Chicago singer-songwriter Kaina Castillo has been performing at venues across the city since she was a teen. The Irving Park native built a name for herself along the way, and is now touring on her first full-length album, Next to the Sun.
“My album is probably the most vulnerable work that I've made because there have been a lot of topics that I didn't want to talk about … things that affect me every single day of my life,” Kaina said. “But I quickly realized growing up that it's not sustainable to only share the good parts of your feelings.”
Kaina, 23, is a first-generation American with Venezuelan and Guatemalan roots. She started singing around age 8 and found early success doing production work for Chicago singers Jamila Woods and Ravyn Lenae and collaborations with local rappers Saba and the Burns Twins, among others.
Since then, Kaina has carved out a place of her own in Chicago’s music scene. She signed with the label Sooper Records in March and released Next to the Sun in July. The nine-track album is a sultry mix of R&B and soul that explores the duality of identity and the importance of community and family.
“My friend was like ‘Kaina when I listen to your songs, I feel like these are things you've been thinking about since you were a kid,’” she said. “And I started to realize that maybe that's true.”
A product of Chicago
By the time she was 16, Kaina had spent a decade performing with a Chicago-based nonprofit arts organization called The Happiness Club. She had originally auditioned to be a singer but joined the group primarily as a hip-hop dancer.
During that time, Kaina twice performed at the White House. A 2010 Chicago Tribune article on the organization describes Kaina as a “once super-shy” 14-year-old.
“I definitely was not confident when I started. This group really broke me out of my mold [and] pushed me out of my box,” she said. “It feels effortless now because of all the things that I had to learn or I didn't know at the moment I was learning.”
Kaina said she’s “still figuring it out” but hopes to give back and serve as a resource for a new generation of aspiring performers in the city.
“I always say that the place that I feel most comfortable in the world is the stage,” Kaina said. “It’s my moment to create a world for myself where there are no rules and no boundaries.”
Exploring love and identity
Kaina’s new album came together over a three-month period and co-produced with multi-instrumentalist Sen Morimoto, who is also featured on the track “Could Be a Curse.” She sings about being “stuck in between everything and nothing at all” on the track “What’s a Girl” and explores love and desire on “Joei’s Secret.”
“That’s my everyday life. I wake up and I'm so grateful but I also hate the world,” Kaina said. “I feel like some people think it's kind of random but that’s kind of the point. On top of thinking about all these messed up things in the world, I'm also a young woman thinking about stupid naive things like love.”
Kaina says her music is heavily influenced by her parents’ favorite artists, including the late “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz and disco singer Donna Summer. With few relatives in the states, Kaina said she felt connected to her Latin roots through music and the sense of community her family built on the Northwest side of Chicago. It’s a major theme in her work.
“You grow up and you learn all this language that you had never had before to describe your reality and your experiences” Kaina said. “So I'm like what does it mean to be a first-gen Latina, but, in love? Or like in sadness? In depression? It's different for all those spectrums and intersections of identity.”
Kaina will perform September 22nd at the Aragon Ballroom in Uptown. Tickets are on sale now.
Nereida Moreno is a producer with The Morning Shift. Follow her on Twitter at @nereidamorenos. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation, which was produced by Jason Marck, and follow him on Twitter @jasonmarck.