After five years of making music together in both Hawaii and Los Angeles, out singer-songwriters Siena Lee and Toast Tajiri of the duo MAKENA are now receiving nationwide exposure. In addition to participating in L.A. Women’s Fest, a show featuring lesbian comedians and musicians which recently aired on Logo, MAKENA (pronounced mah-keh-nah) was invited to be one of five acts in the Emerging Artist Showcase on Olivia’s Hawaiian cruise this past November.
"We’re on the Olivia mailing list," Lee said, "and about two years ago, we got a catalog in the mail and daydreamed about where we could go. Then we wondered how we could play on one of the cruises." After exchanging several emails and mailing them press kits, Olivia invited them aboard.
MAKENA, which means abundance in Hawaiian, had further good fortune when they were signed to Grammy-winning producer Daniel Ho’s label. Their self-titled album features sweet, harmonizing vocals and Tajiri’s guitar on their original songs; two traditional Hawaiian songs; and covers of Loggins and Messina’s "House at Pooh Corner" (enhanced with a Hawaiian-language bridge) and Carole King’s "It’s Too Late."
"’It’s Too Late’ is sentimental for us, since it’s the first one we sang together," Lee explained. Tajiri and Lee first met when Tajiri opened for a group with whom Lee sang. "What was really neat," Tajiri said, "was that this concert was in Hilo , where I was born and raised and where Siena’s family lives now. Neither of us was living in Hawaii at the time, but for this concert, we came back to Hilo where our roots were and happened to meet there."
Both had released solo albums before meeting one another, but after much post-tour email correspondence, they realized that they shared philosophies and their outlook on music and knew they could hook up musically. Lee said, "We jumped in and committed to making music together before we even knew what we would sound like together!"
Two years later, they became a couple personally as well, which was humorously disclosed during the L.A. Women’s Fest documentary. "They were filming everything," Tajiri said. "Sound checks, breaks … we didn’t know how they would edit it all. On air, in between the performances, they would show a clip with an interview question.
"For most of the performers, there were pretty serious questions with serious answers like, ‘How does it feel to be an out lesbian performer?’ Ours was funny. They asked, ‘How long have you been together?’ We said, ‘Well, we’ve been playing music together for [what was then] four years, and we’ve been together for three years.’ And they repeated it: ‘Together together?’ And we said, ‘Yes, for music and for other things,’ and that’s where they cut it."
They were glad to see the full broadcast because, as Lee explained, they didn’t get to see the other acts perform on the day of the taping. "That was such a long, wonderful day, but we didn’t actually get to see the performances," she said. "We were backstage in the green room getting to know everyone, but we weren’t able to witness their art. So it was fantastic to see them on the show."
The show featured one of their original tunes, "Good Enough," which is also the music that accompanies the podcasts on their website. "We hoped that would be what they picked," Tajiri said.
Lee added: "We now play it faster, perform it a little differently. So they’re showing a different version than what we perform now, a slower version. Watching it, we took away a lot about what we would do differently now. But it’s very beautiful — the venue, the lighting, the people — it was all wonderful."
Tajiri (who wears the bandanna) was born and grew up on the big island of Hawaii. Four generations of her family still live there. Lee was born and raised on Oahu. Five generations of her family live there and on the big island. Though the two didn’t meet until 2001, there were some interesting parallels in their lives. They were born within a month of each other. They were both working at nonmusical careers and dropped them around the same time to concentrate on music full-time.
As MAKENA, their original songs are collaborative efforts, with both Lee and Tajiri working on music and lyrics. "We each get inspired in different ways," Lee said. "For me, I’ll have an emotion, and I’ll hear a chord and go off of that to create a story around it and work it into a song. I bring that to the table to Toast, and she will hear it with new ears, tweak it, and make it more of our synergy."
"I tend to be more on the intellectual side of things," Tajiri said, "so I usually start with a concept or message that I want to communicate, and from that comes a phrase or a lyric, or I’ll mess around on the guitar and come up with a riff or a progression that I feel communicates the message. Then I bring it to Siena."