What a Beautiful Life:
Kishi Bashi’s Magical Mystery Tour
I would imagine you’d have to be a deeply committed grouch to not be swept up in the bright, giddy joy beaming from the grooves of Kishi Bashi’s recently released second album, Lighght. So genuine is its spirit, so uplifting are its melodies and harmonies, so gorgeous is its presentation, you can for a few happy, glorious moments almost believe that crap about music being a universal language. Because I’ve always known that to be hogwash. Most popular music ultimately proves more divisive than unifying. As much as it can define and unite on a limited level, it also largely splits us by age groups, by ethnic groups, even by political ideologies.
Maybe I’m not hearing something, but I don’t get that with the music of Kaoru Ishibashi, who records and performs as Kishi Bashi. To me, its appeal should span genres and generations. And so far, especially with this new LP, that is proving to be the case. His own eight-year-old daughter gives it her all-important stamp of approval. So does his mom. “Older people are reminded of prog-rock,” he chuckles. “And then young people like it too, and kids. I try to keep it positive. I think it crosses a lot of generations.”
Sometimes, while immersed in the foul junkheap of modern pop, it’s easy to get depressed. There’s so little of true worth, so little that’s inspiring, that it’s doubly refreshing to hear someone put this much creative effort and ambition and optimism into what they’re doing. Breathtaking on the violin, his primary instrument, Ishibashi also plays guitar, bass, keyboards and sample-based electronic doohickeys. He largely records his music himself, with a few select friends contributing drums and other touches. He could’ve easily put out some dense, heady, wank-off album, but while the musicianship on Lighght is dazzling, it’s never to the detriment of the chewy center. Its songs lift you up with their irresistible appeal.
“Essentially, what I want to do is have pop songs,” Kaoru stresses. “But for this album I definitely tried to up the ‘musician’ element of it. I’m really happy when musicians are telling me it’s a great album. I feel like musicianship is sort of…old school, but I just decided to go for it, because it’s my joy. I wanna bring it back.”
Ishibashi’s personal musical journey began around age seven, when he started playing violin. Of Japanese heritage, his parents were both professors at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. Though they weren’t necessarily musically oriented (“my dad sings karaoke a lot,” Kaoru laughs), they fully supported their son’s interest in music.
“I was pretty serious about violin up until and through high school, pretty serious about classical music and violin,” he says. “But then I was also a metalhead. I was listening to Metallica and Megadeth, stuff like that. And then I liked Nirvana, like any other teenager. I think I have a pretty healthy musical background. I think a lot of my pop sensibility comes from the classics, the great melody makers, like Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart. There’s a reason why that stuff is still played today.”
When asked, though, if he ever planned to just be primarily a classical musician, a professional playing in symphonic orchestras, he’s quick to respond with a laugh: “Definitely not! When I was in high school, there was a professional symphony, the Virginia Symphony, and I had some friends play weddings with them, stuff like that, and they were just not very happy. It didn’t feel like a very appealing career. They’re kind of under-respected, and underpaid, and it was very clear to me early on that it was not something I wanted to pursue. But I did study jazz violin, I was really heavy into that for several years, when I was at the Berklee College of Music. I went to Cornell University first, and actually flunked out, and then I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston and I studied jazz violin with a pretty well known teacher there, and I also studied film composition. I think that’s what started a lot of things. But yeah, I mean, classical music is great, and I’ve been trying to champion it more, but I think it definitely needs an overhaul.”
So, instead, Kaoru joined the circus.
Seriously. His first professional job as a musician, right out of Berklee, was playing in the live band for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s ill-fated attempt to go Euro and compete with Cirque du Soleil, Barnum’s Kaleidoscape, in 1999.
“Everybody was way too overpaid, and it folded within a year because it wasn’t making any money,” Ishibashi recalls. “But it was a great experience, ‘cause I was working with some really professional musicians, and making a lot of money. Probably more money that year than I did after that for several years. And I also played in the Big Apple Circus too. When I moved to New York, that was my main gig for several years. I know the circus!”
Which no doubt helped prepare him for performing with Of Montreal, whom he would join a few years later. In the meantime, however, he got his break in the pop/rock world nabbing a job as Regina Spektor’s violinist.
“The circus gig was a union job, You could skip half of it if you wanted to. So I was backing off – I wanted to do something more creative, or work with more creative people,” he explains. “[Spektor] had this fantastic cello player, Daniel Cho, who actually passed away, but he was a friend of mine from college. She wanted strings, ‘cause [the music] was kinda classy, you know. I did a whole world tour, like a year and a half. And the reason why she kept me on as long as she did, probably, was because I’m a singer and a songwriter, so I can understand how to accompany a person. Because violin can be kind of annoying! It can get in the way of the singer. But I knew how to not do that. And she liked my personality, I guess. That’s the other half of it.”
At a festival date where Of Montreal was also on the bill, he met the members of that Athens-based group, of whom he says he’s a huge fan. “I didn’t realize that Kevin [Barnes] is really the band, you know. He plays everything by himself. And the only instrument he doesn’t play is violin, and he wanted some strings on it, so I told him to send me a track. So basically, we were both recording and we were always talking on the phone and I convinced him to hire me into his band.” A few years ago, Ishibashi moved to Athens with his wife and daughter, and they continue to live there.
As for his career doing his own music as Kishi Bashi, Kaoru also traces the seeds back to the Regina Spektor tour. At the time, he was trying to make it with his New York-based rock band, Jupiter One, in which he sang lead vocals, played guitar and keyboards but not so much violin. Spektor had them open the entire North American leg of her tour, but when the tour continued in Australia the whole band couldn’t make it so Ishibashi opened those shows solo. “And I killed it!” he boasts. “I think I brought a hundred CDs, and sold out like in one night. And I bootlegged, like, 400 CDs, CD-Rs, and sold them. Basically, I realized when people can really hear a song, and not be drowned out by loud drums and stuff like that, electric guitar, they really like it. And so the stripped down thing’s success on that tour was how it started. [Jupiter One] kind of fizzled out, because we were just not making any money. And we had some personality issues, to the point where I just needed to take a break. So I started focusing more on what I’m really good at, and what my strengths are, which is violin, and orchestral composition. So that’s how Kishi Bashi was started. It was a response to the band situation.”
Kishi Bashi’s first album, 2012’s 151a (its title a reference to a Japanese phrase meaning “one moment, one time”) met with acclaim from far and wide, and rightly so. Fuller and bolder in execution, more playful and accessible, Lighght (titled after a controversial one-word poem of the same name by Aram Saroyan) trumps it handily with its swirl of McCartney-esque pop sensibilities, dizzying instrumentation and exotic Japanese accents. Of incorporating his family’s cultural heritage into his music, Ishibashi explains that “originally I wanted to make Kishi Bashi all violin and voice, so I was trying to experiment with what I could do. But I don’t wanna be a ‘world music’ artist. I’m definitely not ashamed of my Japanese heritage, but I try and keep it ‘indie.’ But I also like to have fun.
‘I mean, I’m a fan of everything,” he continues. “So, like, Electric Light Orchestra, Jeff Lynne. And of course I listened to the Beatles. But actually, working with Kevin Barnes, he’s a big inspiration. I mean, he’s so prolific. He’s very provocative, and he’s always evolving. He’s like the ideal artist, to me. And that’s something I didn’t really realize until recently – that’s what artists do, they have to keep evolving and trying new things. And eventually, you’ll have a legion of fans who just expect that from you.”
Photo by Kaden Shallat.