The two sisters of Charan Po Rantan say they’re content in their own world. On latest album, “Futae no Rasen” (“Double Spiral”), the duo dwells on remaining inside this world — a place soundtracked by an accordion.
“I didn’t play with friends (growing up) and was always in the closet with my accordion,” 24-year-old Koharu Matsunaga tells The Japan Times. The instrument isn’t a popular choice with many children, but she says she fell in love with it when she heard it at a circus at age 7. At age 15, she used it to start a band.
“The reason I kept playing was because the accordion can stand on its own,” she says. “On one hand you play the accompaniment and on the other you play the melody.”
Koharu’s dedication was such that sister Momo, 20, couldn’t help but be affected: “We were living in the same room with one stereo, so even when I played something, Koharu would pull it out and I had to listen to her music. But I was never like, ‘Circus music? That’s so lame!’ ”
“Circus music” doesn’t do the sisters’ colorful sound justice. Charan Po Rantan plays a sound crafted from an amalgam of world music. “Circus music is mostly klezmer music,” says Koharu, adding that the traditional Jewish music is “the foundation for most of my songs.” She also admits to drawing inspiration from French chanson and traditional Russian styles.
The band’s sound isn’t the only thing that has a hodgepodge vibe though, the outfits the sisters wear seem to belong to a stateless, imaginary world — a place that flamboyant pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu might call home. Is the band worried that its appearance might be giving potential fans mixed signals? Momo, wearing a bright floral dress for this interview, doesn’t think so.
“Maybe people imagine us to be more pop-sounding, but the conflict isn’t intentional,” she says. Her sister (in matching attire) agrees, explaining that, “We want our shows to look like a picture book”, something they actually want to illustrate in the future. “When we combined the music we liked and the visual world we liked, this is what happened.”
In contrast to Charan Po Rantan’s animated style, the band’s lyrics can sometimes get pretty heavy: Heartbreak, divorce and death are a few of the themes explored on “Futae no Rasen.”
The band has caught the attention of some non-Japanese fans, but Koharu — who is the principal songwriter — insists that when performing in Japan it’s important to use Japanese.
“What I want to say won’t be communicated if it’s in another language,” she says. “I don’t want to have to explain what my songs mean. The lyrics that come naturally to me are often darker … then I make my sister sing them (laughs).”
Momo sings Koharu’s world with such panache, it’s surprising to hear she had no prior interest in singing and used to suffer stage fright.
“When we would see plays and musicals, I would come home and imitate the actors,” says Momo, whose stage persona is more like a performer in musical theater.
“She just got better and better,” Koharu adds. “I was listening to our first CD yesterday and you sucked (laughs).”
Despite the sisters’ claims of living in their own worlds, Charan Po Rantan is well traveled. The band has performed in Taiwan, England, Canada and the United States, which included some gigs at the South By Southwest music showcase in Austin. Koharu’s talent was even recognized by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd before she formed Charan Po Rantan: “Just for fun I posted a one-minute video (of her old band) on YouTube, and after it spread after being featured on a foreign Japanese-music website,” she says. “Some producer who organizes Pink Floyd’s concerts emailed me asking if we would perform at the Chelsea Festival in England with David Gilmour.” Not realizing who Gilmour or Pink Floyd was, Koharu says she thought it was some new band when she looked at some footage attached to the email. “I didn’t really hear or see what was going on (in the video), so I said, ‘Maybe next time.’ ”
Charan Po Rantan’s “Futae no Rasen” is available in stores now. The group plays Loft in Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, on June 21 (7 p.m. start; ¥3,300 in advance; 03-5272-0382); Yokohama Baysis in Yokohama on July 2 (7 p.m.; ¥3,500 in adv.; 03-5720-9999); and Kinema Club in Taito-ku, Tokyo, on July 7 (4 p.m.; ¥3,500; 03-5720-9999). For more information, visit www.charanporantan.net.