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Getting Real With Hoku: The ‘Perfect Day’ Star Talks Early 2000s Pop Success and Why She Left the Spotlight

Hoku
Matthew Morgan

Hoku

If you were a pre-teen or teenager in 2000, you know Hoku -- either from her '00 top 40 hit "Another Dumb Blonde," or from the next year's Legally Blonde-opening anthem "Perfect Day." But it’s likely you haven’t heard Hoku’s name since then -- and she’s perfectly okay with that.

Now 38, Hoku Clements is a stay-at-home mom of three residing in Orange County, Calif., whose last music release was a faith-based EP in 2018. The five-song set marked Hoku’s first project in 10 years, following her independently released 2008 album Listen Up. The Hawaii native’s most recent return to music was accompanied by the launch of her official Instagram, which she admits is “still a huge blind spot for me” (understandably so, considering her pop days pre-dated social media). Yet, Hoku’s profile includes a tasteful mix of family, cover songs, her own songs, and performance shots. 

But the most exciting thing about Hoku’s Instagram? Those throwback pics.

Hoku has shared old photos from the video shoots for “Another Dumb Blonde” (which peaked at No. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April 2000) and follow-up “How Do I Feel?”; most recently, she shared pictures with Justin Timberlake and the rest of *NSYNC to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their album No Strings Attached

“I was very aware, like, ‘You're going to want to remember this time,’” she says of the pictures. “I’ve tried to keep them really organized in albums. I have so many funny pictures of me with all these 2000s celebrities: P. Diddy, all the *NSYNC guys, Mandy [Moore] when she was like, ‘Candy’ Mandy. It’s such a trip.”

Though the images capture her fondest memories from those days, Hoku admits that she has to mentally prepare herself to look through them. What isn’t apparent from the photos is that, while she was a fresh-faced teen singing bubbly pop tunes, Hoku was facing pressures she wasn’t expecting -- nor that she was comfortable with -- behind the scenes.

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of her own album (simply titled Hoku, released April 18, 2000), Hoku opened up to Billboard about the rollercoaster experience she had as a female pop star, at a time when label executives had full control over such artists' careers (Hoku was signed to Interscope/Geffen Records from 1999 to 2003). While that ultimately resulted in Hoku walking away from pop stardom, she has no regrets, and even hints that she may return to her pop roots now that she’s making music again. But if she does, Hoku makes one thing very clear: it’ll be on her terms.

Below, Hoku shares memories -- good and bad -- from her 2000 success, and how her decision to leave fame behind has led her to the happiest place she’s ever been.

“Another Dumb Blonde” was your only song to chart on the Hot 100, but does that feel like your biggest hit?

You know, “Perfect Day” feels like my biggest hit. Because it was linked with Legally Blonde, I get way more recognition for that song. When I'm ordering at Starbucks and say my name is Hoku, they'll go, “Oh Hoku, like ‘Perfect Day’?”

That’s amazing you get recognized at Starbucks.

It always happens when I’m least expecting it. I was at Disneyland the other day, and was just trying to check something in at Star Wars Land or whatever, and this girl was like, “Oh, Hoku, like the pop star?” And I was there with my kids all sweaty. My kids love it -- it’s bought them a little social currency, so I don’t mind. My son loves to brag about how he has a famous mom to everyone he knows. 


How did they find out their mom was once a pop star?

I was going through stuff in the garage [a few years ago], and my daughter found my CD. She was like, “What's this?” And then my husband was like, “Come on, let's go in my car and play this music.” She was like, “Mom, oh my goodness!” And then [all three kids] wanted to play the whole album on repeat nonstop. Then they started telling all their friends.

If they hadn't found out organically, I think at some point I would have sat them down -- especially when my daughter got to the age where she would have appreciated it -- like, “Hey, you're into pop music. You think I'm uncool? Let me tell you how cool I was.” [Laughs.]

So back to “Perfect Day” -- what do you remember from recording that song? Did it feel like a huge deal to be part of Legally Blonde at the time?

No one really knew that Legally Blonde was going to be what it was. Literally, [my label heads] were like, “This movie's not going to become anything." And then the next thing you know, it's like, this iconic movie. And my song opens it! Sitting in the premiere and hearing my song open the movie, and everyone's cheering -- it felt like, “I’ve really arrived now, folks.”

