Images of rolling surf flash against a wall behind a mop-haired man plugging a cord into his violin. Resembling the surfer in the video behind him with his fluid movements, the young man draws his bow across the strings, producing a melancholy pitch. Two-dozen spectators on a dimly lit street in Hanapēpē stand transfixed as the unassuming violinist, 22-year-old Aowl (pronounced like the bird) Owen, serenades the night.
Born in the Marshall Islands, Owen was adopted by a family on Kaua‘i before they moved to Colorado. At the age of 12, Owen was entranced by the sound of a violin in a Prego spaghetti sauce TV commercial. That was all it took to steer Owen to classical music. In 5th grade, he took an introductory violin class and was soon splitting his time between soccer practice, comic books, and classical music.
The violin awakened a deep love of music in Owen, not just for the classical sort, but also for rock, jazz, hip-hop, metal, and the sounds of pop punk bands like Yellowcard and Blink-182. Describing one of his earliest influences, 19th century Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini, Owen says, “That guy was pretty nuts.”
In high school, Owen moved with his mom back to Kaua‘i, where he continued to practice. After graduating in 2010, he was accepted to South Carolina’s Bob Jones University, a school known for its music program. Instruction was rigorous, and Owen found the gates around the campus, like the school’s strict rules and prohibitions (no playing non-classical music), constricting.
“It didn’t really work for me at all. It was very conservative and I’m not,” Owen says. After one year, he returned to Kaua‘i with a strong sense of discipline and a new appreciation for freedom. For Christmas in 2012, his father gave him a Line 6 JM4 looper, a piece of equipment that allows him to sample his own music, then loop it as he layers multiple instruments like guitar, viola, cello, bass, piano, and ‘ukulele. The effect renders him into a digital one-man band.
Reluctant to claim a single genre, Owen says his music is a mix of classical, modern, and ambient, with influences of jazz, rock, and Hawaiian. He enjoys taking something he says people might find boring—“an old guy with a wig playing violin”—and doing something cool with it. With his looper, Fender amp, and hybrid acoustic-electric violin, he plays street performances, weddings, and small concerts around Kaua‘i, including Hanapēpē’s Friday Art Nights.
Owen fondly recalls a treehouse he built with his brother in a lychee tree in 2013 that, for a while, served as a home and studio. “The sun would break through the leaves, and I’d grab my violin and play as loud as I could,” Owen recalls. “Just to say, ‘Hey world, I’m up!’” Today, Owen lives in a cottage overlooking Mt. Wai‘ale‘ale. From it, he can hike to the top of Mt. Nounou with his violin for open-air solo jams.
Owen talks of going to New York City and making it big. If he were to do so, though, he says he would eventually return to Kaua‘i to help other musicians. “I don’t have much to give compared to most other people, but I want to give as much of myself as I can,” he says. “Even though we just met, I would do anything for you—I know that sounds weird, but you or anyone else.”
In the meantime, he appreciates where he is at. “I am playing music and doing what I love, and I think that’s a dream come true for sure.”