The lights came up as the band took the stage, drowning the crowd in blends of red and yellow, the beat beginning to grow. Leilani Wolfgramm – the Tongan-American Roots, Rock, Reggae and R&B artist, hair icon, former Sea World Luau baby and Sunshine Kid – came on stage right at 8 pm to a half packed house of people wearing “The Green” gear and drinking local Aggie beers. In our conversation in her RV after the set, she would acknowledge bluntly that “these people don’t know me,” and she’s mostly right. A relative unknown with a 2013 EP, I Burn, and a debut album, Rebel, released in 2014, and only a couple of previous trips through Colorado, it’s a safe bet that her name isn’t on everyone’s lips. Not that it shouldn’t be.
Wolfgramm’s vocal delivery is beyond belief, with a breathlessness to make you hang on for each syllable and a range to make any singer take a double take, all delivered between dancing on stage and playing her guitar. Sprinting through early work including Change the World (We Can), Herbivore and Empty, then moving on to new work from her upcoming Live Wire release, date TBD, before concluding with Sinner, her set ended with a crowd that had fully invested in what was happening on stage. The room quite literally shifted from the back walls and bars to pack the floor, ending with well earned applause and the traditional passing of the joint up to the singer as she exited the stage.
We left our beers by the green room door as we exited the back of the venue into chilled Northern Colorado air, crisp and quiet, crossed the short alley span, and climbed into Wolfgramm’s comfy, if small for seven people, RV. Covering everything from beginnings to futures, with poignant and profound stops on the topics of drug abuse and parental loss, genre hypocrisy, and personal growth, Leilani is, if anything, not shy about who she is, what she believes, and what she’s working towards.
Our conversation is below. We talked a lot. It was a great conversation.
*edited for space and clarity
Yellow Scene: Did that girl give you a joint on the way off the stage? She was hella slick about it, too.
Leilani Wolfgramm: Helll yeah.
YS: So, there’s a Patsy Cline record central to your formation. Your father worked at Disney doing…
LW: Yeah, that’s actually where my parents met.
YS: And that was one of your first shows, doing luau dancing.
LW: Yeah, when I was 7, I danced at Sea World. In Orlando, there are so many luau shows. So many Polynesian people go there just to do the shows. It’s a really big tourist thing. It’s tropical, there’s beaches.
YS: You all were put together as a group, the kids in your family…you have four brothers.
LW: Yeah, I have four brothers, but the first group we were in was called the Sunshine Kids and it was a dancing group where all the kids did all the singing and all the instrument playing and all the dancing. It was like a luau review show. I was like 3 years old. It was all age ranges, from 14 down to me. We had a lot of family living with us, like 2 or 3 families, like a lot of kids…
YS: So you released your EP, I Burn, in 2013 and released your debut album, Rebel, in 2014. Bipolar was slated in early 2017 but never came out. Live Wire is up next. When is it due out?
LW: The digital copies are the only ones out. It isn’t really actually released yet. The release date is supposed to be the 16th of February. I’m pretty positive it’s coming out cause we already have the cd’s. They’d be stupid not to release it. Anyone that gets one of these cd’s can just go and put it on the internet.
YS: Yeah, it’s gonna spread. Even here, we watched the crowd move from the back to the front as they got invested in what you were doing.
LW: Yeah, as the opener you know these people are not coming here for you. You have to like, fight for their attention.
YS: Genres outside of your own that influence you? You do a fusion genre already, mixing traditional Tongan influences, Reggae, R&B. For example, Empty is probably my favorite song. I felt like I was crying along with you cause I’m an emotional person. That’s serious R&B.
LW: Thank you! I had that concept and I was trying to explain it…
YS: I recall you designed that and your budget was so limited that you had to keep stopping.
LW: Yeah, our budget could only do my makeup once so it had to be perfect, so every time we would do it, unless it was perfect we just cut. They’d have to say ‘cut’. So when we got to that part and they didn’t say cut, and he started wiping away my face, I was like really crying because I was like, ‘did we get the take?’
YS: So, other influences that influence what you do? From outside your genre.
YS: I feel like I have to relisten to that and figure out if I agree *laughs* I figured you’d have vast influences, given your fusion sound and that Patsy Cline record.
LW: Yeah, I didn’t grow up listening to reggae. My parents didn’t listen to reggae. My brothers were the ones that got me into reggae. And that was later on. And it wasn’t like, the roots reggae. They were listening to Sublime and Slightly Stoopid.
YS: Long Beach Dub.
YS: And that’s a whole different animal. It’s reggae, but like, it’s vastly, wildly different.
