Life is a series of falling to rock bottom and then recapturing your passion: Shōko Suzuki speaks of the DVD that follows her music career, of her newest song, and of Maaya Sakamoto.
[Japanese] by Yasurō Murao
Singer/songwriter Shōko Suzuki’s songs, in many ways, set one’s heart racing. At first, she leaves an impression of an emotionally strong, robust woman. So you think, but then she betrays her cute side when she takes a Hello Kitty handkerchief from her pocket. The world in her music is both abstract and intuitive, as though it were a comic book version of a Yumiko Ōshima. As a man it feels as though I’ve been seen through, and even that I’ve been treated with undue kindness, and I can’t help but be flustered by it. Still, what is clear is that she is a musician through and through. She can play most instruments and can handle everything from lyrics and composition to arrangement and production, but beyond this she has absorbed the sounds of her beloved 60s and 70s music at the genetic level, and from her entire body wafts like pheromones the fragrance of good music.
Along the way, she has contributed music beyond her own releases to various artists such as Seiko Matsuda, among others. One of these is Maaya Sakamoto, for whom she has recently written songs on a regular basis. And so, starting from her relationship with Maaya, I inquired into her first CD single in five years, “My Sweet Surrender”, and her DVD to be released at the same time, “Songs Without Words”.
Maaya reminds me of an athlete
To start, what was the first song you contributed to Maaya Sakamoto?
“‘NO FEAR / To Love’. My producer, [Mitsuyoshi] Tamura handed me a request for a ‘dark yet beautiful song that evokes a sense of inner strength.’ Dark songs are my specialty (laugh), so I decided to give it a shot. The lyrics were also part of the request, but rather than writing from the perspective of a woman who wants to be protected by a man, while I worked on the song I thought if I wrote lyrics that conveyed that kind of deep maternal instinct, that ‘I’ll be the one to protect you’ sort of feeling in a woman, it might fit with a dark, beautiful song.”
Had you heard of Ms. Sakamoto at the time?
“I had heard ‘Astronaut’s Song’ on NHK’s ‘Songs for Everyone’. The quality of her voice impressed me when I heard that song. So, I did know at the time that she was a voice actress and that she also sang.”
So her voice was what impressed you?
“It was. When I write songs for her, more than thinking about her personality I often think about what sort of melody would sound captivating when paired with that voice.”
Since you’ve come to contribute more and more songs to her, do you ever suggest some of your own ideas, like “How about trying this kind of song next time?”?
“Not so much. I think Maaya has a much wider range of expression than most. Even without suggestions from those around her, she can express who she is at that moment in the most appropriate form. That side of Maaya that breaks through one ceiling after another, that doesn’t have any limits, is her charm, I think.”
For some songs you write the music while Maaya writes the lyrics—what do you think are the most appealing areas of her lyrics?
“Even when she writes something personal, there are still places where her longing to write in something universal comes through. I can relate to that because I have the same desire.”
Are there any other qualities you share?
“The fact that both our fathers worked in stage lighting makes me feel a bit like we’re connected in some way (laugh). But she shows a lot of nerve when she’s on stage, and I find that dauntless attitude attractive. She’s really commanding.”
Previously, when I interviewed Maaya, she said she “is attracted by Shōko’s resiliency.” Which means that perhaps you both have a sense of connectedness as strong women (laugh).
“Hmm, I think maybe the quality of strength differs (laugh). Maaya reminds me of an athlete. She’s gutsy, and has that power to explode from the blocks and capture the idea of a song. I’m more of a literary type, and I have a somewhat unstable side.”
So even though she’s younger than you, you still add the polite “-san” suffix to her name (laugh).
“I know! (laugh) It’s like she has this manliness to her, the kind that looks after you because you can’t look after yourself. And yet she has an aura of transparency. I feel like she’s someone who has those sorts of opposing attributes existing side-by-side.”
Singing is a life-support machine
Moving on, you’re releasing your first CD single in five years, “My Sweet Surrender”, for which you collaborated with “Jack-tachi”, correct? What led to this?
“Last year my album ‘SHO-CO-SONGS collection 3’, which was a remastering of tracks from ’95 to ’97, came out. That period was the time when my style sounded closest to rock, and when it came time to go on tour to promote the release, I thought it would be good to have a band on stage. That’s when I heard Jack-tachi, and I thought they sounded just amazingly good. I don’t think there are as many bands as people think who call themselves rock bands and truly have a rock sound to back it up. I felt something like my personal idea of what rock is in Jack-tachi’s music.”
