Written by Molly Gorman
It’s 9:30 am in Kaua’i, Hawaii when Eli Smart joins me on Zoom. I immediately feel envious of the sunlight streaming through his house, which starkly contrasts the cold and darkness surrounding me in my attic room in London. Yet when you listen to Eli’s music or indeed meet him in person, you definitely won’t feel anything near dark or cold, but instead pure exuberance.
If you haven’t heard of Eli yet, now is the time to get listening. Describing his music as ‘aloha soul’, his electrifying guitar riffs, raspy voice and a delightful, tropical vibe, make his sound perfect for summer.
Since the release of his debut single ‘Come On, Come On, Come On’ in 2018, and subsequent EP ‘Boonie Town‘ in April 2021, Eli has already racked up over 141,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and more than a million streams on two of his tracks. ‘Every Flavour‘, Eli’s most recent release, has been regularly played on BBC Radio 1’s Future Artists. Its infectiously upbeat and soulful vibe was described by Radio 1 DJ Jack Saunders as a ‘warm, effortless flow’.
Eli was born and raised in Kaua’i, to a very musical family. Having always been encompassed and surrounded by a deep appreciation of music in Hawaii, Eli is now presenting that passion to the world. His parents and grandparents play instruments and sing, mostly jazz music, and they also own a ukulele store on the island. ‘We have other hobbies out here as well but music is a big one – it’s what grounds us all,’ says Eli. ‘Music is very present here culturally, but the scene itself lacks the infrastructure that you would need or have elsewhere, like venues or promoters – you definitely have to be a bit more creative with it. It’s cool, there’s a charm to it and I’m thankful that I grew up here in Kauai, cause I could bring a fresh perspective to it all and a DIY attitude.’
Before returning to Kaua’i at the start of the pandemic back in March 2020, Eli spent a few years studying at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA). He felt a desire to study outside of the United States and was inspired by his adoration of The Beatles. Moving to Liverpool from Kauai was a culture shock for Eli. The weather and Scouse accent were notable differences from life in Kaua’i, ‘But it was cool to be immersed in such a big music scene,’ he says.
Now, Eli draws on both life in Kaua’i and Liverpool to influence his music. Considering he’s been grounded in two very different places, I’m interested to know what home means to Eli and how he draws on both life in Kauai and Liverpool to inspire his music. ‘I like how home can be a fluid thing,” he says. “I like how I can find comfort here and in other parts of the world. There’s definitely a unique grounding here [in Kaua’i] and I associate that with the weather, my family, the nature, the ocean. But then, my dad grew up in Northern Italy so I’ve spent a lot of time there. If you’re open to it, you can find a sense of home in different places.’
The genre ‘aloha soul’ pays tribute to both his Hawaiian influence, as well as the Northern soul he fell in love with while living in the UK.
Eli’s unique ability to blend two very distinct cultural influences allows him to play creatively with his songwriting, ‘Lyrically, I like to write about a lot of different things, like where I am at that moment,” he says. ‘I could be sitting in Kauai and write something warm, or in Liverpool walking around the docks which has more of an evocative, gloomy vibe. I like to observe things and people or stories I hear. It’s easier for me to point my finger at something and write about it rather than look within myself deeply and write something true. It’s cool when that happens, but it’s less often.’
I had noted the way he has fun with normal, everyday situations in his lyricism, particularly in his song No Destination, which emulates the feelings we have before a first date. Eli perfectly captures the simultaneous nerves and thrill, ‘I love playing ‘No Destination‘ because it has that very excitement’, Eli exclaims.
Eli’s eclectic and upbeat sound naturally transpires into the image he has curated for himself as an artist. His music videos are often bright, warm and feature some of his bandmates and close friends, he said ‘I just want to have fun and ensure that the sonic objective is there. I don’t put a load of thought into the image, aesthetically I associate a lot of my image with my home – warm, easy and chilled.’ For example, Eli’s video for Highschool Steady is filmed in his childhood bedroom – ‘As long as I’m content with the music I’m making, then that’s all that matters,’ says Eli.
Although he often writes and produces his music alone, the collaborative aspect of music is something Eli enjoys. He calls on his friends to support him with various elements of the creative process, such as the artwork design, playing instruments and filming his music videos. ‘Being surrounded by close friends makes the process really fun,’ says Eli. ‘I hope to synthesise my band in Hawaii and Liverpool. There was a nice batch of musicians in Liverpool and LIPA, a nice balance between the local bands and the people who come from around the world. I made some great mates.’
We tie up our conversation by discussing his artistic dream, which he says is simple – to continue connecting with people through his music, ‘I feel so lucky to live a comfortable lifestyle having grown up in Hawaii and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I’m content with the basics of my world and I would just like to continue to do what I’m doing and connect with as many people as possible through music, whether that’s through meeting people through the creative process or people who enjoy listening to my music. It’s brought nothing but positivity to me and I just want to keep that going and doing it for as long as possible.’
In a couple of weeks, Eli will be making the move to London. He’s very much looking forward to summer in the UK and will be attending and playing festivals such as Boardmasters and Neighbourhood Weekender for the first time ever. ‘Being in Liverpool gave me the chance to adjust from island life before I move to London,’ he says. ‘It would have been a sensory overload. Everything was pulling me to London. It feels like the right time now.’ After our call, Eli revealed that he was heading to film a music video for his upcoming single, which will precede an album, ‘I already have an album of material recorded and a batch of tunes ready to release this year, which will progress towards a body of work.’ I’m very excited to hear more aloha soul in 2022.
Head over to Eli Smart’s Spotify page to hear more of his music including his latest track ‘Every Flavour‘.