Having released the albums "Hana" and "Tsuginepu" in succession, Asa-Chang & Junray now have a new single out called "Senaka". For this track they have recruited Kyoko Koizumi, singer and actress who has managed to change with the times, always finding a niche in the pop scene. We spoke with Koizumi and Asa-chang about "Senaka" and the impact it has had on Japanese pop.
Lets start with introductions.
Asa-change (A): I am Asakura. The kanji for "asa" is the same as the "asa" in Asahi Shinbun. (laughs)
Kyoko Koizumi (K): I am Kyoko Koizumi. I'm a singer and an actress. The "kyo" of Kyoko is the same as the kanji for "konnichiwa". (laughs)
Tell us how you came to collaborating together.
A: I approached Koizumi-san by calling her. I was actually in charge of her in my days as a hair and make-up artist, so I asked her a favour as an old friend.
A: I just thought it had to be her.
And what did you think about that, Koizumi-san?
K: It's not very often an old friend - an old comrade, even - is in need of you. We're all adults now and not everything is for kicks. So it felt good to be really needed.
In the meantime, Asa-chang has been very active, in particular after he left Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra. Had you heard any of his music?
K: Yes, I had. And I'd done a few live performances with Ska-Para and had them come in to the studio.
A: We were somehow connected, through Ska-Para and also through Junray.
K: I've always listened to Ska-Para and went to quite a few gigs as well. I've never seen Junray live, but I'm always curious about what old friends are doing, so of course I'd listened to the music.
I was quite surprised when I first heard Junray, but what did you think?
K: I thought it was very Asa-Chang. Even when he was doing Ska-Para, I'd always liked his poignant Showa-era (1926-1989) -touch.
A: It's in my roots.
K: His look might have changed, but that part, that root, hadn't changed at all, and that's comforting. Words and numbers seem to live together within Junray, and that has a very Asa-Chang feel.
A: A lot of people see me doing Junray now and think that I've changed direction completely. But people like Koizumi-san, who've known me since my impressionable twenties, realise what lies in the roots. I don't have to explain what has changed and what hasn't; we understand each other well. Or at least, she gets me.
Who was around at that time?
K: There was a lot of us, like Bikke of Tokyo Number One Soul Set and Tsuyoshi Koujou. Every night we would form a crowd.
A: That was us in our twenties. It was our second adolescence.
What were your thoughts or impressions when you heard Koizumi-san's voice for the track?
A: Her voice had even more of a presence than I'd imagined and I realised how right it was to have asked her. With Junray, you create the music by cutting each note and building them one by one according to a designed plan. In a way I'd known this from the start, but with Koizumi-san's voice, you can cut it anyway you like, and it wont lose its presence. It doesn't usually work out like that...
Having heard the edited song, what did you think?
K: At first I just took in how the song ended up, but as I listened a few times more, I felt how poignant it was, thoughts stopping and starting, words faltering or blurting out - just like the minds of people having conversations, and I realised how good it was.
A: She's said it all (laughs). I was going to try and explain, but she's said it all (laughs). The reason why Junray cuts such random rhythms is because human emotions sway. People contemplate; they have thoughts that cant be put into words. The rhythms aren't just there for fun, they are the way they are because they're trying to express such scenes of emotion. As far as I'm concerned, I'm not trying to make strange music, or experiment.
You've said that the ultimate form of ballads is enka, but this track felt closer to traditional folk or nursery rhymes to me. Like the poetic pillow song "Tsukibune", what are the reasons for your interest in traditional Japanese culture?
A: I wouldn't call it an interest, as such. I've grown up watching old music TV programs like "The Best 10" and Japanese music is what I hear the most; this can't be denied. I'm not rejecting Western music, but it just feels unnatural for me to work within it. I wasn't aiming specifically for something, but the sound simply became Junray.
K: We may be the last of a generation that had a Western-music-complex. There was a time when it was cool to criticise Japanese music, but things have moved on since then and there' been a shift of interest to the opposite direction. To things ingrained in ourselves, the environment we grew up in. They're a part of a Japan that I like.
A: And in your twenties, you start playing roots music like ska because that's what seems cool. Well, we've gone past that stage too, and its now impossible to just imitate others.
