The multi-instrumentalist gets candid on his new album, creating influential music and the Black Lives Matter movement.
If Alex Aiono is writing the gospel, we should all be reading. The singer-songwriter, podcast host and actor has just released two new singles and his debut album. Aiono is also starring in Netflix’s upcoming feature film, Finding Ohana. However, we shouldn’t find the dizzying set of accomplishments all that surprising for this talented 24-year-old. It’s just what happens when you spend years saying “Yes”. Aiono remembers his early years after moving to Los Angeles going after every opportunity given to him. Now that hard work has paid off and Alex Aiono is someone to watch.
We sat down with Alex Aiono (via Zoom – thanks to quarantine), to catch up with everything he’s been up to and what he is planning next. What is instantly clear about Aiono is that he is an artist that is always listening to the world around him. He channels the frustration with people being tone-deaf by using his platform to help, whether it be the LGBTQ+ community to the Black Lives Matter movement. Aiono admits that the journey to get to where he is now in his career and to look at the world with openness required a commitment to personal growth. Lucky for fans, this raw self-discovery has found an opportunity for expression in his new album, The Gospel at 23. There is a clear intentionality behind all of Aiono’s work, regardless of what genre he’s using, to offer himself up as an example of the benefits of steadily allowing ourselves to grow. We should all get used to seeing Aiono. His infectious positivity and multi-faceted talent means that when we turn on the TV or try to find a podcast or open a music streaming app, Alex Aiono will be there, ready to share more of himself with us.
How has quarantine been for you? It seems like quarantine has thrown everyone’s plans and projects off, so what have you been doing with your time the last few months?
Yeah. I mean, I actually had this conversation with my roommates last night. Thinking back on this time that we’ve had during quarantine, I’ve made big transformations in my health and my fitness and the way that my body looks and feels. We’ve planted a garden in our backyard that’s now flourishing. I posted a picture of this cucumber that’s the biggest cucumber I’ve ever seen, it was massive. I’ve built shelves in some floating shelves and made my room feel more like who I am. And I’ve also been able to prep for the release of this album (July 24th), which feels so good.
Has quarantine changed the way you look at the world or given you time to realize things you hadn’t noticed before?
My voice internally as an equal rights advocate and activist for so many causes has had a fire lit under it, like it’s been more activated. It’s given me more of a sense of purpose. I’m also very aware of the reality of quarantine – the shutting down of businesses and the massive hit that we’ve taken to the economy. I try to be aware and make sure that I’m not being tone-deaf or insensitive to what’s actually going on in the world when I am talking about my quarantine experience. But it is also the reason that I’ve felt more inspired and my passion to speak out about things being unfair. I want to be a light in every opportunity that I can be.
Does your creative process change when you’re acting versus making music? Were there new things that you had to do to prepare yourself for this role?
It’s definitely different from writing music. When I wrote The Gospel at 23, I had to be the most unfiltered, raw version of me, of Martin Alexander Aiono. I had to channel and listen to myself more than anything else and that’s why the album means so much to me. With acting, I had to associate so much, because the role I play is not me. I had to associate feelings that I have felt in real life and place them in other scenarios. For example, I love all three of my sisters more than anything. They’re my favorite people on Earth. But there have been moments that I want to murder all three of my sisters because they stole my stuff or whatever. So I had to take those tiny moments and expand them for scenes that required those types of feelings. But, you know, being somebody else is something that I think a lot of us do, even subconsciously. On social media, we portray ourselves as a different type of person, which means deviating from the person we are naturally. For me, that’s what was different about acting, committing fully to being this other person.
Right now as we’re talking, you have a single coming out, then an album and then an upcoming film. With all these accomplishments under your belt, what is next up in terms of things that you want to achieve in the next few years?
I’m really excited about my podcast, which we just released two weeks ago. But while it’s something that I love to do, it’s not necessarily the front runner since my goal in life is not to just be a podcast host. I’m lucky that I get to do so many things – acting, singing and hosting. I get to be a part of businesses and I get to work as an actual executive and help startup companies. I try to come up with ways that I can be more charitable and I can donate more to my community and communities that I think need help or support. But those three – the podcast, acting and music – they all feed and connect to each other, like this triangle that lets people know exactly who I am. So I hope that all three can grow together. At the end of the day, I see myself as a human being who likes sharing pieces of myself that hopefully other people can relate to. So, fingers crossed for the next few years that just continues to build and there are even more opportunities to speak to people with what I’m doing.
