This month: Akiko Yano
Blessed with a unique vocal style, virtuoso piano skills and an idiosyncratic way with melody, Akiko Yano is one of the singular figures of Japanese music. Over a 40-year career (and 27 albums to date), her music has shifted through a variety of genres, from traditional Japanese folk to blues-rock, jazz, funk, electro-pop and techno. The likes of Little Feat, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Japan, Thomas Dolby, Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden and Marc Ribot have all collaborated with her, each adding colour without ever overshadowing Yano's varied but always distinctive sound. "People say, 'She sounds peculiar but she makes cool music.' I'm happy with that," she tells RC over the phone from New York.
Born in Tokyo in 1955 and raised in Aomori in northern Japan, Yano began playing piano from an early age. She moved to Tokyo to study and was playing in the city's jazz clubs by her mid-teens. By the age of 17 she had established herself as one of the country's most promising studio musicians.
Headhunted by a record label, Yano penned nine out of the 10 songs on her landmark 1976 debut album, Japanese Girl. Still sounding strikingly original today, its unique amalgam of indigenous folk and western styles is showcased to best effect on Funamachi-Uta Part 2, a traditional Aomori festival song given a jazz-inflected, Southern-fried blues stomp.
Recording of the album's first side took place in Los Angeles with a prime back-up band to hand: "Back then, rock music from west-coast America was a big influence on me," she explains. "I asked the record company if I could do a recording session with Little Feat. They reached out to Lowell George and he said, 'Yes'. That was so fortunate."
The album made her an overnight star. Hot on the heels of its success she took up the production reigns on 1977's followup Iroha Ni Konpeitou, a work whose whimsical cover--featuring an Issey Miyake jumpsuit-clad Yano man-handling a blowup dolphin--perfectly captures the oddball brilliance of its funk-laced rock. A period of collaboration with Yellow Magic Orchestra --whose keyboard player Ryuichi Sakamoto she would later marry--followed, beginning with her joining them for two world tours as their support act. On 1980's Gohan Ga Dekita Yo (Dinner's Ready) she employed them as a backing band on an album which marked a sharp change of style. "I was no longer I as influenced by jazz," she says. "Electro-pop was one of the things I wanted to explore. Yellow Magic Orchestra were my colleagues so the sound was pretty much influenced by them. We were very close and we inspired each other."
Joined once more by YMO, her 1981 album Tadaima (I'm Home) is her masterpiece; a vivid fusion of electro-pop with post-punk, disco and jazz. Yano is at her most brilliantly offbeat; her jazz-like vocal flights of fancy and idiosyncratic lyrics complemented by a raft of brilliant pop harmonies and the futuristic buzz of Sakamato's inspired synth experiments. It remains one of her best-loved albums and is a favourite of Yano herself.
She explains its genesis: "The record company wanted Tadaima to be a hit record. I'd just had my biggest-selling hit with Harusaki Kobeni so I made Side One the pop album that my record company wanted." Side Two represented a rather different proposition, beginning with Taiyo No Onara, an avant-garde piano and vocal suite made up of nine short stories composed by children: "I wanted to do a song based on children's writing. It's rare to do that on an album which is supposed to be a big-seller. So that's a very unique album, to combine electro-pop songs with something jazz orientated, not so pop."
On 1982's Ai Ga Nakuchane she co-opted members of UK synth-pop collective Japan as her backing band, with David Sylvian adding backing vocals to the album closer Good Night. "David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto were friends. At the time I was married to Ryuichi, so it was only natural for me also to be friends with him and Steve Jansen," she says. "And I really loved their sound so I wanted to make a record with them." More shimmering synth-pop works followed. Her 1984 album Oh Hisse, Oh Hisse notably featured Ramen Tabetai (I Want To Eat Ramen), her notorious paean to the pleasures of eating noodle soup: "Ramen Tabetai came from the bottom of my heart. One evening around midnight I had a ramen attack. I really wanted to eat ramen, nothing else. Ramen was the only thing I wanted. So I made a song," she laughs. "So I think still the audience felt the urge of, 'Oh, I want some ramen. Right now!' That's still one of my audience's favourites."
A year's hiatus to concentrate on raising her children prompted another change in direction: "I didn't make records and I didn't play in public for a year. During that time, I thought about what I really wanted to make. And that was jazz. So, I made a record with Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden and Peter Erskine called Welcome Back. Those were the words that I said to myself. Welcome back to jazz."
She moved to New York in 1990 with Sakamoto and her daughter Miu. Newly signed to Nonesuch, she continued her jazz focus with 1991's Love Life, which featured more guest turns from Metheny and Haden. Recent years have seen her return to electropop with collaborations with young Japanese techno musicians such as Rei Harakami and tofubeats.
Of her return to old musical pastures Yano says by way of explanation: "It's like the four tyres on the car. I need jazz-orientated, improvisational music. And I need those pop-orientated things. So I can do both and I enjoy both. Whether it's jazz-oriented or pop-orientated, once I play and sing, that would be Akiko Yano music." 5
Words: Paul Bowler Reissues o/Tadaima, Japanese Girl and Iroha Ni Konpeitou are all out now on We Want Sounds.
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.