Crafting Hawaiian Noir: Q&A w/ Hula Hi-Fi

Crafting Hawaiian Noir: Q&A w/ Hula Hi-Fi

The first time we heard a cover of “Wicked Game” awash with melancholy ukulele and steel guitars, we knew we had to meet the artist responsible. The band was Hula Hi-Fi, a darkly tropical indie project headed by Nashville-based musicians Josh Kaler and Danica Dora. This year, Hula Hi-Fi released their highly anticipated sophomore album ‘The Isle of Forgotten Dreams.’ We took the opportunity to pick Josh’s brain to learn more about the release and developing his signature sound: 

When and how did you start the Hula Hi-Fi project? 

It officially started in 2014 when I started messing around with Hawaiian steel guitar arrangements for 90’s songs. I grew up as a grunge kid so I thought it would be fun to take Nirvana or Weezer and interpret that music through the lens of our Hawaiian Noir sound. 

I’ve always written songs, so it was natural that the project morphed into composing music for the full album we just released. 


How would you describe the Hula Hi-Fi Sound?

Lush, sultry, and vibrantly melancholic. Or if it helps, a friend of ours recently described our record as sounding like James Bond drowning in a Mai Tai- which we find humorous and are totally OK with. 




Tell us about your new album, The Isle of Forgotten Dreams?

The Isle of Forgotten Dreams was born during the love affair I was having with traditional Hawaiian steel guitar music. I happened to also be in the midst of a broken heart. The combination of feeling both isolated and inspired led me down a musical rabbit hole that took 3 years to finally come out the other side of.  Along the way, Danica moved into town and the stars aligned from there. We were already great friends who had so much fun working together. At some point, she asked if she could be in the band and I said no. Then I asked if she would be in the band and she said maybe. Then she asked if she could and I said maybe. Then I asked and she said yes. Then she said "I quit". And so on and so forth until the record was finished. 



What do you most hope that listeners take away from your music?

We hope this record provides an escape for people. Though each song takes you somewhere else, we never quite let you leave the island. 

From our first song on the record, the listener should know just what to pack for this journey- and we can almost guarantee that it won’t include a sweater. 

Where did that album art come from? The full-size artwork on vinyl looks great.

Our dear friend Christina Cone from the band Frances Cone (check em out!) had this idea that Danica should be vomiting flowers at me. The visual definitely represents our personalities as we like to have fun and not take what we do so seriously. 

It was photographed by Shervin Lainez and the artwork design was executed by Evan Bivins from Bivins Brothers Creative and Adam Blake from The Made Shop. 




In every performance video it seems like you are playing a new instrument. How many instruments did you play on this record?

I’ve been “jamming with myself” since high school so I’m no stranger to making things happen on my own if I gotta. On the album I played drums, lap steel guitars, vibraphone, and ukuleles (including the U•Bass on the title track).

What Kala ukuleles did you use on the record?

My Kala Elite USA Doghair Mahogany Baritone, our Archtop Tenor, and the U•BASS®

I’ve been writing music on the 6-String Solid Acacia recently. The chime-y sound puts me in a real good mood.



You achieve such a clear and emotive ukulele tone. It's such a melancholy twist. What tips do you have for recording and mixing the ukulele?

The short answer is that the baritone ukulele darkens the ukulele vibe perfectly to capture what you’re referencing. 

The more nerdy answer is that I started recording the ukuleles with a very “gourmet” setup  (Coles 4038 and Neumann KM-184). Through the process I ended up wanting a more gritty/aged sound for the ukulele so I tried using the iPhone microphone one day and it was perfect. 

Another big part of the sound is that the baritone uke is on the left side and the tenor is on the right. They often are working as one instrument which creates a really unique voicing for the music. 

The best advice I have when recording ukulele is to be gentle. The tone will be warmer and more inviting. Also the performance is far more important than a fancy microphone. 


Hula Hi-Fi performs with a variety of Kala instruments, including their custom Kala Elite USA Ukulele and their Acoustic Electric U•Bass.

You can stream ‘The Isle of Forgotten Dreams’ or purchase it on Vinyl or CD by clicking here.
August 11, 2020 by Joe DeMars
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