Local singer-songwriter Yoza was sitting in the waiting room of a substance abuse treatment center, flipping through magazines, when she came across an ad that read, “Yoza Live In Concert.” She turned to her friend, pointed to the ad and said, “I don’t think I am going to make this show.”
She didn’t make the show. She instead checked into the center and “disappeared for a while just to get better.”
At that point, after a lifetime of battling various addictions, Yoza had been sober for three years. But then, this backslide — she’d gotten into a bad relationship that sent her back into drinking.
“(He) was cheating on me and I knew it … and didn’t want to let him go,” she says. “I just went crazy.”
This was a couple of years ago, and she’s recalling it all from where she’s seated on the floor of her Honolulu apartment. The place is small, but not in a way that feels cramped, perhaps because it’s nearly empty — just a futon couch and coffee table in the living room. Minimalistic as it may be, it’s clear Yoza takes pride in it: Everything is meticulously organized and it’s spotless. After all, a small apartment has got to seem huge in the eyes of someone who, not too long ago, was living out of her car. Hand in hand with her struggles with addiction had been a string of personal difficulties — failed relationships, living on the street — and a series of false starts with her career as a musician.
But after she checked herself into rehab that last time, things have been looking up. Yoza now has a slew of musical accomplishments under her belt, a set of regular gigs around town and is finalizing a new EP, Prologue, that she plans to release in May. Off-stage, Yoza is engaged and has a baby on the way. After years of personal and professional struggles, it looks like Yoza is now poised to make her biggest break yet.
Music has been a part of Yoza’s life since as far back as she can remember. Her parents are both musicians — her dad is a blues guitarist and her mom is a singer and drummer — so music was a constant.
“My mom is an amazing singer, and she would sing harmonies, and my dad would play all these crazy, intricate chords … it was like food for me,” says Yoza (which is her last name — she dropped her first name years ago).
By the time she was just 6 years old, Yoza was secretly playing her dad’s Martin D-12 while he was at work. Rather than punish her, he let her play it and then gave her an ukulele, and later, a guitar of her own. Her parents encouraged her habit of singing around the house, too, enrolling her in voice lessons at an early age. By 8, she was a part of Roy Sakuma’s Super Keiki performance group.
Her passion only intensified with time, and as an adult, Yoza went about pursuing music as a career. In the early days, she was met with a certain degree of success, singing with a traditional Hawaiian group in her early 20s. But as she began to focus more on the acoustic soul that she’s known for today, she decided to move to Los Angeles, where she figured it might be easier to break into the industry.
Things, though, didn’t go as planned. Entering the already-saturated market proved difficult. She had trouble landing gigs, and even when she did, she sometimes had to pay to play.
“It got to the point that I couldn’t survive — I had no money for bills. I had a car accident and I couldn’t pay for a new car, so I had to catch two trains and a bus and it took me three hours just to get to my two-hour gig. It was really, really rough.”
Then, it seemed, a break: Yoza got a call from The Voice. They’d seen her clips on You-Tube and wanted her to come in. She went through a week-long audition and nailed it — she’d be going to the finals.
“It is such a slim chance to make it in from thousands and thousands of people, so I got really excited,” she recalls.
But before she could get there, another phone call: The network had been advised that they couldn’t let her on the show. Her past, they said, was too storied.
They didn’t tell her exactly what they were referring to, but there was a lot to choose from. There were the drug charges, the arrests, the time in mental institutions for addiction.
“You know Cops?” she asks. “I was the person trying to kick out the back window. I have been grabbed by the ankles and yanked out in the middle of traffic and had shackles put on my feet and put in a straitjacket, shot up with all kinds of tranquilizers.
“I used to be totally cracked-out nuts,” she adds.
At some point during this era, Yoza was homeless, living sometimes in her car, sometimes in Kapiolani Park, drinking her way down off days-long drug binges. Once, she overdosed and went into seizures, winding up in the hospital — just barely, the doctors had told her, cheating death. That didn’t stop her right away, but it eventually prompted her to get sober.
