit concert Loggins was involved in won an Emmy Award this year for Special Events Coverage. “The reason I decided to get involved with the Songwriting Festival was because I saw it as an opportunity to continue mentoring,” said Loggins at Thursday’s opening ceremony. “My expertise comes primarily as a performer and writing from the heart, so I won’t be telling anyone how to become a successful star,” joked Loggins.

Songwriter Skyla Van Zandt performs her song at a mentoring session

The three-day festival offers workshops, seminars, small-group sessions, and panels stacked with professionals from the music industry who offer insider tips that help musicians advance to the next stage of their careers by helping them get a foot in the door. Take for example Big Island musician Chase Kauhane, who has attended all eight of the festivals and successfully placed his work in film and TV shows. “This festival gives you that push,” said Kauhane proudly. “You have all the networking abilities right here, and the people I’ve pitched my music to, I’ve now got publishing deals with. I never went to college like my brother-in-law who has a master’s degree in electrical engineering and English, but when he heard that my song was featured in a Netflix film, he was amazed. Some people go to college for eight years, and that’s a long time, but I’ve come to the Festival for the same amount of time, and it’s really paid off.”

Evan Khay is a Honolulu-born multi-instrumentalist, producer, singer and songwriter, who focuses mostly on R&B, rock, and pop music. He won a pre-festival song competition in 2017 and has been coming to HSF since then. “I thought I was taking a chance being a Hawaiian artist that covers more Americana genres, but I learned that people from around the world want to hear that music coming from Hawaii,” said Khay. “Whether I’m in New York or L.A., I end up collaborating with people I met here. My contact list is now 25 to 30 people deep, and that’s just the first-call people. The Festival has definitely improved my musicality and how I go about songwriting, and I learned it from people who’ve done it way longer than I have.” Khay’s debut album, Retrograde, was nominated for a Nā Hōkū Hanohano award and is available on all music platforms.

Elizabeth Usher (MC Pony)

Elizabeth Usher, who uses the stage name MC Pony, took a nine-hour plan ride from Australia to perfect her songwriting skills at HSF. Usher is a multi-genre songwriter and unashamedly a double-decade vegan. She performs as a platform for spreading the word about issues close to her heart and takes credit for coining the word “Veganthused” to represent an unabashed enthusiasm for all things vegan. “I perform hip-hop with a focus on animal rights and social justice issues, and I call my particular style, ‘Mindful rhymes for kinder times,’” said Usher. “I’m always going to love songwriting, but at an event like this, it really amps it up. It’s not hard to be inspired when someone on a panel says a phrase that could take you down a whole new path in your career. I love it here, but I guess I’m a bit of a seminar junkie,” said Usher. The performer began coming to this Festival in 2013, and has new recording out called “Ukulele Boogie Woogie.” You can watch the music video here.

Keoni Caravalho (center) at the HSF open-mic contest in Kona

Kona’s Keoni Caravalho has been attending the Festival five years now and enjoys the experience of working with others. “It’s our songwriting tribe!,” said a proud Caravalho. “I usually write songs on my own, but I’m looking to collaborate with others this year.” Caravalho has lately been collaborating with a dozen other local-minded musicians, but only online. “It’s called Big Island Songwriters, it’s like a club through Google Groups. Honokaa’s Ryan Higgens started it and invited a bunch of us to participate. In between songwriting festivals, it’s been the biggest help with keeping me writing. We’re given a phrase to work with and an optional challenge like starting the song with a chorus. It’s so cool to see the different angles people take on the same topic. We don’t meet face-to-face, but we upload our music for the group to critique. Before this opportunity, I’d maybe only write a song once a month or so – when I felt inspired.” Caravalho has recently been working with Charles Brotman in the recording studio on a second CD. His first, I’ll Fly With You, is available on-line at http://www.keonicaravalho.com.


Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Photos: Steve Roby

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