OTOTOY conducted an interview with Tadashi Shinkawa regarding his third album, Paintings of Lights, that was just released on January 11 through Lamp’s record label Botanical House — the label’s first release. Fans of Lamp will have already heard Shinkawa on their 2014 album, Yume, singing on the track “Tameiki no Yukue.” Below is a full translation of the interview.
Tadashi Shinkawa — a singer-songwriter who works completely alone, having recorded all of his albums thus far all by himself. His 2003 release, sweet hereafter, was a work that mesmerized listeners with its blend of mondo, exotica, and his characteristic, aesthetical sense of melody. On Christy, released two years later, he further made known his abundant musicianship by bringing to the surface more traditional elements like folk and rock, while also featuring a very “Tadashi Shinkawa” home recording sound.
Ten years later, he’s releasing Paintings of Lights. This work, with its Western art motifs and 80’s synth sounds, is a pop album full of romantic and poetic sentiments. It’s being released through Botanical House, an independent record label started by close friends of Shinkawa — as well as fellow creators of high-quality pop — Lamp.
When buying the album through OTOTOY, you will receive a bonus exclusive 15-minute interview video with Shinkawa. Please enjoy the text and video interviews with this usually very secretive artist, along with his highly detailed and brilliant, and yet, transient style of 80’s pop.
Personally, I was label mates with Tadashi Shinkawa on a label called MEMORY LAB. I first met him around 10 years ago; we both liked the same kind of back-to-the-roots music, but our ways of expressing it are completely different. That’s why when I heard his earlier album, sweet hereafter, I actually felt deeply jealous of his musicianship. He was later discovered by the equally wonderful musicians of Lamp, and he’s now releasing his first album in 10 years. Honestly, I thought I’d never get to hear another new album from him again.
I hereby give you my word: this release is truly nothing short of a marvelous record.
Interview & text: Jin’ichiro Iida
— I found your new album a very pleasant listen — no surprise there. What was surprising, however, was how it sounds like an entirely different album when listening to it on headphones versus speakers.
Tadashi Shinkawa: Ah, that might be true! I’m glad to hear that.
— I thought the fourth song in particular, “Camille Claudel,” was wonderful. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to it.
Shinkawa: The members of Lamp were telling me the same thing. I can’t even tell which one of them I like best at this point. (laughs) That song did take the longest amount of time to write though.
— Why’s that?
Shinkawa: I had the basic idea for it but I just wasn’t making progress with it. The basis for the song was Camille Claudel, an actual 19th century French sculptor. I was inspired by how elegant her name sounded, and the idea of a woman sculptor was just really fascinating to me. She was apparently very beautiful herself, and I was drawn into the motif of a “beautiful sculptress,” wondering if there was any way to make it into a song. And sure, it was a lovely idea, but it was a whole other matter actually making it into a pop song. Which, looking back, is pretty obvious — it doesn’t sound like anything you’d ordinarily try to make song out of. (laughs) So I just put it on hold and focused on other songs. It took a year and a half before it actually formed into a song.
— What was that year and a half like?
Shinkawa: Well, if I had to sum it up in one word, it’d be “willpower.” (laughs)
— As in you got through it by sheer willpower?
Shinkawa: Right. It’s like with work: if something takes too long, or if you keep constantly running into obstacles with something you’re doing, you feel like stopping and giving up. And then there’s the oft-heard saying that a good song should only take you an instant to come up with. I, too, have in the past abandoned songs that were just taking me seemingly forever to complete, but with this one I’d already spent so much time on it and the motif was just so interesting to me, I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. So I kept going out of pure willpower. I didn’t even care if it’d turned out to be completely worthless, that was fine. I just wanted to finish writing it. I don’t really remember the specifics aside from that. (laughs)
— Do you remember why you were so taken with Camille Claudel in the first place?
Shinkawa: It was just that image of a beautiful, woman sculptor, but the first thing was the sound of her name. There’s just something romantic about it. I actually wanted to become a painter before I started doing music, so I was originally much more interested in paintings and other art. I’m the kind of person that’s more drawn to art galleries rather than live venues. It might sound weird for a musician to be so interested in some woman sculptor, but I’ve always liked Greek sculpture for instance, so for me it was just about my love of art.
— What sort of paintings do you like?
Shinkawa: I like impressionistic art. Back in the 80’s I was serious about wanting to become a painter — I never imagined I’d become a musician. Up until the age of 15 or so I was intently pursuing the path of arts, so that’s where my roots are. That’s where I was supposed to go, but for some reason I ended up becoming a singer-songwriter instead. (laughs) You know, I’m often asked that kind of thing by the members of Lamp, like how I’m able to get inspired by non-musical things the way I do. It’s apparently a bit difficult for them to grasp because, unlike me, they’re through-and-through pure musicians.
— This new album has a rather Western theme to it, right?
Shinkawa: Yes, I wrote all of the songs using the same themes. Sculptures, old castles… that kind of thing.
— How difficult was it to implement those themes into the music?
