INTERVIEW: Hiroki

Hi Hiroki, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?  

This year has been so unprecedented. I think I’ve managed to achieve some sort of Zen in the chaos, at least for now. The world is in turmoil, and it’s easy to swipe up on your smartphone and tune out while we are socially isolating, but meanwhile, the stakes have never been higher. If you’re reading this, and you’re looking for something to do, donate and support Black Lives Matter, show up to protests if you can, and stay engaged! 

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Inori”? 

Inori is based off of the hymn by Genzo Miwa, who was a Christian-Japanese composer. There is a song on my album called “Inori Intro”, and it has snippets of me performing the hymn itself by overdubbing my vocals.

I based my song “Inori” off of the melody and harmony of that hymn.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

The lyrics at the beginning of the Inori are about the first time I had to take my grandmother to the hospital – the first of many – and it was a real shock to see my grandmother so frail. It was complicated too by this feeling that if she didn’t return from the hospital, that this would be it, that I would lose my grandmother, the house, a lot of my childhood memories.

The single comes off your new album Kaigo Kioku Kyouku – what’s the story behind the title? 

“Kaigo Kioku Kyoku” translates from Japanese to “Caregiving Memory Songs”. It’s about my experience of being a caregiver for my grandmother and uncle in the house I was born in. 

I think it was important that I explore my mixed cultural heritage through this album. Even though the lyrics are in English, Japanese influences peek through most of the songs in some melodic way, and of course the album title. 

I think presenting Japanese culture in a way that is less fetishistic, is also something I believe in. I wanted to express my identity in the same kind of seamlessness that I experience it, and perhaps in less of an immediately consumable way. 

How was the recording and writing process?

I started this project back in 2018, and wrote Bare Hallways based off of a recording of my grandmother singing “Jesus Tender Shepherd Hear Me”. My friend lent me some microphones, and I went around the house collecting sounds from various objects and heirlooms, (Cuckoo clock, piano, tenor recorder, kitchen cutlery, gongs etc). That’s why I call it a “sonic archive”, it was meant in a lot of ways to preserve my memories of my grandmother and the house where my birth, and my role as a caregiver, both took place. 

In 2019 I reached out to Matthew Bailey to see if he was interested in producing the record. We booked some time at his studio and we fleshed out all the bits and pieces of songs I’d already cobbled together and turned it into one cohesive album. A lot of the sounds and some of the instruments I had recorded at the house made it into the record of course. Matthew did an amazing job and was really sensitive to the material, whole still adding some of his warm touch. 

I had some excellently talented musicians who took part in this project: Brendan Swanson, Michael Eckert, Zaynab Wilson, Tara Kannangara and my aunt Jacqueline Goring. Jacqueline is actually an accomplished classical harpist, and has a whole solo arrangement of the hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” on the album. 

It was honestly really enjoyable working on this album. It came out of a very dark and intense period in my life, and felt like such an important and powerful way to connect with my experience and provide some sort of art that felt healing to explore. 

What aspect of death and illness did you get to explore on this record?

My uncle moved into the house in 2018, and I basically got to see first hand, the immense suffering that terminal cancer causes. It stripped away a lot of my defenses, and I had to reassess a lot of where my life was going and how I wanted to live. 

Blue Eyed Doll is actually about when I was on the road with YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN. We had just landed in Yellowknife when I got a message from my mother that my grandmother had passed away. I was really upset in that moment that I was so far away, and it’s so difficult to find time to grieve when you also have to focus on playing a show and giving it your all. 

It’s kind of a hard question to answer, “what aspects”. I explored themes of death and illness through the lens of my own experience and proximity to my family. It’s just a really powerful experience to be so close to it, and I knew this was an important project, something I had to create and, what I hope, will be of value to other people. 

What made you  to tackle all of these dark themes?

You know, I’ve never really seen this album as a “dark album”. I think it’s cathartic, and it doesn’t shy away from very real topics that make some people uncomfortable. But I like to think of it as an uplifting record. Sure, the chorus of “Bare Hallways” might be expressing a despondent view for example, but I think it’s a disservice if people relegate the inevitability of death to a simple dichotomy like, “Light/Dark”. 

I like to think that there’s a lot of rebirth to this album and the explorations of themes that fall into that broad category of “the challenges of living”. Inori is about trying to find hope while knowing you’re going to lose someone you love. About our relationship to pain and suffering. I tackle them because I want to bring them into the light, to speak openly and transparently about the experience. I hope that this leads to more open conversations about the challenges of being a caregiver.

Was it easy to become this vulnerable with this record?

Haha, I think I’m a weirdo. I’ve always been someone who found it easier to talk about trauma and healing than say, making small talk. My mom is a therapist, and perhaps that set a bad precedent for me ever being a “cool kid”. 

If anything, this album felt empowering because I felt like I was letting go of a lot of pretences; the societal pressure to present as invulnerable, to fill the musical discourse with easily digestible platitudes, and the desire to distract from and diminish our mutual responsibility to look inwards. 

I have already seen some people be visibly uncomfortable when seeing me perform this music live. I love that! People should confront the emotions that this project evokes head on. Though I also want to acknowledge that this album could be really triggering for some people and I respect that everyone has their own journey to work through their pain. 

Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

I think these lyrics were meant to be plainspoken and without reference to a lot of literary obfuscation. It’s a pretty clear attempt to speak about my own experience as a caregiver. I think in the past I would’ve tried to veil my experience in more literary references, or through allegory. But I’ve come to prefer the “bite” of intimate detail, without a lot of dressing. 

A lot of the inspiration for the songs are based off of hymns that my grandmother liked and Japanese folk songs. “Blue Eyed Doll” is based off of the Japanese folk song, “Aoi Me No Ningyo”, and “Eternal Host” is based off of the hymn “Home Sweet Home” for example. I was very conscious about using objects or music that was tied closely to the house and my grandmother on this record, and so I wanted each song to reflect that choice.

What else is happening next in your world?

Well, my partner just gave birth to our child in August! It’s kind of an exciting time where I’m releasing this album finally, and learning to be a father.

I suppose this is a bit of a guiding question on what my next artistic project will be. Frankly, I don’t think there has been a worse time in history to be a musician, and while I’ll probably continue making music because it’s what I like to do, it’s becoming less and less enticing to pursue music professionally. I have a lot of gratitude to everyone who helped realize this project, I loved this whole process and all the new people I’ve met along the way. If I’m able to continue this way, and create art on my own terms, I will! 

STREAM: “Inori”
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About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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