Meet Eli Smart – The rising star bringing summer and the Hawaiian state of mind to the UK

Kauai transplant Eli Smart has good vibrations...

You wouldn’t expect someone who makes such sunny music, the real pep in your step variety, to have waved goodbye to the golden shores of Hawaii in favour of Liverpool, but it makes sense when it comes to Eli Smart — the Beatles are from there, after all. Having grown up in a family of musicians, Eli was sonically surrounded by the greats. In no time, he had mastered the guitar and created his own brand of pop positivity, ‘Aloha Soul’, which blends 60’s rock, jazz and Tropicana with the laconic vibes of his native Kauai. It’s the type of music you listen to when you want to be transported to a tropical locale with all the beachy signifiers; surf, surfboards, and salty, sunkissed skin. In short, it’s a mood. 

Today, Eli drops his latest single ‘AM to PM’, which perfectly invokes the dreamy, hazy feeling you get after spending a long day in the sun. “This tune is about cruising around Kauai from sunrise until the early hours of the next morning. Sometimes it gets so hot here that it feels like the sun is casting a lethargic spell upon everything and the only cure is jumping in the water or waiting until the sun goes down,” Eli says. “It’s meant to soundtrack the transition from the AM sun-baked state of mind through the magic shift to PM when the full moon comes up and the stars start to do their thing. It can put you into a cosy almost limbo-like state of mind that can be sometimes hard to get out of, but there’s absolute comfort in the whole thing. It’s ok sometimes to accept the flow and let yourself float downstream.” 

Like much of the rising star’s canon, the track invokes the relaxed and soft side to feeling adrift, Polynesian paralysis style. It’s essential spring listening as we look towards the warmer months at long last. Here, we caught up with the singer about the new single, his Hawaiian roots, and why The Beatles are his ultimate inspiration. 

Could you define your sound in five words?

Just. Wanna. Be. The. Beatles. 

I’ve also been calling it Aloha Soul! 

You come from sunny Hawaii, how did growing up there influence your vibe and your music? 

Hawaii was a very beautiful place to grow up. Very thankful for having been able to spend so much of my life there. It’s a relatively small community around where I grew up on Kauai and people were always so supportive of music in my immediate orbit. Music is also very present and valued in Hawaiian culture and I think being around that inspired me to try to do my own thing with it too, it was a really beautiful aspect of growing up there and I’m really grateful for having been exposed to it. 

You were raised by a family of musicians — did getting into music yourself feel inevitable?

It just felt natural, there wasn’t any pressure or anything. Playing music and making a life that revolved around music just always felt normal and very grounding

Did it put any pressure on you to succeed, or to carve out your own niche?

Not at all, I just always felt supported by my family, which I realize isn’t always the case, I feel really lucky and grateful for that. Everybody in my family has had their own journey and passion for music so it was always just about finding the one that worked for you, and there’s no right way with it, that’s the beautiful thing.

What’s your earliest musical memory? 

My family bought me a little kid’s drum kit when I was tin, and I reckon I played it for a moment, then supposedly I took it apart and tried to make a spaceship out of it. I think I remember doing that. Alternatively, I had this super groovy little funky green guitar with a battery-powered amp in it and my dad had tuned it to an open E chord, he gave me a slide, and I would jam it for a really long time and make up songs haha! He taught me the tune [The Clash’s] ‘I Fought the Law’!

You moved to Liverpool for university. What was it like? Must have been a culture shock from Hawaii. 

Yeah, it was an epic choice, I love Liverpool so much. It was definitely a culture/weather shock but not in a bad way at all. It just meant I could finally buy some groovy coats and dress up and go to a gig! Liverpool has such a charm and magic to it and I found it to be a totally evocative city in a creative sense. So much music and deep history there, it was inspiring to be around. People are so lovely up north too, so warm and soulful, that made me feel proper at home.

Britain, and Liverpool in particular, have strong music scenes. What are your favourite British acts?

Ooo, um well the Beatles, obviously. I love the Smiths, the Specials, Northern Soul, Cymande, Elton John, Steve Winwood, Blind Faith, Richard Thompson, Nick Drake, The Peddlers! So many and I know I’m spacing on some of my top people!

What do you miss most about Hawaii?

I really miss my family and friends, my cats too, like crazy. I got such an amazing group of extended family over there that really ground me, it’s tough being so far away from them. I miss getting in the water too. But it’s all good, Cornwall isn’t too far away and I heard the ocean is like a warm bath water, can’t wait!

