Despite his elusive online persona, Kazuto Okawa, aka LLLL (pronounced “four-el”), is strikingly open and honest about his views in person. Speaking in a small Koenji cafe, he discusses his sophomore album, “Faithful,” released this week via Tokyo label Progressive Form, with a critical approach that many artists would nervously avoid.
His first album, “Paradice,” released on the California-based imprint Zoom Lens, included collaborative efforts with a sole vocalist. “Faithful,” in contrast, takes on a different form, engaging with a variety of both English- and Japanese-speaking female singers. Furrowing his brow and taking long pauses, Okawa reflects on his choice of collaborators. “I just can’t associate my feelings with male vocalists,” he states.
Dream-pop producer Asa Taura, Montreal based singer-songwriter Meghan Riley and Shinobu from Her Ghost Friend are among many prolific artists to feature on “Faithful.” Its dark drumming underlines an implosion of nostalgia, heightened by the sorrowful and ethereal sounds of whispery vocals.
Describing his work as highly personal, Okawa explains the sense of floating forlornness in his album.
“As a mostly heterosexual male who suffered from a long history of severe depression, in my past personal relationships I have seen a lot of sadness reflected in my ex-lovers,” he says. “It’s a sort of guilt I carry for the rest of my life.”
Unapologetic about his emotions, Okawa believes his views are inherent to his identity. When elaborating on why he deeply connects with female voices and images, he appreciates that the implications of feminine appropriation can be problematic.
A topical issue in electronic music recently, U.K. label PC Music is one of several to have been criticized for its use of female avatars (digital and human). One male producer on its roster, Sophie, controversially had a trans woman stand in for him at a live-streamed performance last year. Despite the label’s hyper-consumerist aesthetic pointing towards satire, critics have argued that it nonetheless amounts to the commodification of the female body.
Okawa explains that his own use of female imagery is mostly intuitive. The covers of “Faithful” and the “Paradice” remix package both depict a Japanese female, reclining; in the latter instance, nude. In an inquisitive tone, he states, “I’m still trying to figure out why I’m attracted to the pictures that I use.”
Okawa does indeed view the archetype of an “anonymous” male producer who draws on female imagery as perpetuating a problematic system. He even deems himself irresponsible at times. “To me, I think the women that I see in the pictures are both reflections of myself and also loved ones. The melancholic expression in the pictures is about my ex-lovers and also about whatever my depression chose to poke that day,” he says.
However, he feels that in order to address issues often evaded by producers, all opinions should be voiced and not quietly internalized. He believes that something cannot be fixed if nobody knows what exactly is wrong.
He notes that he often visits the online forum 2channel for its spectrum of perspectives across all sorts of topics. He claims that in Japan, compared to regions such as North America and Europe, music lacks significant open criticism because music media and journalism mostly serve the role of advertisement.
“When the two mix, honest heartfelt opinions get lost,” he says. “Despite the hateful and terrible comments I find on 2channel, I appreciate being able to grasp raw opinions in Japan.”
Indeed, the main reason Okawa became part of the Zoom Lens community, he believes, is their support and courage to speak up when dealing with difficult issues that underground music culture often shrouds. Okawa also puts the bilingual lyrics in “Faithful” down to a broader revelatory experience he had when he joined the label.
“(Label co-founder) Meishi Smile and others in Zoom Lens are influenced by pop music from Japan and many other international cultures. That sort of open-mindedness gave me confidence in the direction of how I listen to and create my own music,” he says.
There are still other issues that need greater inspection according to Okawa, even within Zoom Lens and the larger music community — particularly when discussing the perception of women’s roles in the music industry. Okawa believes an honest approach may seem uncomfortable but is completely necessary. “Faithful” — with its holistic, candid expression of emotional content — is a welcome step in that direction.
“Faithful” is in stores now.