Interview >>Japanese ver.
'Music with Meaning' ―― this is the phrase 明星/Akeboshi used when speaking of his work in the following interview. About five years since his last release, this new mini album 'a little boy' is a body of work that reveals a sense of depth as the phrase suggests. Each song is filled with his thoughts on the death and loss that he has faced in his life, as well as his aspiration for hope to be passed on to the next generation. An emotional tale is told which rides on magnificent and vivid melodies with strings and horns arrangements. I asked him to share with us what he has put into his album. (Interviewer/text: Tomonori Shiba)
I want to bring music with meaning to the world.
---Firstly, I would like to ask about your artistic activities in general as 明星/Akeboshi, in what category do you see yourself to be? For example, what are your thoughts on the title of 'singer-songwriter'?
Akeboshi: I thought from the beginning that the title ‘singer-songwriter’ didn't really fit well with me. I’d rather say sound making is my forte. It is true that I do perform as a singer-songwriter by singing whilst playing the piano but that’s only a small fraction of my time. For my live shows, I incorporate video projection and express sound using loop samplers and delays. Having said that, I do have a desire to bring music with meaning to the world. It takes effort to make songs and quite a bit of time, however, for the tracks released under my own name, I'm quite particular about what goes into the songs.
---'a little boy' is your first album in about five years. In the meantime, you were producing music for commercials and movies, do you make a distinction in terms of production between those types of compositions and your personal work?
Akeboshi: They are not the same. The completion speed is different to begin with. For commercials and movies, I have the chance to work with types of music that can be outside my usual practice and I get to analyse music from different genres as well. It's a lot of fun and I learn quite a lot too. As for my own songs, I do get influence from those sorts of things sometimes but when I create something from scratch, it's not like I go "I'm going to create that because it's cool". I examine carefully whether the creation purely comes out from myself or not. Things start moving when some kind of impulse - not so much one with momentum but more like a gradually emerging impulse - becomes more concrete and defined.
---So a well-conceived theme and concept must come first for you to craft each song. Is that how you do it?
Akeboshi: Yes, that's right.
The theme this time is 'children'. It’s about raising children.
---For example, what kind of visions and themes make up your music?
Akeboshi: 'Travel' is an example of a theme I have done in the past. For the production of the album 'Meet along the way’, I put together this album as I wandered around Ireland and England for about a month, speaking with some of the people I met there. I spoke to some people who were doing a music session in an Irish pub-like place, suggesting "I have some recording equipment, so why don’t you come around to the youth hostel tomorrow afternoon?" I brought out some songs that were mostly finished and asked them things like "Can you play the fiddle for this part?" or "Will you play the flute?", that’s how I completed the album. At that time I was signed with a major record company and I was already thinking back then that if I was to present something to the world, it’s best to have a theme with meaning. But that was some time ago and I probably won’t go back to the ‘travel’ theme anymore.
---In that case, what is the theme this time?
Akeboshi: The theme this time is 'children'. It’s about raising children. For me, that’s one of my current lifeworks and my life actually revolves around children. I draw motivation from my kids when creating my work and I take it from there for various themes.
---I see. And that has a direct connection to the album title 'a little boy'?
---For this production, in what way did you adopt this theme into these five songs?
Akeboshi: The first track 'Buckwheat field' is an instrumental piece and so it's more of an intro to the second song and it’s also like the orchestra tuning part of this mini album. It means I actually only wrote four songs which is an easy number for me to put together. Since my debut, I have released three mini albums ('STONED TOWN', 'WHITE REPLY' and 'Faerie Punks') each of which contains four tracks and I find a set of four songs fit nicely for a theme.
How I can teach children to cherish their own lives.
---I would now like to ask you about each of your songs. Firstly, the title track 'a little boy' seems to be the core song and its rhythm and ensemble are full of musical devices. It's arranged with a polyrhythmic structure. What’s your idea behind this?
