By Pat Moran
“What is a word?” Kaoru Ishibashi asks. “The more you use it, the more real it becomes, but a word had to start somewhere.” It’s a little weird discussing linguistic origins with Ishibashi, who admits he’s “a music first guy” when it comes to song writing. As Kishi Bashi, he’s recorded two exuberant solo albums, 151a and Lighght, built on loops of manipulated violin, layered synthesizers, and his multi-tracked falsetto. They are airy, crystalline confections where lyrics often seem an impressionistic afterthought, chosen for vowel sounds, a whimsical sense of play and elided meaning.
Over the pumping disco beats and surging strings of his Japanese No. 1 hit “The Ballad of Mr. Steak,” Ishibashi sings about burning up the dance floor with an anthropomorphic piece of meat. This sumptuous slice of surrealism gets a radical makeover on Ishibashi’s 2015 release String Quartet Live! Recasting music from his synthesizer-heavy albums for chamber ensemble, the live collection is Ishibashi’s love letter to string players.
Love also acts as catalyst for Ishibashi’s newfound focus on words. As he commenced work on his latest album Sonderlust, Ishibashi and his wife of 13 years briefly separated as they struggled to keep their marriage afloat. Words now became crucial as Ishibashi grappled with loss, betrayal, and nostalgia for the first blush of affection.
Launching with “M’lover” a paean to an idealized life partner, Sonderlust dovetails into the skirling violins of “Hey Big Star,” a celebration of courtship’s sugar rush. The queasy funk of “Who’d You Kill” and the string-driven chiaroscuro of “Why Don’t You Answer Me” signal an increasingly rocky relationship. Plucked pizzicato strings and a dancing music-box melody offer an optimistic coda with “Honeybody,” but Ishibashi never stops questioning the disconnect between being in love and loving someone.
How has last year’s emotional turmoil shaped your approach to the songs on Sonderlust?
Instead of coming up with the whimsical lyrics I’m known for, I focused on emotional elements that rang true to me. I just poured it out. Originally I wasn’t going to talk about [my marital problems], but I decided it would help listeners connect more if I told them what was going on when I wrote these songs. The lyrics are pretty intense.
What’s the significance of the word you chose for the title, Sonderlust?
Sonderlust comes from a new word, the neologism “sonder.” It’s based on the work of John Koenig. He has this amazing video series on words he’s created called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. The definition of “sonder” is the realization that any person, even a stranger, has a deep and complex life just like you might have. Everyone has this crazy galaxy to themselves, and we’re barely aware of it. “Sonderlust” is the desire to connect to them, and feel a part of this infinite universe.
In addition to changing your emotional approach on this album, did you also change your musical approach?
Yes. Initially, I assumed that people liked the orchestral pop approach I used before. Being a crowd pleaser, I thought I would go for something like that again. But trying to compose in that direction, nothing was exciting me. It was frustrating.
So instead of your previous method—building songs from violin loops you had laid down—what did you do?
I started using Ableton Live. It’s production software that chops up and manipulates samples. I created these sounds that were inspiring songs. I went for an approach that was electronic and sample based, moving in a more rhythmic and funky direction. Once I abandoned the idea of an orchestral pop album, it got easy for me, really quick. I enjoyed what I was doing.
Through Ableton, the sounds I’m getting are really fresh. For example, on “M’lover,” I played a classical guitar while humming something. I sped it up, and then I chopped it up. Within five minutes, I hammered out a sequence. That was enough to inspire me to write a melody.
You’re a violinist who doesn’t play violin on this album, but you used an entire string section. Why?
I didn’t have the space to put violin on every song, [though] there are a couple of weird Kishi Bashi violin sounds on it, to add a little interest or excitement. I scored the strings. I had access to this great string section in Los Angeles. These people play at a lofty level [of skill] all the time, and it was something that I knew if I’d played it, I would probably mess it up. [Laughs.] It was amazing conducting people who had probably played on Star Wars.
The strings were the icing on the cake. I had booked them in advance once I saw that a lot of songs could really benefit from a luxurious string section. As a violinist I made the effort to feature the strings. They’re probably louder on this album than any other pop album.
I didn’t put them on a song if they weren’t necessary. As beautiful as they are, they do crowd up a lot of sonic elements. They are also really expensive, and I was footing the bill. I got these players to really shine through.
These songs are intricate and layered. How do you transpose them to a live setting?
If a sample is essential to a song, I have a computer that has some sounds that can’t be recreated. Otherwise, my band keeps it computer free. I still depend on the bass and drums and my weird-sounding violin. I play a generic German violin with an Ithaca Strings Piezo pickup in combination with an LR Baggs Para acoustic DI. That’s the majority of my sound.
It’s really easy to play along to a track and put on a great show. But we play pretty much everything live, because I believe people can tell the difference. It’s more organic. I think people appreciate that.