Back in 2016 two friends of mine, Seth Herman and Curtis Bergesen, sent me an album from their newest addition to the Rootfire family, Hirie. I’d heard “Sensi Boy’ before and loved the hook, but was unsure about her overall. That was ignorance. I’ve since become a fan to the singer who claims Hawaii as her home, but who has lived all over the world. Her mix of cultures and ethnicity, accentuated by her charisma and undeniable physical beauty, makes her a powerful force in reggae music.
This interview was a long time coming. She’s as fun, soulful, and courageous in real life as she seems in her songs, and I’m grateful to present some of her story here:
JP: I feel like you’re a Cali Roots institution, a very busy and active person here.
Hirie: I feel like this is the mecca of what we have, so you have to milk that as much as possible. I love Cali Roots.
JP: I was here three years ago and you were interviewing everyone.
Hirie: Oh, that year? Oh wow, it’s way different in here. I was interviewing Trevor Hall. It was orange in here.
JP: My first interview here was Trevor Hall, and I was out of it, and he’s so chill that we had a few minutes of just chilling.
Hirie: I interviewed him here right when he had to shave his head. He’s super vegan, I guess. You can’t bring meat on his bus. That’s really cool. But I love meat. My daughter came up to me the other day and she was like, “You know, Mom, I feel bad for eating animals sometimes… But they taste so good!” I was like, “It is tough. Bacon!” I’ve been getting into veggies lately. I never had veggies as a kid. I’m trying things for the first time, three years eating vegetables.
JP: What’s your favorite veggie?
Hirie: I love brussel sprouts, fried, with pancetta, you know, bacon. I love cooking. Broccolini is cool. I’m learning how much easier it is to eat than broccoli. My husband steams [broccoli] with sesame oil and salt, like Asian style. It’s dank. Ooh. New one: Fennel. He broils it with olive oil, balsamic, salt, and vinegar. He bakes it until it’s crispy.
JP: When you’re cookbook comes out we’ll look for the fennel recipe.
Hirie: I am making a cookbook! I do a lot of food posts. I love cooking. My husband and I are taking it on as a couples project. Having grown up everywhere, it’s a clusterfuck, like my father’s Shepard’s pie, or ausobuco from Italy… If I’m home I’ll cook all three meals. I don’t cut corners. I start from scratch. It’s nice to be home for that.
JP: Are you home a lot? You’ve been pushing hard these past few years.
Hirie: We slept in our apartment I think 20 days out of 2018. Before we found this place we were homeless because of that reason, like, “We’re not paying rent!” When we came home we crashed at our friends’ places, but that got old because you get home from tour and you’re still living out of a suitcase. For a year and a half! My daughter had no toys. We’d go to the storage unit and she’d try to milk it as much as possible. She loved it; she forgot. It was a luxury to play with toys.
JP: You wrote a song for your daughter.
Hirie: She’s around, with my dad. They only thing missing here was that they were going to do a daycare for the parents, but they didn’t.
JP: You’ve performed here quite often at this festival.
Hirie: It’s been five years in a row.
JP: Wait, did you play here three years ago?
Hirie: I did. I did five years in a row, but the after party, or the acoustic pop-up, or like the acoustic Bowl. Even when they don’t invite us, I email them and say, “If you need anything, we’re available.” Because, you know, this is it! If you’re here, it means something.
JP: The guest appearances so far have been amazing, even people who aren’t performing.
Hirie: I’ve never seen 311, either!
JP: Anyone else throughout the years that you’d never gotten to see before this festival?
Hirie: Tash Sultana. I’ve been dying to see her play. And her girlfriend was a fan of ours before she even met Tash, and so it all came full circle. I thought that was really cool.
JP: I want to thank you for bringing Nattali Rize out.
Hirie: She’s become, like, a friend! That’s the good thing about touring.
JP: She’s on your record [Wandering Soul], too.
Hirie: But I didn’t even know her when she was on my record. I just really wanted a chick! I had some names, but she was the most unique, so when I asked her she was down. So it was a pre-tour friendship.