Akeboshi: It’s simply because the material I like and enjoy working with for my music production tends to have rhythm patterns that are not monotonous. Since I first started my career, I’ve always been conscious about writing pop music that sounds seemingly normal but is actually not so normal. For example, the song 'Wind' is in quintuple metre, however, I created this song hoping that nobody would notice that it’s quintuple metre or irregular metre. From the beginning I wanted to write songs that anyone feels pleasant listening to and enjoys the rhythm changes without recognising it, rather than only for irregular metre enthusiasts who tend to listen to music academically. It just sort of happened like that naturally.
---What about the theme for the musical composition of 'a little boy'? There is something bittersweet about this song with a sense of loss and a view of life and death. In this sense, how did you develop your ideas for this song?
Akeboshi: At the moment my sons are five and eleven years old, the eldest is mentally quite independent and he has started to make all kinds of decisions for himself. On the other hand, I still have to protect my youngest, for example I have to tell him to watch out for cars when crossing the road. My eldest no longer needs my protection, now he can think, go out on his own to play and he has started to do his own things. That means, he will be fending for himself with a certain degree of responsibility and it struck me that if he ever gets caught up in an accident, then there won't be much I can do for him. This reminded me of a couple I know whose 18 year old son lost his life in a bike accident. Anything could happen, there’s nothing you can do about it. I wrote this song with the sentiment that my child is now off my hands.
---I see. Your own life, one fact and the world of imagination all joined up together to be this song.
---Was 'Beagle Bon Voyage' created in a similar fashion?
Akeboshi: Yes. The HMS Beagle is the name of the survey ship that Charles Darwin sailed on when he traveled around the world. I really look up to Darwin, I've read his books and I went to the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno when they were holding their Darwin exhibition in 2008. My eldest son also likes living creatures and he's always had a fondness for both manga related to Darwin and Takeshi Yoro's supervised encyclopaedia (haha).
Sounds like you’ve got an amazing son. (haha)
Akeboshi: Also, the lyrics begin with the story of a helicopter. Straight down the road from where I work is my son's elementary school. An American helicopter flew right above it and its loud noise interrupted my work. That got me pretty angry (haha). That happened around the same time as when the tensions were mounting over North Korea firing missiles, and I found it unsettling. This turned into an impulse for me.
---So this work is based on some slight discomfort and unrest you felt in your daily life, the factual life story of Darwin and your imagination. Rather than singing about your life the way it is, you have turned that into a fable-like story.
Akeboshi: That's right.
---It seems like particularly this time, songs of this kind came together.
Akeboshi: They did. It may be me trying to counterbalance the creation of music for commercials and movies. Especially this songwriting method doesn’t apply to commercials.
---And what about 'VET in the dream box'?
Akeboshi: The subject matter of this song comes from a story of a veterinarian. My son loves animals. The song came about when I found a link between the time when my son first expressed his future dream to become an animal researcher and when I learned about the news of the vet.
---I heard that there was the news in Taiwan about a veterinarian who worked at an animal shelter, she died by injecting herself with the euthanasia drug used for the animals.
Akeboshi: I thought if I write a song to illustrate the life of this vet, it might also be a message for my son. You became a veterinarian to try and help animals but your job turned out to be having to put them down. That’s also a possibility you need to be aware of.
---'I used to..' is a song that describes losing someone close to you. In a similar way to the song 'Kumori Yozora' in your previous album 'After the rain clouds go', this song is based on the significant event when a recording engineer took his own life 10 years ago. What were your emotions underlying this song?
Akeboshi: I didn't see myself writing a song like this after 10 years. Ultimately, what I want to emphasise is that, at the end of the day, you just have to carry on living no matter what. There might be some tough times but you’ll never know what awaits you when you are alive. But this song is not about staying alive against all odds, instead, it turned out to be about the emotion such as “I may forget you” and “I don’t want to forget about you”. This song was written when a thought crossed my mind that I may possibly forget about someone I care about so much. Opportunities for remembering him are decreasing. That was a big change that left me feeling helpless. This prompted me to believe that I’d better do my best to survive until the very end.
