Alex Aiono has dreamed of being a multi-hyphenate since he was a teenager, aspiring to both create music and act. Now 24, the Phoenix-born, Los Angeles-based talent is well on his way to meeting those goals. In 2017, Aiono started releasing music through Interscope Records and this year he’ll star in the Netflix film “Finding Ohana.” But it’s the debut album “The Gospel at 23,” released today (July 23), that rings as a truly defining moment for Aiono, drawing on his influences from gospel music, hip-hop and alternative pop. Variety spoke with the artist just ahead of the album’s release.
What was the genesis of creating a gospel-inspired album?
I grew up listening to Gladys Knight and Lauryn Hill — rich albums of soul and pouring your heart out — so getting the opportunity now to make an album where I’m not trying to keep up with the times, but just wanting to be the most open and vulnerable me. And sonically, it just came out heavily influenced by gospel music and me telling my story.
Do you feel like there’s more freedom to bend genres today because of streaming?
You know, I think trailblazers in front of me made it so much easier. I look at Bruno Mars, listen to his albums that go from an R&B song to a reggae song to a slow ballad. And there’s so many artists who have been so good at doing that.
Tell us about your recording process in Connecticut. How was it like to create an album with just vocals, piano, kick drum, tambourine and, of course, a gospel choir?
It felt authentic. We were driving to Philadelphia [to record with the choir] — by the way, this wasn’t a professional touring choir, these were everyday working people who had to call off work — and I was on Instagram and found Dee Wilson’s video of himself singing “The Medicine,” and I reached out. We got piano tracks in Las Vegas – and all these [little things] felt larger than life. My debut album feels just as good as I imagined it when I was 13 years old, living with my family in Arizona, dreaming of this day.
With the track “Good Morning,” you said that you wanted the song to sound like the perfect alarm clock. How so?
That was literally the goal. It was, “How do we come up with the best wake up song?” You start smelling bacon, and you start hearing birds chirping — just this utopian awakening — and then we added humanity into it. If you read the lyrics, you don’t have to search for what things mean. It’s right in front of you: “Phone call from mom / Dad lost his job / Text from my ex / And she’s moving on / But we’re all alive / So it must be good morning.” It’s little things like that, that just made me want to address the reality of waking up in this world.
You recently kicked off your acting career with “Finding Ohana” on Netflix, about two brothers who go on a treasure hunt and reconnect with their Hawaiian heritage. How was it to co-star in your first film?
The fact that I got to star in a Netflix film… it’s insane. I’ve always had this dream to be a multi-hyphenate, and acting was one that I always wanted but needed a little bit more confidence in myself. By the time I got to filming the movie, I felt like I had that confidence in myself to not just be a singer who booked a role but to really be an actor.
What’s next for you?
Right now, I’m just looking forward to being a positive change, whether it be through the acting or through the music. My biggest goal is that fighting for equal rights of human beings and doing what I love most can continue to get closer to where they’re one cohesive thing.
Watch “The Gospel at 23” making-of documentary below: