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  • Kai Straw

I’m writing this at 9:44PM in Hollywood.  And I’m specifying Hollywood instead of Los Angeles because Los Angeles is too massive not to make the distinction.  I am in Hollywood, specifically; and to put a finer point on it – I’m in The Hollywood Dell; a neighborhood within Hollywood that I’d never heard of before.


“The Dell”, as it was called by a quick text from Michael Tennant, is a network of winding one-lane roads webbed through the hills of Hollywood.  There are cracks and potholes in the asphalt and it has no sidewalks.  There are modern mansions made of stone next to small two-bedroom homes made of wood that look like they were pulled from a 1950’s catalogue – and around, above, and in between all the architecture are overgrown trees and shrubs and vines like maybe Hollywood itself has forgotten this corner is here.  Everything is broken and overgrown and uneven.  It’s like if Dr. Seuss was given a neighborhood in Los Angeles and allowed to have his way.  There’s as much degradation as there is abundance.  A home is suffocated by vines and the unkept tendrils of plants that have been climbing its walls for maybe decades; you can imagine ghosts living inside – like maybe the neighborhood is ethereal and imagined, caught between all the cultures that have called Los Angeles home – but before you can say, “man, what happened to this place?”, a Lamborghini drives by – from further up the hill – from somewhere deeper, higher, more hidden.  The Hollywood Dell feels like the spirit of a long-forgotten movie star reaching for you slowly from her grave through the ivy.  It’s an old elegant hand wrapped in fine gold chains and weeds and a couple beetles clicking across its knuckles.  The Hollywood sign looms above it – peering through canyons of bent trees that form caves over the roads – trees from every type of place, growing above every type of rooftop.  Around any corner there could be an elegant manor, or maybe something humble with a crooked picket fence – or maybe there’s a party attended by locals who have their skin pinned back to hide their age, or – maybe somewhere tucked away and in the shadows – roll the camera, set the lights – a murder.  If Hollywoodland, a neighborhood next door, can be seen as the father who knows how to dress up to impress the relatives – The Hollywood Dell is the eccentric aunt who doesn’t care, whose income you’re unsure of, and whose actual life you can hardly imagine.  Some characters are so abundant with idiosyncrasies it’s as if they themselves manifest just before any event they attend and dissolve once they leave, like their energy is so acute and interesting it can’t possibly be permanent.


I’ve had a roommate during my time here.  She asked me if I could come stay at her place in Los Angeles for an upcoming surgery – invasive and concerning for her – and that was the cause for my choosing this city.  She’s someone I used to date, who became a welcomed phone call, who became a friend – and at this point, a friend I’ve had for many years.  Sometimes when two people are truly and completely certain of their romantic incompatibility, a friendship can find its way in.


Tonight, just about an hour ago, she was sitting next to me on the couch looking through her phone.  We’re a few days past her surgery.  Before this, I’ve seen her laying on the hospital bed completely covered to her neck in blankets as the nurse explained to me the pills and creams she’d have to take and apply during her recovery.  I’ve seen her bruise and swell; I’ve seen her replacing bloody gauze; I’ve helped her walk very slowly from her bed to the kitchen.  I’ve sat by her as she stares off into space, unspeaking – high from the medication, and I’ve been here as that despondence turned to nausea.  While all this has gone on, I’ve thought of other moments, too, long before this.  “Here’s me and my brothers before our parents got divorced,” she’d say – showing me a cute photo of her and her siblings at maybe three to eight years old.  In life, I’ve seen her cry so hard that she couldn’t speak, and I’ve made her laugh so hard she couldn’t breathe.  Now, here, she’s looking at her phone, glassy-eyed, in the throes of a brokenness that can only be earned by a car wreck or a team of surgeons.


Talking, eating, and ultimately existing up to this point has been painful – yet, suddenly, she starts to sing.


I have never in my life heard her sing, and I’ve known her for nearly a decade.  Though she’s keeping her voice small, like if you could sing with a whisper, she sings it with a level of intent and emotion that reveals what sounds like honesty.  The melody is slow and melancholic.  She sings it unprompted and unexplained, “ – oh, dre-e-e-a-m maker.”  She keeps on.  “You he-a-a-rt breaker – wherever you’re go-o-in’, I’m go-o-in’ your w-a-a-y.”  She looks at me and smiles – a smile that recognizes and is proud of just how random this is, like a kid who has just stolen from the cookie jar.  “Have you heard that song?”  She asks.  I said I hadn’t.  She sang more of it, and with more conviction.  “Tw-o-o-o dri-i-fters off to see the wo-o-o-rld, there’s such a lot of w-o-o-o-rld to s-e-e-e.”  She’s wearing no makeup, she’s bruised and bandaged, her hair is pulled back in a ponytail.  It was dark where we were in the living room.  The light from the kitchen behind her wreathed the profile of her face.  In a way, it was like the kitchen light had become the moon. 


