A love letter to Kishi Bashi.

In my efforts to concisely summarise Kishi Bashi’s music I found none; his style is almost impossible to reduce to any particular genre or definition. He seems to draw on such a diverse range of musical traditions ranging from folk (both traditional Japanese and American), to electro-pop, to indie rock, and even classical, because he is ultimately a classically trained musician having begun learning the violin from age 7 meaning that the violin appears much like an extension of himself when he performs. However, even to describe him as an amalgamation of these genres doesn’t seem enough to capture the entirety of his essence as his music is so unique and transcends categorisation. In turn, it only feels appropriate to term his work otherworldly; his debut EP ‘Room for Dream’ (2012) sounds as though it were made by pixies, and the bird imagery he employs in much of his later work as in the album art of ‘Omoiyari’ (2019), alludes to the sense of magic that lines his work; birds have mystical associations in much of literature and folklore as they occupy the liminal space between the earth and the sky, and so it is conspired that they have access to this world and others, which is what Kishi Bashi seems to capture, or rather share in.

‘Omoiyari’, in my view, is Kishi Bashi’s best work due to its dualism; while having an air of whimsy with sweet songs like ‘Penny Rabbit and Summer Bear’ which evoke a sense of childish wonderment and optimism, or the plucked violin opening of ‘Marigolds’ that sounds much like raindrops falling unto flower petals, there are also very earthly and borderline political concerns raised in the album. This is referenced by the album’s title being ‘Omoiyari’, a Japanese word that translates approximately to empathy, something which speaks to the album’s general focus on social issues, more specifically those related to Kishi Bashi’s bicultural status as a Japanese-American. He spoke of the album as an exploration in finding his own identity, straddling his affinities for both Japanese and American culture saying that previously he had found himself writing as either a Japanese person or an American, but that in ‘Omoiyari’ he was able to bridge the two, a difficult task considering the tensions between the two nations since WWII. Many of the album’s songs like ‘Theme from Jerome’ or ‘Summer of ’42’ serve as a voice for the stories of Japanese migrants who were subject to ill-treatment by the US government during and after the war; many were wrongly incarcerated in concentration camps simply by write of their racial identities, and he sought to sing their unsung songs in this work.

The song ‘Angeline’ is among one of the more overtly political as he sings from the perspective of a convict working in the mines of Tennessee who has been separated from his eponymous lover, and the pov he selects demonstrates how he is able to explore such difficult and unromantic themes in such a beautiful and human way. This is exemplified when he apostrophises to Tennessee singing: “you have the darkest veins that I had ever seen”, which on one level speaks to the deeply rooted metaphorical darkness or corruption of Tennessee’s history, but presents it in such a poetic way that feels borderline cinematic, which may allude to his educational background as a film scoring major at Berklee.

His poetic proclivities are again evident in the song ‘Manchester’ from his earlier album ‘151a’ (2013) in which he details the process of writing an epic novel and how ‘it started with a word […] about a rare and fragile bird’ and that he ‘found the the last page in the sky’. This description is somewhat surrealist and speaks to the absurd yet enchanting way he has with words. I also enjoy his depiction of the role of an artist as a discoverer of stories or melodies plucked from the ether, as it were, rather than as a creator as they are most often conceived of as.

And so, if you enjoy music that is philosophical, sentimental and invokes a sense of the sublime, then Kishi Bashi is certainly the artist for you.

Image: Min An on Pexels

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