Although Kaina Castillo just released her debut solo project this year, she’s no novice to the music game. Starting out as a dancer at the age of 9, she eventually branched out to singing and writing her own songs under the guidance of multiple youth programs and mentors in Chicago. She’s been deeply embedded in the city’s music scene on all ends: when she was barely out of high school, she used to split time between interning for Noname Gypsy, The O’My’s and Jamila Woods.
In March, Castillo dropped her 3-track “4U” EP under the name KAINA. A listener can feel the intimacy resonating in KAINA’s lyrics, as she pens soulful odes about love and identity, and how those concepts get more complicated as one grows older. In this interview, she talks about what these themes mean to her and recounts the journey that eventually led to the release of “4U”.
You’ve been involved in the Chicago music scene for awhile now, not just as an artist, but interning behind the scenes with different managers and publications. How old were you when you first got involved?
If we’re gonna start from the very beginning, I guess my work started with this non-profit in Chicago called the Happiness Club. I love that name because it sounds really cheesy, but it’s just because it was made in the 80s [laughs]. Through this group, I became a dancer and danced from when I was 9 years old til I was like 17. … I eventually became a singer and songwriter in that group, and it taught me everything from how to perform, to how to be professional, to how to record in the studio. I was learning all this crazy shit at a really early age that now has ended up being super useful.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a solo artist?
The project [sweet asl.] I put out with the [Burns] Twins was the first serious thing that I ever did. Before them, I had been in my own band in high school and we gained a little traction, doing shows when we were 16 or 19 years old. I’ve always written my own stuff, but I didn’t really take it seriously until these last two years.
So now that “4U” is out, how did all the connections you’ve made along the way culminate in this solo project?
The first song I ever wrote really started with Eddie Burns [of Burns Twins]. It’s always easy to work with him. He’ll be like ‘I just made this’, and then we’ll write a whole song in a day. Sen [Morimoto] really helped finish the songs out, he’s like my true best friend now. It was a collaboration all around–it just needed to be touched by different people. I think that sometimes if you’re collaborating with just one person, it can get stuck in a bubble, but Sen really opened it up and we added more live sounds, [which] just completed it.
Would you describe your songwriting process as something that’s organic?
Yeah, when I’m songwriting it feels like I’m word vomiting [laughs]. I’m very self-aware, but it takes me a long time to talk about my feelings because I’m processing them so much. So, I don’t write songs until I feel it coming up. I don’t really edit my songs either; I feel like I said what I said and meant it the way I said it. I wrote the song “Cry” in like two hours, and the song “4U” I wrote in probably 20 minutes.
Are there any specific experiences that inspired the songs on “4U”?
As we get older, we experience different forms of love. I think in “4U”, I was trying to get myself through understanding that people have different ways of showing you love, whether in an actual romantic relationship or a family relationship. [I’ve] learned that my version of showing love is not always something someone else is gonna do, but they still do love me in their own form. “4U” is just about accepting the love that you feel in your life for what it is and not trying to get more out of it.
You seem to write from a place of vulnerability and intimacy. Is it easy for you to be so open?
I think with every project I release, I’m just getting more and more vulnerable which is a really hard process for me. A lot of the songs on the project were initially created two years ago, but I couldn’t really release them until now. When it came out, I didn’t push it too much with PR and stuff because this was a feeling and an emotion that I just needed to leave my life. I was like ‘I don’t care if people like this or not. I need this feeling to leave for me.’
So how does it feel now that those feelings are out in the world?
It feels pretty crazy. I haven’t even put out that much work yet, but “4U” came out a lot later than I thought it would. … I feel a little naked [laughs], but it’s good. It’s good to analyze the feelings that are happening around you and then just let them go.
How do you feel about the reaction it’s gotten from listeners?
I feel like I get more messages from fans now than I did when it initially dropped. I think that speaks to the kind of project that I wanted “4U” to be. It’s very personal to me, and the project might bring out feelings that are really personal for other people. If they don’t wanna talk about it or post about it, that’s fine because at least they have it for themselves.
You dropped a video for “Happy” leading up to the project. Do you have any other visuals planned?
