LIHU‘E — You don’t have to understand how things work, but singer Baiyu takes comfort in believing that things come together for a reason and with purpose.
Baiyu performed at the Aloha Kaua‘i benefit concert for Japan last weekend, traveling here from New York for her first visit to the island since living here for six months in 2010. She moved to NYC for its energy and opportunities with music and film but said Kaua‘i is refreshing as the polar opposite of The Big Apple.
“A lot of people say that this place is a spiritual center,” said Baiyu, noting that she began to cry when she saw the mountains from the airport baggage terminal. “I have a connection, emotionally, and have had some wonderful times here. It is a connection with happiness.”
She has learned the big city’s “unfiltered, up-front” way of communicating, but said Kaua‘i reminded her that people are preoccupied with the business of life and need to just enjoy their friends and the surroundings more often.
“Here, I just learn to appreciate the place for what it is and I love how friendly the people are,” she added. “Everything here is tied to a very happy memory.”
When Baiyu decided to live here from November 2009 to April 2010, she recalls that a Kaua‘i resident responded to her Craigslist ad to sublet her Queens apartment. The resident in turn matched up Baiyu with a friend to room with in Kapa‘a. She also waitressed part-time to make ends meet.
She met Kaua‘i Festival promoter Bertram Almeida at a charity benefit, exchanged cards and got a call for the Japan benefit. She said it was an exciting idea but couldn’t afford the trip. Vaughn Thomas, a former Kaua‘i resident now living in Washington State, donated air miles to make the trip possible.
On the Alaska Airlines flight over Baiyu won the “golden coconut,” the lucky drawing for 25,000 air miles after filling out the agriculture form. She plans to return the miles to Thomas.
“It was karma,” she said.
The trail to the Japan benefit has another interesting turn. After her debut EP, “B-Side” in 2010, Baiyu released “Fanfare” in 2011. Just days before its release, she said the level of destruction and suffering caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan really got to her. She decided to offer all profits from song downloads to relief efforts.
“It was so immediate,” she said. “As an artist and as a human being, I wanted to know, what could I do to help?”
Baiyu has strong spiritual roots and sang with high school and college choirs. She defines her personal success as being able to channel her energy in a positive way. She said people respond well to music benefits and that using her craft to contribute — and write a check to relief efforts — felt as good as the positive comments from fans about her music.
As a Chinese American and immigrant, Baiyu said she is sensitive to the cold relations between China and Japan. To her it was important to do what is right in this tragedy. “This is my way to say, ‘Here are my open arms,’” she added.
Baiyu’s set opened with “Together” and then “Alter Ego,” when a downpour of rain sent people under umbrellas and tents. Baiyu never missed a beat and continued on with “Don’t Cry” and her other fan favorite,
“Sweet Misery,” both of which were written and recorded on Kaua‘i.
Her encore included an unreleased song, “You’re So Special To Me,” and “Invisible,” the bonus track on Fanfare.
Two area DJs, Kaimana K and Preston Nago, learned Baiyu’s set in one morning and ran the mix for her show.
While in Kaua‘i last year Baiyu filmed videos for “Sweet Misery”, and a remix video for the Ryan Leslie song “When We Dance,” both at Donkey Beach and in Kapa‘a. She also filmed in Po‘ipu.
Baiyu describes her sound as a fusion of introspective “eclectic pop and R&B” with an international perspective. Her songwriting process involves a fantasy or dream becoming a concept that is expanded with a melody. The producer helps develop the concept into a project.
“Every song starts with a concept that is usually true to life,” she said.
Born Sara Baiyu Chen in Xiamen, China, her childhood memories are of poverty, outdoor plumbing and listening to her mother sing. At age 8 she and her family moved to Gaithersburg, Md., where she took an interest in popular music before she could speak English.
While at Princeton University, Baiyu became one of the first permanent video jockey hosts for MTV’s “The Freshman” that ran from 2002-2008. She held the job until she graduated in addition to pursuing modeling, kickboxing, Chinese dance and ballet.
She also enjoys acting and although they are mainly independent film projects, she does have hopes that a recent short film with Dan Curry, the Emmy-winning Star Trek special effects artist now making his way into directing, will do well in the festival circuit.