story by Catharine Lo
photo by Brad Goda
Sporting a shoulder-length mullet, a leather jacket and a wry smile in his high school yearbook photo, Shawn Livingston Moseley didn’t look like the nationally ranked classical pianist he was. In the early ’90s, the North Shore-born surfer-composer expressed his talent in Hawai‘i’s much-loved roots reggae group, Dread Ashanti.
But that was high school, and Moseley knew there was more to learn. He left to study at Boston’s Berklee School of Music and for the ensuing fourteen years learned the ins and outs of recording, working with heavies like Metallica, the Dave Matthews Band and Destiny’s Child. He also ran his own recording studio, Witch Doctor Recording.
But his goal was to bring his experience home to benefit Hawai‘i’s under-supported artists, who, like musicians everywhere, have little hope of widespread success unless they sign with a major label. But signing with a label—if you’re even approached by one—is like a deal with the devil. The label handles licensing, publishing and distribution, but it retains ownership—and the lion’s share of the profits. A signed artist typically sees about 28 cents of a $15 CD—a meager 2 percent—Moseley says.
So in 2006, with partner Rodney Alejandro, Moseley founded ‘Aumakua Records, a boutique label dedicated to nurturing and protecting Hawai‘i artists (‘aumakua is Hawaiian for “guardian”). Moseley has taken the traditional paradigm and flipped it. While ‘Aumakua manages production, engineering, licensing and distribution, the artists retain 60 percent ownership, which Shawn hopes will win their loyalty and broaden the horizons for local musicians. With the monkey of a traditional label off an artist’s back, they’re free to explore new musical territory.
One example of the kind of music ‘Aumakua is making possible is last February’s Na Po Makole—The Night Rainbow, an innovative record from Moseley himself and guitar whiz Stephen Inglis, known together as S&S. The meditative compilation fuses classical piano with contemporary slack key guitar. The single “Pali Ku” evokes the feeling of the tradewinds blowing and light glittering on the ocean—a lullaby for adults. For Moseley, the record is a step in the evolution of local music, an example of what happens when a label gives its musicians the freedom “to keep doing what got them in the studio in the first place,” says Moseley, “to get out there and play.” HH