The Madison psych-funk artist shares his story through the songs that helped him understand it. (Photo by Scotify.)
On a Tuesday afternoon in late May, Trent Prall sprawls on a chair in his cluttered home studio on East Johnson Street, the sunlight of an inconsistent spring day filtering in. He’s in a reflective mood during our conversation about Kainalu songs, the solo project he introduced to the world with the 2017 EP Bloom Lagoon. As I ask him questions about the songs from the project’s forthcoming debut album, Lotus Gate, he often takes a few silent moments to contemplate and to gather a response.
Prall, born in San Diego, is practically a lifelong multi-instrumentalist, having practiced classical piano at a young age and taken up other instruments like violin, guitar, drums and bass during a childhood divided between Columbus, Hawaii, and Madison. He later studied music composition at UW-Madison.
Kainalu’s songs, blend depth and subtle detail with rigorous compositional structure. His lyrics favor mood and abstraction over characters and narratives: “Sun seeps between the leaves / Feel it touch you in the breeze / Your senses intertwine,” Prall sings on “Finding Peace of Mind.” Prall usually plays most of the instruments and handles all the production on Kainalu’s recordings; the live version of the band includes bassist Evan Nelson, guitarist Joe Waldbillig, drummer Matthew Allen, and percussionist Aaron Gochberg.
For Prall, who is of Japanese and Hawaiian descent, Kainalu’s songs are self-therapeutic, exploring his own journey in dealing with depression and anxiety, growing out of harmful conditioning, and assessing the person he’s become at the age of 26.
Ahead of Lotus Gate‘s release, which Kainalu will celebrate with a June 20 show at the High Noon Saloon, Prall discussed the finer points of writing and producing his songs—including Lotus Gate’s seven-minute closing track, “Talking Nonsense”—and how they relate to his experiences.
“Welcome to the Bloom Lagoon,” from Bloom Lagoon
Tone Madison: When I first listened to this song, it reminded me of “Runaway” by Kanye West, with those opening piano notes, but now it makes me think more of a score to something like Legend Of Zelda, in that it has this very introductory, world-building feel. Was that something you were trying to accomplish?
Trent Prall: I fucking love those games and the soundtracks for those games are amazing. I wrote this record when all my family was living in Hawaii. I was the only one in Wisconsin at this point and I got super detached and lonely because I’m really close with them. And weirdly enough, Hawaii’s been the only stable environment in my life growing up because of moving around all the time. I never had the same home for more than eight years, tops.
So, the idea of the record is that it’s a specific place in Hawaii I would go every time I visited during the summers I spent there. I wanted to write this track so it’s immediately like you’re in a tropical environment. The birds are a recording I took on my phone.
It also sounds very Japanese, which might be where the video game stuff comes from. I use the extended fourth chords, whereas Western music is very based on constructed thirds. But Japanese music is constructed on fourths and fifths together. Like if you ever listen to [Studio Ghibli’s] Spirited Away, that’s made of extended big chunks of fourths. [Plays original piano version of “Welcome to the Blue Lagoon”] This is how most of the songs are written. This is just me, I have the birds on this, but then I write the song on the piano. I wrote this one when I was in college, I think, It was basically a classical song that got groovy.
Tone Madison: I feel like that’s a good tagline for a lot of your songs. You answered my question before about what the Bloom Lagoon is, and I didn’t expect it to be such a literal place, and a personal one at that. How does it feel to let other people into such a personal space?
Trent Prall: It’s super nerve-wracking. I just don’t know how to do it any other way without it feeling inauthentic. I wrote it to heal myself, and I’m happy listening to it, so if other people find something listening to it, then that’s just a reward. If it’s relatable that’s great, but it’s very personal to me.
That is what’s so beautiful about it, though, is that you get to put what you want into it. I feel like that is the most flattering thing that could happen during music, don’t you think? I put my own emotions into it, but if the listener associates any sort of emotion into it, that’s the greatest compliment in the world.
“Wasting Away,” from Bloom Lagoon
Tone Madison: In this song, your vocals take up more sonic space than they usually do, and this also has the most extensive lyrics of any of your songs. Does that make this song the most personal for you?
Trent Prall: Yeah, I feel like this is the most applicable, and it’s pretty obvious what it’s about. I wrote this song after graduation about not liking my job. This is another one where I just wrote the song on the piano first and then added the instrumentation later, but this is my favorite one on the record. I don’t think it’s the most popular one, but with this one I remember what I was feeling at that moment in time.
Tone Madison: It’s also the conclusion to this EP, and it’s markedly different from the other songs on the record in that there is less groove and it’s almost like a ballad at the beginning.
