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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