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.

Bumbershoot Coverage for The Seattle Times

For these articles I shared a by-line with Paul De Barros in coverage of Seattle’s Bumbershoot Music Festival. Read about three jam-packed days of music here!

City Arts: Sex, Love and Soul Food

Over the course of 2015, Grace Love exploded onto the Seattle music scene, leading her band the True Loves from out of the soul-music underground and onto the city’s biggest festival stages. Fresh off the vinyl release of their debut, eponymous album, Love is launching her first musical, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Soul, with two shows at Vera Project this Saturday night. The one-woman show is basically Love’s biography set to music, exploring her journey through homelessness, the loss of her mother Nadine and her early career as a vocalist. Love plans to funnel the proceeds into her ongoing soul-food/community outreach project, Nadine’s Café. We spoke to her over the phone late last week as she ran in between rehearsals.

Have you done something like this one-woman show before?
No, this has been a work in progress for 10 years. It started out as a story and the story developed characters. Then the characters developed a dialogue. It was a stage play and a screenplay and everything in between. For some reason, I couldn’t find the right dedicated minds to donate their time so I put it in the back corner.

What revived the idea?
My trade is cooking; I’ve been in the food and beverage industry for a long time. Recently I decided I wanted to start a food cart. But I really need to make a large amount of money in order to facilitate this dream. Then a light bulb went off: I thought I could revive this musical that I’ve been trying to do for a long time [to raise the funds]. So I thought, fine, I’m going to take these 30 pages and make a one-woman show, with a choir and a backing band.

Do you have previous experience with theatre?
That was my secondary major in college, so yeah. And I was drama kid for four years in high school.

What do you hope to express with it?
It’s a coming of age story. The main part is that I lost my mom—suddenly. I’m just telling people my story, how and why I work the way I work.

Is it scary to put all that personal material out there?
It is, but for me, since I’ve been holding onto it for 10 years I’m excited just to let it go. I’m excited to be like, I don’t have to feel this way anymore. I’m done with feeling this way, you know? And I’ve been so, so so happy, to, every time we work through it, say, “OK, I’m that much closer to just letting this part of my life go.” I’m starting this new chapter of who I am. 

You’re backed by a choir in the show, a group you call the Dirty Dozen. How’d you choose them?
I just posted on Facebook, literally. I just asked if anyone was interested and there were 40 people who [responded.] Then it was all about trying to coordinate. That was back in November. Then there were 12 solid people I could count on showing up every week for the last few months. They’ve been involved and invested and they’re happy to help me raise this money. They work harder than anybody I’ve ever met in my entire life. They’re just a group of characters and we all have too much fun together.

Tell me about Nadine’s Café. You’ve been doing pop-up kitchens for a while, right?
I have had pop-up kitchens for the last year and a half. I was using Pike Place Market’s atrium kitchen and cooking private dinners.

So you decided to raise money with the show and find a more permanent location for Nadine’s?
Yeah. Right now, there’s a couple of locations where the [pop-up] could be. I’m really excited to share that news but I can’t do it until the papers are signed. It’s going to be an amazing spot when it all works out—hopefully in the next six months. There’s still a lot more money to raise!

Is Nadine’s Café representative of something you saw missing here in the Pacific Northwest?
Well, there are lots of places in town that say they do “soul food” and it pisses me off. There’s good food out here, don’t get me wrong, and we have a collective whirlwind of food, but there’s not true soul food out here. That’s the one thing I want to bring from my childhood and introduce people to flavors and things that they thought they would never want to eat.

Will it be all soul food? Where’d you learn about cooking?
Yeah, it’ll be my versions of stuff I grew up with. Typical staples, but my papa was a food truck guy before this whole food truck craze happened. He had a grill called Big Mama—a 100-gallon drum—and once a month we’re going to have ribs. Just so people can taste Memphis and Mississippi barbeque how it’s supposed to be. 

Will there be healthy stuff?
When people think of soul food they don’t think it’s healthy. But people I’ve either dated or am friends with, they’re vegan or vegetarian and it’s hard to do if you want soul food, but I’ve learned how to make jerk tofu and it’s pretty incredible.

Will you be the only cook? Or will you have a staff?
Well, for the first year I’m going to be a little OCD about everything—in a good way. But, I don’t want to be in my restaurant. [Eventually,] I want to work with at-risk youth and teach them how to cook.

