Video-chatting with Los Angeles resident Shinya Mizoguchi toward the tail end of a particularly testing Tokyo winter, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of jealousy. I deliberately avoid defaulting to my typically British weather-related opening gambit of small talk, but it’s not long before the topic is inevitably breached. “What’s the best thing about living in LA? Besides music? The weather, for sure,” Mizoguchi says with a grin. I smile back, hoping he won’t notice as I reach for another layer of Heattech to wrap around me.
Of course, it was always going to come up. Mizoguchi’s music, which he produces under the alias starRo, is tailor-made for the beach. Sun-kissed synth melodies bounce off playful, jazzy percussion, often with a generous helping of soulful R&B vocals — either sampled from 1990s genre classics from the likes of Aaliyah and Brandy, or original interpretations by collaborators including up-and-coming singer-songwriter Iman Europe.
“I thought you have to live in a tough environment to be artistic, but now I kind of doubt that,” Mizoguchi says. In fact, his experiences would suggest that just the opposite is true. Before relocating to LA seven years ago, Mizoguchi was a typical Tokyo salaryman, struggling to balance his work life with hobbies such as music.
“The work ethic in Japan is crazy, and at one point I was so busy I just didn’t have a life, I was really depressed,” he says. “I still work 9-to-5 here, but back in Japan it was actually 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. I’d always take a taxi back home.”
After having the fortune of finding a company that would sponsor his work visa Mizoguchi moved abroad, but even then, it wasn’t all plain sailing.
“I literally stopped making music for many years actually. The first three or four years were really about settling down and just trying to make a living,” he recalls. In the end, it was stumbling upon influential hip-hop and electronic night Low End Theory — considered key to the development of LA’s ‘beats’ scene — that coaxed Mizoguchi back into his musical pursuits.
“As a producer rather than a DJ, we never really had the opportunity in Japan, or even anywhere in the world to play our music out to people. I think Low End Theory is one of the parties that introduced the idea of the showcase for producers, so that kind of brought me back to the music scene — the thought that I could also do something like this, rather than just making music in my bedroom,” he explains.
Indeed, Mizoguchi’s musical background is rooted in live instrumentation — from jazz piano to guitar and percussion, and at one point he was even in a band together with R&B singer Shiina Junpei, the older brother of Shiina Ringo. Although Mizoguchi is keen to stress that he was never heavily involved in the Tokyo music scene, he numbers several notable names among his friends and associates, including prog-rockers toe and rapper Wise, from Teriyaki Boyz.
After Low End Theory, Mizoguchi’s next major breakthrough was his involvement with Soulection — a record label, radio show and musical collective of like-minded, R&B-loving producers and DJs. Two of the members, Esta and The Whooligan, will be touring together with starRo. Soulection provided the perfect platform for Mizoguchi’s style of music, but it is his individual efforts in promoting his music that stand out as a lesson for aspiring producers.
Look at starRo’s page on audio distribution platform Soundcloud, and you’ll see each of his tracks have tens of thousands of plays. Some even number in the hundreds of thousands.
“A year ago I had actually only just celebrated 1,000 followers,” he says. “So before that I was enjoying even just a couple of hundred people following me. After reaching 1,000 followers, the number just grew exponentially, and then I was getting more interested in working actively with social media, like posting a track every week, or making tracks available for free download and engaging with fans on Facebook and all that.”
At a time when social-media prowess is almost taken for granted, the efforts might not sound particularly ground-breaking, but Mizoguchi believes that many Japanese producers are missing out on even these basic promotional activities.
“Especially out here, a lot of people ask me why I don’t know many Japanese producers, and that’s a good point, because I feel like people in Japan are not leveraging or taking advantage of the Internet,” he says. “To me it’s really a no-brainer. All you have to do is upload a track, write a very simple description and that’s it. It’s more that people are just scared of putting out music on a more English-based platform. Hopefully people start getting used to it, and let people around the world know that there’s a lot of great music (in Japan).”
However, Mizoguchi also acknowledges that this is a perspective he only developed after moving away from the country.
“I consider starRo a creation of LA,” he says. “I really only began to build my music career, fan base and everything after I started living here, so to me it’s more natural to reach out to those people, but again that’s because I live in LA.”
It might not be viable for all aspiring producers to make a similar move, but between the career potential and all the other benefits, it’s certainly an attractive proposition.
“I think because of the Internet you can get inspiration from so many things, without actually having to live in a big city like New York, London or Tokyo,” Mizoguchi says. “The place I live in now is really laid-back, close to the beach. After a gig, the next morning I can go to the beach and relax. I think it’s the best lifestyle!”
starRo plays with Yukibeb at Ucess the Lounge in Tokyo on April 3 (10 p.m. start; ¥2,000; 03-6807-1588). He plays with Esta and The Whooligan at Kata Gallery, The Liquid Loft in Tokyo on April 4 (10 p.m. start; ¥3,000 in advance); and Club Circus in Osaka on April 5 (10 p.m. start; ¥2,500 in advance; 06-6241-3822). For more information, visit www.soulection.com.