This is an interview straight from Minami Kitasono’s homepage concerning his debut CD, promenade, released in October 2014. Like Tadashi Shinkawa, Kitasono appeared on Lamp’s 2014 album, Yume, on which he arranged three songs and played on several more.
Minami Kitasono: a mysterious singer-songwriter who suddenly appeared on the internet in the summer of 2012. A resident of Matsumoto, Nagano, born in 1990 — he has made little else about himself known besides that. He both fascinated and confused listeners with discerning ears with his original compositions featuring skillfully combined programmed sounds and live instruments. Poppy, mellow and eccentric. Rapid time signature changes and unpredictable song developments, and yet, an abundance pop sensibilities that make you want to start humming the melodies. All of the songs on his masterfully crafted first CD, promenade, feature a band sound as he is joined by a full lineup of guest musicians. With a little more dynamics in his music, it feels like Minami Kitasono might be dangerously close to changing the direction of pop music altogether.
Now as he is on the brink of releasing his debut CD, I got Minami Kitasono to peek outside of his veil of secrecy for me to interview him. So, please do tell us: “just who on earth are you?”
Interview & text: Ryohei Matsunaga
The Birth of “Minami Kitasono”
— To begin with: Minami Kitasono isn’t your real name, is it?
Minami Kitasono: No. It’s a name I came up with when I was just starting my musical activities. I happened to come across this book by the poet Katsue Kitasono and that’s where I took the surname from. “Minami” just sounded nice next to it.
— So it’s like north (“kita”) and south (“minami”). (laughs) And this was in the summer two years ago?
Kitasono: Right. I was 22. Up until then I’d mostly just written a bunch of instrumental songs. My thinking was that I just really didn’t want any of my friends finding out that I was actually singing songs.
— So you wanted to begin doing musical activities, yet keep it a secret from everyone.
Kitasono: I was reluctant to sing my own lyrics. I’d done some singing to my own accompaniment before, but I hadn’t yet started making my own songs on the computer and that kind of thing. But just recently I started to think my vocals had become a bit more listenable, so I thought it might be time to make tracks where I’m singing myself.
— And you started uploading those on SoundCloud straight away?
— You’ve mentioned you had a friend who encouraged you to start making and releasing music?
Kitasono: Right. I was drinking with said friend on New Year’s 2012, and he said to me “When you make your own music and people hear it, of course some of them are going to think it’s great while others will think it’s crap. That’s just something you have to overcome.” And he was right.
— Had that friend of yours actually heard your music?
Kitasono: Not at that point. Maybe in only just the last year or so?
— So he gave you that advice based not on your music, but more as just an encouragement to go on doing what you like.
Kitasono: Yes. Well, I think he said that based on my behavior: I didn’t even know just what exactly it was that I wanted to do myself. There was a time when I was in a unit with a female vocalist and we’d play shows where I’d just have a single synthesizer with me. It feels like I’d done everything: basic rock, home recordings, accompaniments to completely faceless pop music… (laughs) But when my friend said that to me, I realized that there is meaning in challenging yourself musically. So I just took all that stuff I’d made, stuff that I personally thought was so worthless it made me sick, and put it on SoundCloud.
— You thought it was all “worthless”?! No no no, hold on… (laughs)
Kitasono: I really did. But then people started leaving comments like “hey, this is pretty good,” and I finally came to think that just maybe there was something to those songs after all. I never judge my music based on its own merits: I always compare it to music I’ve listened to in the past, or music I’m listening to right now, and that becomes the standard I strive for. So it never feels like anything I create is perfect.
The Impact of “Ebi wa Kani ja nai“
— When did you first think you’d like to write music?
Kitasono: Back when I was in elementary school I used to copy songs from TV commercials by ear and play them with a melodica. It was probably around that time. When I was 10 or 11, I was writing melodies down as just “do re mi.” But when I’d look at them later, there was no regularity to them and I couldn’t understand them anymore, so I had to start learning how to write sheet music out of necessity. That was around the time I started junior high school.
— Did you take any piano lessons or anything of the sort?
