Even as a child, Phew realized she was a bit different. “When I was at school, if the teacher told a joke and everyone else in the class laughed, I was always the one who couldn’t see what was funny,” she says. “I’ve always been like that.”
At 56, the singer and avant-garde artist is still as unconventional as ever. This month, she releases her first solo album of original material in two decades, and it’s a late contender for most alienated record of the year. Titled “A New World,” it’s full of creaking rhythms and uneasy synthesizer drones, bound together by Phew’s unmistakable vocals: dour, deep-toned and stripped of identifiable affect.
The album captures the latest transformation in a career that’s moved through punk, improv and experimental pop, and seen her work with figures including Ryuichi Sakamoto, Seiichi Yamamoto, Jim O’Rourke and fabled German producer Conny Plank. While her 2010 covers album, “Five Finger Discount,” featured a conventional band, in 2013 Phew began to play solo shows using synthesizers and archaic drum machines.
“It was getting really hard to perform with a band,” she says, noting that this also explains why Most, her punk group with Yamamoto and pals, only do a few gigs each year. “People my age are so busy — it was difficult to schedule practices, so I started thinking about whether I could do something on my own.”
When the yen hit an all-time high against the dollar after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, Phew went online and started snapping up some of the vintage music gear that she’d been coveting for years. Her current set-up includes Korg and Ace Tone drum machines that date back to the 1960s and ’70s, along with a couple of modern analog synthesizers.
“You could say I’m a bit of a geek,” she says. “I knew what type of drum machine Suicide had, or the one that Ultravox used on ‘My Sex.’”
Working with such temperamental equipment can present challenges when she plays live, mind you. When I mention her performance at a modular synthesiser festival organized in Tokyo last year by the live-streaming music venue Dommune, she laughs: “That was a total disaster … I’d borrowed a synthesizer that I was using for the first time, and I couldn’t get the kind of sound I wanted at all.”
“They’re hard to use — that’s what makes it interesting,” she says of her instruments. “It feels like you’re having fun together. Digital is boring in comparison.”
With its desolate atmosphere and raw electronics, “A New World” can’t help recalling Phew’s 1980 self-titled debut, a nine-track suite of stark torch songs and proto-electro that she recorded in Germany with Plank and members of the krautrock group Can. The album is now celebrated as a classic, and it’s tempting to imagine a parallel history in which it transformed her into a star. Instead, she consciously retreated from the limelight — and stayed there.
“I hated the ’80s, especially in Japan,” she says, describing the decade in terms of a prolonged existential crisis. “I didn’t even want to leave the house. Everyone was drunk on money — I couldn’t stand it.”
Phew had already harnessed that sense of estrangement to productive ends. As a junior high-school student, she discovered Sparks and Lou Reed at a time when her classmates were swooning over Led Zeppelin and Bad Company. In 1978, she formed the punk band Aunt Sally with guitarist Yasuko “Bikke” Mori, releasing an endearingly ramshackle album the following year.
When the group dissolved, Phew inked a deal with indie label Pass Records, which enlisted Ryuichi Sakamoto to produce her debut single, “Finale/Urahara.” On the A-side, she sang seemingly joyful lyrics — “Please come in, you’re welcome any time / I’ll dance here for a while” — in emotionless tones, over a stuttering waltz strafed by high-frequency noise. Even now, it sounds completely alien.
“Music was like a shelter for me, a place I could escape to,” she says. “I didn’t like the era I was living in, 1980, but I felt like music was the one safe haven I had. The sound world that Sakamoto created really captured that, too.”
“A New World” features an even bleaker answer song to that first single, titled “Finale 2015,” and Phew says she was conscious of the links between the album and her 1980 debut.
“When I started work on it, I was thinking again of music as a place that I could escape to,” she continues. “But as I went along, I realized that reality was intruding into this imaginary space that I’d created. It was pretty rough for me: I discovered that music wasn’t a refuge any more.”
She credits the contributions of sound designer Hiroyuki Nagashima, Deerhoof guitarist John Dietrich and multi-instrumentalist Yuriko Mukoujima for turning her insular sound world into something that was “suitable for public consumption.” Still, there’s no arguing that the album is her most idiosyncratic and personal work to date. (“It’s my world,” she says.)
I ask her about Bjork’s widely circulated interview with Pitchfork earlier this year, in which the Icelandic singer addressed how hard it was to be taken seriously as a female auteur when people were so quick to credit her male collaborators for ideas that were actually hers. When Phew worked with Sakamoto, Plank or Yamamoto, did the outside world assume that the guys were doing all the heavy lifting and that she was just singing?
“‘Just singing’ is a hell of a way of putting it,” she says. “I understand just what you’re saying, and that’s generally been my experience too. People still want to talk about Conny Plank, even if they haven’t listened to the music I’m making at the moment, but I can deal with that.”
“During a recording session, when you add the vocals, that’s when the song suddenly takes shape,” she continues, warming to the theme. “I don’t know about Bjork — I can’t really compare myself — but if it weren’t for her voice, it wouldn’t matter who was making the track. You wouldn’t have the song.”
“A New World” is out now on Felicity. For information on upcoming shows, visit 1fct.net.