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Songs and Searching: The Music of Kiyoshi Graves

Beside the blue waters of a Los Angeles reservoir, Kiyoshi Graves found a long-hidden path.

It may be years before he learns where it leads. But following it has changed his life.

“After having been away for about 10 years, I moved back to Los Angeles in 2002 from Northern California and it was a mixed bag of emotions,” Graves says. “This was after swearing, as a confused high-school dropout in my teens, that I’d never come back. I was also sorting out my voice as a songwriter. Luckily, I met my friend, Sean Hoffman, a guitarist and engineer, and with his help, began focusing on the creative path which is my journey to this day.”

“Sean produced a CD of my music, playing guitar on it, and giving me the encouragement which put me over the edge in thinking that I could do music at some professional level,” Graves explains. “We recorded the tracks at his house in Silver Lake [an L.A. neighborhood east of Hollywood known for its picturesque reservoir], which had this wonderful view of the lake. And staring at its waters on a daily basis, I gained closure on some long-standing issues.”

The result was “Past, by its waters”, a short collection of songs that served as a pivotal precursor to the rising singer/songwriter/guitarist’s recently completed album, Chase, which was produced by Evan Frankfort and released on jd8 Records.

Inspired by artists such as Paul Simon, Pearl Jam, Jimi Hendrix and The Who, Graves weaves the traditional narratives of “story-telling” songs with the dynamic elements of rock and popular music. Ironically, for Graves, the sometimes harrowing uncertainty of living as an artist gave him clarity that he needed for his work.

“My day-to-day life is about chasing this dream of being a professional musician, of making my living playing and creating music; and above that is the search for what is truly possible in this life,” Graves says. “Those daily pursuits influence the stories I seek to tell. I try to explore narratives about the chase.”

“The constant search for something is a common theme through my music,” says Graves. “Growing up Hapa, with at the time a rather weird name, and looking different probably planted the seed for a search for identity, which also manifests itself in my music in subtle ways. I think my ethnic background, being of mixed race—my mom is Nisei, my dad a French/German/British mix—hasn’t always made it easy for me to place myself culturally.”

“But I welcome questions about my mix of ethnicities and am curious to learn about others as well,” Graves says. “It wasn’t as common to see Hapas when I was a kid in the ’70s so it is nice to see an awareness—and to some extent, pride—in this group of people. Of course, Hapas and ethnic mixes can be all sorts of permutations, and I think it points to the fact that diversity, cultural mixing and awareness of other ethnicities here and abroad is all really good stuff that makes us more tolerant and informed people. And you’re all gonna look like me in the year 2145 so get used to it!”

“I see richness in each of the diverse communities I am exposed to here in Los Angeles, including those which I am most familiar with, the Japanese American and Asian American communities,” Graves says. “I consider myself lucky to have something to be involved in, a community that I feel a part of.”

Graves, who will be giving a number of local performances in Southern California in conjunction with the release of his new album, says he’s grateful that his family has always been supportive of his musical career.

“My dad is a music lover, especially jazz and blues,” says Graves. “We’ve caught some good shows together over the years. My song, ‘How My Old Man Won The War,’ was my offering to him, a way of telling him that I had a sense of his sacrifices in giving me and my brother Tad the life we had. And my mom is a Nisei, but was a rebel of sorts growing up. After finishing high school and working in a law office for a while, she started going to law school at night, pursuing that and a full-time job for four years. She ultimately became a lawyer, studying for the bar while pregnant with me, so she understands the unconventional route some need to take in this life. I just hope someday I can show them it was all worthwhile.”

“There’s an image of a bird on the cover of “Past, by its waters” and birds are also a symbol in my personal mythology, an omen of positive things,” Graves says. “It’s an artifice created to help me through tough times, and as part of this I have two bird tattoos. One holds my hopes and dreams. The other guards my heart.”

* This article was originally published on the Japanese American National Museum Store Online in July 2006.

© 2006 Japanese American National Museum

hapa identity music racially mixed people
About this series

The award-winning Museum Store of the Japanese American National Museum features distinctive Asian American merchandise for all occasions and generations. Their unique product line represents the essence of the Japanese American experience, while also promoting an appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity. All proceeds from the Museum Store support Museum programs and exhibitions.

The articles in this series were originally written for the Japanese American National Museum’s online store []  to give a deeper understanding of the authors, artists, and traditions featured in the store. 

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About the Author

Darryl Mori is a writer based in Los Angeles, specializing in the arts and the nonprofit sector. A Sansei and a native of Southern California, he has written for UCLA and the Japanese American National Museum, where he serves as a volunteer. He currently works in fundraising and external relations for Art Center College of Design.

Updated December 2012

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