---I'm 42 years old, reaching this age, as one might expect, more than a few friends and colleagues of mine have passed away. Whilst I am hoping not to forget about them, their memories are in fact gradually fading away from my everyday life. I do ponder about this sometimes when I’m missing them and listening to this song made me think “Yeah, that’s right”.
Akeboshi: Is that so? Thank you. I wasn't sure whether people would empathise with this and actually I was wondering "Is this really okay?".
---What is the implication of including this song in this mini album 'a little boy' which places children at its core?
Akeboshi: 10 years ago was when my son was born. That was when my life largely shifted toward parenthood. Then I thought about how I can teach children the importance of life and to cherish their own lives. The same goes for other people’s lives, and when you have a pet or go bug collecting, you realise that death is all around us. You could face dangerous situations or your pet could grow weak and die. When I ruminate about mortality, I often talk to my son about taking lives of other people or that of living creatures but I realised that there weren’t many opportunities to talk about cherishing your own life. So I thought adding this kind of subject matter may not seem so strange.
I don't fancy being stuck anywhere.
---Also, could you tell us about this album cover? It has an illustration with a touch of fantasy. What kind of ideas did you share with Yutaka Kimura of Central67, the designer of this artwork?
Akeboshi: I first met Kimura san when I released my major debut album ('Akeboshi') and I brought 2 LP’s with me to describe “this is how I want”. One was a 12 inch record 'Last Day Of Summer' by a Norwegian singer-songwriter Magnet and it has kind of a shadow picture on it, which laid the foundation for the design theme I have now. The other was 'Calling Out Of Context' by Arthur Russell and the album cover has an image of a cello with a colourful painting on. My current shadow picture series developed from there. Since then, we try and retain the design consistency. This time I made Darwin the theme.
---So Darwin became an instrumental tool when you shared your visual ideas.
Akeboshi: That's right. When Darwin presented his 'Theory of Evolution', he was ridiculed by the Christian community and just like the illustration on this album cover, a caricature of Darwin's face placed on top of an orangutan's body was published in a newspaper. Apparently in those times some aristocrats slagged him off like "This idiot is telling us that we were monkeys." I heard that still now there are some schools in America where his 'Theory of Evolution' is excluded from the textbooks. Ever since I learned that he fought back in such a social climate, I got into him even more for that reason.
---I see. I don't usually ask this kind of question, but I thought I should try anyway. Akeboshi san, how do you perceive your musical genre and category?
Akeboshi: I don't fancy being stuck anywhere, somehow. In the past my music was labelled as all kind of genres, for instance, Irish, electronic, folktronica... But none of them really fits... I’d like you to tell me instead. (haha)
---By the way, could you name some artists you were inspired by or enjoyed listening to recently?
Akeboshi: Recently I enjoyed listening to FKJ and Tom Misch, and I've always really liked Bon Iver's world view. Whenever I work on the brass arrangements, I always keep Bon Iver in my consciousness. I can't do his voice though. Also, my English friend told me about Chiemi Manabe, a Japanese techno idol from the 80s and I listened to her stuff as well.
---I see. Personally, I don't think your music can be bundled up together into a genre or category. However, hearing what you have said about your album 'a little boy' makes me think that perhaps, it could be ‘folk music’ in the true nature of the words, rather than the sound or musical properties.
Akeboshi: Isn’t folk music about storytelling? There are words like folktales and folklore as well.
---That's true. It can be stories and also something that originated primarily from songs parents would sing to their children. Thinking of which, now I started to feel that the word 'lullaby' may fit the closest for the genre of this work. Then such music rooted in life and living gets released and reaches the market.
Akeboshi: Indeed. I’ve never really done much market research or such, though. But according to some data, surprisingly there are a quite a lot of people in Asia and South America listening to my music, which is useful to know. Because the purpose of me singing in English is to reach out to the people around the world, hopefully. Well, that’s basically something for once the album is done, I suppose.