In that case, are you always aware of creating a new kind of future for music?
A: I don't know if it's a future or a past, but it is definitely my own present. They are the results of realising, in sounds and visuals, the thoughts I have now, and in this case, I needed Koizumi-san in order to do so.
Koizumi-san, do you also have an interest in Japanese culture?
K: Two ends exist together. Being brought up by parents born in the early-Showa-era, following the good old ways of Japan, whilst at the same time being able to get hold of new technology whenever its there - both go for me. Junray brings together these elements as one. I like kimonos, I like fashion from outside.
Listening to Junray, I can feel modern technology's hyper side and the spirit of Japan at the same time.
A: Yeah, it does come out like that. They're things that can't be mixed intentionally.
K: That's true. If you tried to create that, it'll probably end up as something repulsively artificial.
A: Exactly. I think it became the way it is because it's not a mixture, but something that came from the roots. That's why it sounds like nothing ever heard before.
Can you tell us about any art forms or artists that have caught your attention recently, or what music you're listening to?
K: It's a little similar to kimono, but I'm quite into Japanese art, like Yuki Ogura, who I went to see a couple of years ago, or Seiju Omoda. It's actually pop-art. Some are quite eerie, but others are quite cute, like a woman having a bath. This particular piece came on TV once but I missed whom it was by. Then a friend called and told me about a sweet exhibition that was going on, and the picture of the woman having a bath was exhibited there. Since then, I've been to see quite a few. I listen to a lot of music, but there's no single one that stands out right now.
A: I'm also not the type to listen to music intensely. At home, not a all. I've always been like that, and as a listener, I must be one of the worst (laughs). It's not that I shut it out, but I just don't feel like it after spending a whole day with music. So I don't know as much as say a DJ does. What's interesting me now is how well contemporary dance suites the Junray sound. Contemporary dancers are using "Hana" like crazy, I can't tell you how many enquiries I've had about dance groups using "Hana". It seems to be a good track to dance to.
K: I can kind of imagine.
A: This trend basically lead to me directing the music for a dance company called Idevian Crew. The Tokyo performance just finished, and I think they're now touring New York and Canada.
K: The PV for "Senaka" was really cute, too.
A: Yeah, that was dance too. She wasn't from Idevian Crew, but the whole PV is just dancing, with no effects or anything.
K: A normal girl sits on a chair and dances all the way through. It was sexy and melancholic and sweet.
A: Nowadays you need only a pinch of filmed material to process over and over again into a film, so the director and I wanted to do the opposite, of just a girl dancing. But the result was really good.
Why have you chosen music as your means of expression?
A: I agree it's been a strange road so far, because I was drawn to music unintentionally in the first place. I quit Ska-Para in 1993 because it was getting too busy for me to carry on with my hair and make-up work, but then carried on as a session player or support, and in 1998 started Junray. The sound of Junray was already there by then, so the music came onto the sheets easily. My head was filled with sounds and I couldn't stop writing.
Those rhythms play in your head?
A: They do. It's much easier to have the music on sheets though when you're trying to get it across to the band members. I know that it will come out exactly as I want it then. Even the parts that come out as noise are specified; that's why the random-sounding parts are still in line. Everything is calculated so that the scene can be expressed.
Koizumi-san, you also work as an actress. Does the art of singing have anything in common with the art of acting?
K: There's not that much difference. I didn't begin by wanting to sing, or to act, but with the simpler thoughts of wanting to make people happy or to entertain, and to become someone with the power to do so. Whether that's through acting or singing, it doesn't make that much difference to me. Having said that, I guess singing is more fun. I think filming is more for the director; as an actor what's important is to respond to and understand the needs of the director. Singing is a little more liberating.
Were you liberated in some way by this recording?
K: I did feel liberated when the whole thing was finished. Whilst I'm singing, I just sing this track that I have been given. I'm not really aware of how the music is Junray, or where the track is heading towards - it's too difficult to imagine concretely. But when the song was completed the results exceeded what I had imagined, and I felt really liberated from that.
A: When we took Koizumi-san's vocals, we just made a simple track. For the final song, we break that down and build it up again, so she couldn't know how it would end up - she had to trust us. I didn't feel like I couldn't edit her vocals, or compromise the Junray sound - I think that would have been disrespectful. So that's how that piece became what it is.