Trent Prall: I also like for the last song to be the longest and most different because I feel like it’s a reward for making it all the way since most listeners won’t even get to it. For me, it’s like a pay-off.
Tone Madison: It also I think deals with the most difficult emotions on the record too. Do you see it as ending the record on a low point, emotionally?
Trent Prall: I think it’s uplifting. I really like the line, “I’m stressing out over nothing.” I say it to myself a lot, and that’s the positive aspect to me. I think it starts out negative, but by the conclusion, it’s like “OK, I’m just stressing out. I’m OK.” It’s working through your stress, that’s what the song’s about.
“Finding Peace Of Mind,” from Lotus Gate
Tone Madison: I think this is the song I was able to connect with the most on the new album. One book my therapist recommended me is The Power Of Now, by Eckhart Tolle, which not only has content about finding tranquility but is also written in a way that soothes. I feel like that kind of union between the content of a song and its form is something you’re trying to achieve on this track.
Trent Prall: This song started when I used to rent my parents’ house from them when they were living in Hawaii. My dad’s professor from college gave him all of this literature on eastern philosophy and mindfulness. So the first part, when it says, “You’re trying to find yourself in books stacked on the shelf,” is about this bookcase my dad left behind, and I started reading all these books. There’s this one in particular called “The Wisdom Of Insecurity,” which was the inspiration for this song. I just remember looking at all these books to try to understand mindfulness and calmness. I must’ve re-written these lyrics a thousand times. I wanted to write a poem basically.
I also wrote this because I was feeling very anxious at the time, and I wanted to self-treat. I’m talking to myself, but what I find so funny is that there’s heavy bassline and the drums are very smash, so it’s a very loud song, but it’s still very calming, which I thought was the opposite of what would happen. I remember thinking this was the cheesiest song ever, but I had a lot of people I don’t know reach out to me about it which is great.
“Lotus Gate,” from Lotus Gate
Tone Madison: This track in general also really makes me think about the importance of repetition in composition, with that synth pattern at the beginning as well as the drum and bass patterns. Why do you think so much of music embraces repetition so much, with only the most experimental of experimental music rejecting it?
Trent Prall: You have anywhere from two to five minutes to interest a listener. And I think that repetition and cycles allow you to implant ideas quicker. Specifically, when you’re writing a single, there’s this whole concept of the hook, right? You introduce an idea, then you explore another idea for 30 seconds, but then you return to the original idea so that you immediately access the nostalgia part of the brain within 30 seconds. Then by the second listen, the listener can sing it. It plays with how the brain is wired and how memories are formed.
Tone Madison: It’s also interesting that this is the title track of the new record as well as the opening song. Unlike “Welcome To The Bloom Lagoon,” this song really thrusts the listener directly into the deep end rather than gently welcoming them in. Why is that?
Trent Prall: Recently, I’ve felt like I’ve taken too long to get to the point, so I’ve been trying to lay it in. I just really like how the drums and bass go immediately on this one.
Tone Madison: Does that indicate a different sort of mission statement for this one?
Trent Prall: My taste in music has changed a lot, so I think that has a part to do with it. I’m less into flowery piano. I used to think it was so romantic to put a whole soloistic piano. Now I’m more into stepping up, and I’m really into the energy that can be brought on by driving bass.
Tone Madison: What about in terms of an emotional shift?
Trent Prall: I feel like Bloom Lagoon is much more of a flowery imagery album whereas this is very self-analytical. Bloom Lagoon is an outward-looking album whereas this one is more inward-looking. I don’t have to travel to get to a beach or something [like on Bloom Lagoon], whereas [on Lotus Gate] you just have to close your eyes and this is where it starts.
Tone Madison: And what is a Lotus Gate exactly?
Trent Prall: I just had this idea one day, because I’ve been practicing a lot of meditation, and to me, meditation feels like you’re exploring the inner processes of the soul. And I just really love the idea of, “What if this was an actual place that you could visit?” Or, by mediation, you’re unlocking this chamber of secrets, to quote Harry Potter.
On this song, it’s supposed to be like you’re opening the gate. The big line before the drop is “I can open the gate,” and it’s supposed to communicate that all of these emotions and ideas are flying out and you’re learning about yourself. It really meant a lot to me to put a physical place within yourself that you could explore.
Tone Madison: Another thing I wanted to talk about that I read in another one of your interviews is that one thing you’ve grown with overtime is learning to embrace your cultural heritage and get over the societal conditioning of resenting it. On this song, we have the lotus and other tracks have titles like “Kamikaze Mushroom Palace” and “Folds Like Origami.” How did that shift come about?