And what is your personal idea of rock?
“Unrestrainable wildness, or that violence that comes out unconsciously. Those sorts of things can be a part that, the better the performance is, the more they’re worn away. But wildness alone doesn’t make it rock. There’s a very delicate balance between that wildness and giving people a song to listen to, and I felt like Jack-tachi were people who had found that balance.”
In addition to recording with a band, the composition is the work of Jack-tachi’s Susumu Isshiki. It seems unusual to me for you to sing a song written by someone else, but what sort of sound did you have in mind when you created this track?
“Something cute and something rock. This is unrelated to when we were talking earlier about Maaya, but something that has both womanliness and manliness. Jack-tachi is made up entirely of men, but Shinobu Kawai worked with us during recording, so it was a mix of men and women. And although Mr. Isshiki composed the music, I’m the one writing the lyrics, so it was crucial to find a good mix of masculinity and femininity like that. Even men have a feminine side, and even women have a masculine side. When you take those opposing ideas and carefully mix them together, you sometimes end up with something really interesting, or you find an interesting connection. I feel like that’s the only place where my future lies, and recently that’s been my theme. This song is a song that reflects that theme.”
I see. On the other hand, the B-track, “Call My Name ~When you call my name”, is a multitrack recording you created.
“This song has a swing beat, and I had Wedding Bell Blues’. That’s why I imitated a doo-wop group with Sindee & Forestones and recorded a multitrack harmony on my own. And then Takuo [Yamamoto] put in an amazing brass section for me. The scenes from the recording session are part of the bonus material for the ‘Songs Without Words’ DVD.”
This ‘Songs Without Words’ is a documentary film that appeared in theaters last year, and it gives a close look at your work in music. Your self-filmed appearances across every chapter are unique, but what are your thoughts as you reflect on it today?
“When we filmed that movie, it was during a time when I was carrying a lot of doubt with respect to making music. But by filming it, and by self-filming, no less, I could really acknowledge what I was struggling over then, and that was huge. If you’re just drifting through life one day to the next, I think sometimes you lose a handle even on the situation you’re in, but the movie gave me a way to recognize that situation I was in. It kind of felt like therapy (laugh).”
Releasing that sort of thing as a movie is pretty incredible, wouldn’t you agree?
“It is. I end up apologizing for it. So saying there’s a message in it is an exagerration, but if there’s something I can tell people through this movie, it’s that maybe there’s nothing wrong with life being a series of falling to rock bottom and then recapturing your passion. I don’t know why, but after finishing the filming, my motivation to write songs and my passion for making music came back to me.”
You went without seeing your father for a very long time prior to his passing away. In the film, there’s a scene where you visit the restaurant he used to manage. Also, while you were filming, Shōji Fujii, who taught you the drums, passed away, and at one point you’re turned toward the camera with tears in your eyes as you make the announcement. Those sorts of private scenes that are laid out for everyone to see strike me in a way as fitting for a singer/songwriter.
“They are, aren’t they? When it comes to personal things like that, I feel that just processing them without turning them into song and getting on with life is the normal, human way to live, but I put them to music, and through singing communicate them to others…I can’t go on without that process. Singing plays the role of something like a life support machine for me. If I don’t do those things, I can’t recover what I’ve lost. I think that recovery process has overlapped with the process from the time I was filming the movie until now.”
Has that process led you to any discoveries?
“It’s a matter of love. Love takes many forms, and there’s something like a Pandora’s box that you shouldn’t open within someone else’s feelings of love. When you open it, it can turn into obsession. But people can’t go on without opening it…I spent a lot of time thinking about this, and actually I’m still thinking about it. Look at Alex Chilton, for example. He’s one of my favorite musicians, but the way he expresses love in his music is very twisted—I feel it’s refracted to the point of jabbing at you unpleasantly. I started to think that it might be possible to write a love song without opening that Pandora’s box. Until now, I had never considered that. I guess my love for myself was too strong.”
I wonder if that issue is reflected in “My Sweet Surrender”.
“Yes, they’re connected. I kind of feel like this time around I was able to write freely and have fun with it (laugh).”
(Interview from March 1st at Uplink in Shibuya)