Isabeau Waia’u Walker: it is so different now

seed in the wind

Oh my anger, she is tired, she is worn down
She was my bloodline, even a lifeline
Waiting has bled her out
In her place, there is sadness
In her stead, only madness
Oh my anger, she is tired, she is worn down

from the song, “Hymn by Her,” on “Better Metric” (2020), by Isabeau Waia’u Walker
Photo of Isabeau Waia'u Walker
Isabeau Waia’u Walker (Photo by Cara Denison, used by permission)

Record: Better Metric (2020)

The EP today functions, in some respects, much like a collection of short stories, loosely linked by moods and introspections rather than by a single, overarching theme. It’s a space for contrasts and rehearsals. “Better Metric” (self released, 2020), the debut EP by Oregon-based musician Isabeau Waia’u Walker, is just such an exploration. In these six gentle songs, there’s a personal revealing — the natural reward for any short collection, songs held together by their fragility, blended into one by an outpouring of hope and longing. Waia’u Walker bravely explores her deeply personal spaces of heartache and loneliness, her boundaries and, at times, the confusing identities that have propelled her life up to now.

Recently, The Palace had an opportunity to speak with Waia’u Walker about her growing up on Maui, the second largest of the Hawaiian Islands, and worlds away from where she lives and works today. Now based in Oregon City along the Willamette River, a metropolitan area south of Portland, Waia’u Walker speaks of her “hapa haole adolescence,” a term that once was considered derogatory, applied as it was to someone of mixed race — part Pacific Islander, part… someone else. Waia’u Walker reclaims this identity for herself as a source of strength and pride.

Following a period touring with Portland-based Y La Bamba, the Indie experimental band led by Luz Elena Mendoza, Waia’u Walker decided to make a stand as a recording artist, “delving into the dirt and the treasure,” as she writes about her life, her easy songwriting, searching for her ordinary joy — navigating confusion, uncertainty, pride, her occasional feelings of loss, and the hidden rewards of all her years of wandering, searching for home. Producer Ryan Oxford (The Center for Light, Sound and Color Therapy) joined Waia’u Walker to complete this project earlier this year, which should have resulted in a vinyl release and a tour just as the pandemic was spooling up to shut her tour down.

The result is a brave new EP full of tentative first steps — lyrical, tender, and honest. These new songs resonate much as these days do, the vast unknowns piling up that we’re all being forced to live through now. This release is one artist’s journal of traveling through multiple worlds searching for ways to link her past to her present in a time when nothing will ever be the same again.

The interview

I was struck by your use of the term “hapa haole” in your press materials when you talk about yourself as a recording artist, and about your new EP, “Better Metric.” My understanding of that term, historically, means someone is half Hawaiian and half white, or “half foreigner.” I’ve always thought of “haole” as something of a derogatory term. I really want to know more about that, about your use of that term, if it’s not considered rude to ask.

Isabeau Waia’u Walker:
No, no, my mind is kind of whirling about where to start. You’re right, that term, overall in my life, is not one that I’ve wanted to be told that I am. It’s a term that definitely has a negative history. And even though people who are considered white are not historically the only non-natives in the islands, that term is definitely reserved for white people — foreigners — in Hawaii.

I’ve gone back and forth with it, especially as a child, where depending on who used it and how they used it, it could in some ways be used as a practical identifier, where there wasn’t really any negative, painful sting to it. Depending on how it was used, the context of it, said whether you were being insulted or just identified.

It wasn’t always like a derogatory term. If, say, someone was telling us as children to line up and they said, “Hey Isabeau, go stand next to the Japanese girl,” or they might say to the Japanese girl, “You go stand next to the haole girl,” I heard it used in those ways when I was growing up. As children, we knew those things and understood them by what each other looked like.

But I also heard it yelled at us, yelled at my mom. Like, I’m mixed — initially I started off feeling embarrassment, not wanting to be associated with it, but my skin gives me away. And I’m definitely the fairest of the Waia’u kids, so there was a lot of hiding, trying to find things that connected me to being Hawaiian. Is my hair Hawaiian enough? Are my legs, my butt, my hips, my nose, do I talk right — I was always trying to find ways that could give physical proof that I belonged in one of those camps.

But the older I got, the more I felt it was a betrayal to my mom, to who I am. I’m all these things. I’m neither of them, absolutely. So, to claim one side, and to fight and pursue being one thing and not loving where I’ve come from, this other side, was a betrayal. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve wanted to understand why I’ve felt a certain way about people. So, talking about racism with my parents was important, talking about the roots of it — and also power, and the difference between regions where you live, and who has the power and who gets to set the rules.

So, to get back to your question about my press materials, and me referring to myself as “hapa Haole” — I got this book, a photo book, when I was in grad school. It was a completion of portraits a female photographer had taken of over 100 individuals who considered themselves “hapa.” Initially, the “hapa” term was referring to someone of Asian descent mixed with something else.

Seeing all these photos of people of different ages and genders, some conventionally beautiful, or not. Each person wrote their own excerpt about who they were, who they identify with. Together, they were all mixed — they were all “hapa.” That book wasn’t my only turning point, but I realized I’m “hapa,” I’m both, and I would prefer to be able to announce that myself and be both. Be each side — not completely one or the other. To not have to defend myself to every side, to every person. I wasted a lot of time doing that.

GP:
I think racism is tearing the world and our country apart because we can’t seem to get past it, and we can’t seem to deal with it in a healing way. I think it’s interesting when artists deal directly with race. It also feels like there’s a sadness in your songwriting right now, in some of these new songs on your EP, like you’re trying to work through some of the weight you’ve been carrying, through the exercise of songwriting.

