Eli Smart’s idiosyncratic pop feels like a bridge between worlds. Blending the tropical vibes of his Hawaii home with chops sharpened in the musical hotspot of Liverpool, England, he writes restless tunes drenched in hypnotic guitar, rendering his laidback angst in masterful psychedelic swirls. Listening to his compositions is like relaxing in a sun-kissed paradise while being unable to keep your mind off the storm brewing on the horizon. Smart unites these seemingly disparate worlds—21st-century unease and maximum chill—on his debut EP Boonie Town, recorded in his bedroom in the South Pacific and, yes, a flat in the UK. “Everybody’s a loner,” he sings dreamily on “Come Down,” over a bright, head-nodding groove. “Don’t fight the come down.”
Raised on Kauai, known to Hawaiians as The Garden Isle because of its jaw-dropping sprawl of natural beauty, Smart grew up around family with music in their bones. His grandmother Denise Kaufman (known professionally as “Mary Microgram”) shredded the six-string and opened for Jimi Hendrix as part of the ‘60s all-girl psych-rock group, Ace of Cups. And his grandpa and father are both jazz guitarists, the former having shared a bill with Duke Ellington. His mother, a jazz singer and writer, meanwhile, may have had the most impact on Smart. “Mom is the most musical out of all of us,” he says. “Her songwriting has been a massive influence on me.”
Vital soul, blues, and Motown wafted through his home as a kid alongside classic counterculture pop. And he learned even more working at Hanalei Strings, the island’s only record shop. “We put a stage in the corner and put on gig nights there with my mates and whatnot,” Smart says. “We created a little environment, so it was very much like music camp for my family. Their passion for it was directly transferred to me.” It was there that his tastes really filled out, as he found himself particularly enamored with Beleza Tropical, a 1989 compilation of Brazilian classics curated by David Byrne. It’s easy to hear the marks tropicalia have made on Smart, clear in the glittering jangle of woozy guitars and rhythms made for moving to.
It was his reverence for the greats that led him out of the idylls of Hawaii and across the globe to the drizzly ancestral home of The Beatles, and into Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institution for Performing Arts. Immersed in his new environment, Smart found himself pushed to create his own wildly colourful musical world with Boonie Town, stretching his pop sensibilities into new territories by juxtaposing hazy malaise and sunshine (“Come Down”), unfurling complex musicality (the quicksilver fretwork of “High School Steady”), and experimenting with form and delivery (the staccato flows of “No Destination”). “The synthesis of these two places is what the EP is about,” Smart explains. “I’m feeling a little torn about getting my own life going outside of Kauai, which will always be my home. It’s just a bit of a melancholy realization, you know?”
But for the rest of us, Boonie Town is something else. Smart pulls off a feat that would have seemed impossible on paper, and by mixing together his Kauai sunshine with Liverpool’s hard English rain, he’s created an entirely new, dreamy place we can visit: the land of Aloha Soul.For tour dates and more visit: www.elismartmusic.com/