Japanese guitarist and vocalist Ichiko Aoba brings her heartwarming fantasy world to the National Sawdust stage
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“Windswept Adan”, the seventh studio album from rising Japanese singer and guitarist Ichiko Aoba, is a singer-songwriter album, a concept album, a piece of chamber music, and a contemporary orchestral work. It is heavily influenced by jazz, by folk and by impressionistic classical music. It is a soundtrack to an imaginary film; it is an album that tells a story; it is a piece of fantasy science fiction set to music; it is a sonic voyage through the East China Sea.
“It is written as the soundtrack to a fictitious movie,” says Ichiko. “It is a story about a girl who goes from the fictional Kirinaki Island – an island inhabited by a tribe of inbred families – to Adan Island. Adan has no language. The girl meets the creatures that live on that island and traces the roots of her life while gifting shells to the natives of Adan Island.”
Where Ichiko’s previous songs have been open to interpretation, she wants “Windswept Adan” to tell a very specific story. “We wanted the music to express things like the temperature flowing in the story, the girl’s facial expression, and the smell of the sea breeze,” she says. “It was like a piece of acting for me. I think I’ve become able to think more three-dimensionally about works and stages.”
Ichiko’s vantage point constantly changes point-of-view throughout the album. “The lyrics shift from the perspective of the girl who is the main character, to the perspective of the plants that live on the island, to a bundle of lives that straddle space and time.” The album is arranged in chronological order, telling the story of the girl’s journey between islands. Opener “Prologue” places the listener squarely on the coral archipelago, with bells, birds and a field recording of the sea that Aoba made herself on the Honohoshi coast of Amami Oshima. The lyrics of “Pilgrimage” features invented words. “I wrote it in the hope that it will become the song that connects the world with our language and the island without language that the girl has been exiled to.” The beautifully orchestrated “Porcelain” – the album’s lead single – takes us further into the coral islands; “Easter Lily” hits us with a heartbreaking chord sequence; by the impressionistic, piano-led ambient composition “Parfum d’etoiles” the vocals are virtually wordless, buried deep in the mix. The poetic imagery is strong on “Sagu Palm’s Song”: “Where to go in this storm?” she sings, in a tightly harmonised, breakthy whisper. “To another dimension, reflected in the water/if I jump, ripples in the sky/where the winds meet you might see the dragon’s trail in the gorge”.
Having grown up in Kyoto, Japan, Ichiko released her first album, Kamisori Otome (Razor Girl), in 2010, aged only 19, and went on to receive much acclaim for her folksy, jazz-influenced songs written for nylon-strung classical guitar and voice – including her 2013 album “0” and on 2018’s “qp”. Her music featured prominently in the soundtrack to the 2019 video game The Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. She has collaborated with Japanese legend Ryuichi Sakamoto and American sound artist Taylor Deupree; with Sakamoto’s Yellow Magic Orchestra colleague Haruomi Hosono; with Canadian singer-songwriter Mac DeMarco (they duetted on a song for a whisky advert); and with Japanese producer and multi-instrumentalist Cornelius (“she’s such a genius,” he says, “she brings such focus and intensity to what she does, and she’s an incredibly talented guitarist – even though she’d only been playing for two years when I met her!”). There have been collaborations with Japanese hip hop producer Sweet William and with Japanese indie band MahiToThePeople. Canadian violinist Owen Pallett has cited her as an inspiration, comparing her compositions to those of Burt Bacharach (“I’ve never been so blindsided by a musician as I was by Ichiko Aoba”). Ichiko has also worked on several stage productions: 9 Days Queen by Go Aoki, a production of Cocoon written and directed by Takahiro Fujita, and a revival of Lemming by Shuji Terayama.
After recording several albums for Speedstar Records – a division of JVC empire – in 2020 she set up her own independent label, Hermine, to have more control over her output. Most of her previous albums have seen her perform solo, “acoustically with just my guitar and singing, as if I was the only person in the world,” she says. But “Windswept Adan” sees her collaborating for the first time with Taro Umebayashi, a pianist and composer/arranger who performs under the pseudonym Milk.
“In the past 10 years I met and faced so many different musicians, creators and situations, and learned the flexibility to freely change the form of expression,” she says. “Until now I’ve always expressed music with just vocals and acoustic guitar. But I’ve always heard a lot of instruments behind my music – a clarinet trio, a harp and so on. It was time to slowly and accurately draw a landscape painting, determining the tone of the instrument that most closely resembled the floating landscape I had. Taro took time to face this process with me. If the image of a flying bird came into my head, Taro would work out what colour it was, how big it was, how the wind travelled when its wings flapped.”
Together they have created something that moves far beyond the structures of Ichiko’s previous albums. The elegant arpeggios of “Ohayahi” suggest the influence of Philip Glass’s minimalism; the opening guitar vamp on “Sagu Palm’s Song” recalls the introduction to Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Waters Of March”; the vaporous piano chords on “Parfum d’etoiles” resemble Erik Satie; the string-driven melody on “Hagupit” sounds like a baroque symphony; while the harmonium drone on “Horo” conjures up images of Pakistani qawaali music.
Until now her albums have only been available as expensive Japanese imports but, in November, New York Label Ba Da Bing will release “Windswept Adan” in North America and Europe as a deluxe packaged 2xLP set. The album has already attracted rave reviews on import: Anthony Fantano’s influential YouTube review channel The Needle Drop gave it a rave 9 out of 10 review. “I am incredibly impressed with so many elements of this project,” said Fantano “The songwriting is gorgeous; the production is fantastic; the arrangements, the simplicity, the sound quality, the performances – just so many things on here are consistently great and gorgeous, I just can’t say enough nice things about them.” Beats Per Minute website called it “by far her most ambitious work to date… an aquatic world to be lost within and one from which you’ll scarcely want to emerge”. A Bandcamp feature says that “Umebayashi’s arrangements at times recall the Wes Anderson scores of Mark Mothersbaugh or the cinematographic swells of American composer Jherek Bischoff”.
The fantasy world in which “Windswept Adan” is set is loosely based on Japan’s Southwest Islands – the Ryukyu Archipelago that stretches from Kyushu to Taiwan. Ichiko travelled to the island chain in 2020 with photographer Kodai Kobyashi, immersing herself in the beauty of these coral islands, and started to piece together a story that used some of the imagery they recorded.
“The music video for ‘Porcelain’ is like the trailer to our imaginary movie,” says Ichiko. “The movie of “Windswept Adan” lies in the hearts of the listeners. If this movie can enrich the voyages that you all take in this world, we would be extremely happy.”