Kitasono: Just for a year, between grades 4 and 5, but I don’t have any recollection of that time — probably because I was slacking off so much. (laughs) The only thing I remember is that I liked the songs in minor key better. I just memorized the fingerings so I didn’t have to look at the sheet music, and I quickly realized that you just needed to keep the form and slide your fingers to the side to change a major key song into minor key song. And so I was just constantly playing around with that, like changing a song in C-major to A-minor by going three keys lower.
— So you already had the hang of producing more melancholy sounds at that point.
Kitasono: Yes. I think that was probably what made me so interested in songwriting.
— So if we’re to think of that time period as the “prehistoric times” of your songwriting journey, what would you say was the turning point where you went further to reach the “Stone Age” of your career?
Kitasono: Hmm. I think a big thing was when I first felt like I wanted to try doing arrangements. I initially had an interest in big band — I just felt something dreamlike in it. I enjoyed listening to it, but there was so much I didn’t understand about how it was structured. There was something that drew me to it. So I got myself all fired up and tried to start arranging something in that style, and that in turn led me to writing music, too.
— I’ve gradually began to understand what makes up “Minami Kitasono.” If we look on your SoundCloud, we’ll find songs like “Zakuro” that would surprise everyone with its quality, but at the same time, we find more puzzling sides of you there with “nonsense songs” like “Ebi wa Kani ja nai,” and remixes that declare your love for Momochi (aka Momoko Tsugunaga of Berryz Koubou). Especially “Ebi wa Kani ja nai” (“shrimps aren’t crabs”) features high quality city pop topped off with lyrics that are complete nonsense. (laughs) I have a feeling that song may have gotten many people asking just who this Minami Kitasono fellow was.
Kitasono: I really admire comic bands and people who do comedy in general — I feel like comedy can surpass anything. (laughs) Back in elementary school, I got to attend a live show of a certain comedy group, and I was laughing all the way throughout their performance. That made me realize how amazing comedy is — even music can’t make people explode with laughter like that, and yet, comedy can be moving in all sorts of ways. I’ve never forgotten that experience, and I really respect people who pursue the path of comedy.
— “Ebi wa Kani ja nai” especially is taking it so far, I think rather than perceiving it as you joking around, most people will just think you’ve completely lost your mind. (laughs) Some people might read too much into the lyrics and think of it as a sort of antithesis to the typical city pop/AOR song, what with the usual lyrics about slightly glamorized lifestyles and landscapes.
Kitasono: Yeah, that would be overthinking it. (laughs) That was simply the result of me trying to translate some of the mind-baffling lyrics of Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. (laughs)
First Steps as a Professional
— Earlier this year you contributed your string and brass arrangements to Lamp’s long-awaited new release, Yume. Was this your first professional work?
Kitasono: That’s the first thing I’ve done that got an actual physical release, yes. Up until then I’d just been working on the computer, trusting my ears and not worrying about the little details, so making wind and string arrangements while having to keep in mind that they would be played by real people was a new thing for me entirely. I’m really glad that was my first step into this type of arranging. While I give my everything to programmed material, too, of course, I found out that arranging for live instruments was very different altogether.
— On your debut release, promenade, released through Polystar Records, everything was recorded using real, live instruments. Was this per your request?
Kitasono: Yes. I started thinking I wanted to have musicians play all the parts I’d previously programmed, which in turn influenced and changed my plans for the album until I arrived at this end result.
— And that’s how you decided you wanted to record it live in the studio.
Kitasono: Right. I wanted to achieve the best sound I could. But the biggest reason was that I realized I wouldn’t get any money for something I’d just quickly thrown together at home. (laughs)
— Hang on, I wouldn’t exactly describe your music as “quickly thrown together.” (laughs) How did you end up choosing these five songs in particular?
Kitasono: I just felt like I wanted to challenge a wide variety of things on the album. I ended up with these five as a consequence.
