Looking for a way to lift – or call upon – your spirits this autumn? Rocking the streets of Brooklyn, Manulani says why not both, bringing the energy with their dark pop as they unveil their debut single Love Bump, out today. We talk literature, drag artists, and the freedom to be yourself.
Your name, Manulani – it’s a beautiful name. If you don’t mind me asking, is this your chosen name for your music career or something else? I read it is of Hawaiian origin, and I would love to know your inspiration or relationship behind it.
I’m of native Hawaiian descent, and Manulani is my given name meaning “bird of heaven.” It was given to me by my maternal grandfather at birth, so it’s on my birth certificate. Growing up, my family mostly called me Lopaka, which is the Hawaiian form of my first name, Robert. I was rarely called Manulani, but as I became an adult, I started to deepen my connection to it and my ancestors after a life-changing trip to Oahu where my family’s from.
This may sound corny, but I think my whole life I’ve been trying to reach a place of celestial awareness outside of myself, but as I’ve developed as an artist, I’ve found that heaven has always been inside of me. It’s found through what I create and put out into the world as an offering. Having the name Manulani reminds me that making music is not about how many people listen to it, it’s about just resonating with those who choose to receive it as a gift–whether it’s two people or two hundred. And also, it’s truly just for me ultimately. It’s the place I go when I have nowhere else to put my pain. 
You’ve said that you have been creating and writing music since you were 16 but never shared this. Was there an initial sound or genre that intrigued you or that you wanted to create when you were younger, and how has this influenced your sound now?
So, growing up, we were really only allowed to listen to Christian contemporary music. The first secular album my dad brought home was Breakaway, by Kelly Clarkson. Songs like Addicted and I Hate Myself for Losing You were my ANTHEMS. I had been desperate to hear music other kids were listening to, and this was my introduction. But it wasn’t until Kelly released her entirely self-written album My December when I really started to connect the power of bridging pop with a singer/songwriter approach.
Then, I discovered my favourite album of all time: Evanescence’s The Open Door. It was like this witch call to me… The melodrama, the operatic melodies, the yearning and angry lyrics. Amy Lee’s voice! It was all just so big and dark but freeing and empowering. That’s when I started writing my own lyrics over Evanescence songs, and soon discovered Within Temptation and Three Days Grace. I was this shy, nerdy, closeted gay kid who wore scarves all the time and loved theatre, but beneath my warm exterior, I hated myself intensely. The darkness and beauty of the music is where I found sanctuary.
Then I came out, and The Fame Monster came along. Suddenly, I was opened up to pop itself being dark, marrying theatre and ritual with old-school pop sensibilities, which led me to Madonna–the music video for Frozen changed my fucking life and more. Love Bump encapsulates a lot of that for me, and it happened subconsciously. The Evanescence-inspired bridge, that dark-pop Gaga chorus, the guitar synth hook, all in service of what I feel I’m really here to do: be a storyteller. 
You began your music journey at 16, however, you hit a self-confessed breaking point in 2020. If you feel comfortable sharing, could you discuss this more? Was there a particular event that was the catalyst to you releasing your musical side?
Well, I began 2020 quite optimistic, actually. My PR business (Witch House PR) was on an upward trajectory, I was getting ready to start living alone for the first time in New York, I got my first vocal coach, I was about to go on tour with a client across Europe for the first time. I was excited about the future, and nothing could hold me back from pursuing music. Then, of course, you-know-what happened. But I pushed ahead regardless, writing music and working on songs with Gregory Dillon.
It wasn’t until the start of 2021 when an earth-shattering breakup threw me on the ground. It wasn’t just the relationship; it was everything around me that was changing and shedding –friends, work, my relationship with myself. I had to face very hard truths about myself, why I chose relationships the way I did, why I couldn’t be alone, and why my identity was seemingly wrapped up in other peoples’ approval. That’s when the good songs started coming out of me–it was like I was writing from this place of rebirth without knowing I was in fact being reborn.
Looking back now, it was such a beautiful time, but when you’re in it, all you feel is darkness and destruction. I would say once I lost everything I thought made me me, it freed me to create from a more pure and authentic place. Now I’m exactly who I always wanted to be, or at least, on that path to becoming. I’m so grateful for that dark period.
Your music has been categorised as dark pop, which seems to capture the range of influences and sounds in your upcoming EP. Do you have any alternative way that you personally would use to describe or categorise your sound and style?
