Big Leaps with Little Kahuna: Vana Liya Q&A
Vana Liya got her musical start singing and playing punk, pop and reggae covers on her ukulele, and occasionally posting her renditions to social media. In 2017, she shared her version of Pepper’s “Too Much", which grabbed the attention of the band and their label, LAW Records.
Pepper shared Vana Liya’s cover and LAW Records contacted her. What occurred after that was a whirlwind. Never having written a song up to that point, she fibbed to LAW about her songwriting experience and capabilities. Vana then dove in head first and proved to not only be a raw talent, but a quick and determined learner. By 2018, she was signed to LAW and began releasing music and performing with original music - collaborating with some of reggae’s most renowned artists. She released her first full length album, Little Kahuna, in 2021 to notable reception. In a few short years, Vana Liya has earned a reputation as an accomplished original artist and rising superstar.
Recently, we saw Vana and her band perform at The Mystic Theater in Petaluma. She was the inspiring opener of a killer lineup of reggae artists: Hirie as headliner, and supporting acts KBong and Johnny Cosmic. Vana’s sweet soprano voice topped her valiant band like silk. Vana and her band intoxicated the crowd with their rich and dreamy soundscape and optimistic, accessible vibe. She was also invited to the stage multiple times throughout the night to join the other performers - which she did with warm confidence.
Over lunch the next day, Vana opened up to us about her kismet path into music; her motivations, inspirations and the next steps in her career. Within moments of conversation, it’s easy to recognize that Vana Liya is as authentic as she is a dreamer, and as hardworking as she is fortunate:
What made you choose ukulele as your primary instrument, and what drew you to baritone uke specifically?
I started on concert ukulele, playing covers. I felt like every song I would play concert ukulele on would just sound like an ukulele song. With the higher tone of the concert and the high of my voice, it was just a lot of high. I started doing songs with baritone ukulele, and it was a really nice, beautiful contrast and compliment to have that warm tone of the baritone come in with my high voice. The baritone also gives that cool acoustic guitar vibe.
You just wrapped up a two week tour with Hirie, KBong and Johnny Cosmic. What were some of your highlights from that?
One of the biggest highlights has been seeing a woman be as badass and boss as Hirie is. The level of respect that she gets; Not only from her bandmates, but from the venues, the fans. It’s been really empowering as a woman to see that in the scene, because I feel that can get a little lost sometimes.
It’s also been amazing jamming with KBong and Johnny Cosmic; They’re just such great musicians and they have great stage presence. I feel like everybody on this tour brought a theme of positivity. We were all riding that wave in a sense, and it’s been really nice. I was invited up on stage with them every night, and the crew has been really great.
I’m used to not speaking unless being spoken to on tour. You just let everyone do their own thing and you have to be out of the way. Hirie has been offering her bus when I need it to get ready, and she said she’s had that kindness offered to her in the past. It’s been really great to see that the people I look up to are just as sweet in person as they appear to be. I feel like that’s not always the case.
What is your songwriting process like?
With my music career, I kind of just got thrown into it. When [LAW Records] found me from my cover songs, they asked if I wrote songs.I said yes, even though that was a lie! (Laughs). I just tried to work on it.
Throughout the day, if I have a cool phrase that comes to mind, I put it in the notes on my phone. There are different paragraphs, with different themes. I’ll put whatever line that comes to mind with the theme that it best fits with. When I go to write a song, I use those notes as a resource.
I’ve been doing a lot of my writing with [my producer], Johnny Cosmic. The way we did the first record: I would go to the studio, and we would write the songs together. He would produce the track, and we’d hum the melodies out together. I’d write the lyrics while he was building the track.
We just had our first session for the new album, the second record. I see a difference in the process between my first album and my second. By the time [Johnny] has the track ready, I already have the words and the melodies together. We’ve got less time; we’ll take like an hour to go through our work and show each other what we’ve got.
I used to get really scared, because he'd ask me for my lyrics, and I’d be like, “No - Don’t look at my paper! It’s not ready yet!” (Laughs). But that’s how [my song] “Round and Round” came to be: I wrote how I was feeling exactly, and he sang the lines one by one, in the order that they were written. So now, before he’s done with production, I’m like, “Hey - I think I’ve got it”. I used to never have that type of confidence.
