Smartists: Charlene Kaye of San Fermin

Smartists: San Fermin’s Charlene Kaye

Published on Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

Charlene Kaye has spent most of her musical career singing someone else’s songs. As a lead singer in San Fermin, Kaye sings the lyrics and music of bandleader Ellis Ludwig-Leone, setting aside her own original material as she dedicated herself to his creative vision. That time away from her own work was anything but futile, as her first solo EP in four years, Honey, released August 19th, was nurtured largely by the restorative, enriching time she has spent making music with San Fermin. Kaye is thankful for San Fermin and her continued work with the band, but is also ready to share her debut EP. She should be excited. Honey–a collection of bright self-love anthems–hangs in the air like sunlight, extending warmth in every direction.

“The last album I released was in 2012 and it’s 2016 now. In between, I’ve had the tectonic plates shift quite a few times on what I thought my identity was and what kind of artist I wanted to be. San Fermin surely played a huge role in that discovery process. I think San Fermin came along at exactly the right time when I was questioning whether I even wanted to continue doing music. It’s a tough industry and… it’s a constant hustle,” Kaye said.

Hustling is all Kaye’s been doing since she caravanned from Michigan, where she was in school, to New York with several musician friends. They were going to “make it,” she said. Quickly, Kaye found musical footing playing in other people’s bands and starting an all-female Guns N’ Roses cover band of her own called Guns N’ Hoses.

“That’s been a really fun side project, it was really started out as a party joke but it ended up being instrumental to my guitar education because I didn’t go to music school.  I was trained in classical piano because that’s just what my parents did—they shoved every instrument under the sun into my hands when I was young. So it’s kind of their fault that when I grew up and said I wanted to be a musician full time. They were like, ‘What? You don’t want to go to law school?’ And I was like, ‘It’s your fault!’”

Eventually, Kaye met and began playing with Ellis Ludwig-Leone. She was invited to sing for San Fermin, and the band has taken off in the last few years, touring internationally with acts like St. Vincent, National, Arctic Monkeys, and The Head and the Heart.

“San Fermin came along when I had spent about a year deliberately focusing on not focusing on my own music. I was letting things coalesce on their own. I did some freelance web design and taught lessons, tried to serve other people. San Fermin was also an experiment in serving other people, serving somebody else’s artistic vision… I’d always been like ‘I’m a writer, I have something to say,’ so it was a huge challenge to step back and sing somebody else’s words… But the band is made up of eight phenomenal musicians who’ve become some of my best friends. It helped me figure out why being an artist is important to me,” Kaye said.


With renewed sense of self and confidence in her own work, Kaye dove into writing this new batch of songs. “Honey”, the title track of the EP, is Kaye’s attempt to embody the opposite of what she was really feeling during a hard time, singing, “it’s okay, Honey/go your way.”

“[There are] studies that say that when you smile you actually send signals to your brain that make you, trick you into feeling happy. It releases endorphins. So even if you don’t feel happy, if you smile somehow, it’s a feedback loop for your body. Your body thinks you must be happy about something. This song was sort of a way to metaphorically doing that for my spirit: acting how I wanted to feel and letting [my] body follow. And it worked,” Kaye said.

She is hopeful that it reached other people, as well. Kaye thinks often about being a positive role model for her listeners. “I love the idea of my music being the soundtrack to someone’s healing,” she said.

Who she is, by nature of her ethnicity and gender, is also an inspiration. Chinese-American female pop stars aren’t common, and Kaye carries that burden consciously.

“I get casual, well-meaning, racist comments all the time on tour… I frequently get asked if I’m the violin player… The sound guy or girl will say, ‘oh, are you the violin player?’ It’s totally second-nature to them, it just does not occur to them at all that I could be the lead singer and that could be why there aren’t more Asian-American pop stars, because it’s hard to be what you don’t see… I think about that all the time—I want to normalize it, and I’m really excited by Asian-American artists like Awkwafina,” said Kaye.

Kaye plans to tour with Honey, her first solo tour since 2012. She is thrilled to be putting this part of herself out into the world, and hopes to continue working hard to put music, healing, and positivity into the world. As she said, “As long as I’m surrounded by music, I’m happy, in whatever capacity that means. I’m happy to be going for it.”

Check out the video for “Honey” below and for more information on KAYE and the new EP, visit here.