So there’s an ultimate community service goal.
Nadine’s Café is going to be a catalyst for my nonprofit Nadine’s House, which is going to be dealing with at-risk youth that need to learn a skill. Basically, I’m going to be going to alternative high schools and LGBT community centers and finding the kids that are not given the proper opportunity and chance to do their art. Then, [I’ll connect them] with my friends in the community so the kids can shadow them. I have friends who are photographers, fashion designers, filmmakers. So, my goal is to encourage them [to explore their art] and also put money in their pockets.

Sex, Drugs, Rock & Soul runs at the Vera Project at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 27. Proceeds go toward the creation of Grace Love’s soul food restaurant and community outreach center Nadine’s Café. Buy tickets here. 

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Smartists: Magda Giannikou of Banda Magda

Musician Magda Giannikou emanates joy. Even with a heavy accordion strapped to her shoulders, she flits about the stage, leading Banda Magda with the dance of her accordion bellows and girlish singing voice. A stylish marriage of Audrey Hepburn’s sophistication and Carmen Miranda’s vivaciousness, Giannikou has the look of vintage stardom about her. Add in her impressive musical talent, humor, and heart of gold, and it’s clear you’re witnessing a star on the rise.

Giannikou began her life many miles away from this American stage, in a suburb of Athens, Greece called Voula. Giannikou’s description of her childhood self seems so counter to her stage presence.

“I had a lonely childhood. I always felt strange, always had a hard time finding a sense of belonging while I was growing up. It was hard for me to connect,” she said.

Early on, though, she discovered solace and connection in music.

“My father is a great music lover and connoisseur of music and he would play for [me and my siblings] music from all over the world… I got into music because he nurtured me with it. Alongside that, my mother is a musician. She plays the piano and writes music for children, and she’s an architect and art historian,” said Giannikou.

Using the musical education her parents afforded her, Giannikou spent much of her childhood studying the intricacies of her favorite musical scores. “I wanted to be a composer, I wanted to write for films, that was my dream,” Giannikou said. She also learned many languages, accounting for her amazing ability to speak (and sing in) French, Spanish, English, a little Japanese, and her native Greek.

In her early twenties, after graduating with a classical piano diploma in Athens, she wrote music for TV. Then, she decided to pursue film and music at Berkelee College of Music. Once in school, she picked up the accordion and became the only accordionist at Berkelee at the time. The instrument opened her up to a whole new expressive experience.

“It’s almost like I’m playing a string arrangement. I control dynamics and I lead the band with accordion like I’m conducting. Because I’m a very dynamic personality—the fact that the bellow has so much dynamic ability I think fits so well with my music and personality,” Giannikou said.

The switch ended up being hugely transformative. Not only did it give her an increased sense of musical authenticity, but it rerouted her path.

“I won the Georges Delerue Award for excellence in film scoring, and [through it] I got to meet a famous composer and his wife in Hollywood. I told her, ‘I have this love for film but also this new passion about playing and performing live and I want to do both.’ She told me, ‘You can do both, but not at the same time.’… So, then it was a decision—what do I do?”


Instead of moving to Los Angeles for film composing, Giannikou chose to put that childhood dream on hold and move to New York and pursue performing.  At first, Giannikou thought she’d made a mistake.

“I was depressed for six months… I couldn’t find any gigs in the beginning.” Giannikou said. “And I was supremely jealous of people who were performing. One day I just decided, ‘Man, I’m going to do this.’”

With fiery intention, Giannikou formed her band, Banda Magda, made a short sampler EP of their material, and literally pounded pavement, giving the EP to any restaurant in New York that would take it. Only one restaurant got back to her—a little place in SoHo— but that made all the difference. Suddenly, Banda Magda had gigs every night and people began to know them. Then, they made a couple albums and were invited on tour with the internet-famous group Snarky Puppy.

“Snarky’s leader, Michael, has always been so supportive. Our new album will be recorded on his record label,” Giannikou says.

The new album, Tigre, is set to be released by September 2016. In it, Giannikou addresses directly her challenges with belonging and authenticity. Each song on the album, as Giannikou explains, is about all the different kinds of fear that keep you from being you.

“It’s so important—authenticity and uniqueness—and it’s easy and difficult at the same time, I feel, because by definition everyone is unique, so why can’t we just be? I get very disappointed when I see people that haven’t had the opportunity or capacity to tap into that power of really understanding yourself and your value,” Giannikou said.