Shinkawa: Honestly, I think many of the inspirations and ideas I had should’ve been made into paintings or films instead of songs. But I’m a singer-songwriter, so I had no choice but to portray them as pop songs. (laughs)
— That’s an interesting conclusion to reach.
Shinkawa: The most common motifs in pop songs are things like love and youth, right? I think they make for very fitting pop song material, but personally, I was never drawn to doing that kind of thing myself. I just became a singer-songwriter by accident, so I think of presenting ideas as pop songs, even when they’re more suited to be films or paintings or whatever — even when I know they don’t make any sense as song themes. (laughs)
— I have a hard time picturing your average songwriting process. (laughs)
Shinkawa: But if we’re talking about music I know you’re quite close to, for example, don’t you think all those 80’s new wave bands have lyrics that are pretty surreal, too? I really like the lyrics of David Byrne from Talking Heads for instance. I’ve read interviews with him and he, too, doesn’t like writing love songs, instead writing about subjects like paper or the raw materials you build walls with. (laughs) He says he just loves writing outlandish songs like that, and I think it’s really interesting. I’m inspired by that kind of thing, too.
— Was “Camille Claudel” sort of a blueprint for the entire album?
Shinkawa: I did have a blueprint for the album — well, I didn’t think it was going to be a full album, but regardless of the format, I wanted to release a coherent collection of songs. But yes, “Camille Claudel” was one of the early motifs I had for it.
— Did you already have many of the songs written at that point?
Shinkawa: Up until then I’d just been uploading songs one-by-one on MySpace as a hobby, but I was thinking of releasing something resembling an album next. Right around that time I met Someya from Lamp. He’d heard “Venus no Ude” on my MySpace and he’d really liked it, so he asked me if I was going to give that song a proper release. “Venus no Ude” was another sculpture-related song: its motif was the Venus de Milo in Louvre Museum. I wanted to release something with a running theme of Western classical art; “Venus no Ude” was how I got started, and afterwards I got the idea for “Camille Claudel.” You can see the similarities in the two themes, right?
— How did you initially discover that there was something about, for example, sculptures and classical art that you wanted to express?
Shinkawa: I remember watching a-ha and bands like that on MTV who had visual imagery with lots of sculptures and old castles and such. So when I got the idea of doing 80’s-influenced pop myself, that was what I first thought of. For me it’s like “the West = the 80’s era.” I really like that image.
— I see.
Shinkawa: Actually, I first wanted to try doing 80’s pop even before my first album, back when I was a vocational school student at 19. My big sister experienced the 80’s in real time and we had lots of records at the house. Back then I was still in elementary school, and when I got home, my big sister would always be listening to stuff like a-ha, Scritti Politti or Level 42. So later I was listening to those records in my nostalgia and pretty soon I found that I couldn’t stop. I fell in love with that music. So I always wanted to try doing this kind of thing, and that idea was always sort of in the back of my mind even as I was making my first two albums.
— This album is definitely very “back to the 80’s,” but for me there’s a lot that’s modern about it, too.
Shinkawa: Like with my first two albums, I actually didn’t even think about trying to do anything new or original. I love mimicking others — I often think my true nature is that of a lookalike performer. (laughs) When I come across some music I really like, I instantly think about creating something that sounds similar to that. I’ve never felt I wanted to “make something no one else has ever done before.” You know the types who get really influenced by The Beatles and they make their own band, wanting to be just like them? I’m like those people. But while I feel like doing exactly the type of music I love, creating an exact copy of something isn’t technically possible. So obviously there will also be something that’s original in there — something me — no matter what. I try to insist that it’s all just mimicry, but people will shoot my argument down by telling me how there are things in there they’ve never heard someone else do, and how they can’t accept something in there as simply just a copy of something else. (laughs)
— Amongst all the songs on the album, I thought “Iris” especially sounded different from the rest. What was the theme for this song?
Shinkawa: That’s the only song that doesn’t fit the concept of the album. There’s nothing particularly Western about it so originally I wasn’t planning on including it on the album, but Someya begged me to do so and I gave in to his demands. (laughs) It’s just your everyday love song. A song of unrequited love.
— Could you tell us about the equipment and recording methods you used on this album?
Shinkawa: For the most part, I used this synthesizer/sequencer called Yamaha QS-300 that I bought around the time I graduated from high school, and for the drum machine I used a Yamaha RX-5. That was pretty much it for the hardware. I only used a computer at the very end — everything else up until that point I did the hard way, switching the jacks around and all that. I did get some dissenting voices on my choice of drum machine though. (laughs)
— You only used those two pieces of equipment?
Shinkawa: Mainly just those two, yes. I also used a sampler, but that was really only just to alter the sound coming out of those two devices.
— What did you use for that very unique-sounding reverb?
Shinkawa: That was also a piece of hardware, a Yamaha REV-100. I’ve been using it ever since my first album.
— And you recorded with Logic?
Shinkawa: No, I first recorded onto a hard disk recorder. I used an 8-track recorder, a Korg D-888. The sound was paper-thin at first. (laughs) I’d record the instrumentals on that, mix it, ping-pong it, record my vocals, and finally just do some slight editing in GarageBand.