Trent Prall: I think it’s just growing older and becoming more comfortable wearing my own skin. I definitely had a lot of racial dysmorphia growing up. I grew up in a predominately white neighborhood in middle school, and everyone in middle school is a piece of shit. But, this is where the selfish qualities of the album come in because I find it really fulfilling for me to unapologetically be half Japanese.
Also, I pretty much rejected that part of my background until the last couple of years. So I’ve been really researching and exploring and understanding what it means and what my heritage is. Timing that with writing the music means it’s coming in really hard because it’s really inspiring me. I’m also going to wear kimonos [during live performances] and just really own it.
“Talking Nonsense,” from Lotus Gate
Tone Madison: So, this song is markedly different from any song you’ve released so far.
Trent Prall: I think it’s my favorite song I’ve ever written, and it’s probably because it’s the most different.
Tone Madison: It’s interesting to compare this as a concluding song to “Wasting Away,” the last song on Bloom Lagoon, because it seems like “Wasting Away” opens a door to some of the introspective tendencies of Lotus Gate, and then this one just goes in a completely different direction altogether.
Trent Prall: I think the two records are very similar in their compositions, but Lotus Gate is a little more fleshed out. And I don’t think this record is even as fleshed out as I want to write a record. I won’t be self-critical, but yeah, with this record I begin with an establishment of a place, and I end this record with the most expressive, different song.
Tone Madison: To me it feels like you’re looking outward again with a new understanding.
Trent Prall: That’s awesome, man! It’s very cool to hear someone else’s perspective on it because I’ve sat with it for so long.
Tone Madison: The light piano opening on the song is very deceptive for all the different components that come after it. Why start small?
Trent Prall: I wanted to write a song that never repeats itself in its orchestration. So, although the melodies maybe repeat themselves, the whole arrangement only builds up, and I wanted to hit this point where it’s as loud as I can possibly make something. Like, I’ve never had a fucking guitar solo on a song before.
Tone Madison: That’s interesting because I was under the impression that this song was in part improvised with other musicians. Did you write all of these different segments by yourself?
Trent Prall: It definitely is gridded out. I wrote all the individual pieces by myself and then I brought in [my bandmates].
Tone Madison: But, it definitely has that jam quality to it.
Trent Prall: It should! Matt, my drummer, for example, is a pocket drummer, which gives it this totally different feel than I could, where I’m always ahead of the beat. I feel like the more people that get brought into it, the more jammy it begins to feel.
Tone Madison: This song definitely has a different songwriting philosophy than the others. It’s much less cohesive. What does that shift represent for you, or what was the intent?
Trent Prall: I think it represents self-progression and growth. This song took the longest to write and it took me several months to put together the pieces of the song and figure out the tones. Every chunk is a different piece of music.
Tone Madison: It’s almost like rather than representing one specific moment and working on one individual issue, it has an element of the passage of time and progressing through a lot of them.
Trent Prall: Yeah, some songs I can write in three days so there’s a very cohesive sound. Whereas this is several months of experimentation. I think it communicates more growth because there literally was physical and mental growth that happened during its composition—learning how to record piano better and communicate ideas better, for example. And the emotions I felt while recording the beginning of the song, versus the end of it are much different.
Tone Madison: I think this song speaks to how, with mental health, we talk about working on yourself like it’s one specific process, but it’s really so many different things and takes a lot of time.
Trent Prall: It’s such a cool experience when you record yourself over a long period of time, because I’m basically playing with a previous version of myself. You’re almost having a conversation with a previous version of myself.
Tone Madison: What is that like, playing with a previous version of you, who might not know everything you know now?
Trent Prall: I think it’s very comforting because it gives you the perspective that everything will work out. You will reach the conclusion that you want, and I really felt that when I was writing this song. At the beginning of this, the lyrics were like, “My friends don’t understand me” and “I’m too in my own head,” but by the end, I didn’t feel that way anymore. I think it’s comforting in retrospect because when I feel that way now, I know in the future things will work out.
Tone Madison: Do you see this song pointing you toward any new direction in the future as well?
Trent Prall: I’m actually going to put another one out in September. I wrapped this one up in January and then immediately had another idea. I don’t want to just sit on the record. Moving forward, I think that song has opened up my influences a lot more, and I want to experiment. I write a lot of dance songs because I love dancing and making people move. With music, I think that’s a really powerful thing, and I’ve been exploring new processes to make that happen, like Afro-Cuban music. I hope that song establishes it won’t be the same kind of music all the time.
Tone Madison: What else is ahead for you?
Trent Prall: It’s funny because the idea for the overarching concept usually comes at the end. So, moving forward I don’t really know what that’s going to be. It could be a place or mental health, but I don’t really know where I’m going to be. It could be something totally different, I don’t know.
Tone Madison: And you’re OK with that?
Trent Prall: Yeah, it’s exciting!