To start with, can you tell us a little about your history, musical background and how you became a singer?
I was born in Tokyo, Japan and spent most of my teenage years and a bit more in the States, and the last few years there I began performing with a Boston improvisation group called Saturnalia. After coming back to Japan in ’98, I started doing solo performances. Ever since then, I’ve worked with theatre people, butoh and contemporary dancers, many musicians in free jazz, improvisation and noise for the last 20-something years. I don’t think I did have any specific ideas for becoming a singer. I was at a music school at some point, and that experience has given me the idea to use my vocals as an instrument. Just the last 10 years or so, I started singing songs again. I am still improvising in some groups I have regular shows with, aside from my solo project.
Do you have a different approach when working solo as opposed to performing with others?
Working on my own is a completely different working process. For solo projects, I'm concerned about time and space and how that works with the dynamics made with voice and piano in the context of songs. When I work with others, choosing musicians is of great importance. After deciding whom I want to work with, I tell them what I do and how I work and give total freedom to them. I might give some instructions like “surprisingly slow, play as a clumsy old person, like a heart beat of 34 per minute” and so on. It is up to them to follow that or go completely the opposite. Of course, it can be limited for me in some ways, but there are things I wouldn’t be able to do on my own.
Most of your work is improvised, yet your music has a clear beginning and an ending. Do you have certain basic ideas or structures in mind when you create music?
I do have some basic ideas and images for the most part, but for some I just have lyrics, and that’s it. I try to keep the improv essence in most of the songs. I have clear beginning and ending even with improvised ones because I perform songs. Also, the way I play is different each time for many tunes because I change the way I start differently to keep them fresh for myself, too.
Is the piano the perfect instrument for you?
I may be using the piano like a percussion instrument that brings a groove or a specific rhythm. For me, a song represents a timeline, and I play and sing to show the dynamics of each moment. What I want to do with my voice is to get all the emotional aspects and senses integrated in one tone or note at a moment to reach a void, so to speak. It’s not that sadness or happiness rely upon the lyrics. I want to bring out nothingness. That can be said for my piano, too. When I play super fast, I do it to have all the grains of sounds to be nothing, zero. Like when you draw many points on a paper, it becomes a line.
When playing live, your theatre-like body movement and face mimics seem to be an important aspect, almost like an instrument itself. How important is the voice/body connection to your music?
That is a very important part of my performance. I am trying to free my own body, in order to free my voice. I use my body, do the movement, not because I am dancing, but to create certain sound (voice) out of my body, including my face or fingers.
You use both Japanese and English lyrics. How do they come together?
When I sing in English, I guess I am more free in a sense because it speaks out. It slips out of my lips. When I sing in Japanese, I prefer pronouncing them delicately and deliberately, maybe because each single word is followed by vowels. I am very careful about choosing the right consonants, vowels that may follow, and what kind of pitch I want at the moment and which part of my mouth, tongue I want to use to produce the sound with. Lyrics take a great role in that, too, but phonetics are also crucial to me.
On your latest album you come up with a reinterpretation of the traditional Japanese song Kurokami. Is your home country and its traditions important to your music?
I’m sure I have something Japanese in me, and that was actually part of the reasons why I decided to come back in ’98 after spending 10 years in the States. I picked up the Japanese traditional dance for some years and studied koto and shamisen. But speaking of Kurokami, I was really intrigued by its lyrics. As with many other songs, I twist and warp things around until the tune takes up a different form. That doesn’t mean that I have no respect for the the originals. I just want to digest them until I really feel them in my stomach without memorising them and let them out of my system or let the lyrics lead me to somewhere.
How do you see yourself and your music in the context of the Eastern Daze festival’s theme of establishing a connection between Western and non-Western music?
I am seeking a universal language where people don’t give a thing about which languages I am singing in and feel the depth of that, and I don’t like having concrete ideas. I want to be surprised. I also want the audience to feel nowhereness and be confused, but feel the truth for themselves and the nothingness in it. Accepting and freeing from ordinariness, framework, stability, even from your own. I will perform with bassist Luis Inage, who has been supporting me for a few years. He is also on the Between Dream and Haze album. We have never done any shows outside of Japan, so that might be something to look forward to.