But because “Another Dumb Blonde” and my self-titled debut had “underperformed” -- it only went gold, which was a huge disappointment to them -- there was a little bit of feet-dragging going on with the follow-up album. Ideally “Perfect Day” was supposed to have a follow-up album ready to launch. So when Legally Blonde took off the way it did, and “Perfect Day” was being sold as a single, there was no album to back it up. There was a lot of panic going on behind the scenes. 

Wait, your label thought “Another Dumb Blonde” had underperformed?

Well, remember this was right on the edge of when Napster came out. The amount of downloads of “Another Dumb Blonde” on Napster exceeded 1 million, but I only went gold [in physical sales]. So the record company was quietly having a meltdown, even though it was obviously catching on. I was doing all these national performances, and people loved it. I couldn't go to a mall without getting mobbed. 

So it was just a really strange thing, because I am in the midst of this, like, incredible success -- I have my people saying, “It's doing really great! Before [Napster], you would have been platinum.” And then I'm going, “Well, that's cool. But is the record company happy?” That part kind of haunts me a little bit. I'm like, “You know, it would have been nice if it had just been before all of that downloading stuff started to happen.”


The bio on your website says that you walked away from your pop career "when the demands of a pre-#MeToo music industry became more than you were willing to reckon with." Was that also happening while they were panicking over the arrival of Napster? 

Oh yes. All the stories you're hearing now about the things that male executives were getting away with [at that time] are not exaggerated. In fact, they're probably on the smaller end of the scale. It was post-”Baby One More Time.” I remember how shocking that was, the imagery... All of us pop people that were signed on [after that video] were meant to follow that mold. And that's not something that's communicated to you as a young person when you're signing that contract. So it was like, “Now that you're in this contract, and we control the success of your music, here are the things that you need to do in order to fulfill that contract.”

One of my label executives was basically like, “You know how all those girls get their song No. 1 at the radio stations?” And I was like, “Well, how?” And he was like, “Well, you know, they'd go under the table and they do what they have to do for their people.” And I was like, “What?” And he was like, “If you think that those girls haven't done it, you're wrong. So if it comes up, you know what you need to do.” 

And he runs my career, you know? He can decide if I'm getting funding for the rest of my album. These [label] people were really nice for the most part, but [there were] definitely a lot of leery comments. They basically treated you like an object. Not all of them were that way, but it was always kind of this feeling of having your hackles up because definitely, you're surrounded by the machine. They basically had a bunch of young girls in their clutches. 

There was a lot of pressure to bare the midriff. Like, in my “How Do I Feel?” video, I fought so hard for every single cover-up I had in that music video. If they could've had me standing there in a bikini for every single shot, they would have done it. I remember showing up to the video shoot and they had racks and racks of bikinis and like, seven cover ups. I was like, “I'm not wearing this.” There [were] so many times when I was like, “I'm not comfortable with that.” And they literally were like, “Well you have to do this, or this will happen.” It got to the point where I just refused to do a lot of it. And then they were like, “Okay, fine.” It was a lot.

That was a big reason why I ultimately walked away. Honestly, it just stopped being fun. There was so much pressure from my label executive, and he obviously wanted to do things with me and was very vocal about it. And even though it was all verbal -- he never touched me -- it got to the point where I was scared to go to the label. I always wanted people with me so I wouldn't be alone with him.

[Editor's note: Representatives for Interscope/Geffen declined to comment on Hoku's claims of early '00s misconduct.]

You were married at that time, right? I can imagine that added another layer of pressure.

Yeah, I got married, and then shortly afterwards, I was signed. They tried to make me divorce him. They just wanted me to be single. There was a lot of pressure on me to be as available as I could look. And granted, I get it. I get that being a pop star that’s married at 18 was not really gonna fit in the narrative that they were looking for. But it was gone about in a really gross way. Like, “You just got married, you can undo this.” And I'm like, “I don't want to undo this, I love this person!” 

We're still married 21 years later, so obviously it was not some passing fling. But they all treated him like absolute crap. Whispering, like, “You're a piece of crap. Why are you here? Are you enjoying just hanging on to your wife?” Eventually, I was like, “Listen, I'm not doing these things without him.” He became my tour manager, so he had a valid reason to be there. Honestly, I treated him like a human shield, and poor guy, he endured a lot because of that. 

