Meet KAINA, the Soulful Singer-Songwriter Repping Chicago’s Thriving DIY Scene

Photo by Dennis Elliott.

Kaina Castillo, better known as artist, producer, and songwriter KAINA, says she remembers feeling really small in the bedroom of her childhood home in Chicago. Over a Zoom call with Remezcla, the 26-year-old recalls how everything beyond those four walls felt like it was unattainable. “So often, everyone was like, ‘We’ll have something better.’ We ended up staying there for 16 years. I feel like we spent so much time thinking about what’s next instead of appreciating that moment,” she says. “Our time there together as a family wasn’t something that we were just getting through.” With the power of hindsight, KAINA now channels that idea of home, the overall feeling rather than a physical place, into her latest album It Was a Home

The record marks KAINA’s first full-length release since signing to City Slang, a record label based in Berlin whose artist roster includes folk singer-songwriter Jessica Pratt and the queer, brown femme-fronted indie band Pom Pom Squad. In 2019, she released Next to the Sun, a beaming debut via Chicago’s Sooper Records, where she balanced warm and earthy lower-range vocals with cool, old-school soul and the dense percussive elements of jazz and salsa alike. That same year, the rising artist opened for both Chicano moody-pop balladeer Cuco and the ever-influential Sleater-Kinney on their separate tours. While Next to the Sun bolstered the friends and family in her native city, KAINA simultaneously grappled with an unwavering sense of not belonging.

The Chicago artist is a first-generation Latina; her parents immigrated from Venezuela and Guatemala to the Midwest decades ago. She notes that the all too identifiable struggle for clarity around one’s identity, common among Latine youth raised in the U.S. but whose parents still have indivisible ties and connections to their respective motherlands, compounded that feeling of estrangement. It Was a Home, in turn, shows her breaking free from that tension to establish her own path, both as an artist and a person. “The journey of identity is a never-ending one, but all these feelings of displacement — being a first-gen kid and feeling really scrambled in my identity — was a really big blockage of mine… It feels like now that I’ve done some self-work towards that, It Was a Home is much more confident,” she shares.

“The journey of identity is a never-ending one, but all these feelings of displacement — being a first-gen kid & feeling really scrambled in my identity — was a really big blockage of mine… It feels like now that I’ve done some self-work towards that, ‘It Was a Home’ is much more confident.”

It Was a Home also served as an opportunity to flex her skills as a producer and dive into more experimental arrangements. In just a little over 40 minutes of runtime, the album packs in dynamic loud-quiet-loud underpinnings and the trebly warmth of Motown-era melodies.

On top of her long-term influences, such as Venezuelan singer and musician Oscar D’León, KAINA says she spent much of the last year or so with the music of timeless classics like Carole King and Stevie Wonder. The Chicagoan also takes her cues and applies similar tried-and-true lyrical structures to create songs that anyone can relate to: stories about revisiting “good memories that might’ve gone over your head at the time,” being upfront and honest about your needs and reminders to not let your fears get the best of you. 

But KAINA’s dexterously smooth vocal delivery is what ultimately seals it all in. She shifts with ease between bright and glistening (“Anybody Can Be In Love,” her cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Come Back as a Flower”) to rich and exuberant, like on “Friend of Mine” and the show-stopping “Casita.” Her rich harmonies with Florida synth-wonder Helado Negro on “Blue” take it back to a tambourine-accented ‘60s pop dreamscape. At the same time, the distorted guitar-driven “Ultraviolet,” featuring Sleater-Kinney, shows off KAINA’s lead in production. “I think this project is truly a collection of how I interpret music and produce things,” she says. “It’s cohesive because all the music I was listening to and inspired by is comforting.” 

Its 12 tracks also reveal the strong synergy within her close-knit family of DIY artists and longtime collaborators, like multi-instrumentalists Sen Morimoto and Nnamdi Ogbonnaya (aka NNAMDÏ), plus guitarist Brian Sanborn and drummer Ryan Person, all of whom contributed to the record. It’s a much-treasured, inestimable kind of bond that mirrors the sense of home KAINA’s parents set out to create upon their arrival to the Midwest. “When my parents got here, they made a really cool community of friends. They’d go to concerts all the time, would have parties at the house, play music and cook food. I feel like that’s exactly what I’m doing in my time here in Chicago,” she says.

KAINA will be kicking off her It Was a Home Tour on March 5 in Chicago. As far as her plans after that, she says she hopes to curate a set of local shows over the summer and jump back into connecting like-minded folks within the city’s thriving, independent arts and music scene. “It was really important for me in my upbringing as a person and as a musician to have mentors and people to look up to,” KAINA adds. “I want to create space for people to be heard, build things that bridge us all together, and keep lifting up people, culture, and musicians.”

Listen to It Was a Home below.