The way Ayuko Kurasaki, who creates music as Noah, describes her childhood home of Chitose in Hokkaido is so lovely that I’m surprised it isn’t being used in tourism ads.
“It’s a wide-open place. There were forests near my house and I would see foxes, squirrels and woodpeckers,” she says. “I used to draw or play piano in our backyard, under starlit skies with my pet dog.”
Kurasaki later moved to Iwakura in Aichi Prefecture, but the singer-songwriter conjures up these “idyllic” backdrops throughout her debut “Sivutie,” a sparse electronic album where her voice and piano drift like a winter’s wind through the songs. It’s the latest release from Tokyo’s Flau imprint, and Kurasaki’s work fits in just right among what my collegaue James Hadfield described as the label’s “world of hushed, understated beauty.”
Kurasaki says she started creating her own music when she was around 4 years old.
“I remember my mom asking whose song I was singing, and I got embarrassed and said ‘I forget.’ ” Kurasaki kept composing with her piano, but it was only fairly recently that she discovered a hidden talent for singing.
“I was seeking unique instruments, but realized I already had it … it was my voice,” she says. Kurasaki’s vocals range from whispers to falsetto flourishes, which are recorded in a way that makes it sounds like she’s sitting in a room down the hall from the listener.
“I think my voice is ‘unique,’ I mean it’s the one and only like it, like yours is,” she says. Her approach to singing is to just “follow the vibe of the song or follow my feelings.”
Kurasaki connected with Flau in 2011, after entering a contest where participants remixed a song from Japanese bedroom composer Cokiyu, and she won.
“I was a big fan of Cokiyu, and I was looking for a label to release my stuff, so you could call it good timing,” she says.
Her initial releases on Flau were collaborations. She first worked on a split EP with California producer Sela (real name Devante Tillis), after Flau owner Yasuhiko Fukuzono played her one of Tillis’ tracks. She sent a quickly made song (called “Dune”) to him as a kind of greeting. Tillis was impressed and they released a split record via Flau, one that introduced Kurasaki’s spacious style. Her subsequent partnership saw her entering new territory: hip-hop beatmaking.
“I heard her music through that split with Sela and was immediately drawn to her,” says Siddiq Smith, a Houston rapper who records as Siddiq. “I stumbled across her email, so I just emailed her one day with a few songs I had done and asked about the possibility of working on something and she said sure.”
The end result, an EP called “Two,” found Kurasaki’s nocturnal compositions backing up Smith’s laid-back flow, all of it recorded in a way so that it sounded like a found recording from the 1980s (it featured a lot of saxophone). Kurasaki says she learned a lot from the partnership, and the two still work together.
“We have a rare connection, everything she sends resonates with me and she makes it so easy to write songs and recite them,” Smith says.
“Sivutie,” however, is all Noah. “It’s basically a conceptual album. I imagined a murky little back alley somewhere in Northern Europe, and made this album from that worldview,” she says.
The title means “side road” in Finnish, and, intentionally or not, her debut channels the icy minimalism of Finnish artists like Lau Nau and Paavoharju. It’s a collection in tune with nature, featuring electronics mimicking whale sounds (“Unspoken”) and recorded bird sounds (“Pool Garden”).
“Sivutie” is also a varied mixture. It features a noisy drone number in “Tadzio,” and preceding that one is a piano piece titled “Interlude — Doll,” featuring the only instrument she’s been playing since she was a toddler. Whatever she chooses to use, “Sivutie” is the latest gem to emerge from Flau, but unlike other releases from them, it seems more tethered to the physical world.
“Some of my songs are about dreams, but it is something more realistic. They are not for escape, but hopefully they’re something to make your life better.”
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