What artist had the biggest effect on you as a teen? Adolescence can be a pivotal moment when it comes to defining our music tastes…

Honestly the Beatles aha! I would always just get deeper and deeper into their music growing up, and I still do. Even when I think I know everything there is to know about their tunes, something magical pops out and it blows my brain. I also really loved and still love Modest Mouse, listening to them really got me into guitar playing I think. There is something so brilliant and almost childish to their tunes where they never take themselves too seriously and that really drew me in as a kid, wicked tunes and crazy guitar parts! Really appreciate that band.

If you could only list three artists for the rest of your life who would they be? 

The Beatles, Joao Gilberto and Stevie Wonder

What do you do when you’re stuck in a songwriting rut?

Just listen to some crazy music, realize there are no boundaries and try and take the pressure off. I will often try and emulate something I really love about another song or style of music. 

What’s a song/artist that you can’t get enough of right now?

I had a recent phase where I listened to this old Duke Ellington tune called ‘Solitude’ over and over again for a long time. It just really calmed me down, it’s a lovely tune and the recording is so cozy and soothing. 

If you could steal any artist’s career who would it be?

I feel like Sting is doing the whole music career thing pretty well, proper rock n roller, always written great tunes but still going and has seemed to stay pretty healthy and sane throughout the journey. Also, David Byrne, he’s such a force of nature and I really admire everything he’s done and continues to do.

Who is your music for? 

Ultimately myself. I really enjoy the process and it fills my spirit tank connecting with people through it. It doesn’t belong to me in any way though and that’s what I love, I just really enjoy providing a melody and a groove that can then go on to soundtrack someone else’s moment and inspire them to feel something and put their own meaning to it. That’s what I do with the music I love.

Favourite song to get the party started?

‘Love Rollercoaster’ by the Ohio Players

How will you know if you’ve made it? 

That’s a funny one. Of course, there are groovy landmark fantasies I have about selling out certain venues, winning an award or playing on Jimmy Fallon. But I have a feeling that the second any of that happens, if it ever does, I will very much feel like I still have somewhere else to go and something else to strive for. It makes me think that it’s all an illusion that just sets you up for a never-fulfillable grind towards whatever. I like to think that I’ve already made it in the sense that I’m able to choose music as a career and that I have a beautiful family and an amazing group of friends that I can connect with through music. I think it’s all about the process and finding peace and fulfilment within it. That all sounds super preachy after reading it back, aha, but it’s definitely what I try to remind myself of — easier said than done. To be real though, I often forget all of that and get swept up in Instagram and Spotify streams haha.

Favourite thing to do outside of making tunes?

I love listening to tunes. Doing some deep listening in my headphones brings me a lot of happiness. I also more recently fell in love with surfing and that brings me great peace. 

Can you tell us something about you that most people don’t know? 

I’m afraid of flying on my own but when I do I order spicy tomato juice over ice and it chills me out, it’s my weird aeroplane drink, special occasions only. I also speak Italian. I love love love anything Star Wars too. 

Your single ‘AM to PM’ is out, tell us more!

Yeah, I’m so stoked for it. I’d never really worked with anybody else collaboratively on tunes before but last year I met this dude Gianluca Buccellati and we totally hit it off. He came and stayed with us on Kauai for a few months spread out over the last year and a half and we made so many tunes together. He’s such a talented musician and has got a beautiful ear for songwriting. I really learned to trust in the creative process with someone else and let go a bit. This tune is pretty much the first song we made together and is a result of that letting go thing. It’s meant to soundtrack that molasses-like lethargy you feel sometimes on Kauai when it gets really hot in the day, but it mesmerizes you, and before you know it it’s 4 am on a full moon night and you’re walking down the empty two-lane highway that runs along the coast of the island, headed to the beach for a night swim with the squad. 

Is anything else in the works? 

Plenty! So many tunes, so many. I wanna put them all out tomorrow, but that wouldn’t be very strategic. 

Finally, what does music mean to you — how does it enrich your life on a day to day basis? 

It connects me with a lot of people I love in my life and brings me joy in the process. Music definitely gives me a strong sense of home as I associate it so much with my family too. It helps me make sense of day to day life as well — if I can put on some headphones and look at life through a different lens and a soundtrack it really helps me not take things too seriously. Thank you for having me and for supporting me and my tunes!

  • Writer Nessa Humayun
  • Photographer Sami Livé

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