She has two small scars, old and faded, that run parallel to each other beneath her ear.  In combination, the scars, the surgery days before, her recovery the days after, her life before it, her as a little girl, the photos she has shown me, her lowest moments, her greatest – all of it sort of melded together with her singing as I watched and listened; she seemed so perfectly human.  I couldn’t have drawn it better, or written it better.  There is little more beautiful to me than radical authenticity.  Uninhibited self-ness.  She kept on.  “Moon River!  Breakfast at Tiffany’s!  Audrey Hepburn?”  Here.”  She pulled up her phone and played the clip for me.  She looked at the clip, and then to me, and then to the clip, and then back to me.  I’d sat across from her on dates years ago, fallen for her, kissed her, slept with her, said hopeful hellos and tearful goodbyes, and there has been no moment choreographed by courtship nor sex that has brought to my mind and heart such an absolute feeling of, “ – you look beautiful tonight.”


When no one’s watching, when our performance for the world stops, when we unwind completely, sometimes – we let ourselves be, and be completely.  That’s where you find the unique beauty of a person.  I am uninterested in what someone thinks what qualities are their best, what outfits they think best hug their figure, or what performed version of themselves they think will best impress me or whoever sees them – because what we think of ourselves doesn’t always match who we are, what we plan for ourselves doesn’t always match what we want, and what we reach for isn’t always an expression of our own needs.  I am interested in the unplanned soul that emerges when no one’s looking, and how that soul seeks to express itself when there’s no reward.  It’s with that – someone’s distilled version of their deep and precious truth – unincentivized and uninhibited – that I find myself most taken with.  You have allowed yourself to be seen, and I have seen you, and I am grateful.  To love someone is to take the hand they’re afraid to give, to hold the secrets they’re afraid to tell, and to cherish what hidden songs they otherwise keep from the world.


Just a story from The Hollywood Dell.  Shared with her permission.  “You know I love you, right?”  She says.  She looks emotional.  “I know,” I reply – and maybe I should’ve said it back, but somehow it felt as though the moment said it for me.


Some songs aren’t meant to be kept.  Some views can’t be taken with you.  Love can be brief or last a lifetime.  Whatever the case may be – the length of a moment does not add color to the wings of the butterfly, and brevity cannot rip the awe from my eye, nor the love from my heart.


Kai Straw

Hollywood, 2024

  • Kai Straw

I’m writing this at 7:41PM in Anchorage, Alaska.  There’s ground beef sizzling on a stovetop pan in the kitchen to my left, two small lamps are glowing golden by the couch at my right, and outside of the windows the city is covered with snow; I just got back from hiking the Matanuska Glacier.  My first day here it was something like -10° F; and to give you some context, a freezer is generally set at 0° F.  Before this, I hadn’t been to the snow since I was 13 or experienced temperatures this cold ever – and from the first moment I stepped outside of my ride from the airport to my apartment, I liked it.  When it hit -35° F, I voluntarily stood outside to wait for our group instead of sitting in the car.


I didn’t know this, now I do, but you cough when it’s that cold.  I didn’t know this either, but when the sun’s out and it’s that cold the air freezes, essentially, making it look like the air itself is shining – like it’s filled with luminescent dust.  When it’s that cold – above factories, the steam stops lifting into the sky and holds motionless in midair.  The same thing happens to the fog you can see around streetlamps – as if time is stolen from whatever is wholly embraced by the cold.  And lastly, on the freeway as snow is set free from the sides of the road by speeding cars – it floats across the road in strange shapes, close to the ground but dancing behind the cars like the cars are being trailed by frozen cobwebs.  There’s a magic in all this that I’ve never felt – a language I’d never had the opportunity to hear.


