Kishi Bashi: Holding A Mirror To Pop Music's Many Faces

May 15, 2014
Originally published on May 15, 2014 9:55 am

Indie-pop musician K. Ishibashi blends violin, electronics and stylistic influences from multiple cultures and pop-music eras to create a unique sound. NPR's Steve Inskeep recently spoke with the musician, who is also a touring member of the eclectic band Of Montreal, about how his many experiences have contributed to the creation of Lighght, his second album as Kishi Bashi. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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Just listen with us for a moment as this music comes together.


INSKEEP: It's an improvisation by Kishi Bashi. The violinist was born in Seattle, is based now in Georgia, and often travels to the home of his ancestors, Japan.


INSKEEP: He's turning himself into a violin section, recording one part then playing it back while recording another. We are going to talk about what influences those improvisations.


INSKEEP: The latest album from Kishi Bashi, who performs as Kishi Bashi, is called "Lighght," a single word and the entire text of a famous poem.

: It's a one-word poem and it's just in the middle of the page, and it was from 1965 and it was quite profound.

INSKEEP: The poem was controversial in its time for being one word, purposely misspelled: L-I-G-H-G-H-T.

: It kind of pushes convention. I think I kind of relate in that I'm a pop musician, yet I'm classically trained. But I kind of view myself as an experimentalist and I think that's how I related to this work.

INSKEEP: And I still want to pronounce it differently. Let there be liyight.


: Liyight. OK, liyight. We can go with that.

INSKEEP: You're welcomed to go with that if you want to, when you're on tour.

: Do I have to?

INSKEEP: No, you don't.


INSKEEP: You don't at all.

: OK.

INSKEEP: Let's listen a little bit of this album. There's a song on here, "Philosophize In It, Chemicalize With It."


INSKEEP: I'm told this started as a commercial.

: You were told correctly. It actually was a 30-second commercial in Japan and I just had the time to do it, so I just did it. And then I was encouraged to finish the song, which I did.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that when you were asked to write it originally it was not a full song, from which they took a clip.

: Yeah, I kind of forgot about it. And then people were just, like, what is this song, where's the rest of the song, who is this artist - in Japan. And I quickly made a whole song.

INSKEEP: Wait. So the demand for the song was what forced you to create that.

: Yeah, that's...


: I'm kind of lazy sometimes, that's how that works.


: It's a - yeah, they forced me to make the song. Yeah, it's their fault.

INSKEEP: So how did you flesh that out into a full song then, once you had the chorus?

: It as kind of tough, you know?


: It took a lot of painstaking trial and error. And then eventually I did it and they released it, actually as a single in Japan. A lot of people influenced or kind of forced me to make my album.

INSKEEP: The words of your songs can be quite poetic and quite moving. But it seems to me that often what you're attracted to is the sound of the language, as much as the content.

: Absolutely, yeah. The words when they first form, when I'm improvising, the words just form as an instrument. And I kind of shape them and then I connect the story to that. And the same to my approach when I use Japanese is that it's really an instrument first.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to a song in which some of the lyrics are in Japanese from this album. It's called "Q&A."


INSKEEP: So what would we get if you translated that?

: Hotaru means firefly. And it's all about a dream. So it's talking about: If you pinch me, I'll wake up from this dream. My Japanese lyrics are connected in some way to the English lyrics, and it kind of adds depth to the songs - if anybody speaks Japanese.


INSKEEP: Why a firefly?

: I think it started with the word and the word created an image in my head. And it's kind of connected in many ways to hot summer afternoon. That's what I feel like when I think of fireflies, and especially hotaru - it's a very Japanese thing.

INSKEEP: My colleague here, who's more familiar with the subject, was saying that the firefly has a particular meaning in Japanese culture.

: Ooh, what did your colleague...


: What did your colleague say about it 'cause I don't know.

INSKEEP: OK, Lindsay. Come in here. Come in here to the microphone.

: I kind of - I actually kind of interested. I could use this for further interviews.

INSKEEP: Lindsay Tadi(ph), our producer, is going to come over here to the microphone.


: OK. Hi, Lindsay.

LINDSAY TADI, BYLINE: Hi, K. This is the producer, Lindsay. I was doing some reading and my research told me that there are poems going way back as far as, like, the 9th century AD where fireflies are used as a symbol of love. Is that what you were thinking about when you wrote that song?


: I was not. That's pretty interesting. I don't even think Japanese people know that.

INSKEEP: And yet the image came to him in the quirky way his music does. The latest Kishi Bashi recording was released some weeks ago in Japan, where one of his songs is near the top of the charts. It's "The Ballad of Mr. Steak," in which the narrator fondly remembers a meal as if it were a dance partner.


INSKEEP: It is either a fantastic children's song or a really profound love song, or a song about eating a steak.


: Yeah, I think I would say D: All of the above.



INSKEEP: If we take the same song and release in the United States and release it in Japan, do you discover that people hear them differently or perceive different things in them, depending on which country they've grown up in?

: Absolutely, I think the cultural differences kind of make certain people like certain things. And I think American music, or the American Indie music scene is very picky and they love music. And in Japan, they're not as picky.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by picky on the American side?

: They listen to so much music, their taste are more refined. This is just my opinion. But, like, Japan to me is not like a music-loving country in general. There's tons of people who love music and make incredible stuff. But in general, if you ask the person, you know, what's your favorite song or what are you listening to right now, a lot of people would be, like, whatever is on the radio. Or some people...


: ...would actually say: I'm not into music - which, to an American, just kind of blows my mind. So in many ways they'll listen to what they're fed. But they have the potential to be, you know, a really vibrant music culture like America.

INSKEEP: Kishi Bashi, who performs as Kishi Bashi, thanks very much.

: Thank you for having me.


INSKEEP: His new album is called "Lighght." It's out this week in the United States.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.