John Cruz was due for a good year. He’s had a few bad ones over his two-and-a-half decades as one of Hawaiʻi’s most recognized singer-songwriters. But 2022 looks to be a banner year for the man who brought us “Island Style.”
The video of his recent single, “It’s Time to Build a Bridge,” garnered the prize for best music video at the 45th Annual Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards on July 20 and new music is coming down the pike. For the past year, he’s taken up residency at ProArts Playhouse in Kihei, an intimate, music-centric venue where he plays regular gigs on Wednesday nights whenever he’s on-island.
Cruz is also basking in memories of his recent summer tour of the islands in celebration of the 25th anniversary of “Acoustic Soul,” the debut album that launched his career. Joining him onstage for the first time was his younger brother Tony on guitar. “He hasn’t really played much music on stage before,” Cruz told us in a front-porch interview at his home in Kula. John had often toured with his brothers Ernie and Guy, who have both since passed on.
One track from “Acoustic Soul” changed Cruz’s life forever. “Island Style” was an instant hit with Hawaiian audiences. Its catchy refrain, “from the mountains to the ocean, from the windward to the leeward side” echoes through gulches and valleys throughout the islands to this day. Twenty-five years after its release, it enjoys daily airplay on Hawaiian radio and has been featured in a number of TV shows and movies, including HBO’s “The White Lotus,” filmed on Maui in 2020.
“That song has been a game changer,” Cruz acknowledged. “So many people have been touched by that song. What a blessing that’s been.”
Soulful tunes like “Sitting in Limbo” and “Shine On” enjoyed some popularity, too. But “Island Style,” with its celebration of local food, family connections, and the kanikapila tradition of casual jamming became a backyard anthem.
Cruz cut his teeth playing bass and guitar in small venues on the East Coast, having left Oahu after high school. “I wanted to get as far away from here as I possibly could,” he said, and New York City seemed like a great place to learn about music and make new connections. As a result of years of playing rock and blues, his music isn’t typical of the stuff produced by many Hawaiian musicians.
“I don’t want people to listen to my records….I want them to feel it,” he insists. “The initial reaction has always got to be vibe.” His music blends blues, folk, R&B, and rock n’ roll with traditional Hawaiian elements.
Prior to his solo release, he had gained recognition locally by performing with his brother Ernie and their childhood friend, Troy Fernandez—the Ka’au Crater Boys. John had come home to Oahu to record music with his brother Ernie. Once home, he “fell into the band” and began performing his own original songs along with the Crater Boys. So, the songs already had a fan base when his debut LP dropped.
Fame came fast and hard and Cruz soon found himself leaning on drugs and alcohol to navigate his new reality.
“I’ve had my struggles with addiction since I was young, you know. I’ve been around it all my life,” he said, recalling how his father Ernie Sr., “The Waimanalo Cowboy,” had taken to drinking when he, too, was relegated to performing in bars and saloons.
“What little success I have now, it’s allowed me to not play in bars,” he said, with an audible sense of relief. “That’s huge.” Back in the late ‘90s when he stopped gigging in bars, he said. “It was wonderful to find out that I wasn’t really an alcoholic. I thought I was, but I wasn’t. Basically, I was drinking because it was there all the time and you get it for free or people are buying it for you.” Those free drinks took a toll.
“It was good news that I wasn’t an alcoholic. But then the other reality set in. ‘Oh, so I’m just a drug addict, then,ʼ” he recalled. “I’m glad I made it out of that. Especially with crack, I remember times feeling like, ‘You know what, I’m probably gonna die from this, but I need another hit.’ It’s just so crazy.”
What made him finally stop? “Nothing like the threat of incarceration to get you sober. I failed the first treatment program. Failed the second treatment program and the judge locked me up.”
Upon release, he spent three months living at Hoʻomau Ke Ola, a small, culture-based treatment facility on the Waianae Coast, followed by 30 days in transitional housing with outpatient visits, drug tests, and daily classes.
Sobriety enabled him to focus on music again, and a filmmaker he met asked to shoot a couple of live performances. She suggested interviewing him and adding some archival footage, and it morphed into a documentary about his life, complete with his struggles with addiction and custody battles over his children, three of whom now have adoptive parents.
The result was the film “Made of Music” (2005). Now, it’s regularly shown in Hawaiʻi rehab facilities, where Cruz often performs. He taped a live show at Habilitat in Kaneohe and he’d schedule a gig at Aloha House whenever he was coming to Maui to perform at the MACC.
He has since reconnected with his son John, who now goes by his middle name Lono, and celebrated his grandson’s first birthday in August. Prior to that, the last time he’d seen the boy was nearly 18 years ago when Lono was just three years old.
“It’s been awesome,” he said of the reunion with his son. His two daughters are now in college. “And they know that I’m their real father and all that kind of stuff, but they’re still kind of processing it.” Perhaps a tour of Mainland college campuses is in order. He’s considering it.
Lono was just three years old when his father won a Grammy award for “Jo Bo’s NIght Out,” an instrumental he named after the boy (whom he called Jo Bo when he was little) that appeared on a slack key guitar compilation album.
He had taken Lono—then just a toddler—to the Big Island for a performance. After the gig, an engineer named Charles Brotman who had previously played with his sister said, “‘Hey man, you want to come over to my studio? I want to record you doing a song on slack key. I’m putting this album together,’” Cruz recalled. “I said ‘Sure, why not?’”
They went to the studio and Cruz picked up a nylon-string Ramirez guitar. “I was like, ‘Let me check this out. Wow! Hey, man, maybe I’ll use this one.’ So, I slack it down and I’m literally trying to come up with a song, just playing stuff, you know. And I think I’m getting close, and he goes, ‘That’s perfect! I think I got it!’”