I thought that this collaboration was revolutionary. Until now, people like my mother didn't have the chance to hear music like Asa-chang & Junray, but Koizumi-san's involvement means that that's been broadened a lot.
K: My mother liked it.
A: Really? That's amazing!
K: I was listening to it and she asked, "What's this?" I told her it was the track I did with Asa-chang and she said, "I like it."
K: You've met her before.
A: Have I? I've seen a picture of her when she was young. (laughs)
K: We've met each other's moms. (laughs)
How do you think the Japanese music industry will change?
A: That's a simple, but very difficult question.
K: Like I said before about our mothers and fathers, I think there's a huge shortage of music for adults. If you search closely, there are probably many songs that can reach into our hearts, but like "Senaka", it's becoming more and more difficult to find them. Before, if you switched on the TV, there would be enka, new age music, idols, harder rock, all appearing next to each other, but now, they've been separated and dispersed.
A: There's so many more means of media...
K: You can choose if you want to, but it's difficult to figure out how to choose. The record stores are becoming increasingly dominated by the huge chain stores where you cant be bothered to browse through, and the internet allows you to order whatever you want from home, maybe closing off other potential genres.
But I think Junray is in a unique position in this music scene.
A: I don't like categorisation, and I tend to find what's "in" at the moment "out". I have an aversion to what is fashionable, and I run away from that centre. Maybe it's a bit warped, but I just think that I'm purely doing my music. I just thought of this now, but what's common between Koizumi-san and Junray could be their unchangeable existence, how there's no predecessor or successor.
A: Maybe we're isolated.
K: I don't think isolation is a bad thing. There are people who feel the need for a scene, but I think it's brave to take an isolated stance. I also think that it's necessary to express yourself, to have a strong presence in the absence of a movment.
What do you consider as important, in this day and age?
A: That's difficult to say. It's difficult to find. And we probably wouldn't be seeing these sorts of times if it was found. There wouldn't be war if the answers were there. But if one thinks that far, one wouldn't be able to carry on with these expressionist activities. So you just have to do the best you can so that your audience might feel some happiness, or be moved.
K: If I were to say something for the youth, I'd say there are too few adults to respect or look up to. So I feel like I have to try. I want there to be dignified people around, so I feel like I have to try and step up to that.
A: You're about 400 million times stronger than me. (laughs)
K: (laughing) 400 million times! I think my friends are becoming more aware of that, and maybe we can. Like with Asa-chang, we think we can do things together, even if we look like we're struggling on our own. But I think we can become dignified adults.
Finally, is there a favourite episode that was borne from the collaboration?
A: Oh yeah, the day I received Koizumi-san's vocals was the day before my birthday.
K: Ah, that's right.
A: And I went out for dinner, and day broke, and it became my birthday. Old friends that I hadn't seen for ages celebrated with me, and I was overjoyed, but then I drank too much and I can't remember anything about it (laughs)
Do you have a message for our readers?
A: As I said before, I'd like for moms and dads and people who usually listen to SMAP to hear this record, and I feel that Koizumi-san's opened this up for the track. I'd like it if you could listen to the song without being misled by the atmosphere of the sounds.
K: When I collaborated with Ska-Para before, my fans became interested in Ska-Para and vica versa. For those listeners out there, I hope this could be another chance encounter, or the start of something new.
Thank you very much.
Completely natural whilst at the same time radiating a strong presence, the world that they have realised seems to express perfectly the quietly but surely changing pop scene of Japan, and is a fitting release for the beginning of a new year. And where will Asa-chang & Junray go now? Stuffed with poignant, beautiful and sweet particles of sounds, "Senaka" is the world of Junray meets Kyoko Koizumi.
Asa-chang & Junray feat. Kyoko Koizumi
Released on 28th January 2004
Track listings: 1. Senaka 2. Parlor 3. Senaka (instrumental)
CD extra: "Tsuginepu to ittemita" PV
IDCV-1003 Mu-On ex Hot-Cha
Price 1,260 yen (incl.tax)
*Senaka can be purchased on Amazon.com.