Nariaki Obukuro bristles when I suggest he makes J-pop. He prefers his music being described as J-pop-adjacent.
Yet here we are sitting in a spacious room at Sony Music Japan’s office in Akasaka, and the singer-songwriter has worked extensively with J-pop queen, Hikaru Utada. Still, Obukuro can’t commit to the idea he makes J-pop. Why? “It’s awful,” he says with a laugh.
“A lot of J-pop just focuses on things that are outside of you, looking beyond the individual,” he says. “For me, (music is) way more about individuality. It’s more personal, and it comes from inside.”
In distancing himself from the norms of the genre, Obukuro, 27, has succeeded in creating the year’s first great J-pop album, “Bunriha no Natsu,” which came out last week. (The album also carries the German title, “Der Sezessionssommer,”which translates as “Secessionist Summer” in English.)
Pop stars — in Japan, sure, but everywhere else, too — usually write for a general audience, penning songs that are built around vague emotions that can connect with as many people as possible. “Bunriha no Natsu” goes the other way, wrestling with complex feelings that are peppered with hyperspecific details that give its songs more of a diary feel — Obukuro drinks green-tinted tequila in Shibuya on a rainy day (“E. Primavesi”), or tries to unravel personal turmoil on a trip to Guam (“Daydreaming in Guam”).
“When I first start making a song, (my process) is spurred on by a specific event or memory,” he says. “But as the process of creating that song goes on, more and more memories and feelings get tied into it. It comes to a point where I think, ‘Is it real?’ It all comes together.”
Growing up as more of an athlete than an artist, Obukuro decided to pursue singing professionally at 19. He worked briefly for Sony, but left fairly quickly due to boredom (“I would just sing tracks that someone else had written. It was all Japanese pop — ‘ai shiteiru‘ [‘I love you’] and stuff. It was sh—,” he told The Japan Times in 2014).
He formed the duo N.O.R.K as a college student with Ray Kunimoto, blending shadowy electronic sounds and string sections with elements of R&B — stylistic points that resurface on “Bunriha no Natsu.”
In 2015, he helped establish Tokyo Recordings, an independent label putting out leftfield pop albums from artists such as Capeson and Megumi Wata, while also taking on client work with major labels and artists. Obukuro’s sound — full of pitch-shifted vocals and fidgety beats — has crept toward the mainstream in recent years, thanks to his work with Wednesday Campanella and fledgling artist iri. During all of this, the songs on “Bunriha no Natsu” began to take form. He just needed a little time for a clearer vision to come through.
“Hikaru Utada’s director, Hidenobu Okita, is also my director. He called me when Utada was recording (her 2016 album) ‘Fantome,'” Obukuro recalls. He traveled to London to provide vocals on the J-pop star’s comeback album and landed a feature spot on the song “Tomodachi.”
“At first I thought … is she a ghost? She didn’t live in Japan, so I had no idea what to expect. Is she really there, is she a real person?” Obukuro says, rembering the run-up to his first meeting with the singer-songwriter. “There was nothing particularly special about our first meeting. She was just another musician in the studio.”
The two eventually developed a closer relationship (Utada showed off a Tokyo Recordings baseball cap on Instagram, for example), and the musical connection makes sense — “Fantome” is a J-pop outlier in much the same way “Bunriha no Natsu” is, with Utada working through the whirlwind of emotions caused by losing her own mother and becoming one herself. Both albums turn the intensely personal into pop.
Obukuro says he worked on “Fantome” for three days — and that it was pretty straightforward, as Utada handled the melody, chorus and timing of everything — but stayed in London to take in some museums. Obukuro is particularly passionate about history.
“I checked out all these artifacts that England basically stole,” he says with a laugh.
His interest in the past also extends to music, and shaped his own album.
“Over the past couple of years, I’ve just been listening to so much classical music, music from more than 100 years ago,” Obukuro says, specifically referencing Claude Debussy. “The instruments really speak to me. I’m drawn to the melodies.”
Strings appear on a lot of the tracks on “Bunriha no Natsu,” adding a refined feel to sparse tracks such as “Selfish” and busier ones like “Summer Reminds Me.” They wrap around more current flourishes — R&B-inspired beats and synthesizer washes — which makes it hard to pin the album to a specific time period, reminding us that, for all the fascination he has with early 20th-century sounds, Obukuro is just as plugged into the 21st. He cites Ryuichi Sakamoto, James Blake and Kendrick Lamar as recent favorites.
One modern artist who Obukuro speaks particularly highly of is Frank Ocean. While he says he didn’t model anything directly after the American artist — though “Goodboy” features a Southern California slink befitting of Ocean’s 2012 album “Channel Orange” — plenty of similarities exist. Like Obukuro, Ocean focuses on hyper-specific details over generalizations, and both of them boast beautiful singing voices capable of falsetto. Obukuro shows off his range numerous times on “Bunriha no Natsu,” including on early number “E. Primavesi.”
“That was the most difficult,” Obukuro says about “E. Primavesi,” which found him working with American drummer Chris Dave (who has worked with Utada, Adele and Justin Bieber, to name a few).
“Chris is such a distinctive drummer, I was worried that it would become a ‘Chris Dave song,'” he says. “Trying to find that balance, that was the big challenge.”
Looming even larger over the album is Utada herself, who served as its producer.
“I did everything from start to finish, but she took my songs from 100 percent to 120 percent,” Obukuro says. “She has about 20 years of experience making these Japanese songs. I learned a lot from her for this — how she takes out components, or adds things that change the sound in a certain way.”
Utada appears on the advance single “Lonely One,” delivering a standout verse that packs in emotional highs and lows in under 30 seconds.
Her involvement comes with complications. Before our interview begins, a representative from Sony asks that the whole interview not focus on Utada — as that’s what Japanese music media interviews have done up to this point. Following news that Utada and her then-husband were getting divorced earlier in April, some outlets speculated Obukuro and the pop star were an item, which led Obukuro to have to issue a statement denying the fact.
Despite the trappings of celebrity that creep around, Utada’s championing of Obukuro’s work has pushed him from J-pop’s crowded middle class to a higher level — and made Utada fanatics who only speak in Tyra Banks .gif files give his style of leftfield R&B a chance.
Obukuro is now focused on improving his live show. He will perform at this year’s Fuji Rock Festival (the chance to play the same event as Lamar has him pumped). From there, he’s not sure what’s next. But he knows that whatever it is won’t be anything remotely surface.
“The most natural way for me to express myself musically has been through song,” he says. “It doesn’t feel as natural with a piano and guitar, it doesn’t come as easily. Singing is how I express myself.”
For more information on Nariaki Obukuro, visit www.obukuro.com.
A summer playlist
With “Bunriha no Natsu,” Nariaki Obukuro separates himself from current J-pop. Here are other J-pop-adjacent albums to listen to this summer:
“Hatsukoi” by Hikaru Utada: The J-pop stalwart has always struck the right balance between mainstream-pleasing ballads and more leftfield fare, and based on the previews of her June 27 full-length, she’s still exploring just where Japanese pop can go.
“Juice” — iri: Part of the charm of iri’s sophomore album can be put down to the folks working behind the scenes. But it’s her voice, which moves from husky singing to laid-back rapping, that steals the show.
“N/S” — City Your City: It’s a year old now, but this long-player from duo City Your City isn’t far off from the alternative pop leanings of “Bunriha no Natsu,” and still sounds solid in 2018. The pair creates slowly unraveling R&B numbers backed by synthesizer whirls and a healthy dab of Auto-tune over their vocals.