They are playing like schoolgirls, bouncing a balloon-shaped teddy-bear off each other and gaily dancing about in front of the Kiddy Ferris Wheel (admission 100 yen) for the lone press camera.
If Japanese folk duo Nika Soup and Saya Source look giddily excited, it is because they are about to perform at the launch party of their debut album, “Ipiya.” Over 19 songs, these two seemingly ordinary young women sing sinister nursery rhymes and shamanistic hymns to a minimal backdrop of playfully strummed acoustic guitars, organ, recorder, simple drum machine beats and a taiko drum.
” ‘Ipiya’ is a word we made up,” says Nika about the idea behind the album. “We concocted a story about a tribe of people, ‘Ipiya-zoku’ and what it would be like if the Ipiya people went to the mountains, and had their own festival. So we made an album as a soundtrack to that.”
Somehow, the concept wasn’t too kooky for the notoriously straight Japanese music channel Space Shower TV, which showed the video for single “Green Leaves,” surely the only wordless avant-folk ballad the channel has played at 9:30 in the morning.
Nika comments that “I guess people will be surprised to hear a song and see a video without words, but that’s what we do, it’s more natural. Without lyrics, we can let our imaginations run wild.”
Though “Ipiya” is their first album together, the two singer-songwriters are hardly recording novices. Nika has recorded five albums under her real name Kazumi Nikaido, the most recent of which documented a live tour across the United States. Saya sings in lo-fi pop band Tenniscoats, and has run the record label, Majikick Records, for the last decade. She has also collaborated with Japanese psychedelic folk band, Maher Shalal Hash Baz, with whom Nika Soup and Saya Source share the same freewheeling spirit and DIY trial-and-error recording ethic.
Besides their independently hectic schedules, with Nika living in Hiroshima and Saya in Tokyo, it is surprising they found time to make the album at all. Nika explains that it was possible as the album’s 19 tracks evolved organically and effortlessly, with half recorded during improvisations in the studio. Such an approach is a result, no doubt, of a kinship that goes back several years.
“We first met in Tokyo a few years ago,” Nika says, sitting next to Saya in an office at Hanayashiki, Japan’s oldest children’s entertainment park and their unusual choice of venue for the album launch. “Saya ended up moving into my apartment when I moved to Hiroshima, and sometimes I would travel to Tokyo to meet up with Saya and she would come down to Hiroshima to visit me.”
Recorded at both Saya and Nika’s homes, as well as in their gardens and in the Hiroshima mountains over a six-month period, the sessions for “Ipiya” started in an unorthodox fashion: “When we first started making the album, we communicated with each other just by humming,” says Nika.
Saya concedes that on a first listen the album might sound strange, before adding, “It’s just the way we made the songs. One of the good things is that we’ve made this primitive-sounding album, but if people know how it’s been recorded, they won’t think we’re strange. Our album is like a child painting a picture.”
Take “Kitchen takes II,” an edited version of a session when the tape recorder was left running for an hour in the kitchen — the “song” sounds like it could fall apart at any moment.
Sometimes the duo would venture into the countryside to record the rustle of dead leaves or snatches of their everyday conversation. The added textures complement the most extraordinary thing about “Ipiya” — the vocal interplay between the two. Nika has said that when she performs abroad her voice often gets compared to Bjork. Certainly, her somersaulting vocals regularly leap from sympathetic whisper or improvised scatting to skyscraping coo. Saya’s voice is more contained but no less affecting for its resigned melancholy. Without lyrics on many of the songs, it is left to the sounds of the voices to convey meaning through unorthodox phrasing and ghostly quivering.
Nika and Saya’s off-kilter folk, improvisational spirit and feckless romanticism would seem to ally them to the likes of “freak-folk” artists Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Coco Rosie — musicians who sound little like each other but have nonetheless been lumped together. And while neither Nika nor Saya comment on musical influences or the music they are currently listening to, Saya does say, “There’s a wave of that kind of music [folk] in America now, and although I feel we’re different from that, it strikes a chord with me, and it makes me want to try that bit harder.”
With no immediate plans for further shows in Japan, the only chance to catch Nika Soup and Saya Source strike that chord in person will be at Hanayashiki this week. But before that, the duo have got to locate 100 yen — the Kiddy Ferris Wheel beckons.