IWW:
Yeah, even the way you phrase it — this EP being an exercise. I didn’t initially compile these songs together. I mean, I didn’t write them all together, to be specific tracks on this specific EP. These songs came out of a group of years where I was much more conscious that there were some big shifts being made in my life — I wanted them and I wasn’t afraid of them.

My family is very communicative, so growing up we talked about a lot of these things. My brain knew one thing, but in practice — in my friendships and in my relationships and work — it was really hard to flesh it all out because I was so disappointed feeling like I didn’t, or couldn’t, really fit anywhere. I mean, I’m sure that’s like a universal human condition.

In the first track on “Better Metric,” “Woman,” I talk about being a “late bloomer.” I’ve kind of gone back and forth with that idea. I had a friend who kind of resisted that term because it feels like you did something wrong, and because of that you’re late to the party, kind of thing. I actually meant for this song to be heard in more of a loving, compassionate way.

I feel very kindly towards my younger self now — and patient with her, because I know exactly what she was navigating in her circumstances, family, and community. Trying to figure out where I fit, if I wanted to fit. What I was taught about family. What I was taught about culture, faith, and spirituality. What I was taught about what it means to be a woman.

All the pieces, good and bad, I started scratching at them quite a bit. Like a scab, it starts to get itchy around the edges. And you pick at it. I realized I had to rip open a lot of those things, which is terrifying to me because those things I started ripping at had been very foundational pieces to who I am. So, there was this fear that if I unstitch this portion, what’s to keep it all from unraveling. And if I unravel something that once connected me to a cultural group, or to family, or to a belief, then I’m going to undo myself from those things — and do I want that? Do I want to deconstruct some of these things?

And I said, “Yes, please!” I no longer want to be anyone else. I really want to be me. And to do that, I’m going to have to maybe challenge some of the things I’ve considered part of me for a long time. Things I’ve wrestled with, things that haven’t felt as familiar as they should have been. Or maybe they just weren’t true.

It feels both weighty, but it also feels like a relief. These songs, where I take a breath — I don’t have all the answers yet, but just knowing that I didn’t completely disintegrate and disappear, even when some of those things started to get picked at.

Photo of Isabeau Waia'u Walker
Isabeau Waia’u Walker (Photo by Cara Denison, used by permission)

I heard the opening track in a positive way, as a kind of quiet invocation of your journey. The rest of the songs add depth and highlights as you move through your EP, and all your songs work together. So, you live in Oregon, you record there, but your press materials are filled with Hawaiian images. At first, I thought you lived and worked in Hawaii! The imagery is very… Pacific Islander. Do you want your fans to connect to that vibe, more so than connecting with your Oregon Indie-music scene, which you’ve been a part of for a while now? Can you help me with this? [Laughs]

IWW:
[Laughs] I struggled so much with this. It was challenging putting together my press stuff. The imagery you see now was even stronger in the first draft, what you call the “Pacific Islander” setting. I had been home with my family half of December and into January.

I realized that I didn’t really know how to, in words, articulate to anyone what I felt about this record. I don’t hate the imagery from the island concept, and I don’t hate the imagery from the Pacific Northwest Indie scene. I like both. But neither side has felt like me. If I neglect the Hawaiian part of my story, it wouldn’t feel complete either because I don’t feel like I fit completely. I’m trying to figure that out.

GP:
“Better Metric” feels like one artist’s way to explore what it feels like to come from two very different cultures, with different perspectives — to have them be blended within one person very deeply, and then as an artist being challenged to extract what’s most important. I hear this record as a beginning for you, not as a destination.

IWW:
It makes me think of when I first came here for my school. I was probably a month into school, and I was wearing flannel to class and a friend saw me and came outside and was like, “Wow, Isabeau, looking really Pacific Northwest!” [Laughs] And at that point, in my story, when I was processing — I remember going back to my dorm and changing.

Now, a lot has changed since then. But then, I remember thinking I don’t look Hawaiian enough for that to be a dead giveaway, but I couldn’t be dressing like a “mainlander.” I had to make sure people know that I’m different! I’ve talked to my younger sister about this — even with my parents — I don’t know how to do it fully.

I definitely have waves of regret or insecurity. But I really wanted to see what it would look like for me to be a Hawaiian artist who sings my songs. Like, I want to be able to sing for my aunties and uncles back home in Hawaii, even when they say, “Oh, but that doesn’t sound like local-style Hawaiian music.”

For me, you know, it’s Hawaiian because I’m singing it! I’m Hawaiian. It comes out different, like I don’t sing the same songs my cousins do — their music is beautiful, and I love it. But when I put pen to paper it comes out different. When I would lament being so white and haole, my dad would always be like, “No, you’re Hawaiian.” And I’d be like, “I know, but I don’t look it, and I don’t always sound like it, and he’d say, “You’re Hawaiian because you’re Hawaiian!” [Laughs]

So “Better Metric” is kind of like a test run. [Laughs] Now I dress however I like. Sometimes I’m wearing clothes that friends back home would be like, “Yeah, local girl!” And other days — I know because they tell me — you dress super weird, more Portland, and I’m like, “I know!” Because it’s me. And this music is going to be Hawaiian music because… I’m Hawaiian!

You put all the inputs in, and when it comes out, it comes out like this! In my own weird way. [Laughs] I wanted to test run… me being enough.

photo of a tropical flower

photo credits (where not otherwise credited)

“seed” / by Goldengel on Adobe Stock
“flower” / by Papuchalka on Shutterstock

brick wall with Goat Palace logo