Sapphire Slows is getting more vocal, and not just in her music

by

Special To The Japan Times

When she first emerged on Tokyo’s bedroom producer scene in 2011, Sapphire Slows shot to prominence almost instantly, scoring a release on voguish Los Angeles label Not Not Fun mere months after starting out. A full-length album, “Allegoria,” followed on the same label in late 2013; and then, like the will-‘o-the-wisp vocals that haunted her early work, she seemed to drift off into the ether.

This year has seen the first significant new material from the producer, born Kinuko Hiramatsu, since “Allegoria.” First came “The Role of Purity” EP, released on Berlin-based imprint Nous Disques in March — a selection of hypnotic ambient instrumentals in which vocals take a back seat to crystalline synthesizers and delicate, chiming percussion.

On the mini-album “Time,” which comes out this week on London label Kaleidoscope, Hiramatsu showcases a different persona. Where once she employed her voice as a textural element in her music, here it takes a more central role, with clearly defined melodies and discernible lyrics. Compared to the murky sonics of her older material, the sound is bright and crisp, like a hazy image pulling into sharper focus.

“During that three-year period when I didn’t release anything — well, really ever since I made my debut — I’d been stressing out about my musical style,” she says. “I was getting pegged as a ‘female/bedroom/weird pop’ producer and singer. There are lots of female producers and singer-songwriters who I really like, so it’s not like I objected to the terms, but they create a real bias. It feels like you aren’t being judged on your own merits.”

This was an acute concern for a musician still finding her space in a male-dominated scene. When she first started making music as Sapphire Slows, Hiramatsu fell in with the Cuz Me Pain crew, a group of Tokyo-based electronic producers including Jesse Ruins and The Beauty. She recalls an incident when she was out drinking with some of the circle, and a few of them (she says it wasn’t any Cuz Me Pain artists, though it was people “I’d considered friends”) suddenly turned on her.

“They told me I was getting all this attention because I was young and female,” she says. “I’d made my debut (record) really quickly, rather than after producing music for a long time, so I think there was probably some jealousy involved.”

Hiramatsu’s initial success was certainly notable, though hardly enough to justify such carping. She secured a release on Not Not Fun in late 2011 after submitting her first demos to the imprint’s sister label, 100% Silk. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she wasn’t going to wait to “prove” herself in Japan before turning her attentions overseas.

“If you’re making music nowadays, there’s no reason to draw a line between Japan and the rest of the world — it’s about getting your music to people who’ll listen, wherever they are,” she says. “If that makes it necessary to take your activities overseas, then it’s only natural to do that. There’s nothing remarkable about it.”

In 2013, she arranged her own tour of North America to promote the release of “Allegoria,” enlisting help from American and Canadian artists she’d befriended while they were touring Japan. But then things went fairly quiet. While she continued to play occasional live and DJ sets, and participated in the 2015 Red Bull Music Academy in Paris, Hiramatsu didn’t release any new music until the end of last year, when early versions of two songs from “Time” appeared as a 7-inch on Tokyo’s Big Love Records.

She says the gap in her discography was due in part to changes in her personal life that she prefers not to discuss on the record, but it was also the result of a tug-of-war between her pop and underground leanings. Despite being viewed as an indie musician, she says her strongest support in Japan came from the underground techno community, including the Mnml Ssgs parties, the annual Rural festival and scene stalwarts like DJ Nobu.

“I was really torn between two different feelings,” she says. “Lots of the people around me were doing really experimental stuff, and I felt like I was the only one doing something completely different. I guess that made me uneasy.”

She describes how she spent a few years working on “Time,” worrying if she really wanted to release something so vocal-driven — or, as she puts it, so “pop.” Now that she has finally finished the record and found a label for it, the experience appears to have been genuinely cathartic.

“It was really liberating,” she says. “I’d made something good, but I also realized how ridiculous it was to worry about being ‘pop.’ I felt totally refreshed.”

She quickly set about creating the tracks heard on “The Role of Purity,” which ended up getting released ahead of “Time,” and earned some of her strongest reviews to date.

“I don’t need to choose a direction; I can make something that’s really pop, or I can make something really experimental,” she says. “Rather than settle on one fixed image, I can do both.”

She’s also becoming more confident in speaking out on the issues that concern her. In June, a magazine interview with the German techno DJ Konstantin rekindled debate about misogyny in the club scene. Hiramatsu weighed in with a stream of posts on Twitter, in which she took issue not so much with Konstantin’s sexist comments as with the people who try to downplay such attitudes, and insist that it’s “all about the music.”

“If someone says something discriminatory to me now, I’ll respond very clearly, but five years ago it probably would have been more difficult,” she says. “I’m gradually getting more recognition as an artist, so that gives my voice more weight.”

She says that numerous women approached her afterward to thank her for speaking out, but it also prompted many fruitful conversations with male DJs.

“It’s not my job as a musician,” she says, “but if we just put these issues to one side, nothing will change.”

“Time” will be released on Sept. 22. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/Sapphire-Slows-166948386703427/.