— Wow. I don’t think there are many people using GarageBand to work on albums. (laughs)
Shinkawa: It came with my Mac when I bought it so I figured I’d just go with that. (laughs) I think it actually suits me perfectly. I’m not that great at using these kinds of things. Like those pieces of equipment I just listed, they all have limited functionality, but that in turn makes them easy to use. There’s only a limited amount of things I can do with them, but I never felt like it restricted me from doing what I wanted to do either, so maybe they’re just right for me. And it does lead into unexpectedly unique sounds — I just heard “Venus no Ude” again after a good while when I was mixing it, and I just thought it sounded really strange. (laughs) With some of the sounds you can’t even tell which era they originate from. I think that can be interesting.
— Hearing about your recording process sure gives me courage. (laughs) This album took you three years to make, right?
Shinkawa: Right. Three years from conception to recording. I met Someya in 2010 which is when we started talking about an album, and I started working on it properly in 2011. Lamp was going to start their own label, too, and it all just worked out nicely.
— Someya has said he basically started the label just so he could release your album.
Shinkawa: It all started with “Venus no Ude.” Someya was so desperate about releasing that song in particular.
— Well, it has been 10 years since your last album after all.
Shinkawa: Yeah. I didn’t think I’d ever release another CD to be honest.
— How come?
Shinkawa: Well, there’s all sorts of reasons. But I already knew over 10 years ago that my music wouldn’t sell, and it’s just so difficult to produce an entire album all by yourself. The second one especially was so tiring to make. But another reason who led me to that was actually you.
Shinkawa: I first met you around 10 years ago, right? Even back then you were always very active in the movement to get more music released and for musicians to actually start making a living with music. You were very serious about that, right? And you’re still keeping at it which is pretty great. I never knew anyone else like that, and that includes myself: I always thought it was good enough if I just got to release my albums — who cares if it sold or not. But as I got to know you, I, too, gradually began to think that if I wasn’t thinking about whether or not my CD’s would sell, then I shouldn’t be releasing any more of them either. I mean, if you’re going to put a price tag on your music and sell it as a product, you have to be serious about it. So your way of thinking definitely had an influence on my own thinking, too. (laughs)
— Well, thank you, I guess. (laughs) A big influence that in turn motivated you to change your mind about putting out another release and being serious about trying to make it sell was Lamp, right?
Shinkawa: Yeah. I was personally asked by them to do it, and I was a fan of Lamp even from before. I respected them. They approached me on MySpace first and, I mean, receiving that sort of courtship from a band you respect? Hey, there are worse feelings in the world. (laughs)
— Ha ha ha, so that was the real motivator. (laughs)
Shinkawa: If a band you love asks you to do something… well, naturally that makes you give it some thought. So yes, it was definitely a big motivator for me.
— You mentioned how difficult it is for someone to record an album all by themselves. What in particular is the most difficult thing about it for you?
Shinkawa: Writing the lyrics, composing the music, recording, mixing… you have to do all of that by yourself. And I’m not extraordinarily talented or anything so when I’m working alone I often get stuck, and when I do, there’s no one else I could brainstorm ideas with so it becomes this huge struggle against myself. “And what about that takes so long?” you might ask, and the answer is… well, mostly the time I spend running away from it all. (laughs) Being in a constant struggle with yourself isn’t very pleasant. A lot of the time I really am just running away and taking a break from it. It feels like you’re looking into the mirror and having a staring contest with yourself. Doesn’t sound like a great time, does it? (laughs) It really is better to have someone working with you if you’re making something.
— Do you ever think about finding other members to work with?
Shinkawa: I have had previous band experience, but I find myself getting really dictatorial when I’m working with other people. (laughs) I start thinking that my ideas are better than everyone else’s, and pretty soon everyone hates me which leads to me getting really stressed out. I start wanting to have control of everything. Working alone is tough, but at least there’s none of that type of stress. You get to do everything your way, down to the very last detail.
— What are your future plans?
Shinkawa: Well, I do have this concept for another album, but who knows? I’m not at all looking forward to getting to work on it. (laughs)
— How come? (laughs)
Shinkawa: Because I know that’s it’s going to be another huge pain when I do. But, with that said, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about the next one.
— So even if it takes a number of years again, it’s safe to say you won’t quit making new music.
Shinkawa: Right. I’ll make more. It’s like a curse.
— Any plans of performing live?
Shinkawa: No. Even though I didn’t particularly want to do it, I once tried practicing hard while regularly playing live for a year, right after releasing my second album. But it wasn’t for me. I did it just to see what it was like, and the conclusion I reached was that I didn’t want to do it anymore. (laughs)
— So you’ll keep the focus solely on recording.
Shinkawa: Probably, yeah. I was doing some mixing right before I came here for this interview, and it reminded me that when you start working on music, you become unable to stop. In a way it almost feels like I’m forced to keep doing it. Like I said: it’s a curse. (laughs)