JP: I love that you represent the feminine power in this scene.
Hirie: We’re very lucky.
JP: I was thinking about that for you. You could easily go total pop and reach a larger audience, but you’re sticking with reggae.
Hirie: I can remember those being some of the words in the review that you did [of Wandering Soul], like, “She could easily be this!” As a bucket list goal, it would be to have a song that crossed into mainstream and people would be like, “Damn!” You know when MAGIC! did “Rude”, but their problem was they came out with a major hit, but then the rest of their music was… They don’t know what they’re doing- a mixture. So, they never fit into the reggae community and the pop community only knew them for one reggae song. What I would love to do is be reggae and have one song that crossed, and then people say it’s dope and want to come listen to reggae music.
JP: That’s how I feel about Brandi Carlile.
Hirie: Oh yeah: “All of these lines that cross my face!” She’s got that song “Shadow On The Wall”. She’s hella rock.
JP: What are you into other than reggae?
Hirie: I grew up with a lot of Gypsy Kings, and Enya, and Norah Jones. I lived in Italy, so a lot of Andrea Bocelli and Pavarotti. I love it all; that’s why we’re such a clusterfuck on stage.
JP: I love your band.
Hirie: They’re good players. They come from the weirdest backgrounds: metal, jazz, funk, and church… Now we’re learning to tone down and have moments, versus being like, bang bang bang! Throw out all the cards right away, which I love! But we’re learning to pull back.
JP: Who have you learned from over the years?
Hirie: So many bands, obviously. Tribal Seeds, the way of their energy, the way the musicians amplify the set, and the heavy rock side I love. And Slightly Stoopid are a jam band, good at improvising, and putting a lot of effort into something but having it come out like butter. Or even Pato Banton. We copy his dance moves a lot. His show is so tight.
JP: Alpha Blondy made me wicked happy this year.
Hirie: I haven’t scene Alpha Blondy before, but Stick Figure does a cover of “Cocody Rock”, and I get to sing “What’s Going On” [by the Four None Blondes] in there because it’s the same riddim. It’s so cool! Closer To The Sun, we’ll be there this year.
JP: I was just talking about that festival.
Hirie: So, you know Seth [Herman] and Curtis [Bergesen]?
JP: I met Curtis first. He was touring with Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad. I just met the band at a show.
Hirie: He’s cool. We didn’t have have a great start. It was the dumbest thing ever: I’d never met him and he’s so tall and intimidating. I was at the first Cali Roots and these fans came up and said, “Can we get a picture with you?” So I was like, “Excuse me; will you take a picture?” And I didn’t realize he was in a conversation, and I was just trying to grab the closest person. And he was like, “I’m sorry. Let me stop my conversation right now to take your picture. Please, smile.” He was such a dick. [Laughs] And I was like, “The fans!” It doesn’t even matter about me, but don’t make them feel bad. Then I told my husband, and he told Seth, and Seth told Curtis, and I was so embarrassed. It was the worst tattle tale. He had to apologize and he said, “That’s just who I am.” I said, “You’re an asshole.” Then we became the best of friends! I love his new collage page. I forget that it’s him. I see it and think, “Sick!”
JP: When you get asked on stage, do you freestyle?
JP: Are you good at it?
Hirie: No. It’s so scary. Yesterday, Fortunate Youth asked me to jump on their set and said, “Sing Gonzo’s part on ‘Sweet Love’,” and I was like, “Yeah!” Then I had to fucking run and find reception because I had no reception and couldn’t find the lyrics or watch the video on YouTube. I was five songs away from having to sing it, and am in the production office borrowing an iPad, recording the video onto my phone and writing it on my hand. Then I’m at the Bowl, singing the song for the first time!
JP: [Laughs] I love Fortunate Youth.
