In Her Element: Kina Grannis

ByLaura Paisley

In the era of vinyl records, when the album’s lyrics were printed in full on the back cover, it was easy to see what a singer wanted to express. Even cassette tapes included a printed insert of lyrics.

These days, with mp3s and iTunes, it’s rare to see lyrics in print.

But guitarist and singer-songwriter Kina Grannis is old-school in that regard. In recent years, the alumna has focused on the craft of songwriting, attending writing retreats and pushing herself to write from a more vulnerable place.

With her latest album, Elements, the full lyrics are available on her website.

“I love lyric books and I always want to look at other people’s lyrics,” Grannis said. “As someone who writes them, you always hope at least one person might want to read them, too.”

In “This Far,” she writes of emotional pain and resilience.

When rain falls down on me so hard

The wind’s unraveling me, don’t start

An ocean’s swallowing up my heart

But I’ve made it this far

I’ve made it this far

At 29 years old, she has made it very far.

Late last year, the alumna began her second international tour to promote Elements, concluding in Los Angeles, which she now calls home.

Grannis’ earlier album, Stairwells, features material written in part while she was an undergraduate at USC Dornsife. The title refers to the refuge and inspiration she found in stairwells across campus for writing and practicing her songs.

“Since then, I’ve experienced a lot of things, both really amazing and really hard, so I think Elements is more mature and more personal. I forced myself to confront things that in the past I would have been afraid to write about.”

She also writes about happy times. In 2013, she married Jesse Epstein, a frequent musical collaborator and longtime friend. The music video for the song “My Dear” features footage from their wedding.

Grannis’ YouTube channel has more than 1 million subscribers, and her music videos, from official videos to live performances, have 145 million views.

She made an auspicious entrance into the music scene in 2007. The Mission Viejo, California, native entered her first music video, “Message From Your Heart,” in the Doritos Crash the Super Bowl contest. She won, scoring a record deal with Interscope Records at age 22.

In early 2009, however, Grannis made a bold announcement: She would forgo the record deal to work as an independent artist.

She now runs Kina Grannis Music, where she has creative control and a more personal way of conducting business. She has used social media to create a loyal fan base and success outside the conventional confines of a big-name record label.

“[Running a label] is a ton of work, but also really rewarding,” she said. “The team has grown, which has helped. But as far as marketing and social media, logistical planning and all of the creative stuff, it’s pretty much me, my manager and occasionally my family brainstorming about what I should do next.”

Last year Grannis participated in a creative digital project, The Mobile Mix, sponsored by AT&T and International Secret Agents (ISAtv). The latter is an artistic platform to celebrate Asian youth culture and its global influence. 

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Kina Grannis promotes Asian Americans in the arts through projects like The Mobile Mix, which she undertook with San Francisco DJ Ken Loi, pictured here. Photo courtesy of Kina Grannis.

“It’s important for me to be involved with the Asian American community,” Grannis said. “Growing up hapa [half Asian, half white] is a big part of my identity.”

Grannis said the Internet has benefited the Asian American arts community.

“YouTube has given Asian American artists a platform to share their talents in a world where somehow mainstream media still hasn’t fully embraced them,” she said. “It’s a powerful thing.”

Grannis entered USC thinking she would major in music. But after a few introductory classes, she realized that studying the mechanics of music removed the mystique.

“I need my music to be my passion — something fun and magical,” she said. “I didn’t like breaking it down and thinking of it like a business, where music is a product, not art.

“For my major, I wanted something that fueled me intellectually. As a songwriter, I’m fascinated by people, and in my psych classes I got to learn and think about people all the time.”

In 2007, Grannis graduated from USC Dornsife summa cum laude in social sciences with an emphasis on psychology.

“Part of college is learning how to learn and discipline yourself. On the whole, that’s what I took away from USC: learning how to manage my life and be a grown-up and explore different ideas.

“I’m so grateful I ended up at USC,” she added. “It was a perfect place for me to grow into an artist.”