Kina Grannis is living her dream. After winning a national singing contest in 2008, the singer-songwriter’s career transformed from shyly performing in Los Angeles coffee shops to producing music for more than 1 million subscribers on YouTube and touring across Europe and North America. The 29 year old’s Youtube channel has more than 160 million views and is updated regularly with covers, original songs and collaborations with other musicians. Her repertoire spans from bare, airy yet confident vocals and guitar to more recent experimentations with ambient textures to create dream-like, breathy tracks in her new album, “Elements.”
On a rainy morning in December, the soft-spoken singer talked over the phone with me about her path as a musician. “There was a moment when I was fifteen and went to this choir concert. I was never in choir, but my family always went to choir concerts at Christmas,” Grannis says. “For some reason, hearing all these people singing, I broke down crying and went into the bathroom. It was really weird … I had to step back and think, what am I feeling?”
She felt as though she had to sing. Grannis learned guitar and began writing her own music soon afterwards. “For first two years it was top secret — I didn’t play for anyone in the world,” she said.
Grannis went on to attend University of Southern California, where she played at open mics and small shows around Los Angeles, mostly keeping to herself.
“I was so shy and so insecure that I never told anyone that my goal was to be a musician, because I was too afraid of being judged by them,” Grannis said. “All throughout college, people would be like, ‘Is this the plan? Is this how you’re going to make it, through music?’ and I’d be like, ‘Oh no, no. If that happened it would be cool, but it’s just for fun.’ But in the back of my head I’d be thinking, I have to do this.”
After college, Grannis moved to Austin, Texas, to seriously pursue a future in music. In 2008, she submitted an original music video to the Doritos Crashes Big Bowl contest, a competition in which the winning video was aired during Super Bowl commercials and the artist would be signed to a major label.
After making it to the top ten, she decided to make a video every day and put it on online to reach as many people as possible. “And that’s when I stumbled upon the power of YouTube and power of the Internet, and that’s when everything shifted for me,” Grannis said. “I won the contest, and from there realized that when I have people supporting me like this, I don’t actually need the major label. I can do it my own way.” Grannis left the label and has since independently made a name for herself, for which she repeatedly thanks the support of her fans from around the world.
It’s easy to see why Grannis found success on YouTube – in her videos, she comes across as warm-hearted, quiet yet effortlessly cool, and instantly likeable. The singer, who said in an interview with Seventeen that she identifies as “hapa” (Grannis is half-Japanese), also presents a charming and quirky sense of style that shares hyperfeminine and androgynous elements. Videos range from her curled on a couch with a guitar to well-produced music videos shot on beaches, forests and subway stations and even one that used footage from her own wedding.
Grannis recently returned from her “Elements” tour, where she performed with her husband, who is also a musician. She said she still gets nervous at times, but is noticing a change.
“I almost feel more comfortable and more myself on stage than off, because I’ve learned that I feel accepted and I get to express myself, which in real life I’m still not very good at,” Grannis said. “But on stage I feel like I can sing and emote and connect to people, and so in a way, that’s really helped me come out of my shell.”
Contact Sarah Goldwasser at [email protected].