On Their Own
It was a sleepless night for bassist Ezri Santos when, at 3 a.m., she texted her band mate, guitarist Mari Arakawa, about the things that had been keeping her up.
“Hey,” she wrote, “what do you think about all of this?”
“All of this” referred to the biggest prospect that their band EMKE, which also consists of Ezri’s older sister Kira (guitar) and Payton Sekigawa (drums), had ever had, or maybe ever would have: They were in talks with Sony Music Entertainment Japan for a record deal.
The talks had been going on for a while, and by then, things were catapulting toward being legally binding. It was ostensibly a big deal for any band, let alone one as young as they were. This was three years ago, and at the time, Mari, Kira and Payton were all in their late teens and Ezri was only 13. It was exactly the type of break that musicians work toward.
But the text that Ezri sent that early morning reflected months of unhappiness and skepticism. Sony wanted to change too much about EMKE — the executives they’d been working with had been tweaking their look and even their sound. Ezri didn’t like the changes, and when she finally got the courage to broach the topic with the rest of the band, they all found that they were unequivocally in agreement: They didn’t want to go forward with the deal.
“I was too scared to say anything; I thought maybe it was just me who feels like this,” Ezri recalls. “We all sat down and I was just like, ‘do you want to do this?’ And then everything came out.”
“(Sony) told us exactly what our parts had to be,” Kira says. “They were just trying to make us into completely different people. By that time, we were getting older and we were slowly trying to find ourselves, and we knew that that was not what we wanted.”
“That is when we were like, we don’t care what you think, we are just going to do us and hopefully people will like it,” Mari says.
That moment marked a fundamental shift in approach for EMKE.
The three girls had been playing together since 2004, when Mari and Kira were 8 and Ezri was just 4. (Payton joined the band in 2011.) They had always relied on outside input and direction in their music, and had become known locally by playing mostly cover songs. But when they turned down the deal, they did it in order to pursue their own path — to craft their own image and to have full creative freedom.
The results of that shift are now taking shape: They currently are working on putting the finishing touches on their first full-length album of original material, aptly titled Edit Undo, that is set to be released in January.
“We want to make ourselves into a new thing; we kind of want to undo everything we have done in the past,” Kira says. “This is our new self — this is a new beginning for us.”The origin story of EMKE is practically mythic. It all began when Kira and Mari met while taking piano lessons at Hawaii Music-Works, the Aiea music school that Kira and Ezri’s parents own. When all three girls began to express an interest in voice and guitar classes in addition to piano, Kira and Ezri’s father Mark Santos thought he would try to have them play together. (Their broad musical background has allowed them to be musically fluid today — Ezri and Mari also both play keyboard, and all three girls take turns on vocals.)
Under Mark’s direction, they learned covers of classic rock songs — Journey, Bon Jovi and Van Halen filled up their repertoire.
“They seemed to actually be picking it up pretty fast,” recalls Mark. “We put them together just to see what would happen, and it kind of took its own life and evolved.”
In those early days, EMKE was a mainstay at community events and carnivals, becoming known as the little kids who play Journey.
But neither Mark or the band members themselves were taking it seriously at first. It was a fun side project for the kids — and an effective way to get them to practice. But Mark noticed their intensity.
“They seemed to have this certain drive and passion, and real focus,” he recalls.
It was when Mark took the still-young band to perform at industry trade show National Association of Music Merchants in California that he realized that EMKE had a lot of potential.
“Up until then, I had no idea whether or not they really sounded good — because usually as a parent, you are like, ‘I think they sound good,'” Mark says with a laugh. “But when you take them to industry professionals and professional musicians and they get a good reception, well, I guess they do sound good.”He wasn’t the only one to think so.
In addition to the events they played, they also landed a couple of regular gigs at Hard Rock Café and International Market Place, which they still have today. And in 2006, they were spotted by a Disney producer who approached them with an offer — a television show that incorporated signing. But the producer didn’t want the whole band, only two of them; they swiftly declined.
But when Sony approached them in 2011, it at first seemed like a dream. While they say now that it was never truly something that they wanted, they do admit that they were caught up in the hype of such a grand offer.
“We were really excited,” Ezri recalls. “When you hear the word Sony, it’s amazing.”
The hype gave way to disenchantment when they realized what taking the deal would mean. They spent two years shaping themselves for what the company wanted, and what was beginning to emerge no longer looked anything like EMKE. In fact, they wouldn’t be EMKE anymore; they were supposed to change their name to Lilikoi Dream. And they would don Aloha wear. And they would play J-pop.
It was too many concessions that they were not willing to make.
“Everyone knows when you do music, you are not going to get the perfect offer — there is always going to be something that you don’t want,” Ezri says. “But that one was so far off from anything that we wanted that it was not worth it.”
It is perhaps no small coincidence that their budding assertiveness in doing their own thing coincided with their collective realization that they want to play music for the rest of their lives. They had always been focused — forgoing hanging out with friends to practice or play a gig — but it was about five years ago, when Payton joined the band, that things clicked and they really began to take their efforts seriously.
These days, all four band mates have outside endeavors — the girls have retail jobs, Kira and Payton teach at Hawaii MusicWorks, Mari is studying business at Hawaii Pacific University and Ezri is still a junior in high school — but the band is the top priority for all.
“I want this band to be a thing for the rest of my life,” Kira says as the others nod in agreement.EMKE has been writing their own songs for years. But in trying to make music that was palatable to more commercial tastes, they largely kept that to themselves, a secret passion project.
“When we realized that we were not going to do (the record deal), then that’s when we were like, let’s just do what we want then, because now we have creative freedom,” Kira explains.
They released a six-song EP of original music, Promises and Expectations, a few years ago, but even that, they say, wasn’t exactly a true representation of EMKE.
“This one,” Kira says, “is more our original sound.”
Musically, their new work is an amalgamation of all things past, infusing guitar solos and keyboards — holdovers from their classic rock origins — alongside J-pop-inspired tracks. Lyrically, the songs were written over a period of years, and Edit Undo is rife with the emotional fodder of being a teen — mistakes, love, heartache.
“I feel like all of our songs are either angry or sad,” Kira says of the new album. “We were angsty teenagers.”
As with any artist just beginning to define themselves, they struggle a little with definitively describing their sound. Pop rock? Maybe alternative rock. “Dark and heavy, but still melodic” seems to be their consensus of Edit Undo.
But maybe nothing is more crucial for them as artists than this descriptor, anyway, as Mari tells it: “Our album has a little bit of everything that we have experienced, but it is the way we want it now.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT EMKEHAWAII.COM.