Inspiration that comes in dreams and rice balls


Special To The Japan Times

Ichiko Aoba takes her seat at an old-fashioned coffee house in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, and places a sketchpad and a plump pouch of rolling tobacco on the table. During the hour-long conversation that follows, the tobacco goes untouched, but the sketchpad gets a thorough workout. As she talks, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter reflexively scribbles drawings and kanji characters to elucidate what she’s saying, the way a university lecturer might.

“I have a lot of dreams,” she says, discussing the inspirations behind her distinctive songwriting. “I’ll often have out-of-body experiences.” My Japanese lessons never covered the term for “out-of-body,” so she draws me a diagram, sketching herself asleep in bed while another Ichiko Aoba roams around the room.

“I don’t read many books or watch many movies — I get most of my energy for creating stories from dreams,” she explains. “The dreams I have are like movies: They even have opening titles and credits at the end.”

There’s a fertile imagination at play here. Aoba’s experiences in slumberland feed directly into her lyrics, which provide the framework for her probing, frequently sprawling songs. Accompanying herself on classical guitar, she sings in the pure vocal tone of a 1970s folk balladeer, but her music is given to more wayward impulses, full of abrupt detours and flamenco-style flourishes.

When she released her 2010 debut, “Kamisori Otome” (“Razor Girl”), at the age of 19, Aoba had only been playing classical guitar for a couple of years. She first started practicing on an instrument that she’d pinched from her father’s collection. But playing rock covers in a high school music circle convinced her that the electric version wasn’t her thing.

She found an unlikely mentor in Anmi Yamada, an obscure Tokyo-based singer-songwriter whose fanbase could probably be counted in double digits. Aoba got to grips with her instrument by teaching herself Yamada’s dense, intricate songs, and he was happy to supervise her progress — though since she was still living in Kyoto, he had to do it remotely.

“I only had a phone at the time, so I’d call him late at night when my family were asleep,” she recalls. “I’d be like, ‘I’ve learned how to play this one,’ then I’d play something into the receiver and ask, ‘Was that right?’ We’d do it again and again: he’d say, ‘No, that part sounded a little off,’ and I’d be like, ‘Which part?’ ‘That part!’ ”

Yamada will be the special guest at the first of two concerts that Aoba is organizing later this month at Waseda Hoshien Scott Hall, a century-old church in western Tokyo. While she frequently returns to her mentor’s catalogue during her live sets — and covered two of his songs on her most recent solo album, 2013’s “0” — this will be the first time they’ve collaborated onstage.

“We kept getting offers to play a joint show, but we’d always turn them down,” she says. “We decided from the start that if we were going to play together, it had to be at an event we’d planned ourselves, in the most appropriate venue we could find.”

The concerts are the most high-profile gigs that Aoba has done in the capital since playing a solo show at Ebisu’s Liquidroom venue in 2014, as part of a marathon nationwide tour that encompassed all of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Back then she was still promoting “0,” her fourth album, and her first for a major label. She says her ambitions are more modest this time around: “It’s not like I have a new release or anything. I just want to do a show that’s like a little film, about how I’ve been living from day to day since the Liquidroom gig.”

The rhythms of Aoba’s daily life underwent a major shift in late 2013, when the composer Jun Miyake asked her to take part in a production of Go Aoki’s stage play “9 Days Queen.” Despite having no prior interest in theater, she has gone on to appear in a number of productions since then, including “Cocoon,” with Takahiro Fujita’s Mum & Gypsy company, and a recent revival of Shuji Terayama’s “Lemming.”

Her onstage activities have left her little time to work on a follow-up to “0,” though she says that she’s amassed plenty of fresh material; one of the recurrent themes, cheerily enough, is of “a world where God has died.”

“I thought that I’d have time to make an album on the side while I was doing plays, but I found that they took up all my energy, so I haven’t made much progress,” she says. “Then again, it’s not like you have to make one album every year. Up until now, I was always getting asked ‘What’s next? What’s next?’ Rather than release something in a rush, I’d prefer to live a normal life, and then when the songs are ready, I’ll pack them all together tightly, like making an onigiri (rice ball).”

It’s not such a bizarre metaphor. While Aoba’s dreamworld inspirations suggest an eagerness to get away from reality, she takes a keen interest in the quotidian too. When I ask what it was like to work with YMO’s Haruomi Hosono and Ryuichi Sakamoto, with whom she recorded an NHK-FM session that was later released as the “Radio” album in 2013, she doesn’t dwell too much on her collaborators’ illustrious pedigrees.

“I was more interested in finding out what this Hosono guy had eaten that day — what does he have in his belly that makes his voice sound that way?” she says. “There are lots of (great) artists, but I want to know about the little things that make them people — even if it’s just when they last went to the toilet. Somebody’s getting up and going to bed every day, and all these things are happening, and then they make this music. I’ve always been interested in the steps involved.”

I bet she could draw you a picture of it, too.

Ichiko Aoba plays at Waseda Hoshien Scott Hall in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo on Jan. 29 and 30 (Jan. 29: 6:30 p.m. start; Jan. 30: 4 p.m. start; both shows ¥3,800 in advance). For more information, including on other upcoming shows, visit

  • Shane Guidaboni

    Thanks for writing this. Aoba Ichiko is one of the best artists in Japan right now.