For Isabeau Waia’u Walker, Sensitivity Is Power

The alt folk musician opens up about “slow-cooked” artistry and the ripple effects created by her fans.

When Isabeau Waia’u Walker’s “Woman” was named one of OPB’s top songs of 2020, the Hawaii-born Oregon City artist was concurrently at work on what would become her first solo album: Body, a “bright gloom” collection of tender loving songs circling around themes of family, culture and sensitivity in its rawest form.

“I was a very sensitive kid, which could come off as weak,” Waia’u Walker tells WW. “I felt like I was always holding back the floodgate, whether that was tears or anger or rage.”

Waia’u Walker recounts a story of her dental hygienist once telling her she must be “sensitive” because she winced while getting braces: “I started developing this association with being sensitive as being a bad thing; that you shouldn’t let on too fast what’s playing out internally.…I didn’t want to be weak, but then I realized that some of what kept me most tender toward people was my sensitivity.”

The song that speaks most directly to this notion, “All at Once,” opens with a sensual baseline and the heart-softening lines: “Everyone says I’m too sensitive/So sensitive/That’s why I bleed.” But the song makes a quick reassurance that high sensitivity is actually a power. “I’m meant to be sensitive,” she sings.

Waia’u Walker’s connective nature comes out a lot in both her online and live performances. People see the rawness and are drawn in and drawn together—which is part of how Waia’u Walker amassed her many YouTube subscribers (more than 21,000), along with a healthy community of supporters on Patreon.

According to Waia’u Walker, one of her earliest patrons was a fan named Chuck who would show up to all of her monthly online chats and offer lively encouragement and stories. When Y La Bamba asked Waia’u Walker to join them for their 2022 tour, she was glad to see they were stopping in Los Angeles, where Chuck lived.

When Waia’u Walker arrived at Chuck’s home, he opened the door in his wheelchair, wearing the Isabeau T-shirt that came with his monthly pledge. He apologized that his piano was out of tune, and the two sat down to play together, a session Waia’u Walker had recorded. Before meeting Chuck, she knew that he was battling cancer, but she didn’t realize just how sick he was until that day.

When Body came out and Waia’u Walker announced her first solo tour in fall of 2022, she couldn’t wait to bring Chuck out to a show. But when she reached out to share the announcement, she learned he had died.

“Of course, most importantly I wanted him to be healthy,” Waia’u Walker says. But she knows how happy her progress would have made him, too. For years, he’d comment on every YouTube video, on each Facebook post. In a world where fandom is too often synonymous with toxicity, Chuck had believed in her and understood her strength as an artist.

After a thoughtful pause, Waia’u Walker says, “My Patreon community is basically my label.”

Aside from a small-town show at which one lonely drinker called out, “There are more dogs here than people!” Waia’u Walker’s tour was a success. “I love the collective presence of playing with a band,” she says. “But it’s important for my songs to be able to stand alone. Because I love playing alone.”

This month, Waia’u Walker performs with her full band at the Doug Fir Lounge, a venue she says she’ll be proud to play. It’s the next step of a journey that has been long but rewarding.

“I think of myself as a slow-cooker artist,” Waia’u Walker says with a kind laugh. She never aimed to wedge her way into the scene before she’d put in the time. And after a decade to focus on her craft, she still draws from the well of power that is her sensitivity.

GO: Isabeau Waia’u Walker plays with Night Heron at Doug Fir Lounge, 503-231-9663, 8:30 pm Friday, Feb. 17. $15. 21+.

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