What makes a home? In essence, it means different things to different people. For KAINA, it was a place where she lived her earliest identity-forming experiences alongside her nuclear family. Though her immigrant parents held on to dreams of upward mobility for too long, it was just after moving out when she learned to caution against “missing the moment.”
“[‘It Was A Home,’ the title track] is about my childhood home in Chicago,” the singer-songwriter and producer told VMP during a Zoom call. “My parents lived in the same apartment for 16 years. As a first generation kid, you hear your parents say, ‘One day we’ll get a nicer apartment, a bigger place.’ The feelings of wanting more.” KAINA managed to idyllically translate these sentiments via a collection of songs — the heart of It Was A Home, her second full-length album (out March 4 via City Slang).
The daughter of a Venezuelan and Guatemalan, and reared in the bustling metropolis of Chicago, Kaina Castillo was also fundamentally a product child of nonprofit arts organizations since the tender age of eight. “There are a lot of opportunities that are presented to young people [in cultural nonprofits] that you normally wouldn't get. It was incredible,” the 25-year-old recalled. “Now, in retrospect, I realize that group was training me to be a performer and a songwriter.” Eventually, this road led her to play at the high-profile festivals like Lollapalooza, and even the White House, under the Obama administration.
On her forthcoming release, the multi-hyphenate artist celebrates nostalgia against a supple combination of soul and alt-rock. Buoyed by KAINA’s heartfelt verses of her childhood remembrances, It Was A Home captures equal parts depth and innocence, while marveling at youthful idealism.
“It was a beautiful time, a beautiful home with my mom cooking, having their friends over, playing salsa and dancing until 4 a.m.,” she recalled. “I'm starting to notice a lot more things that resonate with me, like for one, kids shows. I learned English by watching Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. Those shows did such a good job at showing kids that you can simplify really complex emotions, whether big or small, but either way, they are manageable.”
VMP caught up with the bilingual musician about It Was A Home, female producers’ role in contemporary culture and choosing collaborators like Sleater-Kinney and Helado Negro with care.
VMP: [When] you released the video for “Apple,” [it] sort of took me back to No Doubt’s early kitschy productions. Then there are puppets. What’s going on?
KAINA: I was telling everyone that this is the video that showcases the feeling of the album. I wanted to make something easy for people to watch; for people to really enjoy and have fun. As we get closer to releasing this album, I'm starting to notice a lot more things that resonate with me, like for one, kids shows. I learned English watching from Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. Those shows did such a good job at showing kids that you can simplify real complex emotions, whether big or small, but either way, they are manageable. So I feel that this album and video are made with that same intention [hence the puppets’ appearance]. It could be a complicated theme but explained in a simple way.
Your upcoming album It Was Home was created during lockdown. Does the title allude to this in any way?
The album title is the name of a song, the catalyst and encapsulation of the whole project. [“It Was Home”] is about my childhood home in Chicago. My parents lived in the same apartment for 16 years. As a first-generation kid, you hear your parents say, “One day we’ll get a nicer apartment, a bigger place.” The feelings of wanting more. It's really great to want more, but with those feelings came “missing the moment.” When I moved out and got my own place it felt like my own home. Everything I learned about creating a home was because of that apartment. I’m someone that tends to live in the future, like, “What’s next? What’s better?” But I think it is so important what you can gain with perspective.
In that song, I talk about how I remember being small, thinking, “I’m never going to leave this room,” mirroring the same emotions that my parents felt about ever having a nicer apartment. So it made me feel emotional. It gave me closure from some childhood feelings. It was a beautiful time, a beautiful home with my mom cooking, having their friends over, playing salsa and dancing until 4 a.m. That’s what I do with my friends now. I wish I could have appreciated it more when I lived with them, and when they lived there. What’s crazy is that they left that apartment when I finished the album. It was a chapter in our lives, and we got to realize how much that meant once they moved out. Even though it was tough at times, we built something special together in our family home.
Being of Venezuelan and Guatemalan descent, did your multiculturalism play a role in your creativity?
