Caged Birds Who Sing

Lei Lina and Izik

Musicians Izik Moreno and Lina Robins-Tamure put words and melodies to songs about love, pain, and all the harrowing emotions in between.

Images by Michael Vossen

There’s a vulnerability apparent in any song written by singer-songwriters Izik Moreno and Lina Robins-Tamure. The solo artists have a talent for rendering heartbreak into soulful numbers—the most heart-wrenching being a ballad, “Wildflower,” the pair wrote together based on a poem Robins-Tamure wrote as a teenager. We asked Moreno and Robins-Tamure to put down the instruments and interview one another about their practice. At the East-West Center’s Japanese gardens in Mānoa, the two talk about the current state of Hawaiian music, breakups, and their deep love for all things Mariah Carey.

Izik: I wore flowers today in honor of our song, “Wildflower,” that we wrote together. Are you happy? Tell me what you think. Make an assessment immediately. How beautiful do I look?
Lina: You always look beautiful. I feel bad I didn’t have time to get you a lei. I was actually going to bring Niʻihau shell lei.
Izik: Um, yeah, I don’t want the curse. You can keep it.
Lina: (Groans) They’re not cursed.
Izik: (Laughs) Okay, do you have a question for me?
Lina: How was the drive here?
Izik: This is going to be 30 minutes of us just, “Sooo, what’d you eat last night?”
Lina: Well, this is the only petty question I have: Will I be on your next album? (Laughs)
Izik: Listen, I tried to get you into the studio. You were either on a plane to Japan or you were playing a gig in Waikīkī with some world-renowned Hawaiian musician. Or at Merrie Monarch. So, I’ve tried to get you on my album. Don’t even try that. You’ll be on this one, I promise.
Lina: Thanks very much.
Izik: All jokes aside, writing “Wildflower” with you was really easy. Not only because it was inspired from the poem that you wrote, but because you have a very calming energy that created a very auspicious moment for that song to materialize. Can you talk about the song and what it means to you?
Lina: Well, “Wildflower” did, on your part, happen really fast. I think we even came up with the melody pretty quick. It’s basically a song about unrequited love, or somebody that I had cared about but the mutual feelings not being there. The song was a way of helping me to realize that being friends is much more meaningful than exposing my feelings and totally losing the friendship, which would kill me.
Izik: Do you feel like as songwriters we tell the whole world how we feel, so that somehow it gets to the ears of the person we’re actually talking about?
Lina: In the most indirect way.
Izik: So, we’re passive aggressive?
Lina: Exactly.
Izik: Cool, next question. (Laughs)

 

Lina: If you can narrow it down, what is one of your favorite songs you’ve written?
Izik: My grandma’s song, “Watch Me From Above.” I was in a really shitty place the night I wrote it. I was waiting on tables, and my grandma had just passed away. That night, every table was super mean to me. I got to the kitchen with all these plates in my hands, and I thought, “If these people knew I just lost the most important person in my life, would they still be this cruel?” I went home super heavy, took a shower, and was just bawling. I don’t know what it was—I heard this melody creeping in my head, and it got louder and louder. I turned off the shower, and still soaking wet, ran into my room. Fifteen minutes later I had written this song. The chord changes in it, the musicality of it, for me, was completely different from what I normally write. And the lyrics came out instantly. I don’t ever feel like I wrote that song.
Lina: Whether it was given to you, you still have brought it to light.
Izik: So, you and I have a very deep, infinite love for Mariah Carey. For me, when I think about being an 8-year-old boy discovering her, what captured me was the power of her vocals, of course, but also her songwriting. What is it about her that is alluring to you?
Lina: I first really heard her in ’98 …
Izik: Was it big hair Mariah or was it straight hair Mariah?
Lina: It was big hair Mariah. It was VH1 Divas Live. She did “My All” and “Make it Happen,” then she did “Chain of Fools” with Aretha. I remember I just fell in love with her instantly. She was the first cassette, I got. I wore her cassettes out. I had to buy like two or three because I used to listen to it so much.
Izik: When you were a kid, you were invited to go on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and you got to meet and write with Mariah. That was actually the first time that I heard about you. My grandma and I taped that show because we had heard about a boy from Hawaiʻi who got invited. Fast forward to today, whenever that comes up, the vibe that I get is you get really uncomfortable talking about that. Is it because it’s in your past, before you transcended and became Lina?
Lina: I guess it has a little bit to do with it. But it’s more so just because, you know, I don’t really like to bring attention to myself. It was a very good time in my life.
Izik: That’s a huge moment.
Lina: Not that I don’t appreciate it or don’t like talking about it. It was a really, really good time in my life with so many opportunities that came my way after the show.
Izik: What happened after?
Lina: I think this is where it brings back certain memories of what could’ve been or what didn’t happen. After the show I actually signed with Vérité Records, which is a label under Sony, and they did R&B and gospel music and that was the road I was going to go down. It just never really worked out. I think at the time, my age and my appearance kind of played a part in why things didn’t. It was a long time of being bound to this contract. From being on the show and signing with Sony, I couldn’t do a lot of things because I was still under contract, and they weren’t doing anything with me.
Izik: They shelved you.
Lina: Yes.
Izik: What does Mariah Carey smell like?
Lina: Mariah smells … rich. And, like, a diva, in the best way.
Izik: Yes, rich does have a scent.