If you could speak directly to anyone reading this right now, what would you most want to say?
I think Wonderland is a strong platform that speaks to the younger generations. And especially with this year having an election coming up, I think it’s so important to continue enforcing this concept that we need to vote. I heard somewhere that this age demographic of eighteen to twenty-four is more than it’s ever been. I think that regardless of how boring or mundane voting seems it’s actually so necessary. And so if I say anything else I just want to implore anybody reading this to go out and vote. I’m not gonna tell you who to vote for. Trust your morals. Trust your ethics. Really learn what these candidates and what these policies that you’re going to vote for or against stand for. I have a feeling that if everybody votes for what their heart tells them to vote for, who their heart tells them to vote for, it will be a big step towards making a real change in our world.
Have you found trying to create music and continue business as usual more difficult considering all the uncertainty and current climate?
I think the biggest challenge has been how to make this album, which we’ve had locked and loaded for a while now, become more impactful than we initially planned. I think right now that’s the important question that I consistently ask myself. How can I make more of an impact? How can I help the things that need support right now with my work? I want the aspects of this album – tones, lyrics, songs – to relate to the way the world was when it was made. I hope I can always look back at when this album was released and feel like it contributed something positive.
You speak a lot about taking time out to consider how your work and what you’re doing is relevant to others. I remember seeing on your Instagram that you were using your platform to support Pride and raise awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement. Where does your passion for activism come from? What inspired you to use your platforms to elevate and amplify unheard voices?
I think the way I was raised, because it was a unique upbringing, has made me want to be an activist. I am the son of an immigrant father who came to the United States with the family, you know, who came to the United States on a dollar and a dream, it was really the American dream that they came for. My dad’s family came here with a belief that you can come to America and be anything you want to be and make yourself anything you want to become. And hearing his stories as a kid of his mother scraping to support a family of ten children was really powerful. My parents have always taught me that I stand up for what’s right. I love everybody, regardless of how they choose to live their life, how they choose to love people, how they identify themselves. These are things that my parents taught me. It’s become this – this beautiful worldview that I’m very lucky to have that makes me feel like I cannot sit still and accept all the privileges that I have without truly fighting for people that I love who are being bullied. Those are some of the biggest things that I learned as a kid and have kept with me to this day.
How do you feel that maybe this album or just your music generally fits in with those goals or into that dialog? How does trying to advocate for others and be open in general influence your writing and the way you make music?
I think one of the biggest things I identified by making this album is that to really make a change in the world, you have to start with yourself. You have to be the change that you want to see. This album started off, especially in its writing, with me addressing things that I haven’t addressed in my life with myself, my fans, my family and even my culture and religious upbringing, all these things. I never addressed them. They weren’t just things that I had never said in a song, but some of these discoveries I had to dig deep to find and pull out of myself. And I think that that’s what this album really is. It’s called The Gospel at 23 because I wrote all these songs when I was 23. So this is almost a year ago that a lot of these thoughts and feelings really happened. And because I started with my own change and worked on self-acceptance, some of these songs have really developed new meanings since I wrote them.
Does your single being released ahead of the album, “Good Morning”, reflect that honesty you’re trying to capture?
“Good Morning” isn’t just a song about me waking myself up and telling myself today’s going to be a good day if I make it one. It’s talking to the world and saying today is our opportunity to make a change. This song and this album speaks to that because it represents my starting with myself to make a larger change. The reviews that I’ve gotten from friends and family who have listened to the whole album have been positive and have been picking up on the message I was trying to convey. I’m crossing my fingers that as more people listen to the album that they also get the message and feel moved to either improve themselves or the world around them.
I remember scrolling through your YouTube channel, which you’ve had and has been growing for years now, and being struck by the incredible diversity of artists and genres of songs you make videos covering. Given that you seem to listen to such a wide variety of sound, who do you consider to be your biggest musical influences?
