Hawaiian songbird Amy Hānaiali'i Gilliom has been the darling of the isles and especially of her home island of Maui since she was in grade school. Though not of pure Hawaiian blood, Gilliom is descended on one side from Jennie Napua Woodd, one of the original Royal Hawaiian Girls of the '30s and '40s and choreographer of many Hawaiian films from that same period. As a recording artist, Gilliom embraced her Hawaiian heritage firmly -- but it was not always so.
She started out in the theaters and concert halls of Maui and Honolulu, even spending some time on the mainland, studying musical theater and European classical traditions as a voice major in college in San Diego. After graduation, Gilliom returned to Maui, where her grandmother encouraged her to pursue Hawaiian music and ha'i, or female falsetto singing, even arranging for a meeting with ha'i legend Genoa Keawe. It worked, and Gilliom's debut, Native Child, though it wasn't widely heard, showed off her talent as an interpreter and creator of Hawaiian music. While recording her next album, she supported herself by singing torch songs at the Ritz Carlton Kapalua. All these influences -- jazz, classical, pop, and theatrical -- come into play on her albums, though sometimes they are very subtle. Collaborating with famous Hawaiian artist Willie K., Hawaiian Tradition was a success, the first album to be sung solely in Hawaiian to make it into the Billboard world charts. It established Gilliom as an up-and-coming star, one with a knack for blending old Hawaiian sounds with modern pop stylings. The singer then recorded two more albums with Willie K. (Hānaiali'i and Nostalgia), meanwhile keeping up a rigorous performance schedule all around the islands. Her efforts, as well as her well-publicized relationship with an established Hawaiian figure, panned out. In a few years, Gilliom went from sometime musical theater performer to bona fide island celebrity.
Then in 2001, the same year she and brother Eric Gilliom starred in a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, she took a break from working with Willie K. and disappeared to a remote part of Hawaii, only to reappear some months later with a brand new solo album, new management, and a sleeker, sultrier look. Critics hailed Gilliom's album, entitled Pu'uhonua ("safe haven" in Hawaiian), as her best and most authentic work. In 2003 Amy & Willie Live, a live recording of one of their concerts that year, came out, but it wasn't until 2006 that the singer, who was now going by Amy Hänaiali'i, released her next studio piece, Generation Hawai'i, in part a tribute to her late grandmother and a look back into the past as well into the future. Produced by Michael Ruff, with whom she had been writing songs in English for an upcoming crossover project, the album -- recorded while Hānaiali'i was pregnant with her first child -- made it up to number four on the Billboard world charts and earned her a Grammy nomination in the Best Hawaiian Music Album category. ~ L. Katz & Marisa Brown