After you put out a record, you’re doing a lot of shows. So I basically took a year off of songwriting, and went to concerts, and observed people on tour. I really try to sit and watch whoever I’m touring with to really absorb what they’re doing. With experience, your brain also starts to accumulate a lot more information about what sounds sonically cool or what words and phrases work. I wrote a whole song of idioms because I realized that people like that stuff - it’s really relatable. It’s a good way to draw people in. Now, I take songs I like and discover what I like about the song. I implement that into my songs, and make it my own.
Tell us a few of your top vocal and musical influences.
Ooh - I like that you divvied it up like that, because they are very, very different for me! I do have one that crosses over, and that’s Dallas Green of City and Colour. I love him. I really like his vocal style. His melodies are really different, and so are his lyrics. He’s on a different level with the vernacular he uses. On the song “Of Space and Time”, he starts with “There is a murder of crows”. Who thinks of starting a song with that?! He has such an eloquent way of doing it so that it doesn’t sound like a bunch of jumbled up words. That’s such a hard thing to do. A lot of the time, I’ll be writing a song and I’ve got to change things and go for something more simplistic. Dallas just does it in such an inspiring way. I’d love to be able to get to the level of what he’s doing. I really enjoy his compositions and way of doing things.
There’s a reggae artist I really like named Holly Cook. She’s got the same vibe as me in a way, because she’s got this really light voice, but she’s got bumping, rootsy reggae behind her. It gives this dream-like effect. That’s what I want to do with my music; I want it to be like a dreamland. I want you to put the headphones in and be taken somewhere else. All of a sudden, you’re not in your bedroom listening anymore. You’re on the island that I’m on, and we’re singing together in the ocean. Holly’s music does that for me.
I’m also a big pop-punk girl at heart. Blink-182 was like my first Pepper. While working on this second record, I was telling Johnny that I like the guitar solos, but I really think it’d be cool if we do [dynamic] buildups. Like these punk-rocky types of buildups where it’s this emotional release by the time you get to the last chorus. I feel like the whole reason to do music is not only for me to feel something, but for the audience to feel something. The times I’ve felt the most anything, has been from those releases. At the end of “Adam’s Song”, when [Blink-182] goes into the last chorus, I lose it every time! I love those types of buildups.
I’m definitely trying to implement different things that I like and turn them into reggae. I love theater stuff too. Even in a few lyrics, I reference Phantom of the Opera, because that’s my favorite. I also want to do a song with a key change. I feel like there’s such a vibe to key changes! I don’t think my music sounds like one thing or another, I think each song sounds different. So I try to go for that, because I like a little bit of everything.
What are some accomplishments in your career that you’re most proud of?
There are a few for different reasons. Recently, at [the venue] Ace of Spades, I had one of the coolest moments that’s ever happened to me. I met with a young girl - she’s 14 or 15. I saw her at the end of the line at the show trying to meet me. As soon as I made eye contact with her, she started crying. I just hugged and held her for like, five minutes. She was crying, and that made me cry.
I write a lot of my music for my younger self - things I wish that someone would have told me. Things that would help me stick it out better. There was definitely a point in time where I didn’t see myself being around. I try to maybe be that person for someone who doesn’t have that person. When I was hugging this girl, I felt like I was hugging 15-year-old me. It was an emotional moment, because I feel like that’s all I ever wanted, was for someone to stop and hug me like that and tell me everything’s going to be okay. When the girl was spelling out her name, I realized we had talked a year or so ago on Instagram. It was so rad to meet her!
There was another instance when I played the Catalyst, and there were only like four people at the entire show. I gave a shout out to mental health because I always like to do that during my shows. There was a guy there who must have been 6’2” or 6’3” - big guy. After I got off the stage, he did the same thing. We just hugged each other in the middle of the dance floor. For me, that was a moment where I felt like, “I don’t care if I have a billion people in front of me, or one person… So long as the show, and what I’m saying, really matters”. Those moments validate my mission.
I also get to work with a lot of bands now that I look up to. Being on the tour with Hirie: I’ve been trying to get even just a show with her since I started. To be around another powerhouse woman has been amazing. And being with Pepper. In Vegas, they pulled me up on set and I got to play with them. Just the amount of people in the crowd cheering for you, it gives you a glimpse of where you can go if you really work hard - what you can potentially have.
I’ve been lucky enough to do that with SOJA too - in front of their crowd. The kindness of other bands has been a big highlight. Instead of bands making it exclusive and making you feel like you have to work for it because they had to, they open the door because they know it was really hard for them, and they want to make it easier. In the reggae scene, bands are seeing your hustle, and offering the help that they wish they had. I love that.
Meeting lots of people has restored my faith in humanity. Especially after Covid - the way the world turned on each other. I feel like there’s a roughness to everybody now, and an apprehension to love and kindness. But I don’t feel that in the reggae scene. It’s been a highlight in my career to have these open arms trying to spring me forward instead of holding me back.
What is your advice for those just starting with ukulele or songwriting?
My advice is to just go for it. I know it sounds so cliche, but I feel like you have to just take the jump.I think what holds us back is the fear of not being good enough; the fear of something not sounding right. If you listen to a lot of the first things that I did, they’re not that great.
But you learn from those mistakes and you will absorb things too. The more you do your research, and the more you understand music.
I approach it from an almost mathematical perspective. I like to look at it like a math problem almost - I like to dissect things and figure out what makes it so good. That question also helps you develop your style: I think you have to ask yourself, “What do I like? What do I want to do? What’s my message?” Also, I think having a clear goal is a really good head start. I used to go on YouTube and check out beats and try to freestyle or try to set goals like writing a verse a day. Strengthen my melodic lines as well. When I first started writing melodies, they would just literally follow the chord progression.
Having faith in yourself and getting aligned with what you’re doing will play a big part in what your music sounds like. The confidence and the message will show through. I’m really bad at accepting compliments, but there is a part of me that feels like I’m meant to do this. Sometimes I feel like that comes off a little cocky or whatever, but you have to believe in yourself. Since I was little, I knew I would do something awesome, and I didn’t know what that was. I really thought it might be becoming a doctor. But I’m healing people in a different way, that I wouldn’t have been able to if I had not gotten onto this journey.
Have a purpose, and figure out YOU first. If you don’t love yourself, who is going to love you? A big part of this industry is not only selling your music, but it’s also selling yourself, your personality. Are you practicing what you’re preaching? Are you a person that people are looking up to when they listen to your music? Is everything aligning? That’s why you should work to have yourself together before you put your stuff out there.
What are you listening to lately?
I’ve actually been back on a Blink-182 kick! With Tom (DeLong) being back in the band, they’re going to go on tour soon, and I’m sure they’re going to come out with an album soon.
Also, I’ve been listening to a lot of Tame Impala-like stuff. I really like Tame Impala because it’s so California - the kind of music you drive down the 101 listening to. I never really listened to them til my drummer introduced me to them on tour.
There’s a band called 53 Thieves - you should check them out if you haven’t. They have this lo-fi, hip hop thing. They’re not necessarily harmonizing always - sometimes they’re doubling - but it’s such a beautiful balance of male and female vocals. You’re not hearing one or the other. That’s the type of vibe that I’d like to feature with Johnny Cosmic on a song. I feel like he and I have very similar vocal styles, so something like that would be awesome.
I’ve been on a Childish Gambino kick, too! I got a record player recently, so I’ve been going to the store and picking up a record a week at a time. I bought his Redbone album again. Hearing it on the stereo is different, and it gives you a different appreciation. When I’m streaming it, I’m not necessarily listening to it as intently. When you listen to the record, you’re intentionally listening to the masterpiece the way it was meant to be listened to.
So yeah - that’s kind of my rotation right now - I’m all over the place.
What’s next for Vana Liya in 2023?
I’ve got some shows coming up with Tribal Seeds that I’m really excited about - I got the direct support slot for that! Steve (Jacobo) is coming back from a break from the band, so I think that will be really good. That will be Cinco de Mayo weekend - we’re doing three shows.
I’m working on my second record with Mr. [Johnny] Cosmic, and I’m really excited to put some more work into that. I don’t think that the album will be ready for the end of the year, but we’ll put out a few singles for sure. We have a song coming out called “Summer Soul”. That will probably hit by May.
Also - we’re planning on doing a Christmas song. Johnny knows that I love Christmas - I just freak out for Christmas - I’m a huge Christmas dork! (Laughs). When we did our second session, he was like, “You know, Vana - you should really think about doing a Christmas song”... And I was like, “I really want to, but everytime I think about it, it’s already December.” So Johnny said we have to make a point to do it, so we’re going to have a Vana Liya Christmas song by the end of the year! (Laughs).
Vana Liya plays Kala baritones. For more Vana Liya news and info, check our her website.