Spiralling dancing maniacal witch with a broken heart. I’m not sure if that describes the sound sonically, but I think that gives a visual interpretation of how the music sounds.
Your debut single, Love Bump, I was very surprised to read you had written this initially in ten minutes. Can you tell us more about your creative process?
Yes! The chorus came in less than ten minutes–it actually started out kind of as a joke. My dear friend Mettie Ostrowski posted a photo of herself looking stunning in front of bumper cars. Our friend put a screenshot of the post in our group chat and said, this is Mettie’s album cover. We started throwing around names of the album, one was Bump 4 Your Love, and then I said, Love Bump. To be cheeky, I decided I’d send back a hook really quick on what Love Bump would sound like and wrote the chorus of the song at the piano. I sent the voice memo within like seven minutes.
I had Mettie’s experiences in mind and also my own when I wrote it–and next thing you know, I’m writing a full song. I sent it to Gregory Dillon when I had it completed and he was like, oh, we have to work on this together! Some of my favourite songs I’ve written have come out of the most spontaneous and random prompts, and Love Bump is one of those songs. Some start out as just a melody with no words, some come out of me with melody and lyrics simultaneously, and some come out of a track I hear. But it always has to come from a vision I have or a feeling.
The song was born out of “the darkest years” of your life as you say. How did you approach translating such bad experiences into your music and lyrics?
I think when you’re writing because you have to, there’s no conscious approach, there’s just doing it. It was all spilling out of me in a way I’d never felt before. No road map, no conscious thought behind it, just allowing it to come, and come through.
Opening up to an audience about personal struggles isn’t easy. Do you try to find a balance between being vulnerable but also protecting yourself and your privacy?
I’d say that putting my wounds into music is the easy part. It stands on its own as a piece of art, and when you make something authentic and true to your experience, there’s no shying away from it. You just stand back and let it breathe. The part I struggle with is the TikTok of it all to be honest [hah!]. I know that it’s a necessary platform to grow your audience as a musician these days but trying to synthesise my songs as ‘relatable content’ freaks me out. I’m like… Can I do a TikTok video where I’m like, I wrote this song about this person doing X and Y to me, and post it? I don’t know.
I’m a publicist so I’m realistic and know I need to get there, but that to me feels more intrusive on my privacy and the relationships I write about than the actual song. With music, I can just hide easter eggs and references only me and the person would know. With TikTok, it’s like I’m opening an investigation. Maybe I’m overthinking it and taking it too seriously… I’m famously known for overthinking.
There is also a music video accompanying this release. You’ve said you drew inspiration for your music video from The Sensual World by Kate Bush and worked with this very Gothic tradition of inversion. Can you expand on this at all, and your vision for the music video?
So, I kept seeing this vision of a veil flying around me when I was thinking about what the visuals would be for Love Bump. But because I overthink and can take things too seriously, I was like: but why do I see that? What’s the intention, girl? That’s when I thought about The Sensual World music video, and how it’s a song Kate wrote inspired by Molly Bloom in Ulysses–stepping off the black-and-white page and into the real world.
Love Bump represents a time in my life where I saw no colour, only grey, and so it felt natural to me to create a prequel of sorts to The Sensual World. I took inspiration from Kate’s look in the video and I brought the concept to my genius friend Jazzmint Dash, an incredible artist, designer and drag performer in New York. We went shopping together for fabrics in the Garment District and she made the look of the video based on Kate’s look. But of course, Jazzmint being Jazzmint, she took it to the next level. I also took reference from Amy Lee and my favorite Madonna video, Frozen.
The video was directed by Gregory Dillon and edited by Miwa Sakulrat, to whom you refer as your “brilliant Virgo heroes.” What is your relationship with astrology like? By the way, what sign are you, and what does it say about you?
Gregory and Miwa really are the best. I’m so lucky to have them in my life. I’m a Sagittarius sun, Cancer rising, Pisces moon and Scorpio Venus. So, despite being a December Sagittarius, there’s a lot of water in my chart! The Sag tends to come out in how I communicate and make moves in the world –often blunt, passionate, always have my eye on the prize. But my inner world and how I love or feel through things is definitely watery as hell.
For example, Love Bump was originally a sad-girl ballad I wrote at the piano, but of course, when I got into the studio with Gregory, we started crafting this anthemic and raging record that kind of gives me the power back in a way. I love making songs from a super sad starting point and then give them as gifts to feel empowered.