The more recent years have been big ones for Yoza. She recorded her first album, Yoza, in 2013, for which she won a Na Hoku for R&B album of the year. At the awards ceremony, she wowed audiences in a performance with Willie K., who has become something of a mentor to Yoza. (Someone had shown Willie K. a clip of Yoza singing and he was impressed enough to ask her to open for a couple of his shows. “I felt compelled to … help her make it to where she actually belongs,” Willie K. says. “I think she is a rare find that needs to be paid close attention to because she is a very talented, gifted individual.”) Then, last year, she opened for Kings of Leon at the Blaisdell.
Throughout all her successes, though, Yoza’s all too aware of the precarious nature of addiction — “addiction is a lifelong thing. People ask how long I have to go to those meetings. As long as I am an alcoholic, which is for the rest of my life,” she says.
She’s motivated to stay sober not necessarily for herself, but for her mother, who always has been continuously supportive, and now, for her baby.
“I can’t imagine my life like that, like it was before,” says Yoza. She’s sitting cross-legged on the floor, alternating between eating cookies and pulling out her guitar and singing when she wants to make a point.
It’s easier, she says, for her to explain things with her guitar in hand.
That makes sense considering that ever since she was a kid, music was always something of an escape.
“I was a real outcast,” she says. The first time she had to be taken out of class for a Super Keiki performance, she says, “it was the first time that I felt cool.”
“(Music) was an outlet for me,” she continues. “I loved music so fricken much.”
Music being an outlet still has a lot of bearing over how she approaches songwriting today.
“Especially when I am in a state of distress, or if I am really happy, or if I am in some sort of crazy emotional state, I will bust out my guitar and I will play whatever I think sounds good,” she says.
“Do you have a boyfriend or girlfriend or someone that if sh*! went down, you would go immediately to them and tell them? That’s my guitar — any time some sh*! happens, I need my guitar.”
It’s that coupled with the kind of bluntness she has become known for that perhaps makes her music what it is. No matter what she’s going through, no matter how personal or ugly or unpleasant, she’s willing to share it.
That type of all-cards-on-the-table approach is in full force on her Prologue. In one song, Gave You All My Love, she recounts an unrequited love, and in Girl Without A Home, she shares the emotions she experienced during her time in LA. Then there’s Obsession, which she says is “the most intense, heartfelt song” she’s ever written. And it’s a prime example of her using songwriting as a coping mechanism: She composed it in the hours following a big, final blowout with an ex-boyfriend.
“It’s about being in love with someone where it’s like an intense infatuation that is dangerous for you — he doesn’t treat you well, but you are so obsessed with him.”
Her honesty was one of the things that attracted New York City-based producer and musician Hanan Rubinstein to produce her EP after the two were introduced through Willie K.
“What I love about Yoza is how multi-faceted she is. There is the positive ‘I love life’ Yoza, then there’s the dark, mysterious Yoza, and there’s the almost self-destructive Yoza,” Rubinstein says. “But throughout all of that, she is never shut off … she is always open and accessible. Yoza … is unapologetically honest.
“She has such a unique voice and a unique approach,” Rubinstein adds.
That’s high praise coming from Rubinstein — he is the guitarist in Alicia Keys’ band and runs his own recording studio. They recorded Prologue at Connecticut’s Carriage House Studios last spring, with backing from musicians who have worked with the likes of Adele, Stevie Wonder and Prince.
As a producer, Rubinstein says that he sometimes encounters musicians who “operate out of fear,” afraid they won’t be successful if they don’t sound a certain way. But with Yoza, he says, if she liked the way something sounded, she’d just go for it; it didn’t matter if it wasn’t the typical thing to do.
“With Yoza, there is never that fear,” he says. “That is all part of her flavor (as an artist), is the experimentation and the fearlessness. She is really quite fearless.”
As the afternoon wears on, and as she continues to play these songs and rehash these memories, it becomes clear that Yoza is not only unrelentingly honest, but she’s also unrelentingly optimistic. Even through all the experiences she’s had, the future as she sees it is bright. She’s excited for the EP release, for playing bigger shows, for her budding family life.
There is a moment though, sitting there in her apartment, where she poses a dangerous question to herself: Where could she be by now if she didn’t have, as she phrases it, this malady?
But does she have regrets? “I can’t,” she says firmly. “Because everything that I have done, all these mistakes and everything, have led me to the person that I am today and the place I am at today — which I am not regretful for at all.”