I look at Stevie Wonder because he’s exactly what I said in my last answer. Like his song “Love’s in Need of Love Today”, it’s insane how you can listen to that song today and it still has so much meaning. I don’t know his creative process on things like that, but I identify with the heart he uses to make music and that he started with being the change that he wanted to see. I also look at Alicia Keys, John Legend, even going back further to Luther Vandross and D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill. So many artists that really poured their hearts out. They all had music that I listened to as a kid and even now I identify with the concept that regardless of what the world tells you, you have to trust yourself and go for it. And I think a lot of artists are doing that today – Jon Belian, even Roddy Ricch and DaBaby. If you listen to their lyrics, even though some of them just seem hype, they are really conscious of what they’re saying and trying to tell their story authentically.
You’ve obviously always been very musical, with singing and songwriting and playing instruments from a young age. But now you have your first feature film, Finding Ohana directed by Jude Weng, set to release on Netflix. Is acting a newer passion of yours or has it been a dream of yours as long as being a musician has?
Just because this is Wonderland I’m gonna give you the full story. When I first came out to Los Angeles, I was the yes-man, people probably thought my name was yes because I would say yes to everything. I remember people being like, “Oh, can you sing?” I’ll be like, “Yes.” “Can you play instruments?” “Yes.” “Can you dance?” “Yes.” “Can you act?” “Yes.” So acting was one of those things. I remember as a fifteen and sixteen-year-old going in for audition after audition, but getting very few callbacks and booking virtually nothing. I’ll be a hundred honest with you, it was very disheartening. It made me feel like I should focus on my music and then once I’m at a certain level I can use my success as a musician to help me get into movies so I could develop as an actor and prove that I could do it. But it really wasn’t until recently, and I give mad love to my current acting agent Peter DeSantis. He just said, “Trust me. I’ll get you in the right rooms. Let’s do this thing.” And that helped to restore my confidence, and the same with my management. And I remember being told, “You’re not a bad actor if you don’t get a role. It’s like just the role wasn’t for you.” That idea never really stuck with me until I booked a role and I was like, “Oh my gosh. Yeah. This role was just for me. It makes sense now.”
What about that role of Ioane in Finding Ohana when you got the script made you want to sign on for this project as your first feature film?
In my mind it was like, “A movie? Netflix? Yeah!” That was my thought process. But as I did it, I learned so much about acting and being in a film in general working because of Jude Weng, who I will forever have in my heart and will never not want to work with. I also learned so much from working with amazing producers, Ian Bryce and JJ Hook, and the opportunity overall to work with very talented and very experienced people. It was such a pleasure and such a blessing to me that the first movie I get to be a part of is with this beautiful team. And then that’s not even diving into the role. The role that I play has quite the character arc. He starts with a lack of appreciation for his culture, but through this series of adventures he finds an appreciation not only for that, but for his family, for the connections that he has in his life. There was nothing more interesting to me than playing that. And what I took from it was even appreciating my own culture more as well as appreciating the other cultures of the places we filmed: Hawai’i and Thailand. Getting to take time to really experience and think to myself, “How do I identify with my culture?” was very meaningful on a personal note by working on this film.
Does your creative process change when you’re acting versus making music? Were there new things that you had to do to prepare yourself for this role?
Alex: It’s definitely different from writing music. When I wrote The Gospel at 23, I had to be the most unfiltered, raw version of me, of Martin Alexander Aiono. I had to channel and listen to myself more than anything else and that’s why the album means so much to me. With acting, I had to associate so much, because the role I play is not me. I had to associate feelings that I have felt in real life and place them in other scenarios. For example, I love all three of my sisters more than anything. They’re my favorite people on Earth. But there have been moments that I want to murder all three of my sisters because they stole my stuff or whatever. So I had to take those tiny moments and expand them for scenes that required those types of feelings. But, you know, being somebody else is something that I think a lot of us do, even subconsciously. On social media, we portray ourselves as a different type of person, which means deviating from the person we are naturally. For me, that’s what was different about acting, committing fully to being this other person.
Anna Bernabe at The Wall Group using Kosas and Shu Uemura Art of Hair