Nagasawa quiets down for ‘Seven’

by Daniel Robson

Staff Writer

Some musicians simply ooze self-confidence. They walk into the room like they own it, flashing a smile that instantly melts a thousand hearts. But Tomoyuki Nagasawa is not one of those musicians.

“I don’t think my voice is all that special,” says the 28-year-old Fukuoka singer-songwriter, wringing his hands. “There are plenty of singers with amazing voices, but I’m not one of them.”

Nagasawa is clearly nervous as he chats with The Japan Times — as nervous as he says he still gets on stage, nearly 10 years after signing with revered management company Office Augusta and its in-house record label. He’s friendly and genuine, but awkward. Sitting on a leather sofa, his body flops around like a marionette in the hands of a puppeteer drunk on vodka jelly. He gesticulates purposelessly, and sometimes slumps forward with his hands between his feet. He speaks quietly, disjointedly, and turns questions around to fire them back as if to better illustrate his feelings.

I ask why he doesn’t like his own voice.

“Do you like your own voice?” he replies. “When you hear a recording of your voice, it sounds different than how you hear it through your bones, and I don’t like it. I think that makes me conscious of the way I sing, even subconsciously. My voice has changed a lot since my debut, but in my head I’m just singing as usual.”

He’s a sensitive soul — that’s probably why he writes such touching music. With four acoustic-based songs that ache and pulsate, the bulk of his new mini-album, “Seven,” has a mellow, folksy vibe that recalls bitter-sweet Japanese 1970s band Happy End and tortured American singer-songwriter Elliott Smith; the remaining three blues-tinged indie-pop stompers sound closer to his last couple of releases.

Tying it all together is the rich, emotive and warm voice he protests he detests so much (and which attracts a mostly female audience, as the crowds at his concerts attest). He’s right, his singing sytle has changed a lot, even since 2011′s “Junklife.” It sounds more hushed than before.

“I love Happy End and Elliott Smith, though I’m no expert,” he explains. “I also like Yosui Inoue and Mamoru Tanabe, and I suppose I may have subconsciously been influenced by artists like those.

“But I don’t think about genres when I make music, or even when I listen to it. For example, people think of The Beatles as a band that wrote wonderful love songs, rather than songs of a particular genre. It’s all just music.”

The Beatles were the first band to really touch Nagasawa. He clearly recalls sitting wide-eyed in front of the TV, aged 8, as a countdown of “The 100 Most Nostalgic Songs Ever” proclaimed the Fab Four its No. 1. The Beatles are hardly an original influence to cite, but Nagasawa’s first encounter hit him hard.

“I was in shock,” he says. “I think it was ‘Please Please Me’ or ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ I was like, ‘What on Earth is this?!’ It felt like a new world opening before me. I wanted to join the band!

“I’ve been greatly influenced by them, especially their melodies and rhythm; the lyrics took longer for me to understand.”

But while The Beatles were Nagasawa’s most vivid influence, they weren’t his first: He cites religion as having a major impact on his music, too. Nagasawa was born into a Protestant family, and though he no longer considers himself religious, he admits that those roots remain.

“It’s not like I was a Protestant one minute and an agnostic the next; it was a gradual thing. There are still some traces. I think it’s something that lies dormant in my head, and unintentionally it creeps into my music.

“I hear that influence in other music too, especially Morrissey,” he says, clocking the Morrissey badge pinned to my bag, which is nestled by his feet and, since he’s flopped forward again, also his hands. “I can’t explain it, but it’s the sort of music that I couldn’t play to my mother, right? Like, I once wrote a song called ‘Genkaku’ (‘Illusion’) and it contained all these themes related to sex, drugs, things like that, but I felt bad to play that song when my mother came to see a concert.”

The hymns he grew up singing at home and in the choir do seem to be reflected in the gospel-styled harmonies and handclaps of “Saredo Mokuba” (“Trojan Nonetheless”), a soulful standout on “Seven.” But the best songs, such as “Shizukana Seikatsu” (“A Quiet Life”) and “Shiawase e no Kataomoi” (“Unrequited Love Leading to Happiness”), are tender acoustic affairs with deliciously underplayed rhythm and an atmosphere of quiet mystery.

Like most of Nagasawa’s releases — four more mini-albums and just one full album, plus a long-sold-out CD of his early demos — “Seven” is short, just 26½ minutes, which Nagasawa says is down to his own listening habits: He likes to change between CDs before he gets bored.

He is especially scornful of mainstream J-pop. Since this is Nagasawa’s first interview with any English-language media, I ask how he imagines non-Japanese people feel about Japanese music.

“I expect they feel sick,” he says. “It makes me feel sick, anyway. Do you ever turn on the TV? I don’t like it. I can’t say exactly why without digging myself into a hole, but basically, I don’t like most Japanese music; 90 percent of the mainstream music. I literally feel sick.”

Like AKB48?

“Exactly. They make me feel sick. But let’s not talk about that — I’d rather end on a happy note.

“I make music because it makes me happy. There are so many things in life that make you sick or make you want to die, so I’m grateful that I can express myself through music. Most people don’t get that opportunity. It’s important to do things that make you happy.”

“Seven” is in stores now. For more information, visit www.office-augusta.com/nagasawa.