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John Cruz is still connecting with audiences 25 years after 'Acoustic Soul' release

John Cruz official portrait
Mark Tarone
Courtesy John Cruz

John Cruz released his debut album "Acoustic Soul" 25 years ago. Back then, he was best known for being the brother of Ernie Cruz Jr. of the Ka’au Crater Boys, one of the most popular local music groups in the 1990s. But with the release of "Acoustic Soul" in 1996, his career took off. He won two Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards and the album went on to become one of the best-selling Hawaiian records of all time.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the release, Cruz will be performing a handful of concerts across the islands over the next month. He took time from rehearsals to reminisce with The Conversation.


RUSSELL SUBIONO: When you were writing and recording the songs, did you have any idea that it would make the impact that it did?

JOHN CRUZ: Well, actually, I had an idea because before the songs were even recorded, I had been playing with my brother's band Ka’au Crater Boys. So when I got back from the mainland, I instantly jumped into their band, and they were one of the biggest bands at the time. So I had been singing a handful of these songs in concert in front of people who were interested in Hawaiian music, getting positive responses, especially with "Island Style." That song was like an instant hit even before it was recorded, just from playing it live. So I knew the song was special already in people's minds and in hearts. As long as I didn't screw it up when I recorded it, you know. I had already been playing those songs live. So I had a feeling that at least the songs were connecting.

SUBIONO: I know that you grew up on Oʻahu in a very musically inclined family. I think I remember reading in your liner notes that you had spent some time on the East Coast, playing gigs in places like Martha's Vineyard all the way on the other side of the country before coming home to record "Acoustic Soul." What kind of influence do you think your exposure to other parts of the world and other types of music had on your own musical style?

CRUZ: Oh, huge. It had a huge, I mean, that's the reason why I went to the East Coast. My intention was heading to New York, because that's where it all — all that music that I used to dream about playing and dream about seeing, you know, all these bands and stuff. I knew they were there. And so when I got there, I started playing in blues bands. I played in reggae bands. I played in any kind of bands that I could possibly get into, I would just play and try to immerse myself in the scene. I was just soaking it up.

ProArts Maui - DSC02978-2021-12-10 - Photo_ Mark Tarone.jpg JOHN CRUZ
Mark Tarone
Courtesy John Cruz
John Cruz at ProArts Maui

SUBIONO: I noticed that some of your music has a pretty strong Motown influence as well. Was that some of the music you listen to growing up? Yeah, for

CRUZ: Yeah, for sure. Well, my dad was a country singer. So I grew up listening to country and playing and singing country music. And my mom was into Motown and a lot of that R&B stuff. So it was like second nature. As far as those early influences, you know, there was always a record spinning at my house, you know, there was always an album or a single. Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, all that stuff was constantly being spun at home. That and of course, you know, Casey Kasem, Top 40 stuff. And in Hawaiʻi, there wasn't that much of it being played live. I noticed that when I was growing up and started to get around and see live music, there wasn't much of an original music scene at all really. I mean, it was one club, Anna Bannana's was the only club that really encouraged people to play original music. So that was sort of a little mecca, you know, where I would go and just check out bands playing their own stuff. That was wild to me because a lot of the musicians who I knew who were working musicians all played in cover bands in Waikīkī — either covering Top 40 stuff or playing Hawaiian music. And as much as I love that, I wanted to learn something a little more. And that's what led me to get as far away from this place as I could possibly get.

SUBIONO: How was your musical style received by your family when "Acoustic Soul" came out, and when they were able to kind of hear how unique your sound was?

CRUZ: I was up there for about 13 years, but I'd always come home, you know. When I'd come home, we'd always be jamming at some family party or something like that. And so it was already coming out. And yeah, they totally supported it. I remember when Sade's album, that first song "Smooth Operator" came out. I got a call from my sister Desiree when I was up there in college. She was like, "Oh my God John, there's somebody on the radio that stole your sound. That 'Smooth Operator' song, it sounds like your kind of style." And remember, when that came, there was nothing like it on the radio. But it was that sort of influence of a soul, little Caribbean-style rhythms and pop. And so that was a little bright spot in the whole Top 40 thing. I said, "Oh, wow, maybe there's a chance at something."

john cruz kim taylor reece
Kim Taylor Reece
Courtesy John Cruz
John Cruz at Ossipoff's Cabin on Oʻahu

SUBIONO: Probably the most beloved song on your album "Acoustic Soul," certainly your most-streamed song, is "Island Style." For a song that describes what it's like to live in Hawaiʻi, you could have sung about going to the beach or hanging out with friends or going to lūʻaus. But you included lines about helping your grandma clean her yard. What led you to write those lyrics?

