Painting pictures from an artistic lyrical palette

Chris Mosdell puts words into the mouths of music royalty

by Daniel Robson

As a narrative goes, lyricist Chris Mosdell’s story is anything but a straightforward one.

“There was an article that said I was the Lafcadio Hearn of lyrics, which I kind of liked,” says the British wordsmith, explaining, “Lafcadio Hearn was the first foreigner here who wrote all about Japan. I’ve worked with so many eclectic people — calligraphy artists, poets, all sorts of people — that I couldn’t have done anywhere else, I don’t think.”

Though born in Gainsborough, England, Mosdell grew up in North Wales and is now based for half the year in Tokyo and half in Boulder, Colo., in the United States. He has become woven into the fabric of Japanese society, not only working with huge domestic bands but also anime companies, respected poets and more.

In 1990, he wrote the election theme song for the Social Democratic Party of Japan; a decade later, a selection of Mosdell’s notebooks and pens were included in the Millennium Time Capsule gallery event at Laforet Museum in Harajuku, an artistic snapshot of Tokyo at the turn of the 20th century; and this year, he is the subject of a feature-length documentary about his work.

Mosdell first came to Japan in 1976. A graduate of the University of Nottingham with a degree in microbiology, he quit his pathology masters to follow a more creative path as a poet in a foreign land. And when a year later Yukihiro Takahashi of Sadistic Mika Band saw some poems by Mosdell that were published in The Japan Times, the gamble paid off: Takahashi called Mosdell and asked to use the poems as lyrics for Rajie, a singer he was producing.

“I said, ‘They’re poems, not lyrics, but OK,’ ” says Mosdell.

This led to further collaboration, with Mosdell writing lyrics for Sadistics, a group made up of members of Sadistic Mika Band, and then for Yellow Magic Orchestra, the pioneering technopop band formed by Takahashi, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Haruomi Hosono in 1978.

“I was writing for everybody after that,” he recalls. “And then I thought, ‘Oh, I’m a lyricist!’ The music business is very small, so when you work with somebody, they either recommend you, or someone sees you, or a group splits up and they make other groups.”

YMO went on to become one of the most influential and successful electronic Japanese bands of all time, and their Mosdell-penned song “Behind the Mask” was rewritten in collaboration with Michael Jackson for his “Thriller” album. Although Jackson’s version was never released (“It’s in the vaults,” teases Mosdell. “I’m waiting till Michael gets really bankrupt!”), it was later covered by Eric Clapton.

When asked whether he had to change his writing style to suit Japanese singers, Mosdell jokes, “I usually put one word into the lyrics that is completely unpronounceable; things with an ‘l,’ an ‘r,’ a ‘th,’ a ‘v’ and a ‘b,’ just to be a nuisance. There’s always one word that gets them. But yes, I was always very conscious that I was writing for someone whose English wasn’t native.”

Mosdell explains that when the lyrics are written before the music, “you have to think of the composer, and so you have to write in a very clear, metered structure. But if you do it the other way around, English is this very malleable language that you can stretch and pull, and you can fit words into a musical piece that you didn’t think could be there. Even the back of a Cornflakes packet will sing well if you get a really good melody.”

Mosdell himself has had his turn behind the microphone, releasing the solo album “Equasian” in 1982. In order to give his English words more impact in Japan, he introduced the concept of “visic,” or visual music. The album’s 10 songs were each accompanied by a large artwork made by Mosdell and architect Koji Suzuki, made up of the song lyrics written on a multiplane and multimedia canvas. “Equasian” was displayed at Gallery Harajuku in Tokyo and released by Alfa as an LP with extensive artwork, then reissued on CD in 2003 by Sony.

“Most people say that I don’t write a story line; I write a conceptual kind of picture,” he says of his writing style. “I’m not really a storyteller. I’m much more of a visual lyricist. So I’m painting some sort of picture.”