LW: It’s like punk reggae.
YS: Right, like ska. Kids in the street kicking things and getting high and chilling. Like, once I broke down and this LBD band we were connected to came up to pick us up, called Bargain Music, and..
Leilani Wolfgramm: I LOVE BARGAIN MUSIC! I used to have one of their cd’s; it was just like a demo cd with marker on it..
YS: I think that’s the only one they ever put out.
LW: Yeah…probably. It’s the one everyone had.
YS: So, ok, I was wondering about this…3 years ago you went from singing Love is Ours to Empty. Then you went from singing Sunshine to Lightning, both forms of power and shine. Then you sang Bipolar.
YS: So are your songs biographical, cyclical, what’s the inspiration for what you’re creating?
LW: When I first started writing, I just wanted to write a song. You know, I wanted to know how to actually write a – can it have a beginning, middle, and end – song. Will it rhyme. It was that kinda basic. And then as I got older, I started writing about my life and the things that ‘ve been through, the questions I ask myself. Especially Live Wire. This new album is definitely about my life after I lost my dad.
YS: When did your dad pass?
LW: He passed away 8 years ago.
YS: That kind of sting never really goes away though.
LW: No…no. I used to have a really big drug problem and then I got clean…
YS: What kind of drugs?
LW: Heroin. And then…well, really, I did all the drugs, but heroin was my drug of choice. And then I got clean from that and I was going to school and going to college and doing really good and then when my dad died, I didn’t know how to cope with it so I went right back to heroin and my life went like *does topsy turvy hand motion*.
YS: That’s deep. That’s a lot to share. I appreciate your honesty.
[Editor’s note: if you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, seek help. It can be overcome with support and love. Go to http://bit.ly/SAMHSAline if you need assistance.]
LW: Yeah, a week deep.
YS: So let’s get a one week review!
YS: Any epic, stand out moments? Failures? Did you fall down?
LW: Yeah, actually, my guitar player fell down the stairs *she says while laughing* He has like a gnarly scar. He broke his glasses…
YS: In the first week? Gravity’s a mutha fu**a.
LW: *laughs* It’s the elevation I think. It’s just, we’ve partied. We went a little hard the first couple of days. So we gotta figure out how to pace ourselves. It’s been a while since I’ve done this long of a tour. Two weeks is what I’ve been used to doing.
YS: So, I think that it’s important to acknowledge that music is inherently political. Especially when you’re coming from, I would suggest, a non-traditional background. America can be easier if you look a certain way, dress a certain way, or sing Americana, whatever that looks like. How do you see the role of musicians in society, coming from your background?
LW: That’s a good question because right now I feel like there’s such an imbalance of musicians jobs. Now, what you’re hearing more is that feel good, party, dumb shit. Which is another part of music, because sometimes you need to …
YS: Lose yourself?
LW: Yeah, that’s part of how music heals. But if there’s an imbalance, there’s not enough of that conscious music. And like you said, right, you have a responsibility to be political. Or to say the thing. Or, aren’t you supposed to be the voice of the people? A voice of the people. So if you’re not, you’re doing a disservice to your art. It’s suffering. And that’s why I feel like so much popular music right now is like [whispers] so bad. So bad! I would say, even in my own genre. What is that, American reggae scene? Roots, rock, reggae scene, whatever. In my genre it’s still an imbalance. It’s a lot about smoking weed and having a good time, moving our bodies…
That’s a really big question because I ask that to myself. Like, when I did songs like Herbivore, it was a pressure to give the people what they want and that’s what’s trending in my scene, to give the people a bunch of songs about smoking weed. I feel like I said everything I needed to say with Herbivore. I don’t need to keep writing the same song over and over. I felt like I had a responsibility. Like, where’s my voice if I’m just doing something that I think they want from me? I’m not doing anything for myself, but I also do music for myself. It just wasn’t worth it. I went on two really long tours for Rebel and I was doing a lot of smoke weed songs, and I was just so unhappy. I was not happy on tour, I was not… like, every time I got off stage I was like, “that sucked, I hated it.” And I realized it was because I wasn’t being honest, saying the things I wanted to say; I was covering myself up.
LW: Nattali’s the shit. And yeah, you have to say the hard things, too, when you’re being political. You can’t say, or do a song that’s political, and still be politically correct. You’re saying the things you know everyone would agree with, those kinds of topics. Like, you gotta say the hard shit, and I think that that’s what I keep trying to bring out of myself. And I think for me it first came with being honest with myself, and looking within and seeing about myself, and telling the ugly sides to this life. Because for me, yeah, smoking weed is great, but do you also know that we’re out here on tour drinking our fucking balls off? *laughs* There’s other things…we’re trying to mask that by being like, herb is it. But what about all these fucking beers and all these other fucking drugs we’re doing too?
