At the end of SXSW, Charlene Kaye, along with band member Megan Cox on violin, are playing El Mercado, an Austin Tex-Mex restaurant—and an appropriately ironic venue for Kaye to finish out the week. “I don’t think I can eat anymore Mexican food after this trip,” she laughs. “If I never see a taco again, it will be too soon.”
A 24-year-old Hawaii native with Singaporean parents, Kaye grew up in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Arizona before attending college as an English major at the University of Michigan. She moved to New York about a year and a half ago, immediately after college, with a number of musician friends from school, no money, and no place to live. Since then, she says she’s been “single-mindedly” pursuing a career in music.
“I really can’t see myself doing anything else. I almost don’t really feel like I have a choice.”
A few minutes of listening to Kaye’s jazzy vocals, poetic lyrics, and strong song arrangements will convince anyone that she’s chosen exactly the right profession. Her exotic beauty and effortless confidence onstage present a singer/songwriter who seems primed for success.
In fact, Kaye’s recent single “Dress and Tie” has already earned her an impressive amount of recognition for someone so relatively new to the music business. Recorded with fellow U. of M. alum and Glee cast member Darren Criss, the song made the top 150 downloaded songs the day it was released on iTunes. Not surprisingly, Kaye says this has significantly expanded her fan base. “I have a lot of all-ages fans, as in, under-21 fans, because the Glee demographic tends to be a younger crowd,” she explains. “Everywhere we’ve gone, I’ve gotten at least ten little girls who are like, ‘I love Darren, and I love you! I love you because Darren loves you!’”
While the Midas touch of the Glee association has increased Kaye’s popularity, the attention certainly isn’t undeserved. Keep an eye on this talented lady. She is going places.
OH: Where did your band name, Charlene Kaye & the Brilliant Eyes, come from?
CK: It came from a dream that I had. The more I thought about it, the more I started to conceive it as the people around me, my bandmates and others that inspire me, who help me realize the musical ideas I have and flesh out my vision. It was also kind of inspired by the feeling of looking out into the crowd the second right before I start to sing and seeing all these eyes looking back in anticipation.
I feel like performing is kind of like having a conversation with somebody. If you feel like they’re giving something back, then you want to give more back.
OH: How long have you been playing music?
CK: I was trained in classical piano since the age of five, and I took piano lessons until I was sixteen. And then when I got into middle school and high school, I kind of dropped the piano and got really into Elliot Smith and Blink-182 and Good Charlotte and Goldfinger. I went through a big punk stage and learned like every song in drop-D possible. The first guitar I ever played was my mom’s classical, nylon strings, and I was playing Blink-182 on that. I just got frustrated with the formal training because it was nothing that I was listening to at the time, and once I discovered how to play songs I actually liked, I got really excited. And that was sort of the portal into discovering how much I loved music, when it didn’t feel like a homework assignment.
OH: I noticed Megan, your violinist, was playing and singing at the same time. I’ve never seen anyone do that before.
CK: Megan was a prodigy classical pianist. By age ten she was playing these really advanced sonatas, winning regional competitions and beating her older brothers. And then she was like, actually, I want to learn how to play violin. And so she became a badass at violin, and then she was like, actually, I think I want to be a classical voice major! So she majored in that in college, and now she’s a monster. The perfect triple threat.
OH: Did you take any voice lessons?
CK: Here and there. I took one class in college with this huge opera singer that was amazing in his own way, but I don’t really feel like I took anything from it because I’m more like a soul/rock vocalist, or at least I aspire to be. And he wanted me to sing in a traditional style. It didn’t really resonate. So I just sing however it feels good. I’ve been known to take Mariah Carey karaoke tracks and just practice with that because she’s so all over the place that anything you sing after that feels so easy—especially my stuff that has very defined melodies. I don’t riff that much. So, if I have to warm up, I’ll run through a Mariah Carey song! (laughs)
CK: My first album [Things I Will Need in the Past] I would describe as indie-folk-pop. All the instruments on the album are real acoustic instruments—cellos, lots of strings, real drums, lots of ambient percussion like woodwinds and chimes and glockenspiel and stuff like that. My EP [Charlene Kaye & the Brilliant Eyes] I would describe as more alternative rock. There’s one song that’s inspired by old soul songs…I’m so blatantly influenced by everything that I hear.
The new album is going to be much more personal and more intense. I’ve had a lot of life experiences since the release of my first album, and I think that though the voice that emerges is still me, it’s a more mature one, one that’s moved past writing about her first heartbreak or imaginary fictional scenarios. Musically, I want to say it’s stranger and more ambitious than the easy-listening pop stuff that’s characterized my sound in the past, but I hesitate because in some ways it actually does lean towards a more pop sound – a good handful of the songs from the new batch sound like singles to me, which I guess is a good thing. My inspirations are all over the place, from Blondie to M. Ward to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to of Montreal.
OH: Is this your first time at SXSW?
OH: What’s your experience been so far?
CK: Oh, man. I’ve had a blast. I cannot wait for next year. It’s been like margaritas nonstop!
Charlene Kaye & the Brilliant Eyes play Don Hill’s in NYC with Shoot the Freak and Hank & the Cupcakes on April 24 at 7:00 p.m.