My mom is Venezuelen, and my dad is Guatemalan. I didn't grow up around my [extended] family. The only family I got here are my dad, mom and my little brother. So a lot of the experiences I had [with their culture] were at the parties they threw with their friends, and food they cooked. I feel like my parents’ story is so interesting, because how did a Venezuelan and Guatemalan get together? They both came to Chicago, and their coming together created me. I wish I could have been more immersed in their cultures. As immigrants, they created their own path. I think about things in generations, and my life currently mirrors their life experience. They brought with them what they could, their culture, knowledge and personalities, and their food. So much of their life was created here [in Chicago]. My parents came here when they were 21, plus as new immigrants in Chicago that obviously influenced my life.
Just growing up listening to the music they listened to. My mom listened to Venezuelan folk music, Simón Díaz and Oscar D’León. My dad’s love for Motown music brought him here, he says. I remember him saying, “I came to the U.S. from Guatemala because I listened to Michael Jackson, and that's where Michael Jackson is.” I think there are a lot of immigrant stories like that. My dad loved the Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever, so I grew up with a lot of those influences. We used to go dancing all the time, went to all the Celia Cruz shows, Oscar D’León’s. I don’t have much experience with their lives in their own countries, but as young people coming to the U.S. I still feel like my family is very new here, so it was kind of confusing for me, like this in-between-ness as a first gen kid.
Besides being a singer-songwriter, you’re also a producer.
Yeah, I’m trying to lean into calling myself a producer more. I often feel like with women, the effort that you make in music gets downplayed. I think we learn to minimize ourselves, and that's something that I'm trying to unlearn with this album. I really feel like I can call myself a producer on this album because I arranged everything. I can't play instruments exceptionally, but there are a lot of my own guitar and synth-playing on this project, and obviously the songwriting. I mostly executive produce my stuff, as well as for other friends. It was actually Danielle [Quebrado Jimenez, my publicist] who was like, “Do you know what white men in L.A. do as executive producers? They often just say what's good or not.” Are you kidding me? I am an executive producer if all dudes get to say is whether something is good or bad. So often in that title description, women don’t get told what that entails. Executive producer sounds fancy, like not really knowing if I belonged in that space, or if I could call myself that because I may not be as good. But I do have all the capacity to be that, so I’m now learning to lean into saying that that’s what I do, too.
I see a Sleater-Kinney and Helado Negro collab. How did you choose who to collaborate with?
The last album I put out features no other artist except my co-producer and partner in crime, Sen Morimoto. He also helped me executive produce this project. He has a feature on this project, too. But I made it a point not to have [many] features because I [see how] the media often talk about women and collaborations. I see they often get minimized, or sometimes the media will be like, “This [featured] rapper is more important than this woman’s song,” whose song it actually belongs to. So I wanted to create a project where there is no doubt that this is my work and not get minimized. For this next project, I felt like now that I established myself as the person who does the work she does and we can’t minimize that. I never work with people just because I want to gain traction through their audience, and I think that’s fine when people have mutual conversations about that, but with those tracks it just sounds like Helado Negro should be on it, or this sounds like Sleater-Kinney should be on it. I work that way with all collaborations in my life, with the people I work with in my band and production. There has never been a moment, except for this album, that there’s a new person on it. But everyone I worked with in my life has been someone [I’ve] met or been friends with. So I like to keep it really personable, I don't like to force it — if it feels right, then that’s what I do.
Who were your biggest influences while making this album?
Definitely Carole King and Stevie Wonder — those were two big ones. I wanted people to consider my songwriting, and someone who I admire is Carole King — her songwriting is key. Stevie Wonder, too, he's been a big inspiration for a really long time. He has such an eclectic catalog and that’s something I always admired of musicians. People who don't need to box their genre in. He has weird synths on instrumental albums, and then he has classic Stevie albums, rock and bluesy songs. That’s really inspiring to me. I don't think that I should create music with the intent of making the same genre.
I really appreciate when people pick up that I’m not just pop or soul. It’s really cool that you mentioned No Doubt because that's not a band or genre that people compare me to. But there are some obvious influences of ’90s alternative, especially on this project. Oh, also The Cheetah Girls. I was also thinking about early 2000s alternative pop-rock on this album, and “Apple” reminds me of that, with a mix of Disney stuff like The Cheetah Girls. Those songs were so good and catchy, they really aged well.
I also read that you’ve participated in youth organizing nonprofits, which led you to flourish on your artistic side. Can you describe what that was like?