I think that, for my first step to being the kind of artist I want to be, is to be real with myself and write the dark parts of me too, and be vulnerable. When I first did Sinner, I was scared to death. I was at an American reggae festival and I did Sinner and I was scared to death that people would be like, ‘what the fuck was that?’ Pissed off. But everyone loved it. The response was awesome. People were feeling the same shit that I’m feeling, but we just don’t talk about it. Like sometimes you feel like a piece of shit.
YS: Speaking of shit and performances, tell me about when you had a bad performance…
LW: Tonight *laughs*
YS: Was that a bad performance? Everyone loved it. And this is a thing that all artists deal with, young artists starting out, you’ve been doing it for a few years so you may already know how to cope.
LW: Having a bad show. Oh man. You know, I still need to find ways to cope with it. I’m a work in progress, because, it’s really hard for me. I show my emotions. When something’s going on for me, it’s very hard for me to not emote that. I used to, if something went wrong, people could hear me from the back and in the front, just screaming angry. I think I’m better now.
YS: You think you’re better?
LW: *laughs* I think I’m better now. I’ll give you an example. I would be singing a song and I would look around and I would see someone laughing and I would think in my head, “that mutha fuckas laughing at me.” And then I want to look at them like, ‘is it funny? Is it fucking funny?” And then, right after the show, I talk, like they come up to me and they say how much they loved the show, buy a CD, and then whatever they were laughing about had nothing to do with me.
YS: You asked them though?
LW: Oh, sometimes, yeah, like, “dude, you seemed pretty distracted, doing a lot of talking and laughing.” *laughs* But no, I find out that it’s not what I thought it was. A lot of the things are just in my head. And it would cause me to have a bad show. So coming up with ways to, you know, just because they’re looking down at their phone, or they’re talking to somebody, or they’re not going like [does hilarious dance motion] doesn’t mean they’re not feeling it. So I’m a work in progress. That’s my answer.
[Insert 5 minute tangent about loving whiskey and bourbon, but not scotch, which means we can’t really be friends, but we can kick it. She loves a Crown straight with a water back. We can respect that.]
YS: You sang with a dude that was beatboxing and you were singing [See Whiskey Lullaby]. Was that freestyle or one of your songs? I really loved it. I downloaded it.
LW: Oh yeah, that was a freestyle.
YS: So [Edgar Acosta, YS friend], did you wanna ask any questions? You gonna sit here and chew gum all night?
EA: Well, I think he’s asked all the important questions.
LW: Yeah, it’s been a good interview.
EA: I’m interested to know, where do you find your passion at?
LW: For me, I am full on Scorpio. There’s another fucking story. *laughs* I thought I was a Libra. I was never into the stuff. Growing up I thought I was a Libra because the dates go from x date to x date. And then I talked to this astrologer, astrologist?, named Deborah, and she got specific with it. She asked, what date, and what time, what area, what hospital. She asked all these questions and she goes, ‘No, you are full on Scorpio.’ And like, whenever I would read the Libra stuff I’d be like, ‘pshht, this shit is so wrong, like this isn’t real.’ But then when I started reading the Scorpio stuff I was like, ‘oh yeah, that is fully me.’ So, apart of that is I keep secrets. I hide things. And I always, that’s so me, I always do that. I’ve done it since I was a little kid. I’m a secret keeper. And so it’s very hard to tell, to talk about my emotions. I’m getting a lot better at it. I think, therapeutically, writing Live Wire, that was mean talking about things I would never talk about. And I was able to do it in a song. Like, I can sing about it, and that helps me. I think that’s the passion that I have. It’s learning myself, and growing through this…what is it, this art, this process.
YS: So what’s next for Leilani Wolfgramm?
LF: Um, we’re gonna go to the next show…
LW: We’re gonna go to Denver.
YS: Oh yeah, you’re going to be in Englewood at the Gothic. It’s a great theater.
LW: Is it?
YS: Yeah, we reviewed the Lupe Fiasco show there with the Reminders. So, that’s it, that’s all I have. I could really get a bottle and talk music all night, but you all gotta do your thing, so thank you for having us. Good luck on tour and we look forward to seeing you blow up.
LW: Thank you. It was a really fun interview. Thanks for checking me out.
Show photos, courtesy of De La Vaca, for YS Magazine