I’m not really sure. I just know that I want the videos to be really simple and truthful. The “Happy” video was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do because I really hate being in front of cameras. … But I think it came out exactly how I wanted it, just honest, vulnerable and really in my face. Definitely had to have some tequila before filming that [laughs].
Some artists in Chicago view the scene as congested or overcrowded. Do you feel that way?
If congested means there’s hella people making music, then yeah there are. But, I feel like everyone that’s making music right now has a reason to. I was just at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and it got me thinking a lot about documenting history. I was thinking about how crazy it was that all these different artists documented their processes and their rituals, and years later people are looking at them in museums. I think the Chicago music scene is great because everyone is documenting their narrative and their personal histories and lineages.
It’s also more supportive than people think. It’s a very real city, like we’ll catch if you’re doing this shit for ‘the clout’ or if you’re doing it for something sincere. That’s what I really care about. Even if someone isn’t my favorite artist, if they’re doing it sincerely than I can get behind that.
Is there anything else you think is missing in Chicago’s overall art scene?
The only thing I’d like to see is for us to hold each other more accountable. We’re a really great city in relation to how we work as a community, everyone’s on everyone else’s projects. … But I’d also like to see us work on making sure it’s a safe space for women and people of color–all kinds of people people who aren’t generally safe in the climate of the US.
I think people need to not be scared to have uncomfortable conversations, because it’s really necessary. In the New York or LA scene, they have all these companies and businesses and we don’t have all of that. I think we’ve built the structure to put ourselves on, but I don’t think it’s gonna be solidified until we can have uncomfortable conversations.
Do you feel like things are moving in the right direction as far as having those kinds of conversations?
I think so. There’s a handful of women in Chicago, like TASHA–I always see her call out people and try to have conversations about things, but it’s out of love. It’s getting better, but I think that people need to do more.
Being a first-gen Latina artist, especially in the current political moment, do you feel added pressure or responsibilities that you need to take on?
I think being a first-generation kid, no matter who you are, there’s always a pressure. Luckily, my pressure doesn’t come from my parents like a lot of immigrants’ kids, but it’s from myself. I always want to be the best that I can be in the world. I especially felt pressure after opening for Kali Uchis, because I got to meet a lot of Chicago kids who look like me and come from families like mine. I heard their stories, and how they also have a tough time relating to their Latino roots. As a first-generation kid, it’s like you’re born here but sometimes it feels like you can’t relate to anyone. It was cool to meet a crowd of people who felt the same way and for my music and words to resonate with them.
As a first-gen kid, do you feel like you have a different understanding of what home means?
It’s like being stuck somewhere in between and you haven’t really found out where you land. Anyone who’s a person of color or mixed is always gonna have a hard time finding where they belong. If you’re not white, everyone else pretty much has a violent cut of their lineage and history that is hard to find out sometimes.
Growing up, did you feel like Latino culture was emphasized in your household?
I didn’t think about it in the moment, but now I reflect and realize I listen to all the music my dad listens to and both my parents have influenced all the music I make. My parents are Latino as fuck [laughs] and make only that food and play only that kind of music.
You’ve worked pretty extensively with Young Chicago Authors. In Chicago especially, we see a lot of really young artists sharing their art with the world. What role do you think YCA has played in fostering this generation of young creatives?
I wouldn’t be here without YCA. They create an amazing space for young people to be heard. I used to go to open mics all the time in high school, and even though I reflect on those poems now and am like ‘damn I was shitty’ [laughs], everyone was just so positive. All the people and mentors really shaped me from a young age. Almost anyone from Chicago who’s doing big things now went through YCA or other organizations like that. If you look at people like Chance, Noname or Saba, they were all going to the same open mics.
For sure. I feel like that sense of community is especially unique to Chicago.
Absolutely. You can even trace it back. Like before Chance and Vic, it was Kids These Days, and before Kids These Days, it was The O’My’s and so on. These are all players in the scene and they’ve been killing it.
If you could collaborate with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
I think I’d just wanna hang out with Stevie Wonder. When I was like 14, I really wanted to work with Bruno Mars ‘cause I think he’s a genius songwriter–I’d probably still do that. Celia Cruz too. And a peer would be Cuco, he’s so dope.
KAINA is performing with Sen Morimoto and Qari at The Empty Bottle on May 26. Tickets available here.