You’ve mentioned that storytelling is a driving force for you to create music, and that you were inspired by Kate Bush in your visual expression, who writes so notably about literature such as Ulysses and Wuthering Heights. Do you find that you have any literary influences in your music or development of your style? Do you have a favourite novel or author who inspires you?
My answer is kinda basic but here it goes: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It’s cliché, I know, but that’s what started it all as a former Tumblr girlie. I read that shit and suddenly I was writing about my life in this roman à clef way that has influenced the music.  Also, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. She writes so matter-of-factly about grief in what she sees and what she’s feeling, and how she processes every detail.
A lot of lyrics may sound like metaphors but are actually just things that happened. I love that. I love just putting in the most specific scenarios that tell the story and leave it up to interpretation. It feels more universal the more specific you are. Also, writers like Glennon Doyle and Brene Brown push me just to say the hard stuff, to really look at myself and talk about my own mistakes without shame. There’s immense freedom in that.
You also cite Lady Gaga, Evanescence, and Banks as some influences of yours musically. Outside of music, what other artists do you like? (Filmmakers, actors, visual artists…)
Drag queens! I’m very blessed to have gotten to work with incredible queens who are true artists and visionaries, creating everything from costumes to characters to productions to albums and film–all from the ground up. The queens I’ve worked with have shown me the importance of rooting your art in authenticity and queer history. Sasha Velour inspires me to create every detail in a performance, visual or photo with intention. She’s one of the greatest illustrators and visual artists alive, who pushes the boundaries of lip sync performance. I’ve been blessed to see her live so many times, she’s a true artist who really encouraged me along my music journey.
Jinkx has taught me how to let your talent shine without apology, assume the best in people, and take your craft seriously but not yourself. And that voice… the fucking pipes! It’s like she comes from a whole showbiz legacy and she’s just getting started. BenDeLaCreme, my Cancer rising sister, has shown me how to take all the hard stuff we go through and transform it into entertainment that people can relate to. Her writing is brilliant–the things she comes up with are just out of this world and how she performs it in this character she created herself is just so fucking funny. And then she tugs at your heartstrings right when you’re taking a break from a deep belly laugh.
Drag artists are truly the ones holding up the golden age of show business work ethic and making space for queer audiences and misfits. No other stars come close
Do you have a particular emotion you want to provoke or a desired message you want listeners to take away from this EP?
I just want to inspire listeners to find freedom in who they are and say fuck-off to shame. Shame holds us back in so many ways, it’s held me back from putting my art into the world for so long. I think sometimes when we get duped in relationships or get made to feel stupid, we want to act like it didn’t happen. But there’s so much power in acknowledging it happened–it leads to growth and being truer to ourselves. Never let shame block you from the lessons.
Did you face any unique challenges or interesting moments during the creation of Love Bump that influenced the final result that we can expect?
I think the biggest challenge was just going forward with releasing it. I’m still scared. I’ve always felt ugly my entire life–too ugly to be successful, too ugly to be loved, too ugly to be an artist. I’ve always feared putting myself out there and being seen. But I just kept dragging myself to do everything from making the song, to making the visuals, to putting a release plan in place… all of it. I’m not sure if I’ll ever magically wake up and feel, you deserve this, but my friends and community have encouraged me at every turn.
Every single person that worked with me on this: Gregory Dillon, Miwa Sakulrat, Mettie Ostrowski, Patrick Donovan, Jazzmint –they all believed in me and wanted to help bring this vision to life. I also thank my pop star friends Mel 4Ever and Bentley Robles for constantly pushing me. These are all incredible people who are so fucking good at what they do. It still shocks me how much they believe in this. I think that’s what comes across in the final result…LOVE. It was a community effort, and it just feels like love, scrappiness and artistic determination.
After releasing this EP, what can fans expect from Manulani next? Is there a tour on the horizon, perhaps?
Oh heavens. I think a tour is quite a ways away, but I’m so excited to start performing shows around New York. It’s horrifying to me, but I can’t wait. I’m also gearing up for my second single, Emocean, which also began as a sad-girl ballad but has since transformed into a huge dance/pop/rock record produced by Jack Hoffman. The video for that one is going to be insane and is certainly the most ‘me’ song I’ve written so far. It’s kind of like my Blank Space. Taking all the negative things people from the past have said about me and kind of parodying the character they assigned me. But there’s so much confessional truth in it too. While I’m still in my infancy as an artist in many ways, I look forward to revealing myself throughout each record drop leading to the EP. Until then, I offer you Love Bump as a special introduction.
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