KISHI BASHI - Omoiyari intimate album release show @ Washington Hall
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Imagine being forced from your home. Imagine being sent to a prison camp with no trial, and no promise of release. Imagine all this happened simply because of the language you speak, the shade of your skin, or the roots of your family tree. For over 120,000 Japanese-Americans this was a reality during World War II. It’s a reality that Kishi Bashi seeks to reckon with on his latest release Omoiyari.
Omoiyari is Kishi Bashi’s fourth album -- following the acclaimed 151a (2012), Lighght (2014), and Sonderlust (2016), which have garnered serious acclaim from outlets including NPR Music, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian -- and his most important yet. Many of the songs were initially inspired by history and oppression, and he deftly weaves tales of love, loss, and wanting to connect listeners to the past. Channeling the hard-learned lessons of history, Omoiyari is an uncompromising musical statement on the turbulent sociopolitical atmosphere of present-day America.
“I was shocked when I saw white supremacy really starting to show its teeth again in America,“ Kishi Bashi says. “My parents are immigrants, they came to the United States from Japan post–World War II. As a minority I felt very insecure for the first time in my adult life in this country. I think that was the real trigger for this project.”
Kishi Bashi recognized parallels between the current U.S. administration’s constant talk of walls and bans, and the xenophobic anxieties that led to the forced internment of Japanese-Americans in the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor. So he immersed himself in that period, visiting former prison sites and listening to the stories of survivors, while developing musical concepts along the way. The unique creative process behind Omoiyari will be documented in a film scheduled for release in early 2020.
“I didn’t want this project to be about history, but rather the importance of history, and the lessons we can learn,” Kishi Bashi reflects. “I gravitated toward themes of empathy, compassion, and understanding as a way to overcome fear and intolerance. But I had trouble finding an English title for the piece. Omoiyari is a Japanese word. It doesn't necessarily translate as empathy, but it refers to the idea of creating compassion towards other people by thinking about them. I think the idea of omoiyari is the single biggest thing that can help us overcome aggression and conflict.”
The strong conceptual elements of Omoiyari are driven by Kishi Bashi’s captivating musical score. Stepping away from his past loop-based production model, he embraced a more collaborative approach when recording, and for the first time included contributions from other musicians, such as Mike Savino (aka Tall Tall Trees) on banjo and bass, and Nick Ogawa (aka Takenobu) on cello. Kishi Bashi’s spectacular trademark violin soundscapes are still an essential component of his sound, but the focus of Omoiyari is centered squarely on its songs. The result is his most potent and poignant collection of music to date.
On “Marigolds,” Kishi Bashi contemplates the “differences between generations that are difficult to comprehend sometimes.” “I wish that I had met you when your heart was safe to hold,” he sings over a bed of shimmering violins, conveying a sense of deep melancholy over a soaring melodic line.
“Summer of ’42” weaves a breathtaking orchestral score over a tale of love and loss in a Japanese incarceration camp. “While times were humiliating and difficult in these camps, they would make time to find love and happiness amongst the adversity,” Kishi Bashi observes.
“Violin Tsunami” builds a single violin line into a cinematic wall of sound. “A Brazilian Japanese friend of mine is a violin maker, and he presented me with a wonderful violin to play. He had named it Tsunami, and had worked on it while the Fukushima Nuclear disaster was unfolding,” Kishi Bashi explains. “This song is about the chaos that nature can create, and also about the healing and rebuilding that the human spirit is capable of.”
The songs on Omoiyari overflow with rich sounds and complex emotions, and challenge listeners to confront a difficult chapter in America’s past while acknowledging the injustices of the present. But there’s a yearning for better days threaded through several songs, a perspective that mirrors Kishi Bashi’s own hopes for a better future. “Part of the project is saying that if you're a minority there's potentially still a lot to look forward to in this country. I believe there's a paradigm shift coming, especially for minorities and those who have felt oppression. America is changing.”
But a better future is not guaranteed, and Kishi Bashi wants listeners who hold some economic or social privilege to be aware of their own role in creating change. “If you're privileged you need to understand that this country is for everybody, and we have to make that space for all people.”
“Sometimes when we look at history, it feels far away and removed. But there are fundamental lessons of love, compassion and fear that we can learn from the internment and apply to issues today concerning refugees, immigration, and minorities,” he says. “There are so many tragedies and atrocities that have happened around the world at different times in history, and I think it's really important to have the compassion to understand the suffering that people endured before you, to not repeat the past, and to really be grateful for the life you have.”