Lina: Can you name an album from your childhood that has helped influence your writing or musical style?
Izik: Other than Mariah, it was always Hawaiian music, like Robi Kahakalau, Teresa Bright, Kealiʻi Reichel, Uluwehi Guerrero. I don’t know if that shaped me as songwriter because as a kid I hated Hawaiian music. It just got under my skin, and I used to get so angry when my grandma played Hawaiian music. It wasn’t until I moved away to college, and I realized how beautiful it was because it gave me so much comfort when I was away from home. I look at the meanings behind what they’re writing, and it’s just so deep. That’s what I aspire to as a songwriter. So today it shaped me, but as a kid, no, it didn’t shape me. As a teenager, I was listening to a lot of different music—Destiny’s Child, Lit, Papa Roach, Dashboard Confessional, The Offspring, 3LW, TLC. My first concert was actually Blink-182. But you asked what one album?
Lina: If you can.
Izik: I would say Mariah’s Butterfly because there’s a song on there called “Outside.” (Sings) “You will always be somewhere on the outside.” When I heard that song I was like, “This is me! I’m a little gay kid trapped in this body. Trapped in this Mormon body. Please! I’m on the outside!” So I think Butterfly was the one that shaped me and made me want to start writing music and singing.
Lina: You had an amazing show called The Empty Birdcage at the Doris Duke Theatre.
Izik: Five people came to it.
Lina: There were definitely seven. (Izik laughs) This is the first show that I was not directly a part of, and it was awesome for me to sit back and take it all in. It really was the best show you’ve ever put on.
Izik: Thanks, girl.
Lina: What was the concept for The Empty Birdcage?
Izik: I really wanted people here in Hawaiʻi to see that it’s important to focus on other things besides just the music. As an artist, it’s important to explore other avenues of expressions and mediums, otherwise you’ll never know what you’re able to do outside of music—there’s video, there’s costume. Conceptually, I wanted to explore how we measure life without using time as the increment.
Lina: The show was kind of an escape for me. Coming from the Hawaiian music realm, from the people I work with and how I was raised, what you wear and how you look on stage, whether you’re doing a hula show or concert in Japan, appearance is such a big thing—as it should be, we’re representing our culture.

Lei Lina and Izik

Izik: You’re a very prominent figure in the Hawaiian music scene. Where do you see Hawaiʻi’s music scene going?
Lina: We’re in a good place right now. When I was in high school, singing traditional Hawaiian music wasn’t a popular thing to do. It’s still not a mainstream thing, but I feel like there’s a lot of younger people that I’ve seen or groups loving Hawaiian music and singing traditional Hawaiian music. And there are those who are innovating and trying different things with Hawaiian music that are awesome. You have some people who are trying to attempt Hawaiian R&B, Hawaiian rap, spoken word, and I love it, but there’s a lot of people in the Hawaiian music community that feel that it should only be a certain way. I’ve definitely had to struggle with that in my own career in Hawaiian music. But I love it because if we don’t continue it, whether you’re doing traditional or contemporary, then we’ll lose it. Language wise, music wise, people are fighting for our culture and our people.
Izik: Let’s talk about love, real quick. So, like, will you make out with me and fill the void that my dad left? (Both laugh.) Do you feel like it’s hard to find love, you personally as a transgender woman?
Lina: I’ll take “hell, yes” for 500 points. I think it has a lot to do with me and my insecurities. I feel like if I—wow, we’re getting deep.
Izik: Are you going cry? I love when people cry, it turns me on. (Both laugh)
Lina: If I was to put myself out there more and make more of a conscious effort in trying to find love, I guess it would be easier.
Izik: There was a moment in our friendship when I had a crush on you. And I’m saying that in all seriousness. There was point where I was like, “I could be with Lina.” I could see myself being with you, and I felt very confused about my feelings. I was also drinking a lot of vodka at the time. Not to say that I needed it to fall in love with you! (Laughs) You’re gorgeous, Lina, and your energy—I want to be around you all the time. Hug me, in the Japanese garden of love, make love until the morning sun rises on a bed of Lei magazines! (Both laughs)
Lina: Thank you. I surround myself with people who I love and can love unconditionally. I remember a very rough time in your love life about four years ago. Are you more open to love now?
Izik: I’ve always been open to love. During my break up, I went through a lot of stages of being sad and angry, but once I worked through those emotions I was able to stand at a very clear vantage point and see the situation for what it was very clearly. The shame is in staying in a situation that isn’t making you happy. I felt like I had a lot of responsibility in why that relationship didn’t work. Now that I’m able to see that, I’m able to move on, which is why I’ve been working out a lot more and trying to take care of my body. I was really in a horrible place. I was going out to Scarlet and getting wasted every single night. I just had such a negative attitude toward the gay community because I felt like, “They only like the pretty boys, and I’m never going to find someone.” Now that I’m in a clearer head space, I’m able to take away that rigid view of the community and see that it’s just me. I’m always ready for love. But I have to take care of myself first and fly like a bird.

Lei Lina and Izik

Wildflower

These hands of mine are telling me to
Put it down, let it go,
Don’t get hurt again,
This love is fleeting,
Control evaporates from these hands,
That turns into the rain that soaks my heart

But I had yet to bloom,
You had yet to know,
What colors and what shapes I was about to take,
You will never know,

Chorus:
Where the wildflowers grow,
Where the wildflowers grow,
Where the wildflowers grow,
Come see wildflowers grow,

Your hands belong in mine,
we’re safe here in my mind,
But the sun she likes to shine,
Just close your eyes,
This dream is fleeting,
I gladly sacrifice my heart,
For your company, 

But I had yet to bloom,
You had yet to know,
What colors and what shapes I was about to take,
You will never know,

Where the wildflowers grow,
Where the wildflowers grow,
Where the wildflowers grow,
Come see wildflowers grow,

Come with me, wildflowers grow

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