“Was he depressed?”  I asked our guide.  He was talking about Christopher McCandless, the college kid from Atlanta who abandoned his life to live in the Alaskan wilderness and was subsequently killed by it – upon whom the book ‘Into the Wild’ is based. “Him coming out here – was he depressed?”  I asked.  The driver replied, “ – why else do people move to Alaska?”  He himself was raised in Atlanta – was in his late twenties – and was once inspired by McCandless.  I couldn’t help but view the conversation as some kind of admission.  “Everything that happens in The Lower 48,” said someone else, “ – it don’t matter up here.  You just turn off the TV.”  He was originally from upstate New York and sounded like Joe Pesci; his right canine tooth was sharper than the rest.  Everyone I’ve met, except for one person, was born and raised elsewhere, and The Lower 48 is what everyone in Alaska calls the rest of the country – everyone.  Also, it’s not called a snowmobile, to them it’s a snow machine.  And the straight-line distance between point A to point B is – as the crow flies; I’d never heard the term used in casual conversation until my time here.


Something about the brutal cold and my protecting myself from it has felt foundationally familiar.  Throughout my stay it has warmed up to about 10° F instead of -10° F, and the cold not biting my nose and not slowly taking claim of my toes and hands has somehow felt like a disappointment.  Bring the cold back, some part of me says – which has made me reflect on why I might feel that way; my yearning for the cold has felt representative of something deeper – as if maybe some part of me feels most comfortable when there’s something I need to protect myself from.  And if that’s the case, when something gets warm – say, emotionally – how much of me is fighting to let the cold back in?  It’s like I end up in the cold not because I forgot the map, or because home is just beyond the ridge, but because some part of me likes it.  The struggle is the point.  And in this way I’m reminded how much of myself can fight against good things, and how my own comfort isn’t always a compass pointing toward what is healthy.


“I feel like a wartime general,” I used to say in private conversations about the lack of peace in my own heart, “ – most comfortable when I can smell the napalm.”  There’s some part of me that’s rabid for problems that I can find solutions for – rabid for some kind of cold to push through.  We see someone trudging through the tundra and might say, “ – look how strong that man is,” when in reality, it may be a weakness that gives him that ability, because if you were to see that same man’s heart in the throes of vulnerability – you’d see his actual tundra, and maybe you’d see in his eyes what you feel when you walk through whatever may be yours.  He pushes through the frigid abyss because on some level that’s where he’d rather be.  I have been described as having discipline, work ethic, and a relentless focus.  I know what weaknesses sit on the other side of those coins, though, and I’m humbled by them.  The polar bear will thrive in an arctic wasteland, but on the other side of its coin – it cannot survive the heat.


It has been a lifelong aim of mine to soften my heart.  My love of the cold, the isolation it demands, and the protection it requires – has felt like home; and like this, it seems like I’ve found my way inside a metaphor.  Sometimes we like and lean toward things because they speak the language of our shadow; the language of our coldest self.  I know for what things my own darkness whispers for, and my time here in Anchorage has reminded me I should constantly work to distinguish what is comfortable from what is good – because sometimes what is comfortable, what feels good – is actually the cold – and if given time, if I were to mistake that comfort for something good – if I were to lean into that isolation, if I were to lean into my need for an oppressive force to protect myself from or fight against – the cold would take me, and it would keep me, like it does everything else.  “I am fine, I am at home,” I would say – alone with frostbitten fingers and an unquenchable appetite for a longer colder road.


To better understand what it means to be human, I think it’s good to keep in mind – sometimes, for some people, the hard thing is easier; the hard thing is where they feel safe.  A struggle is sought after because they do not know how to behave without one.


My goal is – I can stand the cold, I can do the hard thing; I’ll keep that – but my heart stays warm for whoever needs it.  I can walk one hundred miles alone, or maybe just a dozen steps while holding the small hand of my future daughter.


Discipline is victory of the mind, but peace is victory of the heart.  It’s my aim to claim both – lest I’m taken by the cold like the cold takes time from the fog.


Kai Straw

Anchorage, 2024

Imagine me four floors up in an apartment a few blocks from Bourbon St. in New Orleans.  It’s hot and humid.  There are random thunderstorms so lightning bangs through the windows every twenty minutes; I’m lost in my headphones.  Between takes I can hear street performers blowing tubas and trumpets and banging drums from The French Quarter.  I’m standing at the kitchen bar because the apartment doesn’t have a desk – and I’m composing what would become ‘ASAP’; it’s 1AM.  I’m making a new song in a new place with a new little traveling piano on the first self-motivated trip I’d ever taken in my life.  When I told my parents about this traveling album, Made In / Place, they responded with what I’d describe as fear.  There’s something about this – for me specifically – that is radically new.


