kina grannis stairwells review

Can Kina Grannis heal your soul?

Mark Fisher music reviews Kina Grannis' Stairwells

[rating: 4.5/5] (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

Release date: Feb 23rd, 2010

Label: Independent

Members: Kina Grannis

Standout Songs In Your Arms Message From You Heart Heart And Mind Stay Just A Little

Can Kina Grannis heal your soul?  That may be a slight stretch but if the first full-length album from this Southern California singer/songwriter doesn’t at least stir some emotion and break through that hard shell of yours you’re probably beyond saving.

[Quick update: Amazing article on Kina and her recent release party done by the OC Register.  Read it here: Kina Grannis' music deal is with her fans]

You may remember Kina Grannis from her internet fame as the “Gotta Digg” siren or the winner of Doritos’ “Crash The Superbowl” contest several years back (when it was still a good idea rather than this year’s horrible submit-your-own-commercial disaster).  Disclaimer: I didn't, and thankfully so, because her talent far outshines those platforms.  And rather than using those platforms to immediately capitalize on short-term pop-ularity she has been spending the past two years smartly building a massive internet following, staying true to her own musical direction, and crafting her independently produced gem, Stairwells.

Named as a self-proclaimed tribute to the college refuges where she began to discover her voice and artistic confidence, Stairwells is at times innocently sweet and at times longingly sad.  The one constant throughout is Kina’s voice – a pure, breath-taking instrument that has the ability to convey every ounce of raw emotion that wells up from within her and shake you into taking notice.

The album’s first song, "World In Front of Me," immediately lets you know what’s in store: beautiful vocals that climb up and down through falsettos and warm mid-range, cracker-jack harmonies (you know she just hears them in her head sooooo easily), bright guitars, and sparse but well-crafted instrumentation (cellos, violins, pianos…even the random glockenspiel).  And really, what’s an album sans glock? She builds upon this strong opening with "In Your Arms," "Strong Enough," and "The Goldfish Song," all beautifully crafted melodies with great hooks.

"In Your Arms" (disclaimer: my favorite) blends wonderful acoustic guitar with rising and falling strings all against a rich lyrical backdrop of the spark of new romance.  "Strong Enough" follows, and it's an up-tempo, more powerful plea to stay emotionally true with both yourself and others.  This song shows off Kina's vocal strength (as Randy Jackson would say, she can definitely blow) and her ability to craft hook-worthy melodies that stick with you long after the song ends.  The interestingly titled "Goldfish Song" (no, it's not a children's song) follows and the title belies the serious subject matter it deals with -- having the courage and the strength to change yourself in the face of adversity.  The song blends wonderful pulsing drums in the chorus with well-crafted harmonies that carry the song and deliver the subject matter with skill.

The album continues with emotionally charged gems like "Heart And Mind," a song about letting go of the safety of our own shells, and "Stay Just A Little," a brutally honest trip through the sorrow of lost love.  "Stay" just might be the vocal highlight of the album, with Kina's voice so pure and honest that it will almost startle you with its emotional power.  She wisely chooses to let her voice be the centerpiece here, accompanied only by gentle piano and guitar.  Long-time fans will be excited that she included "Message From Your Heart," the song that put her on the map, although she mixes things up slightly by adding in some additional drums and vocals to give the song new life.  Because her voice is so captivating it is easy to lose sight of her skill as a guitar player and songwriter, both of which are impressively demonstrated here.

In my opinion, there are only a few missteps on the album.  Her use of 80’s style synthesized background vocals on Stars Falling Down turns what could be a mature, warm ballad into a semi-syrupy pop tune that overshadows the subject matter (for contrast check out my preferred, stripped-down version here), but that's just personal preference.  And the final song on the album, "Mr. Sun," doesn’t quite convey the depth that you know she’s already capable of.  Die-hard fans probably would have liked to see something in its place like “People” or “Living In Dreams,” both from previous EP’s.  However, these are both only very minor hiccups on an otherwise extraordinarily impressive debut that weaves together themes of love, personal growth, introspection, and presence.

The portrait that emerges – and that Kina Grannis skillfully paints – is one of a budding artist who is discovering not only her own voice but also how much potential she truly has.  Kina Grannis the artist unfolds over the course of these 14 songs as someone who has the craft and the emotional awareness to deliver honest, powerful music.  It’s clear that many of these songs are intensely personal and reflect both her relationships and her struggles.  But whether she’s singing about her love, her pain, or her desires, the beauty of Kina’s emotional honesty and vocal delivery is that the songs take on a personal meaning for the listener, as well.  It’s quite easy to travel back and forth throughout your own life experiences while listening to her melodies and lyrics, lost in the memory of a first kiss, a sad goodbye, or the anticipation of a new journey, and all the while you feel lucky to have been reminded. What does that all mean?  It means that Kina Grannis already achieves what some artists never find – the ability to reach out and connect with audiences, speaking directly to their own experience.  It makes her relevant and powerful as a musician and an artist.

In "The Goldfish Song" she painfully sings, “this matter is mine, I will be fine” while reflecting on the desire to be strong enough to change parts of herself (to which we can all relate).  What the future will bring for Kina Grannis is undetermined but you get the distinct impression that not only will she be "fine" but also that she will have the emotional capacity to handle the twists and turns of life and the musical artistry to bring us along on her journey.  We’re the lucky ones.

Stairwells is available on iTunes and through her website www.kinagrannis.com.  Go buy it stat, you’ll thank me….one day.  Maybe by buying me a cup of coffee…or by letting me merge in traffic…or by not crowding me on an airplane.  Something like that  :)  Peace - Mark