Digging Deep

Ron Artis II finds his groove
Story by DW Gibson. Photos by Michelle Mishina.

Ron Artis II was only four, but he still remembers the day his family landed in Honolulu. “We walk through baggage claim H,” he says, “and my dad said, ‘Look at that ‘H’ there. It’s like we’re leaving hell and we’re going to heaven.’” 

Artis’ parents, visual artists and musicians, were escaping exhausting careers in entertainment, a move that sprung them from Burbank, California, to O‘ahu. They had no extended family and no professional connections, only a drive to begin anew. “They said, ‘We’re moving out here, Dad’s going to do art and we’re going to make it work. And that was amazing. That stuck with me—the courage it took for two people to come clean across the ocean and start life again.” 

At the time there were five siblings; in the end there would be eleven. Artis is the second eldest, the first boy, and grew up as part of a sprawling family band that lived in a home that doubled as a studio. “For us kids,” he says, “it seemed like the most normal thing in the world, growing up with your parents taking care of you with art and music.”

In the beginning it was the piano; to date Artis has added guitar, ‘ukulele, organ, percussion—and still he is picking up new instruments. Fueled by his parents’ infectious courage, Ron Artis II now has a thriving music career. His work resists classification, roving from one distinct sound to another. None really fit into the Hawaiian music scene—no slack key guitar or traditional Island sounds, no mellow folk-rap. He veers toward electric blues and high-energy funk, though he isn’t afraid to go acoustic. Recently he took the stage with eight-time Grammy winner Buddy Guy, who announced to an exultant crowd, “This guy plays the real blues.”

Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ron Artis II’s star is on the rise. Son of a late and locally renowned North Shore artist and musician, Artis is taking his distinctive and inspirational blend of R&B, soul, funk and blues far beyond the Islands.

Artis is getting ready to release a third album. He tours with G. Love. Local music phenom Jack Johnson says Artis is the most naturally talented musician he knows. And Grammy-nominated guitarist Tommy Emmanuel says, “It’s like if Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix could be one, they’d be Ron.” On the rise and still finding himself, Artis is still making the most of the freedom just the other side of baggage claim H. 

Born in 1986, Artis has hardly any memory of those early years in California—only afternoon naps, falling asleep to the sound of his dad playing the piano. The music was always there. After the move, the family settled in the Windward town of Kailua, where the kids had to be careful about when they jammed. “If we played our piano too loud our neighbor would call the police, which is understandable,” Artis says with a reluctant grin. “So we tried to pick the right times of day to get away with it.” Kailua eventually proved too limiting for such an unbound family, so by the time Artis was a teen they moved to Hale‘iwa, on the North Shore. There, Artis says, “We could have a full-on jam at 10 in the morning and neighbors would walk over with their coffee saying, ‘Yeah, man!’” The North Shore is where Artis says he “came out of his shell,” the place where his parents looked at him and said, “Find out who you are. Get to know that person. And that’s who we want to meet.” 

His dad sold art out of a gallery in the family home and Artis grew used to meeting visitors from around the world. He also became integral to the small town—the whole family did. Everyone knew the Artis place. Chunks of busted surfboards peppered the front yard, brought by surfers who turned them over to Artis’ dad so he could use them as canvases for new paintings. Every six months the kids painted the home a different color, and they built a stage outside where they could jam. “I’ve seen Ron play since he was a little kid,” says Johnson. “You could go there and hear the whole family jam—so much talent. And every time I’d catch Ron, it was always mind-blowing, the exponential growth that I’d see. Every time, he was getting better and better.”

The walls of the studio were lined with guitars, and there were two grand pianos, two Fender amps, two drum sets, a full Marshall stack and at least a few keyboards at any given time. Artis’ favorite hour to play was 4 in the morning. “That’s when my day was fresh,” he says. “Everybody was asleep, too; it’d just be me and my dad. He’d be reading the news and I’d just be running my scales.” 

His parents homeschooled the kids; math lessons and spelling tests were mixed in with chess matches and jam sessions. There were a lot of video games on the weekends—John Madden Football, in particular, and when Artis would have doubts about the music he was making, his dad encouraged him like a coach: “‘I want that linebacker to show up right now,’ he’d say. ‘I want that smack-talking chess player to show up. I want that really arrogant street fighter to show up right now. You’re shortchanging me. I know it’s in there.’” 

It wasn’t just his dad pushing him at anything Artis did—even video games—but the North Shore, too. “People who live here, they challenge these huge waves,” Artis says, looking around from his perch at a table outside Coffee Gallery where he’s been running barefoot and eating bagels since he was a teenager. He cannot sit in this spot for more than a few minutes before someone says hello, whether it’s the owner of the shop or a visitor from Tahiti who once saw him perform and wants to take a photo. (I witnessed both in the span of an hour.) Even now, at 33, Artis is barefoot outside Coffee Gallery, still at home in Hale‘iwa, still free and driven. “People out here, they go at life with open eyes, open hearts, open imaginations. If you say you do something, show it to me.” Artis’ dad adopted the phrase “hold your line”— a surfer’s way of saying don’t give up; ride the path you’ve chosen. “My dad would always use that analogy,” Artis says. “He’d say, ‘It’s up to you. No one is going to make you do it. Show up, hold the line and do the work.’”

Artis with wife Julia and their daughters Ida and Lili gather a few last minute items at their storage unit just before heading out on tour. Artis is rare in the music industry for bringing his family along on tours, but, he says, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

For all his exploration with instruments, Artis didn’t start singing until he was 22, and it wasn’t by choice. “My parents came up to me,” he recalls, “and they said,‘Ron, we believe God told us that you should start singing. I did just about everything but run out of that room,” he laughs. “You cannot tell me that God told you I’m supposed to sing. No. Time out.” 

Eventually Artis surrendered to Providence. For the next two years, both of his parents worked with him on his voice. “To me it sounded horrible,” he says. “I couldn’t get my notes right, I couldn’t get out of my head, I couldn’t stand in front of anyone and just perform a song.” He grew frustrated, as did his father. “My dad kept thinking there was more in there that was developing, and I was really convinced I needed to stop this and focus on what I wanted to do, which was piano and guitar.”

They were at an impasse until Artis’ father made a proposition: The next morning, sing a song for the first person who comes into the gallery. If they like it, you’ve got to keep giving this a try. And if they don’t, you’re off the hook. “I told my dad, ‘That’s a deal.’ And he said, ‘But you have to promise that you’re really going to try, Ron. You really have to try.’”

The next morning a woman in her thirties was the first to walk in. Artis’ dad asked if she wouldn’t mind listening to a song and she obliged. So Artis sang “Over the Rainbow” while his dad played piano, and he remembers only that his eyes were closed the whole time. “I always sing with my eyes closed,” he says. When he opened them, he saw that the woman was crying. “I thought, man, that is so bad. She’s crying because she had to sit through it.” 

Artis is quick to credit much of his success to his parents, who encouraged their eleven kids to push their limits and find their voices. He grew up as part of the family band and lived in a home that doubled as an art and music studio.

But then she told Artis and his father her story. She had trained to be an opera singer but stopped in her early twenties when, tragically, she was shot in the chest by a home burglar. She survived but left her training, afraid to try again—until the moment when she heard Artis sing. She left the shop with the promise that she would begin again. “That’s what hit me the hardest,” says Artis. “If all I can ever do is inspire someone to do what they should be doing, then I have to give it a try. That was the point when I accepted it and started singing because I wanted to.” It was a transformative experience for Artis, but there was difficult work ahead. “If I said it got easier after that it wouldn’t be honest,” he says. “But that was the moment when I knew that this is a lot bigger than me.”

Soon Artis was looking for opportunities to perform the songs he was writing. He started out at a couple of restaurants and the Waialua farmers market. He played with his siblings, most often with his brother Thunderstorm (yes, his real name) on drums. Initially they earned money only from tips and selling copies of their first album, which they recorded at home. “I was trying to get enough to eat, to pay my rent,” says Artis. “What you’re not thinking about the whole time you’re playing all these gigs is that you’re developing musically, you’re developing vocally.”

