Singer, songwriter, storyteller, Paula Fuga intertwines tales of appreciation for the islands she calls home in her first album in 15 years, Rain on Sunday.
The long-awaited album does not disappoint, blending powerful soul with reggae beats, island flow, and Fuga’s signature mesmerizing vocals and heartfelt lyrics.
Produced by Mike Love, it’s Fuga’s debut album on Jack Johnson’s label, Brushfire Records, and features appearances from Johnson, Ben Harper and J Boog.
Although Fuga, 42, grew up and lives on Oahu, Maui is dear to her. With long-time friends and loyal fans, Fuga has an enduring support system that keeps her returning and calling Maui her favorite island.
As with her past album, she launched her release tour on the Valley Isle. First with the Hāna community in June, and again in July for sold-out shows at the Wailea Kitchen as well as two shows at da Playground in Māʻalaea.
In 2006, Fuga graced the stages of the Maui County Fair performing songs from her debut album LILIKOI.
“I’m into a lot of different styles,” Fuga told MauiTime in ‘06. “There was some pressure to stick with one genre but I just couldn’t do it. I don’t just like one genre. No matter what rhythm, it’s all music.”
To this day, it is difficult to place Fuga’s complex music into one genre.
Before performing at the Maui County Fair, Fuga had recently put a pause on teaching Hawaiian studies at Ahuimanu Elementary and working as an educational interpreter at the Bishop Museum to focus on her prospering music career.
Fuga continues to fulfill her lifelong mission of sharing not only her music, but also her story of persistence. As a child, Fuga lived houseless on beaches on Oahu, not always sure when or where her next meal would come from.
Despite this uncertainty, music has always been a constant in her life. “I knew I could sing by the time I was three,” she recalled. “I was aware that I was given this beautiful gift of music and I was nine when I wrote my first song.”
As a young girl, Fuga dreamed of a singing career and chased it with unwavering determination. Having experienced these adversities early in life, Fuga’s music reveals both empathy and her passion to inspire.
Fuga won the prestigious Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award for ‘Most Promising Artist’ with LILIKOI. Following the release of her EP Misery’s End in 2010, Fuga has toured the U.S., played on international stages and performed for President Barack Obama as a three-time return guest artist at the White House.
Since her first album and EP, Fuga has evolved as an artist. “My voice has matured and I have more control over my range and the way I sing,” she told MauiTimes. “I also think deeper about songs and songwriting.”
Fuga thoughtfully pairs poetic lyrics with flowing melodies. “I go deep and think, ‘Well this is a song about voyaging on a canoe. Well how do we even get a canoe? First, we gotta go to a kahuna, he has to say a prayer, wait for his dreams, and then we can go up into the mountains to get a tree to make the canoe. It takes a long time,’” she said. “I’m able to think really deeply and process those thoughts and emotions in a different way.”
From finding love to beating the Hawaiian heat, each of the dozen songs on Rain on Sunday share a story that reflects life on the islands.
While writing her songs, Fuga started with an organic approach. The album’s title came from the final track, which she spontaneously created after a spectacular rainstorm.
“It was a Sunday morning and it started raining really hard out of nowhere,” Fuga recalled. “I turned to my husband and I told him to turn off the TV to listen to the rain.” Fuga explained she could hear a lovely melody in her head. She grabbed her ukulele off the wall and began writing the song in their bedroom.
“As I was writing, the rain stopped but you could still hear droplets falling from the trees and I could hear the birds singing. The sun came out,” Fuga said. “It was just so beautiful and just the inspiration I needed to write the song. So I started writing about all the beautiful things that inspire me in nature.”
Like the unexpected rainstorm, Fuga lets her experiences of living in Hawaiʻi spark the songwriting process. Her favorite song she has written is on her new album. Personal yet relatable, Fuga sings of being literally too hot in the Hawai’i heat in “Too Hot Mama.”
With a rhythmic sway and Fuga’s soothing voice, “Too Hot Mama” is a calming and reminiscent of a heart-warming lullaby.
Fuga sings of being rocked to sleep under an avocado tree as an infant. With a rope tied to her stroller, Fuga’s grandfather tied the other end to his foot, so he could leave her outside in the breeze while he watched TV. More importantly than cooling her off, Fuga’s grandfather reminded her she could pursue any dream.
Along with being deeply inspired by life in Hawaiʻi, Fuga is passionate about generating social change through her music. With her powerful voice and healing melodies, perseverance and hope are at the heart of Fuga’s songs.
For those feeling beat down, Fuga said, “I have a song called ‘Just a Little Bit,’ and the lyrics are: Just hold on a little bit longer, I know in time, you’ll feel a little stronger. There’s different ways to persevere through trying circumstances. There’s a lot of examples in that one song.”
In the opening track, “Just a Little Bit,” Fuga sings with infectious joy, “Smile, just a little brighter, and all your troubles will seem a little lighter.”
Rain on Sunday also includes a beautiful rendition of “Hōkūleʻa Star of Gladness,” written by George ‘Boogie’ Kalama, a crew member on the Hōkūleʻa, the voyaging canoe in the legendary expedition from Hawai’i to Tahiti in 1976. “It’s a song I’ve been singing for years and years,” Fuga said. “It’s my favorite song to play, especially for keiki.”
Fuga asked Boogie’s son, Ikaika Kalama, a close friend, if she could record the song for her album. When he said yes, he came to the studio with his own son. “I felt a great sense of honor and pride to record that song with Ikaika and his son,” Fuga recalled. “Boogie passed away, so it was a way of remembering him and it brought this wonderful feeling of love. It was a beautiful moment.”
Music has always been Fuga’s method of inspiring and uplifting those around her. “My gift is music. It’s how I communicate to the world,” she said.
To commemorate years of songwriting and her latest album, Fuga celebrated in local style. While brainstorming ideas for a listening party, she learned about jam sessions at the Hāna Refuse and Recycling Center. Fuga said she heard from a friend that the community gathers at the Hāna landfill to listen to music from their car speakers.
When Fuga was in Hāna in the beginning of June for a private event, she inquired more about these roadside parties. After a few phone calls, a music session was organized for Fuga to present a rare preview of her new album, which was released later that month on June 25. “I was able to share my music with the people of Hāna and I loved that,” Fuga said.
Fuga also created the lyrical cover art in collaboration with her close friends in Pāʻia, at Wings Hawaiʻi. Made with French Appliqué, a sewing technique, the cover is a stunning fabric collage of Fuga surrounded by flowers inspired by a photo taken of her in Hāna.
In July, Fuga returned to her favorite island to give breathtaking performances. Accompanied by Ethan Copone on the keyboard and Brad Watanabe on the ukulele, Fuga and her men brought passion to every lyric and key. Capone entertained the crowd with incredible keyboard runs while Watanabe impressed the audience with intricate chord combinations.
Although Fuga’s shows sold out, safety protocols limited capacity, making the concerts feel more personal. With her warm personality and charm, connecting with Fuga was effortless. She told the crowd at da Playground that she has 14 best friends and by the end of the night, members of the audience were vying to be her 15th.
Fuga and her music exude aloha. From the emotional lyrics to the instrumental vibrations, the influence of the islands in Fuga’s soulful music makes her an artist that will be celebrated for generations in Hawaiʻi and beyond.
Photo Credit: Sean Hower
Album artwork courtesy of Paula Fuga Music