Kiana Valenciano speaks frankly about her flaws. It’s a quality that makes her a disarming conversationalist – and a strong songwriter. The neo-soul singer’s new EP, ‘Dazed’, brims with stirring, introspective tracks that cut with candour.
“A lot of my insecurities came to light while working on ‘Dazed’,” the artist better known as Kiana V tells NME in a morning Zoom call from Los Angeles. “My process is I like to sing what I’m thinking. If it works, then I explore how that would sound in the studio. So I have a lot of a cappella voice notes on my phone expressing my thoughts through song,” she says. Exorcising the buzzing in her brain also led to “many epiphanies” that made her reflect on her sense of self-worth and ask: “Wow, why do I feel that small?”
Kiana V’s artistic agency is by no means minuscule. She broke into the music scene in 2015, the same year she won Best New Female Artist at the 28th Awit Awards. Then in 2019, Kiana flexed her distinctive tastes and artistry in debut album ‘See Me’, which calls back to Janet Jackson-inspired ’90s R&B, sprinkled with elements of soul, disco-funk, and electro-pop.
“They’ll either see me and realise it’s super cool that I’m a different artist – or they think, ‘Eh, she’s not like her dad’”
In her lyrics, Kiana confronted both a fear of and longing to carve out her artistic identity. You’ll hear the same naked sincerity set to rousing, rhythmic beats in ‘A Safe Place,’ a single which featured in the debut release by 88rising’s Philippine offshoot Paradise Rising.
Kiana is no cookie-cutter Pinoy celeb, but as the daughter of showbiz multi-hyphenate and OPM titan Gary Valenciano, to some she might as well be. The 28-year-old is well aware of what the local industry expects from her pedigree. “In the Philippines, when you say Kiana Valenciano, people know who they know,” she says. “They’ll either see me and realise it’s super cool that I’m a different artist – or they think, ‘Eh, she’s not like her dad’.”
So right around the beginning of the COVID lockdowns in February 2020, she moved to LA to reset her music career. And while the “relaxed” gigs she’s played in the States may not compare to the stadium-sized venues she’s performed in Manila, Kiana doesn’t mind.
“I just love that feeling of anonymity and having a clean slate to introduce myself to a crowd considering I’m starting from scratch. I never truly know how anyone is going to react – sometimes they like it, sometimes they’re uninterested.” She appreciates a great audience – “LA’s a melting pot and it’s always a pleasant surprise to see different cultures dancing to my music” – but a tepid turnout can still prove useful. “It helps me direct my decisions better as a performer. Onstage and in the studio: it makes me ask, what can I do better?”
“I wanted ‘Dazed’ to sound like the inside of my head. I just have so many thoughts all the time”
After releasing music in Manila through Tarsier Records and Paradise Rising, ‘Dazed’ sees Kiana in a “small period of time where I’m not technically signed to anyone, and I felt like I wanted to release something on my own,” she says. “I poured my heart into getting this EP done from start to finish. But I also didn’t pressure myself about making a hit or making a label happy because I produced it independently and in the middle of so much isolation.”
She worked with a previous collaborator, LA-based producer Jesse Barrera, to shape the record. “I gave Jesse freedom to experiment and gave guidelines on how I wanted it to sound,” she says. “Usually producers ask for a reference or a peg, but I never kind of stuck too hard to one. I did want to incorporate more live music, we even brought in a harp. I wanted it to be more mellow, more feminine.”
You can hear as much in the record’s hushed title track, where Kiana’s honeyed croon soars through a chorus of vocal harmonies. The effect is otherworldly, but it’s more than a pretty arrangement.
“The reason for the harmonies and the vocal layering in ‘Dazed’ is I wanted it to sound like the inside of my head. I just have so many thoughts all the time. I’m just constantly thinking, thinking, thinking,” she laughs. On the same track Kiana whisper-sings, “I’m done overthinking / about all the lives I cannot relive,” before wailing, “set me free / I’m stuck in my head again”. She even shot an equally ethereal dance/performance art video – what she calls a “movement visual” – for ‘Dazed’. “I felt like I still didn’t fully express what I wanted to in words, so I wanted to continue the storytelling through movement.”
The four other songs on the EP take you through the pains and joys of intimacy. In ‘How Do I’, Kiana softly coos about her reluctance to receive love after being burned by former flames: “Oh the ones who came before you left a hole in me… I need to re-align / If I can’t love myself, how do I love you?” Then, shifting gears, she delivers odes to fleeting and lasting loves in ‘Simple’ and ‘Only You’. Standout track ‘Better’ is the EP’s danciest bop, but it’s also where Kiana is at her cheekiest: “I see what I’m worth and what I deserve / See the way I let you in through the hurt… See, I could do better.”
Kiana sums up the EP as a “soft exploration” of how “self-love affects the love we’re able to give others – I think the balance of giving and taking, and just being able to pour yourself out, is so important to pay attention to,” she says. “When people think about self-love it’s usually from the perspective of ‘I want to do this’, when really it’s more about what you can give the world when you’re OK, when you’re in the right place. It’s something I’m still learning to master.”
Another thing she’s keeping in check is letting go of perfectionism, a trait she admittedly shares with her father. “Growing up I’d sleep in the studio while he worked. And I saw his frustration of not getting a note right, or not playing the right chord. I thought that was just dad being dad,” she recalls. “Now that I’m in the same industry, I’m like, ‘Oh, now I understand’.”
“The most satisfying thing about releasing ‘Dazed’ is it feels like I don’t have to put on a mask to perform it”
These days, Kiana doesn’t shun her father’s input. “I’m the biggest critic of my work, but we’re both so OC,” she says, meaning obsessive compulsive. “When we were going over ‘Dazed’, we’d listen to the mixes, and when we got the masters, he’d go, ‘The drums felt more fresh in that version.’ And it really helps to have someone like that in your corner because he’s so experienced and just a genius. But one thing he told me is to not fixate on perfect and trust when you’ve done your best.”
And what about the best advice Kiana’s given her dad? “I always tell him to get out of his head. Ang kapal ng mukha ko [I’m such a hypocrite] for saying that because I’m always stuck in my head, I wrote a song about it!” she laughs. “But I always encourage him to not be afraid to work with younger artists, because he has so much to give.”
Kiana too has much more to offer, and speaks excitedly about a project that’s still off the record. But she’s also supremely pleased with her latest release, which feels true to herself. “The most satisfying thing about releasing ‘Dazed’ is it feels like I don’t have to put on a mask to perform it,” she says. “I don’t have to put a mask on to explain it to you. Mentally, emotionally, and you could say because of the movement visual, physically as well, it’s just an authentic piece of art that perfectly encapsulates where I am right now,” she adds, “It was a good way to refresh my senses.”
Kiana V’s ‘Dazed’ is out now