When the family decided to make a music video, they posted flyers around Hale‘iwa, inviting everyone to take part. The notice caught the eye of a young visitor from Germany named Julia Gärtner. She stayed in touch with Artis after the shoot, and a year later—to the day—they married. Julia left her career back home and moved to Hale‘iwa. Artis still remembers the day they sat at McDonald’s and split a $1 cheeseburger because it was all they could afford. “We had just got married,” he says. “She just moved from Germany to live with me and all my grand ideas. We looked at each other across the table, and we said, ‘One day, we’re going to come in here and we’re both going to order a menu item,’” he laughs. “That’s a goal. And we built it, slowly, like that.”

The family steps out for ice cream at Scoop of Paradise in their hometown of Hale‘iwa. Artis met his wife during the filming of his family’s first music video. Julia, a German tourist at the time, responded to a flyer inviting anyone to come take part in the shoot.

Julia couldn’t get a job until her green card came through, so she threw herself into helping Artis and Thunderstorm find more paying gigs, and with her help they started getting more requests to play. “Finally we said, ‘That’s it, man. The next person who asks us to play a gig, it’s going to be $500.’ As if on cue, a family with two kids came up and asked how much we would charge to play a third birthday.” 

They did not hold the line when it came to charging $500 for a three-year-old’s birthday party, but they did get $250, and what’s more, renowned slack key guitarist Kawika Kahiapo was there. He called Artis afterward to ask if he’d play a show for the North Shore Land Trust—a forty-five-minute set for $500. And it was Artis’ first time joining a lineup with Johnson. 

After the show, Johnson asked Artis about his second album, and Artis explained he had saved half of what was needed to record. He could afford the engineer but not the studio. So Johnson offered his, for free. “I’ve had a few friends over the years who I’m close enough with to let them go in there and make records,” says Johnson, “and Ron’s just one of those friends. Besides the natural talent, it’s feeling close enough to him as a friend to know that I want him in that space. It might sound hippy-trippy, but I do like having the energy of the music be something that I want to still be lingering in there next time I’m in the studio.” 

Artis remembers recording What Music Means to Me looking at Julia through the window in the studio and crying with joy and exhaustion. “I was on clouds the whole next week,” he says. “It was life-changing for us.”

Artis names Stevie Wonder as one of his favorite singers, in part because
of his distinctive style. “I would tell my dad that Stevie didn’t sound like anyone else, and he would say, ‘Exactly. Why are you trying to sound like someone else?’”

At the end of 2010 Artis’ dad died unexpectedly. “All of a sudden you got my mom with eleven kids,” he says. “Six strong-willed boys with strong-willed sisters.” The family struggled to make rent, and, two years later they had to move out. The old structure still stands, just behind an ever-growing shopping center. The deck that Artis built as a kid has been removed to make room for more parking. But the last coat of paint that Artis ever put on the house is still there: white with rainbow trim around the windows. Recent plans to develop the property fell through and its fate is uncertain. Artis hopes to be able to buy it. “One day,” he says. “So much happened here. My whole family, we learned so much in that space, about music, about life, about death—everything. Right in there.”

As attached as Artis is to Hale‘iwa, he is away more often than not; he’s booked for the rest of 2019 at festivals and venues across the Mainland and abroad. Julia travels with him, as do their daughters, Ida Marie and Lili. “It’s so atypical in the music business,” he says. “It’s such a single guy’s world.” But his family isn’t interested in FaceTime; they’d rather share experiences.

The girls are two and four, and a third sibling is on the way—the family band is still growing. Artis is still driven by the same courage that carried his parents across the Pacific Ocean. “Here are two people with no one there telling them it’s going to be all right. But they did it, they moved,” he says. “And it turned out to be one of the most beautiful decisions in their life. I’m grateful for it. Because now I’m not afraid to go to the top of the diving board with an idea and dive in—just go for it.” HH