At this year’s Nā Hōkū Hanohano Awards, Natalie Ai Kamauu won an honor for lead vocals on her latest album and struck a catchy note in her acceptance speech: “Thanks to the ‘Dave Tucciarone School of Music’ for all this,” she beamed. Industry insiders at the gala event—Hawai‘i’s homegrown version of the Grammys—know that there is no actual Dave Tucciarone School of Music.
There is only Dave Tucciarone, the recording engineer/producer behind more than three hundred contemporary Hawaiian music albums and thirteen Nā Hōkū awards. Still, for Kamauu and scores of other local recording artists, there’s no denying the very real influence this metaphorical one-man music academy has had on their careers.
Recording engineer/producer is an elusive job title associated with a handful of towering icons like George Martin, a.k.a. “the fifth Beatle,” and Phil Spector, who played the role to the hilt and became more famous than some of the artists for whom he worked. Tucciarone is one of Hawaiian contemporary music’s toned-down, self-effacing versions of that. He’s a behind-the-scenes hit maker who takes the great voices of the Islands, honed in backyard and beach-park jam sessions, and he helps them achieve staying power.
The fact that many of the artists on the transplanted New Yorker’s roster record only in Hawaiian, and that Tucciarone speaks only English, is not a problem. As singer Hōkū Zuttermeister, winner of multiple Nā Hōkū awards himself, puts it,“Dave can tell you everything about chords and harmonies, but he also has got a heart for music, and Hawaiian music is best understood from the heart.”
Folding his rangy frame into a chair at the Honolulu apartment that doubles as a recording studio, Tucciarone shows his inclination to deflect praise. “Must be all those wads of cash I hand out at the Hōkū Awards,” he jokes. But he is profoundly serious about his commitment to coaxing clients to “sing from an emotional center.” If you don’t, “your recording is an inanimate object, and it has no life apart from you,” he says. “It is falling on deaf ears.”
To get the best out of each recording artist, he takes into consideration how fragile musicians’ egos can be. It’s something he understands personally. He’s a songwriter in his own right—he’s penned jingles for Reebok, Cadillac, Mitsubishi and other big brands—and he’s a multi-instrumentalist with a formal music education that began when he was a boy growing up on Long Island, New York. His deep theoretical background is unlike that of his typical clients, who grew up singing and playing by ear and might never have learned to read sheet music. But he is careful not be a pedagogue in the studio; instead he tries to direct musicians inward to their own rich cache of natural talent.“I don’t bombard anyone with music theory. I just guide them to where they want to go,” he says.
This doesn’t mean, however, that he is averse to doing what some have found to be a rite of passage at the Dave Tucciarone School of Music: expulsion. “If you think you’re emoting your socks off and you’re barely pushing the yellow on the meter,” he says, “then it’s time for me to say to you, ‘Go home, think about what each song truly means, recharge and return later.’”
Tucciarone’s approach can be frustrating for artists. Just ask Natalie Ai Kamauu, who first walked into his studio in 1995, fresh from winning the prestigious title of Miss Aloha Hula and eager to make her very first recording. Tucciarone was impressed with her voice, but in his soft-spoken yet straightforward manner he had to advise her that she was blasting her pipes to the point of sounding off-key and harsh. Kamauu, the prodigal daughter of two hula-master parents, had been performing for adoring audiences her whole life. Fueled by the adrenaline of the crowds, she’d gotten into the habit of, as Tucciarone put it, “putting the pedal to the floor.” The feedback came as a shock to young Kamauu, as did Tucciarone’s method of recording each musician separately and then layering all the tracks into a final product.
Alone in a booth, Kamauu heard Tucciarone in her headphones giving endless instructions aimed at helping her hold some of her vocal power in reserve. Not being allowed to sing the way she had always sung was hard for her. Some days she was nearly in tears. The result of those initial sessions was a Christmas single that didn’t do much on the charts. It did, however, have one long-lasting effect: It caught the attention of ‘Iolani Kamauu, a disc jockey with Hawaiian radio station KCCN-FM, who met and wed the singer before the next Christmas.
In 2004 a more mature and focused Kamauu returned to Tucciarone’s studio, this time to do her first album. It was still hard work. Every day she faced melodies in a different key or time signature—, when she nailed one of the most difficult tunes with an angelic timbre. When the album came out, simply entitled ‘Ē, Hawaiian music fans embraced Kamauu for her deeply moving voice. Today, with five albums out—all forged under Tucciarone—she credits the engineer/producer with teaching her that live performance is very different from recorded music. “When you listen to any one of my songs on a recording, you’ll believe that I’m singing to you alone—because I am,” she says. “Dave’s scrutiny taught me this lesson.”
From 1986 to 1994 Tucciarone operated his own three-thousand-square-foot recording studio in an old pineapple cannery in Honolulu. Because he started it with the help of a generous loan from his father, he named it Fortunate Sun Studio, hoping that the luck would radiate and shine on everyone. For the veteran songwriter and musician Bryan Kessler, Fortunate Sun was like a “magic sanctuary where everyone bonded.” This had a lot to do with Tucciarone being a musician himself, and one who knew how to do everything from tune instruments to create orchestral arrangements. “He could make performers feel comfortable during the long hours,” says Kessler, who hunkered down in the studio with the other members of the Hawaiian Style Band and conjured the loopy swing rhythm that became the group’s signature groove. “The outside world seemed to vanish, and the creativity shone through,” Kessler recalls.
Tucciarone presided over Fortunate Sun with discipline—especially when it came to punctuality—and everyone knew it. If he set a recording session for 8 a.m., musicians began lining up in the halls at 7:30 a.m., prepared for the doors to open.
A raw, young band named Kapena, which had electrified stages with a pioneering mix of reggae and Hawaiian that kicked off the “Jawaiian” craze in the 1980s, learned to buckle down at Fortunate Sun. “We were just out of high school and didn’t know right from wrong,” says the band’s lead singer, Kelly Boy. “In fact, we didn’t even know there was a right way in music.” He laughs, then he adds that Tucciarone was tactful in informing them that they were often “under or over the music,” meaning flat or sharp in tonality.
For a while times were good for the cresting wave of the local music industry, and Fortunate Sun prospered. Then came CD burners, which enabled the home recording and duplication of products. Tucciarone says this was a turning point. Next came the corporate consolidation of radio stations and along with it the purging of local recordings from radio playlists. What fans couldn’t hear, they would not buy. It was systemic change in the music industry that led to the shuttering of recording studios from Los Angeles to New York City. Honolulu, too. Not one to fight a losing battle, Tucciarone closed Fortunate Sun without regret.
Today his home recording studio is composed of compact digital equipment, which takes up a fraction of the space his old audio mixing boards did, and at a fraction of the cost to recording artists. He believes that digitally recorded music has less warmth than its older analog counterpart. But this trade-off is acceptable to many artists because pop music is no longer a giant vibration emanating from boomboxes and meant to envelop collective ears. It now comes via cyberspace and is consumed in solitude through earbuds. At the same time, the intimacy of the digital music experience gives renewed meaning to Tucciarone’s guidance to musicians to find their emotional center and connect with the audience genuinely, one listener at a time.
The downgrade in studio venues hasn’t halted the stream of artists seeking to record with Tucciarone. When Maui musician Kalani Pe‘a decided it was time to go from the stage to the studio, the social media buzz told him that Tucciarone would be the best producer/engineer he could find. But Pe‘a was trying to do something musically different, and he wasn’t sure Tucciarone would be interested. Over the phone, Pe‘a described himself to Tucciarone as a “Hawaiian contemporary soul singer and a Hawaiian cultural educator” who wanted to record the soulful, velvet-smooth hits of Luther Vandross in the Hawaiian translations he’d crafted himself. Pe‘a sweated it out for a long moment of silence before Tucciarone said, “Ok, let’s talk story.”
Pe‘a flew to Honolulu for a meeting. Flush with excitement but twenty minutes late, he parked his rental car outside Tucciarone’s apartment building. Tucciarone met him at the curb. “As your first-ever producer,” Tucciarone said, “I am compelled to advise you that you have parked in the fire lane.” After that was straightened out the two talked. Tucciarone saw that Pe‘a wasn’t simply being novel for the sake of being novel. He was being true to himself—a central tenet of the Dave Tucciarone School of Music. “If you’re going to do something different, you have to be capable and comfortable with it in your own skin, otherwise you may be committing career suicide,” he told Pe‘a. The young singer’s debut album, E Walea, went to the top spot on the iTunes world music chart in 2016.
Still, Tucciarone is not one to tell artists to curb their enthusiasm for the sake of the status quo. Just ask the fiercely independent Raiatea Helm. “He’s a cool cat,” she laughs, adding that he is one to lift the mood in the studio by telling corny jokes. Moreover, when she decided to include the sultry soul/blues classic “At Last” on a recording of what were otherwise all Hawaiian songs, Tucciarone didn’t flinch. And luckily so. The album, Sweet and Lovely, came out in 2006, just in time to be nominated for a Grammy.
Speaking via Skype during a tour of Japan, Helm tells me that Tucciarone helped her by not cramping her creativity. She felt encouraged by him to look at Hawaiian contemporary music as something more than just art or entertainment. Then she apologizes if what she is about to say sounds “off the deep end,” but she and a group of other Hawaiian musicians are performing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they can feel residual grief from the holocausts unleashed on those cities in World War II. “But being from Hawai‘i,” she says, “we know that there is healing in the culture of the music we bring.”
Even so, she has to remind herself of this often. This is a new era for Hawaiian music, and Hawaiian musicians need to know not only their audience and their identity, but who in the business to trust. Professional relationships are vital to happiness in music, she says—“and Dave had my back.” HH