Twenty-three-year-old Lepani's first single Pocket Full of Love ushers in a stunning new voice in New Zealand music. The Fijian-born, Howick-raised singer-songwriter only released the lush, melodic single two weeks ago, but the track has already hit 188,000 plays on Spotify.
Pocket Full of Love – which Lepani wrote, recorded and produced in his home studio – is a hypnotic blend of pop and contemporary RnB; Lepani's honeyed vocals are layered with stunning harmonies, while his complex, rapid-fire lyrics play with different rhythms in the verses. It's a creatively daring track that also holds a timeless quality, sounding like a song that should have always existed.
Lepani has been playing music all his life. His father is a social worker and his mother a nurse. "My whole family sings, and my dad plays guitar," he says. "Growing up, we'd just sit at home and just sing and play songs together. It's a normal Island thing – every family function, everyone's just singing."
Lepani, who went to primary school in Rotorua and high school in Howick, Auckland, credits a number of moves in his upbringing as the reason he's influenced by different genres. "My family, my cousins would listen to Chris Brown and Michael Jackson," he says. "And then I came and made friends at Macleans, and they listen to Pink Floyd, AC/DC, Metallica. So then my horizon for music just broadened. And then I found my own things that I love - Daft Punk, The Eagles, that kind of stuff."
Lepani has filled his home studio with instruments and gear over the years since he graduated high school – a time in which he worked at Countdown, a movie theatre, a comic book store and a cafe, while also fitting in a filmmaking degree at Yoobee School of Design.
"When I left school, I didn't really know what to do," he says. "I ended up working the graveyard shift at Countdown, so I started at 8:30pm, and I'd finish at five or six in the morning.
"The worst thing about that job was also the best thing. I wasn't able to see people or socialise because my hours were so different. But for that full year, I'd come home at six in the morning, then I'd make music till midday when there was nobody else around.
"Because of that job I had to sacrifice seeing people, but it also pushed me to make music because I had to fill my time with something."
But Lepani had never anticipated music being something he'd be able to work on full time. It took the encouragement of a friend – and a chance encounter at his friend's cafe in Howick – for Sony Music to come knocking.
"[My friend] didn't have any employees [at the cafe] because they were just starting out, so I would help them clean up every afternoon until they found employees," he says. Another friend who was interning at Sony came in one day, but Lepani was initially hesitant to talk about his music.
"It was my mate Rohan who pushed me to say something. He was like, 'yo, this guy has music, he'll send it to you'. I sent it through, then a couple weeks later, they messaged me back, and the label wanted to start working with me."
But even as Lepani begins to carve out a career in music, he feels an insecurity around making his passion his job. He says it still doesn't feel "real" – and he worries the pursuit is "selfish".
"I've always felt like it doesn't really help society, as much as say, being a doctor, or a nurse or engineer," he says. "But people remind me, although music might not be specifically saving someone's life – it might not be surgery, or it might not be talking somebody out of a crisis – it can do similar things.
"That's what I really want my music to do," he says. "Not just be a banger or a hit; that's not really what I want in the long run. If making stuff like that gets me to that point where I can create stuff that really resonates with individuals, on an intimate personal level, then I'm all for it."
What: New single Pocket Full of Love
Also: Watch his Locals Only performance at nzherald.co.nz/timeout