Cruz didn’t think Brotman had anything. ‘’He’s like, ‘I think I got the song.’ I go, ‘The song? I’m still putting it together.’ He goes, ‘No, I’ve been recording the whole time.’” He cut two segments together and played it back. “You want to talk about luck, that was the song. He says, ‘Is that what you were going for? And I said, ‘Yeah!’”
The album, “Slack Key Volume 2” (2004) won in the inaugural Best Hawaiian Album category at the 47th Annual Grammy Awards in 2005.
Sobriety enabled him to refocus on music and Cruz cut his second album in Sept. 2007. He chose Mark Johnson to engineer his sophomore effort, “One of These Days,” at the recommendation of Jackson Browne, who had befriended Cruz when they shared the stage with mutual friend Jack Johnson for one of the early Kokua Festivals at the MACC.
“Jackson said, ‘When are you going to do your next album, man?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, pretty soon,’” Cruz recalled. Browne pressed further, asking Cruz where he was planning to record it. When the answer was, “I don’t know,” he said, “Why don’t you record it at my place?”
By “my place” Browne meant Groove Masters, a semi-private recording studio he owns in Santa Monica, California, where Bob Dylan’s “Tempest” and David Crosby’s “Lighthouse” albums were cut.
“He was so gracious,” Cruz said of Browne. “He’s just been a great friend and an awesome kind of big brother.”
“One of These Days” won critical acclaim, but didn’t catch on like the first album. “Everywhere they reviewed it, they said it was a great record, but it didn’t have an obvious single for the radio,” said Cruz.
It took almost a decade for Cruz to release that second album, and it’s been 15 years since it came out. Can we expect another? Cruz said unreleased material he’s already recorded will be coming out soon, now that he’s resolved a decade-long dispute with his former manager over ownership of the rights to much of it. He’s just not sure if it’ll be in the form of an album, or maybe a couple of EPs.
The year 2016 was a heartbreaking one for Cruz. He lost his father and two brothers in a short period of time. Ernie Sr. died in the spring of that year, and his brother Guy had been placed in hospice care as he was suffering from heart disease. But it was his brother Ernie Jr.’s death that came as a shock, when he was found floating unresponsive in the ocean just days before Guy succumbed to heart failure. A few days earlier, Ernie and John had visited their dying brother on the Big Island. John had to get released from jail to make the trip.
“You know how families are, you get in a rift with this family member or that one. From the outside everything looks perfect, but you never know what’s going on,” said Cruz. “[Ernie Jr.] had a rift with my mother and my sister for a long time—big one.”
“The day before my brother Ernie died…he said, ‘You know what? I decided I’m going to let all of that go, man. I’m over that.’ It had been eating him up for years, you know. To finally let that go—to forget about it—feels awesome, he says. ‘Right now I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life,’ he tells me.
“He was into statistics, you know, and he told me, ‘You know what? Average Hawaiian raised by a single mom on welfare…average life span is 74 years old.’ So, he looks at me and he says, ‘What do you want to do for the next 20 years?’”
John had fought with his brothers from time to time, but he and Ernie had buried the hatchet, and began talking about playing music together again.
“A day and a half later, boom, he’s gone.”
When the Crater Boys broke up, Ernie had stated publicly that he was going to form a band with his brothers, but John says that was just to soften the blow of breaking up the popular duo. There was no concrete plan to form a band of brothers, although they talked about the idea from time to time, and discussed inviting their sisters to sing. “I was really excited about that, yeah,” said Cruz. “Funny how things go.”
After a relapse, Cruz got sober again in 2017, just before moving to Maui to be with his current partner, Kaʻio Martin, daughter of songwriter Liko Martin. Their son Zane is now three years old.
A residency at ProArts Playhouse in Kihei’s Azeka Place shopping center has given him a chance to share some of his unreleased music, as well as the favorites his fans are fond of. He had been seeking a venue where he could perform regularly on Maui that wasn’t a bar.
“ProArts has been wonderful. Two of the things I like the most about it is popcorn and water,” Cruz said with a smile. “You know, that’s it.”
Some weeks he does it solo, sometimes with a seven-piece band, other times as an acoustic trio. “Sometimes I’m playing upright bass, sometimes I’m playing guitar, sometimes electric bass. Depends on who I get to do the gig with me,” he said. “It’s been good for me to kind of stretch out and get my bass chops back.”
He’s slated to play three Wednesday evenings at Pro Arts, on October 5th, 12th, and 26th.
Working with Mark Johnson to engineer his second album led to his involvement with Johnson’s group Playing for Change, which produces music videos featuring artists from all over the world collaborating on a song, often with the original artist laying the foundation. A medley of “Island Style” and “ʻOiwi E” featuring Cruz, Jack Johnson, Paula Fuga, Amy Gilliom, Eli Mac, Tavana, students from immersion schools across the state, and a host of others, was among their collaborations.
Giving back to the community is a recurring theme for Cruz these days. It’s what led him to become Board Chair of Mana Maoli, bringing music to 14 culture-based charter schools across the state. It’s also why he got involved with Turnaround Arts, a program of the Kennedy Center started by Michelle Obama to build community by supporting arts education in schools.
Cruz relishes his newfound role as an elder and mentor to younger artists. “I don’t have all the answers, but…I’ll share anything if they’re interested, you know what I mean? If you’re talking about anything—fishing, music, or writing or bass playing, I’ll try to give you as much as you want.”
“I wish when I was young,” he said, “somebody could have saved me all that time, you know?”
To enjoy the Nā Hōkū award-winning video for “It’s Time to Build a Bridge,” co-written with Cruz by Mark Herschler and directed by Ryan Antalan and Julia Levanne, visit johncruz.com/bridge. You can purchase tickets to his Wednesday night live shows at ProArtsMaui.com.