Kickstarter Tips From Kawehi, Whose Cover Songs Are Conquering the Internet

Her many successes and one humbling failure

Headshot of David Griner

Most startups and creative talents would be proud to pull off one successful Kickstarter. But multi-talented musician Kawehi has just wrapped up her fifth, this time bringing in 10 times her goal and scoring widespread acclaim for her cover of Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box."

We recently caught up with Kawehi (pronounced kah-VAY-hee) and asked her what advice she has to share with those aspiring to similar levels of Kickstarter greatness. We've also sprinkled in some of her music below, which will probably go further toward explaining her success than a Q&A could.

AdFreak: You've run six Kickstarter campaigns so far, and five have far exceeded your goals. The most recent, Robot Heart, brought in nearly 10 times as much money as you requested. Do you ever think you're being too conservative about what you can raise?

Kawehi: Could I raise more than I ask for? With the right amount of work, and with such amazing fans/support team, probably. But I think it's important to only ask for as much as you need.  A lot of people come up with some astronomical number—without doing research and proper planning. I usually make EPs, which run anywhere from three to five songs. It's a much smaller project than an entire album, hence the much smaller funding goal. 

I also do a lot more projects than most—it's pretty common to do one Kickstarter project a year. I usually do around three.  It wouldn't feel right to me if I asked for more than I needed three times a year from my amazing fans.

With Robot Heart, how will raising $29,000 change the scope of a project you originally budgeted at $3,000?

For years now, I've been an independent artist. My husband, Paul, produces my music, shoots all of my music videos—while I write all of the music, handmake every CD/DVD, host livestream concerts, do essentially everything a record label would do—and personalize every Kickstarter package. It's been a two-person show for a while now. 

We're definitely going to be able to afford a little help this time around—hire a local business to help out with making the CDs, hire local college students who need extra cash and want to be in the music business to help me put the packages together, help Paul with recording, learn a few things behind the scenes. It'll be really great to have all of this extra help and be able to invest into the community we live in with the extra money we raised.

What do you think made your Robot Heart campaign such a hit? Was it all the pass-around for your cover of "Heart-Shaped Box"?

Pretty much. I think before "Heart-Shaped Box" came out, I was at about $7,000. So the video definitely helped!

People magazine recently called your version "the Internet's favorite Nirvana cover." But it seems to have its share of detractors, too, who think it's too different from Nirvana's signature roughness. What kind of balance were you going for?

I always try to keep the integrity of the song—and I think the best way to do that is to be as creative as you can be. As a singer/songwriter, I would respect anyone who covered my song in a way that I wouldn't have thought of myself while still keeping the right emotions of the song.

I realize that by getting creative, that usually means coming from a different place/angle, and a lot of times, people don't like it. But I don't make music because I want people to like me—if they do, that's just a perk. 🙂 I make music because I have to, because I love to, because I couldn't imagine my life without it. 

Everyone says great videos are the key to great Kickstarters. But yours are relatively simple and low budget. What do you think makes a good Kickstarter video?

I think it's more important to come up with a creative video than a high budget video. For my project VOX (where I was making an all-vocal EP), I wrote an all-vocal song about the project and performed it live—while flipping cue cards. For TOY (where I was making an EP with toy instruments), I wrote a song and looped it live with all toy instruments.

For Robot Heart, I dressed up in a homemade cardboard box robot suit. Quality is still important—I never just open up my laptop and shoot a video from there—but I think the idea behind the video is infinitely more important. And it should bring your project to life so people understand what the project is—why you're doing it, and ultimately, why they should be a part of it.

Your first Kickstarter in 2011 didn't get very far, with $1,315 raised toward a $15,000 goal. What did you learn from that experience that made your later campaigns such a hit?

I learned that it's foolish to think things will just "happen." I was so bummed after that failure. So I took a whole year to research. I looked into other successful projects, saw what they were doing, tried to come up with my own version of that. I also realized that I needed to put a LOT more work into building the right kind of fan base. 

It was a horrible feeling—that failure—but I'm so happy that I lived that, because I'll never want to be there again.

For you, is Kickstarter more about building a long-term fan community than raising short-term funds?

It is. And I think if you have that kind of mentality, you'll have great projects. I don't do Kickstarter campaigns for short-term funds. I do it because it's a long-term path I chose—to stay independent, to do the kind of music I love and hopefully the kind of music my supporters will love.

Would it be easier to just sign with a label who'll financially support my project? Most likely. But the sacrifices I'd have to make creatively … I'm not willing to give that up. So I choose this path—and it allows me to create the way I want while allowing my fan community/support team to be there, right alongside me, experiencing it together. 

Any other advice for someone who wants to launch a successful Kickstarter campaign?

Do the work. Do the research. Put out tons of quality material. Make good product and engage with your fan community. They're the ones making it happen—I never forget that, and neither should they!

Kawehi is a Hawaiian-born singer and songwriter living in Kansas. For more on her music, visit her Facebook page, YouTube channel and tracks available on iTunes.

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@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."