“The wonderful thing about being solo is that you can do whatever you like, without asking anyone’s opinion — that’s fun. But as a band there’s camaraderie and you share a common goal. I never get fed up because I can do both.”
So says Tomoko Kawase — and she should know. Rising to fame in the mid 1990s as singer with The Brilliant Green, Kawase also enjoys a thoroughly schizophrenic solo career as disco queen Tommy February6 and rock chick Tommy Heavenly6, both of whom found massive success in the noughties. So much success, in fact, that The Brilliant Green were sidelined into an unintentional hiatus from which they are only now properly returning.
“February and Heavenly were about the bright side and the dark side; the sweet dream and the nightmare,” explains Kawase. “The concept is like a dream world. But it’s not like I’m being totally ‘normal’ when I’m in The Brilliant Green either — it’s a world unto itself.”
The Brilliant Green released their fourth LP, “The Winter Album,” in 2002. Their next one, due before the close of 2010, will be their fifth. The band and solo projects were until recently all signed to Sony, and while The Brilliant Green released some singles to coincide with their 10th anniversary at Sony’s behest, the label preferred to channel Kawase’s talents into her more profitable solo releases. “I’d get offered to write a song (as a solo artist) for a commercial and the label would ask me to do that instead,” says Kawase.
The band formed in Kyoto in 1995 after Kawase responded to an ad distributed by bassist Shunsaku Okuda and guitarist Ryo Matsui, who were looking for two female musicians to complete their band. At that time, Kawase was singing at informal live shows with friends of hers who attended music college; she had no desire to make music her bread and butter, but Okuda and Matsui urged her to sing some of the songs she’d written in the newly formed unit.
The trio quickly put together a demo tape featuring original songs and covers of songs by guitar-pop acts such as The Cardigans. This tape set the blueprint for not only the band’s style but also their love for studio work, and it was to change the direction of their lives completely.
A friend of Kawase’s heard the tape and invited The Brilliant Green to play at a bar where he organized gigs. The members thought they could have some fun and make a few yen; in fact, they were spotted by a friend of a Sony A&R scout, resulting in a major-label record deal when the scout came to their next show. With only four original songs to their name, the trio entered a two-year songwriting period, moving reluctantly to Tokyo shortly before their 1997 debut.
Citing their influences as classic British rock bands such as The Beatles and The Kinks, as well as shoegaze acts including Ride and The Boo Radleys, The Brilliant Green became a major part of the ’90s guitar-based J-pop sound. Sung in English, their first two singles (“Bye Bye Mr Mug” and “Goodbye And Good Luck”) each stalled at around No. 70 on the charts, but their fortunes improved when they switched to Japanese-language cuts, resulting in a string of No. 1 singles.Containing a mixture of both languages, all four of their albums went Top 10.
Their Sony deal obliged them to release a fifth record within a period of around 10 years, but with so much of her time absorbed by Kawase’s twin solo personae, which began to take off in 2001 (and for which Okuda sometimes wrote songs), the band found themselves lacking the material to deliver the goods. Despite a comeback in 2007 and 2008 with three singles, an album did not follow.
“We didn’t have anything ready, and we didn’t want to rush out any old rubbish,” says Kawase. “But I had a lot of demos already for a Tommy Heavenly6 album, so we agreed to release that instead.”
The band parted ways with Sony in 2009 and quickly signed with Warner Music Japan. The single “Like Yesterday” followed in February this year. Kawase and Okuda thought they finally had an opportunity to give their band the attention they’d intended, but things were not to run so smoothly. After the release of “Like Yesterday,” Matsui departed the band, a subject that is still a sore point with the remaining duo.
“I thought I could focus more on the band and we’d be a tighter unit,” says Kawase. “And then the other guy quit. That was a real surprise. I was ready to give up on the solo stuff altogether and throw everything into The Brilliant Green, but he just walked out. So we’ve had to find a new way to do things.”
Their latest single, “Blue Daisy” is awash with emotional chord changes and dramatic flair, as Kawase sings of searching for “small pieces of happiness.” Okuda recorded all the instruments himself in his home studio, setting up the mixing console within arm’s reach of the drum kit, pressing “record,” performing a take, making any edits and then moving on to the next instrument.
“It was fun, but really hard work!” laughs Okuda, who sits quietly as Kawase does most of the talking. “It’s not normal for one person to do all of that on his own. Also, I’d like to have the recordings sound a little rough on this album, so it sounds like we’re playing live in a very small venue. But it’s quite hard to get that natural sound if I record all the parts one by one, so that’s something we’re wrestling with right now.”
Kawase and Okuda are reluctant to pin down a date for the new album.
“The album is zero percent complete!” exclaims Okuda. “But I’m sure it’ll be OK. I wrote a song this morning actually; a really good, dark song.”
“I think a lot of other artists in Japan are very fast songwriters,” says Kawase. “We can’t even contemplate working at such a speed, especially at the expense of quality. Also, we record in analog and we’re very particular about the sound. We don’t want to record in front of a computer screen, even if it’s faster, and there is no piece of the process that we feel comfortable delegating to someone else.”
While Tommy February6 and Tommy Heavenly6 are far from dead, Kawase and Okuda are making The Brilliant Green the priority they’ve long felt it deserves to be. They may have unwittingly become a duo, but they intend to carry on making music the way they always have — at their own pace.
“We’re total otaku (obsessives),” laughs Okuda. “We started out not playing live shows but recording that first demo tape, which we only made so that we could listen to it ourselves. Everything we do now is an extension of that time.”
“Blue Daisy” is out now