While the theme of Omoiyari is rooted in 1940s America, the album’s message is timeless. In exploring the emotional lives of the innocent Japanese-Americans who were unjustly incarcerated, Kishi Bashi hopes to nurture a sense of e
In 2015, around the release of the Austin group’s second album Space Is Still The Place, Jackie’s brother Alex, the band’s manager of four years, was deep in the delusional throes of severe and sudden bipolar 1 disorder. It was a time of immense stress and intensity for the musicians, who began writing songs for a new album in their home studio on Lake Travis as Alex spiraled. The songs took a turn when Alex took his own life on the shore of the lake, witnessed in its aftermath by Jackie.
“It was a terrible thing, but it was also the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced and probably will ever experience,” Jackie says. “This was all happening as we started the record. Not all the songs are about Alex, but I think even the ones that aren’t all have a bittersweet mix of overwhelming beauty and terrible loss. The music deals with the ripples it caused in all of our lives, especially in our relationships, with an underlying theme of trying to wrap our heads around all of this.”
The contiguous albums, titled after Alex’s middle name, are about what it means to lose someone and then be left to pick up the pieces. They’re about relationships and politics and confronting your own emotions head on. Because of these intense thematic cores, the musicians searched for a more streamlined way to express themselves in song. Where Space Is Still The Place is cloudy and filled with distortion, Jude Vol. I and Jude Vol. II seek clarity and clean, bold lines amidst the haze. There are elements of shoegaze, drawn from bands like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, as well as Krautrock and New Wave, resulting in dreamy textures with distinct articulations of emotion right beneath the surface.
In November of 2017, the band drove to Los Angeles, armed with 18 songs that confronted their feelings of grief and loss, and spent several months recording in Sunset Sound with producer Chris Coady (Beach House, Slowdive, Yeah Yeah Yeahs). There they narrowed the tracks down to 14 and found inspiration in the historic studio. “Being in such an iconic space really made us rise to the occasion,” Jackie notes. “It felt like we had to make something that might be smiled upon by all the spirits of the amazing artists like Prince and The Doors who have recorded there over the years.”
“It was the smoothest recording process I think we’ve ever had,” Curtis adds. “It’s not usually particularly fractious, but we’ve done a lot of our past recordings ourselves and we’re constantly second guessing ourselves and our work. Having Chris as a producer and an engineer and helping us guide the project really enhanced the teamwork aspect of making the record. We really trusted and leaned on each other, but also allowed everyone a lot of space to do our things. It felt like all four of us were really dialed in to the band and trying to push ourselves in new ways.”
The session yielded two separate albums, each with seven tracks. The first volume faces the immediate violence of Alex’s death and attempts to understand the resulting emotions, while the second volume accepts and appreciates the beauty of it all, eventually finding gratitude. The final two songs on Jude Vol. I are the center-point of everything, beginning with the melancholy haze of “My Boy” and flowing into the buoyant shimmer of “Swimming Out.”
“’My Boy’ details waking up every day and trying to deal with the idea that this person is no longer here,” Jackie explains. “We relied on him so much for guidance and now we’re trying to carry on without his guidance. ‘Swimming Out’ is an answer to that, imaging Alex in the afterlife. He had no problem holding back his thoughts, especially when he saw something that wasn’t right, so it’s this idea of him being in this peaceful afterlife and having suggestions for how it could be better.”
The rest of the songs on Jude Vol. I, which follows the band’s recent EP Missing Something, take on related, but less direct responses to Alex’s death. “She Wanna Love You,” which layers vibrant synthesizers over each other, confronts the challenges of submitting to a partner’s love (“If you can just accept it, then it will set you free,” Jackie notes), while “Lie To Me” examines the ease of accepting outrageous lies told by the powers that be. It was the latter that really set the aesthetic tone for the rest of the album. “It has these very clean and modern lines,” Curtis says. “There’s less work to do to go in and find the emotions. This song really set a good precedent for developing the rest of the songs.”
For The Bright Light Social Hour, who have evolved significantly since they started as an art rock collective in college in 2004, these songs bring clarity to the chaos of emotions that can come after a loss or a heartbreak or a tragedy. The band, who have toured extensively, including festival stops at Austin City Limits and Lollapalooza, found a way out of their grief in the years that followed Alex’s death by focusing on the music. Listening to the heartfelt, evocative songs on Jude Vol. I and Jude Vol. II may be able to do the same for those who hear them.
“I hope that this album can help untangle these feelings of grief for others,” Jackie says. “You can have feelings of fear and great relief and despair and anger all mixed in. These songs hopefully encapsulate that plethora of emotions in facing death head on, which is something that’s so intense and painful. But when you go through it, you learn that without death there is no life. In the end, it’s not a scary thing we should be afraid of.”
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