— The first song is titled “Soft Pop.” The fact that you chose this as the title feels almost like a sort of challenge: the chords and melodies are difficult to understand and are everything but “soft” or “pop,” and yet, there’s just something about it that makes it an earworm. (laughs)
Kitasono: This song was based on another song I’d made two years ago called “Dorothy,” which was like the prototype that I then simply rearranged. I always take the time to carefully think about the composition before starting to arrange it, and that’s when it got the title of “Soft Pop.” You’re right: it definitely was also a challenge to myself.
— “Denwa Goshi ni” and “Zakuro” — the latter also highly acclaimed on SoundCloud — have wonderful lyrics as well. You don’t have any qualms with writing love songs, do you?
Kitasono: I don’t, no. And rather than roundabout ways of saying things, I prefer writing lyrics that are very clearly about love. Most of the lyrics I personally like are all straightforward like that.
The Mindset Behind “Plastic Minyou“
— Personally, I was very surprised by “Plastic Minyou.”
Kitasono: This is actually the song I had to think about the least as I was making it. I came up with the first verse as well as the second verse in 7/8 time by improvisation, recorded myself playing them, and then I only had to make it into a song. I think it really shows my spontaneity and the 7/8 time gives it a kind of unique groove — many ethnic dances and Middle Eastern music are in irregular time, waltzes are in 3/4 time, etc. Throw in one of those and you get a time signature change, which is something I find myself using in my music all the time. Again, that might be the comedian in me. (laughs)
— I don’t think anyone listening to it for the first time could predict where the song is going after that intro with the clarinet accompaniment — and I have to praise you for naming a song like that “Plastic Minyou.” The lyrics, too, at first seem like nonsense much like on “Ebi wa Kani ja nai,” but you soon realize they’re an exquisite mix of humor and sadness. Since pop music originated from America, the thing when you’re doing Japanese-language pop in Japan is that you’ll always have people with the arguments like “just where is the Japanese-ness of your music?!” I think that’s one of the reasons why Eiichi Ootake did “Niagara Ondo,” for example, as a kind of answer to that, and to me it feels like “Plastic Minyou” is another “right answer.”
Kitasono: I definitely felt like “Plastic Minyou” was the correct title for this song. The song itself is meant to sound a bit like a minyou folk song; it’s supposed to sound like “Japan,” but only on the surface. The album title, promenade, has lots of thoughts behind it as well… You can be taking a leisurely walk outside, and you decide to head into the mountains and see all the landscapes of nature around you and whatever, but in the end, you eventually realize that you’re still actually just surrounded by guardrails or something.
— Recently it feels to me like Japanese-language pop — in both the lyrics and the sound — is once again beginning to show promise. Among the artists that make me feel that way, you especially are a man of mystery, and up until now I’d thought of you as someone with no limits as to what can or can not be done in music. But after speaking with you today, I now feel like you don’t want to lose the “humanness” in your music; it’s what you use as your base when making music. What you want to do with your music feels very “human” to me, and it has humor as well.
Kitasono: Yeah. It’s like, how should I put it… I try to think very “human-like” even when programming music: if it’s music that’s going to be performed by people, I make sure that all the parts are something that I’m able to sing myself. Still, I think computers are very important in finding new possibilities with sound. The other day I even bought a MIDI manual, I’m eager to try composing club music, I’m interested in learning what I can do with things like timbre and ambiance… There are still so many things I haven’t attempted and right now I feel like trying out anything and everything.
— Are you planning on making yourself more visible in the media more from now on?
Kitasono: Well, that’s a whole separate issue from my musical work. I wouldn’t know about that yet.
— Still, it’s probably fair to say that while “Minami Kitasono” used to be quite distant from people — or rather, someone who actively tried to avoid attention — you’ve now sort of changed your stance in that you want more people to find out about your music, right?
Kitasono: Right. As long as people still care — I’m just grateful there are actually some people like that out there. (laughs) But I mustn’t forget the time when I was writing music solely for myself; when that in itself was my driving force. Even as I go forward, I strongly feel like it’s important for me to remember when I was making music even though I knew no one would hear it.
— What does your release schedule for the future look like?
Kitasono: I don’t want to wait too long until the next release. I want releasing CD’s to be my main activity as a musician, so I’d like to make the next one soon.