CRUZ: Well, I started writing it when I was still living in New York, just missing home, you know. And my brother Ernie used to send me all the latest music. When a Hawaiʻi band would come out with something, he would send me a cassette tape. And, you know, I would be anticipating this because he would be saying like, "Oh, you remember so and so guys? Just came out with a new album, it's pretty good, blah, blah, blah, it's getting played on the radio." And so I'd be anticipating it and I always kind of would be, not disappointed, but in one sense, it sort of supported my reason for leaving in the first place in that, the music didn't seem like there was anything new being injected into the music in Hawaiʻi, except the Jawaiian stuff. You know, reggae was a huge influence. So the song was — when thinking about what do I really miss about Hawaiʻi? And at the same time, what was I expecting to hear, you know, when he sends me something? And so that first verse, "Mama's in the kitchen..." and "On the island, we do it island style..." came right out. And I just had that for a little while. Now when I came home, finish the song that was just another thing. You know, just thinking about what in particular, for me, is Hawaiʻi? What does Hawaiʻi mean? When you're living on the East Coast, you hear, "You're from Hawaiʻi, what are you doing here? It's so beautiful there. Don't you miss it? Don't you miss the beaches?" Kind of, you know what I mean? We've had that all our lives, we know it's always gonna be here. As far as the grandma verse, it was just something that was very particular to me that just said Hawaiʻi, at least my Hawaiʻi. We all have our own experiences. But that was a classic — because a few periods of my young childhood we lived with my grandma, my mom, and my brothers and sisters, you know, in transition periods and stuff. So it was always like, "Ey! Go help your grandma clean yard!" Instead of like watching cartoons Saturday morning. So that's where that came from.

SUBIONO: Yeah, I love it. It's my favorite line, just because I had the same experience spending time with my grandma and her yard. One of the other songs on "Acoustic Soul," "Kawailehua'a'alakahonua" is your only Hawaiian language song on the album. Can you talk about why you decided to record and include that specific song?

CRUZ: Growing up, we never sang that much Hawaiian music. Like I have friends who are Hawaiian who, you know, local kids who that's all they listened to was KCCN. I mean, you went to their house, that's all you ever heard was Hawaiian music, you know, any records that were on with just Hawaiian music. And our house wasn't like that. You know, I wanted to include a song that was a Hawaiian language song. And in thinking about what song I could record, it was like, I think I know all the words to that one. Besides that, I remember when Frank Hewitt, who wrote the song, he received the Nā Hōkū Hanohano for Song of the Year for that song. And it was on the Cazimero Brother's first album when they left The Sunday Manoa and did their first album as a group. I just remember him going up and receiving the award because it goes to the writer. And it was just a cool moment for me to look back on. We're musicians, so we're always watching the Hōkū awards, you know, since they first started, kind of anticipating, who's gonna win, whatnot. And I just remember it was a beautiful moment, and I just loved his energy, whenever I'd see anything about it. So that made the song even more special for me to be able to sing.

SUBIONO: It's a great song, and you do such a great rendition of it. It's one of my favorite tracks on the album. Your manager Mark Tarone has said that "Acoustic Soul" is a statement of your core values and a quest to inspire Hawaiians and people of Hawaiʻi to see what we can achieve when we commit to being true to ourselves, and not settling for simply good enough. Has the message you set out to share when you first recorded "Acoustic Soul," is it still the same? Or has it evolved over time?

CRUZ: It's mostly kind of stayed the same. You know, fortunately, you know, music is a big part of my life, and I'm able to do it in a way that connects with people. And I've found that whenever I'm playing music that I'm playing for other reasons or whatever, you know, it never connects as much as I want it to. But when I'm playing stuff that connects with me, it seems to connect with people. So just trying to be honest lyrically, first off because that's one of the main things, and then musically. Even when I've chosen to do cover songs — even when I'm playing live, because when you're playing in bars you're always trying to think clubs want you to play some of the latest — not they want you to play it, but it's sort of like inferred, you know what I mean — and then you kind of feel like you have to because people's attention spans can be fleeting. But no matter what it is, whether it's a song I wrote or a song that someone else wrote and sang, I just try to get into the song and come at it from me, as opposed to just think of it as a song that everybody knows or something. Because if I try to play it like it's supposed to be, I'm not gonna get it anyway. So I might as well go all-in with myself because that seems to be the most honest way of doing it. I think people can sense the sincerity of someone doing their thing, so it's been working so far.

Cruz will be at Kahilu Theatre on Hawaiʻi Island on May 28; ProArts on Maui on June 8, 15 and 22; and Blue Note Hawaiʻi on Oʻahu on June 25 and 26. Click here for information about his upcoming shows.

This interview aired on The Conversation on May 26, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Russell Subiono is the executive producer of The Conversation. Born in Honolulu and raised on Hawaiʻi Island, he’s spent the last decade working in local film, television and radio. Contact him at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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