I'm a product child of Chicago youth organizations. Like I mentioned, I didn't grow up with the culture my parents [were raised in], but they were the only influences I had. I could have easily been assimilated here in the U.S. in a way that would have sucked, but youth organizations changed my life.
I was in one called Happiness Club for 10 years. It’s a free program where they teach young people how to write songs and dance. This group of kids create a show to present for the year, and then tour it around Chicago. Through that organization, I got to play at Lollapalooza a few times and the White House under the Obama administration. There are a lot of opportunities that group presents to young people that you normally wouldn’t get. It was incredible. Now, in retrospect, I realize that group was training me to be a performer and a songwriter. That group got me to a recording studio for the first time. That’s how I acquired the knowledge of how to record, and what it means to stack. I thought it was just something I was doing for fun when I was little, and now that I'm older, this program was subconsciously training us to learn.
I also credit that group for teaching me to be a good person. I know it sounds silly, but I feel like a lot of people I work with, they’re like, “Oh, your bandmates are so nice and good people.” That should be the norm! But I owe it to my mentor who was like a second mom, Tangy Harper, she taught us how to be good humans in the world, how to be performers and how to give back.
I remember being an eight-year-old in that group, and looking up to the older kids and being like, “Wow, I wish I could be as good as them some day,” while they mentored me to become better. Now I’m in that position where it’s my turn to give back to Chicago youth, and I prioritize that.
How does inspiration arrive to you? Do you make time for it in a routine, or does it occur to you while, say, cooking or traveling?
It's different all the time. When I was younger, songs would come to me all the time, and I voice memo-ed them, thinking, “I need to remember this feeling.” For this album, I had to carve out the time. During the pandemic, it was easy to say none of this matters. So I carved out time, sat with myself and allowed myself to feel. I just needed the time to do it and get into my head about it to not lose that muscle. So in January of 2021, I made myself a songwriting challenge, where I journaled Monday through Friday, and then Saturdays and Sundays I will work on production. Sen and I are overachievers and can finish a whole song in one sitting. Even though that’s really fun, it can be unrealistic, energy-wise, to expect myself to have a fully fledged song in one sitting. It doesn’t have to be intense all the time. It can be carved-out time or something that arrives to me in a moment.
When you were growing up, what was the format you listened to music on?
When I was very little, there were these tiny plastic cassettes that played in this little player, and I remember playing “The Tide is High” [by Blondie] on repeat. But I grew up listening to CDs. My dad had a massive CD selection, the kind that makes your mom be like, “Please get rid of those ugly things! Go get a shelf for them!” In high school, I listened to a lot of SoundCloud. I know it’s a website, but SoundCloud is really from a specific era, five or six years ago. That’s where everyone listened to their music. I would especially listen to Chicago music there all the time.
It Was Home is going to be on vinyl. What does it mean for you to have your music released on vinyl?
Having vinyl is really special to me, and having [my music pressed on] vinyl was one of the first moments when my dad realized I was really doing music. In my last project [Next to the Sun], he was like, “What?! You have a vinyl?!” “Yeah!” Then he was like, “Oh my God.” I didn't realize how big of a deal that was for someone like my dad to have a vinyl [release]. While vinyl is coming back and is part of our music world, it was special for me that my dad was proud about me having [my music on] vinyl.
When I'm creating music, it makes me feel a little crazy that music is all in my head, my imagination. So vinyl is the physical [embodiment] of my [creative] thoughts. That's how I feel about reading books. I have a really hard time reading books on Kindle or online. I can't connect as much, but when you hold a book it’s like, “Wow, this is someone’s thoughts in my hands.” That’s the way I feel about vinyl. It makes it really real for me. I'm sure when I get my vinyl it’ll make me really emotional. While I love the internet and it’s fun, where is the cloud? Vinyl is physical, and that’s really cool.
Isabela Raygoza is a writer, curator and producer who specializes in Latin music both regional and mainstream, and who approaches her work across genres with an eye toward the history that shapes our culture and the culture that shapes our future. She’s lent her pen to Rolling Stone, Billboard, VICE and the Recording Academy/GRAMMYs, among others, and honed her production skills with SoundCloud and Audible.