Giannikou recommends finding the things you love and having the courage to pursue them. “I think it’s about failing and trying things and failing again—you toughen up and almost like an onion, you take off layers. And then you find out what’s inside,” she said.

Along with releasing and touring with Tigre, one of Giannikou’s future goals for Banda Magda is to begin further focus on educating people in world music traditions. She wants to change the current tour model so that she and her band can stay in communities for a few days, hold masterclasses, and interact more with local music students. Really, Giannikou is always looking to find new ways to celebrate the joy and sense of belonging that music has given her.

“My driving force is this deity that I have made up in my mind—the protector of the stage, of the performer, of the music. Because when I go up there I feel elation and belonging. I don’t know where it comes from—I love people, talking to people and connecting with people. I love this idea of prosperity by giving out positive energy.”

For more information on Magda Giannikou and Banda Magda visit her website. Below is a sneak peak of Tigre, as well as one of Banda Magda’s music video for “El Pescador” from their last release, Yerakina.  To support Tigre visit Banda Magda’s crowdfunding page.

What do you think of Smartist Magda Giannikou’s music? Tweet us or comment below!

City Arts: Every Night, Every Day

(Published in CityArts)

Underneath the iconic red Farmer’s Market sign, among flying fish, fresh-cut tulips, steaming cinnamon rolls and tourists with outstretched camera phones—that’s where you find “the spot.” Early every morning, Annie Ford wakes up to claim it before the other Pike Place buskers, schlepping her washtub bass by bicycle. There she meets Greg Paul and Joe Fulton, her cohorts in the Pike Place Revelers, a trio of banjo, fiddle and bass. Ford plants her foot on the overturned basin as they start into “Hey Good Looking,” her right hand plucking the taut rope, her voice echoing down the famous cobbled thoroughfare.

For more than ten years, four or five days a week, Ford’s busked at Pike Place Market, a recognizable face to visitors. The Revelers specialize in old-time music of the early 20th century, crooning in thirds and picking to classic folk tunes. An hour at a time, per the Market Association’s rules, they play in one of 13 spots designated with a painted music note. When this hour is up, the Revelers will move to another locale. For now, couples stop to listen, gleeful children dance and a woman drops a dollar into the banjo case.

This is Ford’s day job. When evening comes and the market closes down, Ford goes to work on her own stuff. Her songs for the Annie Ford Band are different than what she busks—rootsy Americana, frauht with personal storylines and stylistic risk.

Ford was first exposed to music by her mother, who sang to Beatles records and played a giant wooden pump organ, while growing up in rural Virginia. In 5th grade she picked up the fiddle, which she still plays, along with guitar, banjo, piano, ukulele, washtub bass and accordion. Though she’s only recently become comfortable with singing, her voice is sweet and clear with a touch of classic country gruff. There’s a sorrow in the way she sings, and in what she sings about.  She’s especially drawn to the vibrancy of darker stories and minor-key songs.

“Those songs are a deep well of suffering,” she says, “but also really beautiful.”

Later this spring, the Annie Ford Band will release an album of originals. The project is a processing of grief for Ford, who lost friends and collaborators in the 2012 Café Racer shooting. She and her husband Matt Manges were in groups with victims Drew Keriakedes and Joe Albanese, including the punk-klezmer Nu Klezmer Army and Circus Contraption, a one-ring vaudevillian circus. As Ford explains, “the boys” were essential in bringing her into Seattle’s musical fold.

“Crocodile Skin” is written in their memory. Ford sings with Manges in heart-wrenching harmony, “The sun drips into the scarlet sea/The starfish will light the way/To the sands of haunted shores/Where you can rest your weary souls.” The slow-lapping mood harshens into a fiddle-driven middle section, mirroring the tumult of grief. In the end, she finds her way to some peace, and the message, “I’ll meet you when the seas rise/When the burnin’ tears no longer fall.”

As she recounts the memory of writing the song, Ford fidgets in her chair. Her vulnerability is surprising, given that this is the woman who, decrying the all-male bill she was playing at the Tractor Tavern awhile back, bought a sausage and waved it around on stage. She’s infamous as Annie “Fuckin’” Ford, and yet she’s as tender as she is sharp.

Ford has four minutes until she starts busking again—just enough time to wash down our afternoon chat with a couple of Bushmills on the rocks. Then she hustles to the front of the original Starbucks, where a line of people stretches out the door and around the corner. Greg Paul is already waiting there, tuning his banjo. Ford sets down her washtub, clears her throat, and gets back to work.

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