I have largely been a creature of habit and discipline throughout my adult life.  Anything outside of creating music and finding a means to promote or make a living from that music I viewed as my squandering minutes that could have been better allocated.  And once I made it to some degree of creative success, any minute not spent in service of that creativity was my taking my eye off the ball.  This – this, though – this I am doing to enrich my soul – because when you live with such tremendous focus on a single expression of yourself, you are bound to sacrifice branches of your tree that would have otherwise grown.  This is me looking at an unexplored area of my own heart, and the unexplored map of this world, and seeing if maybe when I combine them both I’ll find pieces of myself hidden within experiences I would have never had – new branches that, had I not decided to do this, would’ve been left trimmed as “not me”.  There’s a tendency to find a lane in life and stay there.  We find our way to a comfortable version of ourselves and announce “this is me,” and anything outside of that version is not.  I think to audit where you are on that spectrum, and then decide to live in a way opposite or different from what you consider to be “you” is an important part of self-discovery.  My committing to this project is an expression of that idea. 


Look at your lifestyle biases.  If you’re a measurer, a list-maker, a sharp edge – I’d seek an avenue to express your softness.  If you are laid back, an it’s-whatever-er, a round edge – I’d seek a tougher road.  If I were a social person, I’d find quiet.  If I were an active person, I’d find stillness.  If I were a list-maker, I’d surrender to my whims.  If I were a traveler, I’d stay home.  Because if you’re a chronic expression of one idea of living, the probability that you are also an expression of fear is high – even if your behaviors might externally signal perfection.  Sometimes the person who is chronically social is scared of being alone, for example.  Sometimes the person who is chronically at the gym is deeply insecure.  Sometimes the person who is obsessed with their health is intensely afraid of death.  These resulting behaviors aren’t bad, but to be motivated by anxiety is to be imprisoned by it – regardless of what direction that anxiety moves you.  My goal is to discover all fears that animate my actions because with that discovery the chains they have on me loosen; I can feel it happen; and then they unbind, and with them finally unbound I can truly live fearlessly, and decide fearlessly, and know myself fearlessly.  Fear will make you love someone you’d never love, work where you’d never work, and be what you’d never be – for a lifetime.  To unbuckle fear from your decision-making is to take the mud from your eyes and see your life and yourself for what they are.


I quit drinking over thirteen years ago, and that decision was similarly motivated.  Anyone who knew me before then would’ve thought I’d never say no to a beer at party.  And on the other side of that decision, a decision that didn’t “seem like Kai” to those who knew me at the time, was a level of peace and healing I’d have never achieved.  To seize opportunity at the nightclub I once worked for and move beyond punching numbers into excel spreadsheets, I had to move from an ‘introverted’ expression of myself – to an ‘extroverted’ one – because the job required I introduce myself to and build rapport with hundreds of guests every weekend, sober.  My doing that did not “seem like Kai”, yet on the other side of that were skills I would have never developed or known existed, and friends I would have never met.  When I decided to write my first pop songs ‘Friction’ and ‘Hurricane’, that did not “seem like Kai” and yet they became two of the most popular songs in my discography – the latter of which climbing to #2 in the world on Spotify’s Global Viral Chart establishing a foundation for my music career.  When I moved to San Francisco, it didn’t “seem like Kai”.  When I started eating healthfully it didn’t “seem like Kai”.  When I broke up with a girlfriend who treated me very poorly – her first words to me while I was breaking up with her were, “ – you don’t seem like yourself.”  Good.  “Man, Kai, this new song just doesn’t seem like you.”  Good.  “I just don’t get why you’d write something like this.”  Good.  “I just don’t get why you’re traveling alone.”  Good.  I hope the road of my life is strewn with the empty shells I’ve escaped from by choosing growth over sameness.  From the knives I’ve pulled from my ribs I’ve built the ladders I've needed to reach some kind of higher self – a freer self – a self not beholden to whatever fears would’ve kept me passed out drunk in an alley in Fairfield as the sun came up, or fears that would've kept me in a nightclub accounting department, or fears that would've kept me within the prison of a self so underdeveloped that I can look back now and say, ah, that - that wasn't me; I was just on my way.


‘ASAP’ is a song I’d never written about a lifestyle I’d never lived made in a city I’d never been.  It’s a celebration of newness – an ode to adventure.  It’s a song about discovering and embracing the other side of your coin.


And it’s also about whatever you think it’s about, because that’s music.


Kai Straw

About the song ‘ASAP’, 2024

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