The Hawaiian troubadour has been busy brightening Liverpool’s shores with a contemporary blend of Aloha Soul. Brit Williams turns back the sands of time and heads to the beaches where this transatlantic story began.
As the sun shines on a bright, March morning, ELI SMART is sat amongst the indoor foliage of a city centre cafe. Beaming from ear to ear, the warmth of his modest character lights up the room. Worries are placed on pause for the time being.
Similar to Eli’s nonchalant manner, sitting so comfortably currently you’d think the wooden chair was personally moulded to his form, my first interaction with his music was equally unflustered. A colleague played me his swooning single Come On, Come On, Come On. Days later, I was watching him perform live. It’s difficult to forget the impression he left on the room as he bent his full smile around every vocal annunciation throughout the set.
Brandishing a sound which echoes hints of soul and tropicana – a blend which he dubs “Aloha Soul” – the 20-year old’s output is a direct response to his environment. Basking in his own mellow aura, the combination is underpinned by lyrics encompassing a theme you’d expect from your usual twenty-something: love.
Take his most recent single No Destination, an ode to pre-date jitters, whose lyrics nervously dance around the reality of dating someone older and cooler and the intimidation surrounding that experience. His single titled Deep Inside Your Garden, is another illustration of young affection where he proclaims about desires of “Holding you close under the psychedelic sun.” But sensual tenderness isn’t the only offering. “Other music and my environment” are what influences his sonic palette most – not solely personal tales of lost love and desire. “I also love films,” he continues, “parts of the Black Orpheus soundtrack are by Antônio Carlos Jobim, who composed loads of amazing bossanova music. I remember just being so inspired when hearing it.”
Stage presence and charm aside, what sets Eli apart from others in a city that boasts so much emerging talent is the very place he calls home. His love for music blossomed in Kauai, an island in the Hawaiian archipelago where he was raised by a family of musicians and performers. In fact, they even own Hanalei Strings, the island’s only record shop where Eli worked and fell in love with the music of Jorge Ben Jor, Gladys Knight, The Beatles and Prince.
Like his songs, Eli’s just as endearing and breezy in conversation. He frequently references those who shaped his life and influenced his music. At the same age as Eli, his grandfather, a jazz musician in San Francisco, opened for Duke Ellington while his grandmother went one further – opening for Jimi Hendrix. He proudly comments, “She was in one of the first all-girl rock bands, The Ace Of Cups, in the Haight-Ashbury scene. She has wonderful stories about it; they had a little ecosystem going on there. That’s my claim to fame. She’s my spirit animal.” Perhaps the most influential forces on Eli however, are his mother and father, both musicians and dynamic personalities in the local music scene back home in Kauai. He nods to his father as his entrance into Brazilian music by way of David Byrne’s Beleza Tropical compilations, noting how he “grew up with those records”, adding, “I think that’s some of the most beautiful music in the world.”
Whether it be swapping demos back and forth with his girlfriend, mates or parents, Eli underscores the importance of being open about his process every step of the way. That is ultimately how the idea for the Demo Shed came into fruition – a SoundCloud account containing all of Eli’s demos and song ideas, “My mom actually suggested it, she always has the best ideas,” he laughs. “The idea was to have a place where I can put works in progress and try to be more transparent with the creative process. For me, I don’t want there to be this illusion that I just put out finished songs and I exist only in that form. There’s something so authentic about it. I’m also just curious about what people resonate with and what they gravitate to.”
Even for someone who loves the feeling a recording studio fosters, he prefers the comfort of his bedroom. “My process at home is as relaxed as it can be”, he says as he describes how his house is teeming with instruments. “I have my little version of guerrilla recording techniques with a couple of mics and guitar pedals, and I have a bass and drum set in my flatmate’s room. I try to approach the digital world that has infinite possibilities in a more analogue way.” It’s easy to see where he’s coming from. There is something calming about the analogue presence; music you can feel was cut and made in a somewhere and sometime, more palpably of its moment. “Everything I make resonates 100 percent with me and its exactly the kind of music I want to be making,” he adds. “If somebody else can pick up on that and it spreads to others, I’m happy.”
For someone who is so moved by his environment, it seems essential to ask what effect travelling from America to England has had on him musically. “My mates and I were very passionate about music, but there was never a music scene in Kauai” he starts. “I’ve always craved being challenged in that way. It’s been a great step from my hometown. That sense of community stood out to me about Liverpool. I just didn’t expect people to be that warm from day one.” Comfortably settling on the first university he applied for, LIPA, is a decision which he regards as one of the best he ever made. “For me, Liverpool was always the icon of the sixties – the city has always been attached to that decade. It was the Mecca of that world for me. I always wanted to make music that sounded like it was coming from Liverpool, so it’s funny being here, because now I am making music that sounds like it’s coming from Kauai – not at all on purpose, but now I hear the music I make in a slightly different way.”
As he prepares for a move to London later this year, he elaborates on what his next step is after graduation: “My dream is to put a body of work together, whether that’s an EP or a record. I’ve been advised to release less music, with more strategy. I totally get that. But it would be contrived on my part to fit into this world of holding onto the music and being so precious about it all.” Eli has already released several singles on Spotify, which seems to be working for him; the singer has racked up 40,000 monthly listens on the streaming platform, which only seems to be growing every day. “I’d prefer to be authentic, lean the other way and get over this insecurity [of releasing less]. The music I make right now, I believe in it so much and sitting on music, you have a risk of losing belief in it. In a dream scenario, I’d write a song, or a record and just put it out, forget about it and move on. That helps me in the creative process.”
There’s a realness about Eli that is not only showcased through his effortless flair for songwriting, but also in his genuine affinity towards his craft. It’s one that’s now starting to bear the sweetest fruits of its labour. “I’m just trying to be as authentic and true to myself and trust my instinct of what I do, even if it’s a little weird. I’m hoping that people dig it. I’m gonna be making music for a long time, in any scenario. It’s a comforting thing for me and I’ll always have that.”
No Destination and Like I Don’t Mind are available now.
Special thanks to The Merchant Pub for providing the backdrop for the photoshoot.