Sapphire Slows comes away from North American tour with new confidence

by Mike Sunda

Special To The Japan Times

No matter how busy you think you were last month, it would take a lot to top the exploits of Hiroshima-born, Tokyo-based musician Kinuko Hiramatsu.

Hiramatsu — better known by her Sapphire Slows alias, which has seen her release music on labels that include Los Angeles tastemakers 100% Silk and Not Not Fun — spent October (and the beginning of November) on a whirlwind tour that took her from Canada to Mexico via both coasts of North America. The most impressive thing about the tour was not how Hiramatsu coped with the jam-packed schedule, but rather the way she engineered it in the first place.

“Because I don’t have an agent, I did it all myself,” Hiramatsu says. “I just emailed all my friends and the people I knew, so it was completely different to the first time I went to America (for industry showcase South by Southwest). Once you have 70 percent of the tour sorted then you’re good to go, but at around 50 percent that’s not enough — lots of artists find that their tours fall through at that point, so I was on edge the whole time.”

The timing of the tour coincided with the release of Sapphire Slows’ debut album, “Allegoria,” on Not Not Fun. Its 10 tracks combine to form a collage that’s multitextural, but coherent throughout. There’s also a lo-fi, dreamlike aesthetic that points to the hallmark of a specific segment of Tokyo’s local underground scene, but the album’s topography extends further afield, with nods to Chicago house and European disco. All this is tied together by Hiramatsu’s vocals. There is something alluring about the way in which they can sound both intimate (through the use of reverb and hushed tones) but also cold and detached (the lyrics are deliberately indiscernible), often at the same time — a product of the recording process and Hiramatsu’s compositional style.

“I don’t sing like a traditional singer. I use the vocals as a source from which I sample — like an instrument. I’d like to sing properly as well but I record in my apartment. If I sang too loudly I’d be told off by my neighbors, so I end up whispering instead.”

Although the tour worked out in the end, simultaneously dealing with traveling and an album launch brought its own stress.

“I had some problems with the album, for example the jacket wasn’t done in time, so I had to wait for the release to be finalized and that dragged on till July and then August. You have to start planning a tour three months in advance so I started thinking, ‘Oh sh-t, I’m not going to make it in time for CMJ (Music Marathon, in New York),’ ” she says. “But I thought that as long as I went then someone would let me play a gig somewhere.”

Noise rockers Melt-Banana, who suggested to The Japan Times just last month that this sort of fearless attitude toward international gigging has been lost on young musicians these days, would no doubt be heartened by Hiramatsu’s progress. Her enterprise is only half the story, though, and it is when I ask her about the friends that helped her organize the tour that her eyes really light up.

“Daniel (Martin-McCormick, Brooklyn artist and labelmate Ital) helped me out with the New York show. Montreal was thanks to Shub (Roy) from Dirty Beaches, who came to Japan a little while ago. Toronto was with help from a band called The Deeep — who put out their first release on 100% Silk — they threw a party and even had a portable cooking stove full of lemongrass on the stage to scent the venue.”

She continues for a while, listing off names such as sometime collaborator Magic Touch, Baltimore’s Co La and popular music blogger Chris Cantalini from Gorilla vs. Bear as examples of people who helped her with various aspects of the tour, until I’m left feeling like I’ve just had the Indie Yellow Pages recited to me.

“I became friends with these artists because they would come to Japan to tour and we’d play shows together and hang out afterward,” she says. “Then we’d swap email addresses and keep in touch.”

It might sound like a strikingly obvious thing to do, but evidently it’s far from the norm among artists based here.

“I always think it’s a shame how Japanese bands — even though they play gigs with these artists who come on tour — never chat much or become friends with each other. Even though they’ll probably help you out if you want to play abroad in the future,” Hiramatsu says.

The support takes on new significance as Hiramatsu admits she had several doubts before heading overseas.

“I’d been under a lot of pressure and wondering how long I would be able to carry on with Sapphire Slows, but now I really feel like I can do anything. Even if it’s something completely different, or on a different label, or in a different country — it’s something I’m really looking forward to. With this tour I was able to broaden my horizons and left feeling like my music career had begun in earnest. I’ve got a long road ahead of me so I really feel like I can do anything at this point. It’s a really positive feeling.”

I ask if it might be worth recruiting a few more members for her live shows.

“Yeah, but it turns out that it’s just easier to do it by yourself,” she says. “You can go anywhere, and you don’t need to worry about other people’s schedules.”

Given that Hiramatsu has just traversed the length and breadth of the United States, and has Shanghai next up on her itinerary, I’m not about to argue with that.

“Allegoria” is in stores now. Sapphire Slows will play Shanghai’s 390 Bar on Nov. 22. For more information, visit https://soundcloud.com/sapphire-slows or https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sapphire-Slows/166948386703427.