Another key collaborator has been legendary poet Shuntaro Tanikawa. The pair worked together in 1988 to create “The Oracles of Distraction,” a deck of cards created in the omikuji (sacred lottery) fortune-telling tradition of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Each card bore a poem in English by Mosdell and another in Japanese by Tanikawa, and these were presented along with 77 pieces of music to read them to and 77 large batik artworks on washi paper representing the poems conceptually.

The whole set was shown as an exhibition at Laforet Museum and later released on CD with a full set of cards with surreal poems designed to confuse and distract the reader.

Tanikawa and Mosdell reconvened to write “The Erotic Odes: A Pillow Book,” a collection of short erotic poems, which was published in 1997 and reprinted last year.

Perhaps the most universally appreciated aspect of modern Japanese culture is anime, and here too Mosdell has played his part, working with renowned composer Yoko Kanno on the soundtracks to such major releases as “Ghost in the Shell,” “Gundam” and “Cowboy Bebop.” His latest theme-tune contribution was to the anime “Okami to Koshinryo” (“Spice and Wolf”), which aired in Japan last year and was released on Blu-ray last month.

“To me, Tokyo has always been this strange, immortal city,” says Mosdell. “There’s a frenetic energy that no other city has, so for me it’s a great medium. It’s like a scene that I can sit in. I always feel that I’m being irradiated by some energy, and this helps me to compose.

“I’ve always been very irreverent, and I’ve never worked for a company,” he continues. “Luckily, I found this niche where I can survive. I’m a very, very disciplined person. Every day, literally, I write for two hours. If you want to be a lyricist, you have to do this. Language is changing every day, and when you write, your language evolves.”

While all of this is impressive, it is only a sliver of Mosdell’s varied body of work — a career that has made him a renowned figure in this bustling Asian hub. To give an exhaustive rundown would take several pages; and anyway, someone else has already undertaken that task in the form of the documentary movie “Ink Music: In the Land of the Hundred-Tongued Lyricist.”

The full-length film features interviews with Mosdell, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tanikawa, Takahashi, Kanno, anime singer Maya Sakamoto, calligraphy artist Junichi Yoshikawa and others, and is set to debut at the South by Southwest movie festival in Austin, Texas, in March.

Mosdell will be working this year with Uwe Schmidt, better known as German electronica artist Senor Coconut, who in 2006 released a cover album of YMO songs that included lyrics by Mosdell. He is also working on his own version of “Hyakunin Isshu” (“100 People, One Poem Each”), a Heian Period (794-1185) anthology of 100 poems that are cut in half and matched up as part of a traditional game called karuta.

“I have written a Shibuya version,” he explains. “I chose 100 real people in Shibuya, 50 female and 50 male, and I wrote a very small poem as if they are writing them. So now I have 100 poems and they’re starting to be translated.

“And I’m working with Yuriko Takagi, this famous photographer — she used to work a lot with Issey Miyake — and she’s going to go and take 100 photographs of people in Shibuya. We’re going to make a box set, and in 1,000 years time people are going to be playing this game rather than the old one.”

And that’s not all. Last year he released a book of Spike Milligan-esque children’s poems, “In Search of the Holey Whale,” which he also illustrated; the book was written under the pen-name Mozz to keep it from getting confused with his grownup work.

“It’s kind of a relief from my serious endeavors, and it’s fun,” he says. “So I’m doing another one, and I’ve just about finished it. It’s called ‘Fork in the Road’, which is actually a real, huge fork.

“I’m also doing something called ‘The Radicals,’ ” he continues. “In kanji, there are 92 basic radicals, like moon, sun and water. So this is my life project. I’m choosing a radical, like woman or moon, and then I’m writing a big, long poem about it but I’m taking it all from history.

“I’m taking descriptions of women in Heian times, and somebody in Shibuya, and I’m mixing it all together. I’ve written about 20 or 30 of them now. The idea is that I’m going to do all 92, which will take me 10 years or more, and then it’s the history of Japan in a poetic, abstract form.”

Wild creativity in linear form: It’s an approach that enables Mosdell’s work to endure great scrutiny . . . which, no doubt, it will receive for many years to come.