Hirie: I learned a lot from them. They don’t take anything too seriously and that really allows the audience to feel comfortable. It’s usually a shit show, in a good way, on tour with them. I crawl onto stage after being blackout drunk, like two songs before my feature. And then Dan [Kelly] is just like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” like, way too comfortable. Do you notice that about him? He’s got that look to him. You know his story with Fortunate Youth? He was a plumber, and he’d go to open mics and they were already a band. They saw him and said, “Do you want to join and sing?” I think it was a side thing for him at first. And he was in his 30s. He never thought it’d be like it is now. He’s got two daughters and most of the songs are about them, so when you pick at his songs… Some of the words are just too much for me. His music is strong willed.
JP: I appreciate that the scene is big and supportive. I love coming from the east coast and seeing what it’s like out here.
Hirie: [Sigh] The musicians that come out of the east coast are superior in a way because everyone is so trained and has a great ear. Out here it’s hooky and catchy, but can be sloppy. You can hear the difference between the east and west. The west gets a lot more attention and it’s more of a party scene and everyone is really open. On the east coast it’s niche, but refined: John Brown’s Body, Giant Panda, The Hip Abduction…
JP: What’s it like for you to walk out on stage and see so many people?
Hirie: It’s overwhelming, for sure. There’s so much pressure. You want to put in everything you can.
JP: I play at a local cafe and when there are eight people there I think, “There are too many people here!”
Hirie: Those can be way more intimidating because here you can’t stare at one face, but in a crowd of eight you’re really dissecting their emotions, like, “He’s not watching!” You start to worry. I love that, though.
JP: And here at Cali Roots you’re on all the time.
Hirie: It’s a good thing. It’s in my nature to seek out conversation. I notice how much harder it is than it used to be to just flow through and hang out with friends at a festival like this. I can’t walk from point A to point B… But reggae is different, so loving. Like, Tash being able to say, “If any of you are homophobic, get the fuck out of here.” To be able to say that now and not hear “Boo!” and nothing is thrown… And we had E-40 and Atmosphere.
JP: I’d never seen him live.
Hirie: I remember Zion I one year killing it. I like that they mix hip-hop with reggae; they go good together. Hip-hop is so conscious- at least, old school hip-hop. Tash’s biggest song is reggae. A lot of pop artists come out with a reggae song that smashes. So, it’s like, “Fuck! Why can’t a reggae artist smash a song and be pop for a minute!”
JP: What’s it like on your end, coming to this festival?
Hirie: Oh, man. Production is always nice! We get lucky with good vibes. So, going to a super dark place from where we are right now, there was one point yesterday that somebody was talking to me, looking a little wonky. They reached into their bag for their cellphone or something, but with everything going on I stepped back thinking, “This is it!” Because as a musician you’re constantly in the face of potential danger these days. The statistics say more students have died from gunshots than anybody in the military this year. There are more child fatalities in schools than the war! The student reached in and it was his phone, but I had that feeling in my gut. I thought, “What a shitty world to live in. Do I run? Do I charge?”
JP: You’ve got quite the fan base. Do you have any creepy fans?
Hirie: I mean, maybe, but not really, nothing I’m worried about.
JP: You put out a new single, “Sun and Shine”, with a cool music video, with Nahko in it. Are you two friends?
Hirie: We’re of the same Filipino bloodline. He’s been here. I missed it! He’s awkward too. He’s good at breaking the ice and helping awkward moments. I’ve seen him in the middle of a conversation start picking his nose.
JP: Getting into your music spoke to me because we come from such different backgrounds, but some of music resonates on a deep level.
Hirie: This one painter told me that when he paints it’s not even him; he doesn’t know what he’s painting. The strokes just come out. He said he never had any plans for what he was about to paint. I feel like when I write songs. I don’t think about what I’m writing, I just put it down. Then I read it back later and go, “Damn… That’s not me! I would have never said that!” You have to flow and not expect anything.
JP: What was the first song you wrote?
Hirie: Ever? It was called “A Place For You In My Heart” [Laughs] It was real cheese. Still my dad’s favorite.
JP: When you started singing, was it reggae music?
Hirie: I always thought I’d do more alternative, like Michelle Branch and Paramore, and Evanencese. But I always wrote with a skank. I love reggae.