You know what’s crazy? The lyrics of “Another Dumb Blonde” sort of apply to what you went through.

I am so glad that you noticed that -- I 100% agree! [Laughs.] It just brings me so much joy that one of my most successful songs is like a giant middle finger to the whole yuckiness of that industry. I mean, don't get me wrong, I have so much gratitude. But at the same time, all those gross things, I'm just like, “Peace, guys. Go find someone else to use and abuse, not interested.”

I do look back on that time with pride, because in a way, I was a very devout evangelical Christian at that time. My views and my feelings on all of that has changed a lot, but at the time it was a good shelter for me. And I'm thankful for it, because I was able to say, “This goes against what I believe in.” And at some point people have to stop arguing with that.

I just feel proud that I was able to escape that time without too much compromise. I’ve definitely had to do a lot of therapy. That whole aspect of it was the only dark spot on what was otherwise just a lovely and fun time. I try not to let it ruin the whole thing.

Obviously I have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes, but it seems like female pop stars today aren’t going through quite as much turmoil, and are a little more free to be who they want to be.

It makes me happy to see how, at least outwardly -- like you said, I don't know what it's like behind the scenes -- the shift that's happened. These girls are clearly not puppets anymore. It’s just cool to see the empowerment that's come into pop music for girls now. I really love Meghan Trainor -- a lot of her songs are like, “Nope. I'm not putting up with this anymore.” So it's nice for me to see that, as someone who's been through that machine, [I feel] like, “Go girls, go do it!” It’s been so healing and freeing to see so many people not putting up with it.

 

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You released a faith-based EP, Called by Name, in 2018. You mentioned your Christianity -- have you always been wanting to do a faith-driven project?

It’s interesting -- I wouldn't necessarily have put myself in the Christian category for music. It feels like a weird place to be, but at the same time, that is just kind of where I was and what was coming out of me at the time. All of these songs came about from me journaling. Motherhood was not the most easy journey for me. I had postpartum depression; reckoning with seeing that parenthood and music are two things that couldn't coexist together, I think there was a mourning process that was happening. 

I was playing music at my church with my husband, and [someone would] be like, “We need a song for this service that's kind of about this.” And I'd be like, “Well, I have a song that I wrote that's exactly about this.” And then people would be like, “I want a recording of that song.” And when I showed my friend Jim [Roach] -- who was my drummer [in the early 2000s] -- he was like, “Hoku, we are recording these songs and getting them out to the world. You need to share these songs with people.” 

I started doing this mini-tour around Orange County where I would play the songs and talk about the journey I went through as a mom, and all these things that led to these songs being written, and it was connecting immensely with people. It really empowered me to keep doing it.

What is hard about a lot of this music is that I definitely don’t want to alienate people. I have a lot of LGBTQ fans, and I know that the Christian label carries a certain connotation. And so it feels a little bit difficult to be doing Christian music. But I don't hold any of the beliefs in that regard. 

So will you be releasing more of that music?

I have [another] five-song EP that's also faith-based I'm going to be releasing [this year]. Beyond that, I’m taking each step as it comes. Not to put any false hope out in the universe, but I have been writing some pop songs lately, pop songs that are sort of about what happened to me in my first round of pop music. 

It would be super fun, and kind of redemptive in a way -- because I would definitely never go back to pop music without it being on my terms. That's another thing that's been really fun about [having] social media [while] releasing this music -- people actually still would love to hear me produce more pop music! I never thought that that would be something people would want [again]. I think an opportunity would have to present itself, or some songs would really have to take shape. Which, the beginning of that may be happening, so we'll see.

Your life could be a movie: Girl gets to be an early 2000s pop star, escapes the clutches of demanding label execs, and then builds a happy life as a suburban mom of three. 

You know, I hear that a lot actually [Laughs]. It’s been really nice to be able to have had both. And I really feel like I've gotten the best of all of it. I got to have all those amazing experiences and I did leave with my head held high, before I was really coerced into doing anything that would haunt me later. 

That time in my life brought so much joy to people. I still get to interact with the people I still feel relevant to, so there's a lot of joy that comes from that time in my life now. Even though I've had to reckon with and process some of the more negative aspects of it, the predominant memory now is just joy. I still have fans say, “Your show was one of my best childhood memories.” It doesn't really get much better than that.

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