Hang on a minute, how did this happen? Somehow hippie-loving 1960s-throwback pop songstress Superfly has got, like, totally heavy, man. While her previous studio album, 2009’s “Box Emotions,” featured a couple of belters, new release “Mind Travel” does away with soppy ballads almost completely, favoring instead a sound that takes as its starting point classic hard rock.

It’s still pop, of course — No. 1 mainstream artists rarely revolutionize their sound that much, at least not in Japan. But while the production is still silky smooth, “Mind Travel” just sounds cooler from every angle; more relaxed yet more powerful.

Wearing a casual summer dress and looking pretty chilled as we chat at her management company’s office in Tokyo’s Ebisu district, Shiho Ochi — aka Superfly, whose impressive lungs sound bigger than her tiny frame could possibly allow — explains some of the reasons why.

“Before starting to work on this album, I took a month off,” she recalls. “During that time, I relaxed as much as possible and totally mellowed out. After that, I entered the album production very slowly.

“This made me want to avoid getting a cold, digital sound on this album. Instead, I wanted it to have the very raw, elemental energy of light and wind and so on. So that’s what I had in mind when I made each of these songs.”

Ochi shares songwriting duties with onetime Superfly guitarist Koichi Tabo, who left the band as a performing member shortly after their 2007 debut, leaving Ochi ostensibly as a solo artist. Sometimes he writes a song and she the lyrics; other tunes come from her or from close collaboration between the pair. But this musical partnership is not the only cause for the renewed vigor of “Mind Travel.”

“I played a show last year with some guys who usually play rock music,” says Ochi, referring to The Lemon Bats, a one-night-only unit featuring Mo’some Tonebender guitarist Kazuhiro Momo and Losalios drummer Tetsuya Nakamura. “I found it really pleasing to sing in a voice that could work over such a hard sound. It feels good to just blast out the things you want to say at the top of your lungs!”

Momo resurfaces here on “Akumu to Rokkunroru” (“Nightmare and Rock ‘n’ Roll”), a decidedly old-school high-tempo tune on which Ochi and Momo together crash out a good-time rock ‘n’ roll chorus. And “Free Planet” — originally released on a single last September, when Ochi last spoke to The Japan Times — features Nakamura behind the kit; it was used on an ad campaign by Sony-Ericsson and is by far Superfly’s fastest-pace song to date.

Slower and lower is “Deep-sea Fish Orchestra,” on which a Led Zeppelin-style steady guitar groove is underpinned by a matching cello riff. The song’s solid drum track comes courtesy of Beat Crusaders sticksman Hirofumi “Mashita” Yamashita.

“Mashita-san loves hard-rock music, so he really gave it his all and drummed his guts out,” says Ochi.

Perhaps the album’s standout track is “Beep!!,” all razor-sharp guitar lines and tight rhythm, with an understated yet horrifically catchy chorus that forces Ochi’s massive voice right down your lugholes. At the top of those mighty lungs, she wails, “Dri-i-i-i-ive to the valley!”

When I interviewed Ochi for the JT last year, she confided that she felt her voice was a work in progress; as a young girl, she’d naturally had a strong upper register, but she said that the lower notes had taken a lot of work. She told me then that she wanted to keep improving, and there’s no doubt that she has. Her voice on “Mind Travel” sounds richer than before, more controlled, and totally assured.

“For this album, the vocals for each song took very little time to record,” explains Ochi. “Somehow I sang every song in just two or three takes; I just felt really comfortable. And during the songwriting process, I realized that the melodies and the characteristics of my voice were becoming more in sync than before.”

Big-budget Japanese pop recordings tend to have a certain indefinable aura about them, a sheen and artifice that somehow identifies them instantly as having been made in Japan. “Mind Travel” has that too, but at its heart it contains a slightly more worldly outlook. For one thing, the roots of Superfly’s music lie with the ’60s and ’70s rock and soul of America and Britain: Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and so on.

Indeed, Ochi says the new album’s title refers to her own trips abroad: She performed two Joplin covers with Big Brother and the Holding Company at a Stateside Woodstock-branded nostalgia-fest in 2009, and it seems that she’s taken some overseas holidays as well.

“I don’t speak any English,” she confides. “So when I go on holiday abroad on my own, rather than chatting with the locals, I look at the buildings and do some people-watching, and I drift off into thoughts of my countryside hometown (in Ehime Prefecture, northwest Shikoku) and the things that are important to me. While I was making this album, I felt I was getting hints from the things around me — nature, animals, films and so on — which influenced the songs I was writing.”

The album was pretty much in the can by early spring, with just one song left to record, when, on March 11, the Tohoku region was hit by the biggest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, followed by a devastating tsunami.

Her heart filling with a sorrow that rose in tandem with the death toll, Ochi chose to put her voice to good use, recording a heartrending a cappella version of bittersweet feel-good song “Sunshine Sunshine” at her home and uploading it to her blog for her fans on March 18 “as a song of support.”

Completely devoid of any studio production, it sounds bare and naked, a true glimpse of the “raw, elemental energy” that Ochi mentions having striven for in the studio.

This was followed four days later by “You & Me,” a brand-new song that was also cut at home (this time with a piano accompaniment) and released both to her blog and to a number of digital stores, to raise funds for the Japanese Red Cross Society. Again, you can clearly hear the sound of the room in which it was recorded, lending an intimacy that her numerous fans will have no doubt found to be of comfort.

Ochi hopes that getting her new CD on the shelves and hitting the road can help not only her career but also the ailing infrastructure of northeastern Japan, where whole towns were destroyed by March’s natural disaster, or rendered uninhabitable by the ensuing nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture.

“I learned from this earthquake just how widely Japan’s distribution system is spread,” she says. “For example, the factory that makes the type of paper we usually use for my CD booklets was in Tohoku, and we couldn’t use that paper anymore. It had never occurred to me that the factory would be anywhere other than Tokyo, or that the arteries of the music industry extend all over the country.

“So as well as doing things for charity, I want to focus on the things in front of me, like my tour and making sure that my CD gets distributed all around Japan. I think that’s one area where I can really help by simply moving forward.”

Superfly’s next single, announced this week and due for release on June 29, is “Ah.” On the album version of the song, Ochi sings only the word “ah,” intended to sound like a deep and expressive sigh. The single version features a full set of lyrics, written later, which Ochi says was a challenge in itself.

“The album version was totally complete as it was, so it was very difficult to find lyrics that could fit the song as comfortably as simply the word ‘ah.’ It took a long time,” she says.

“A sigh can mean so many different things. We recorded a 21-member choir singing in a church for that song; they were singing their ‘ah’ in a very happy, energetic way, so I explained to them that actually it’s supposed to be more like a sigh, and I asked them to sing with a heavier heart. It sounded totally different once they did that. It really drove home for me that when it’s sung with the right voice, even just one word can sound incredibly moving. You know?”

“Mind Travel” is out now. Superfly’s “Mind Traveler” tour begins June 25 in Toda, Saitama Prefecture, and runs through to October; for more information, visit www.superfly-web.com.

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