Haruomi Hosono: ‘I never tried to be a pioneer’

A U.S. label takes another look at the solo work of Happy End and Yellow Magic Orchestra co-founder

by Paul Fisher

Contributing Writer

Haruomi Hosono is widely regarded as one of the most important figures of Japanese popular music over the past 50 years.

The grandson of the only Japanese passenger and survivor aboard the Titanic, he was born in Tokyo in 1947. From the end of the 1960s, Hosono was a pivotal figure in creating a folk scene based around the coffee shops of Shibuya. In 1970, he formed the band, Happy End, today considered among the country’s most influential groups ever, with their blend of folk, rock and psych, perhaps the first domestic artist to successfully integrate the Japanese language into an essentially Western rock music idiom.

By the mid-’70s, over a string of albums, he was combining the sounds of New Orleans, Hawaii, Okinawa, the Caribbean and more into music dubbed “tropical” and “exotica.”

In 1978, together with two other musicians on his later albums of this period, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi, Hosono formed the technopop trio Yellow Magic Orchestra. YMO, whose eponymous debut album came out 40 years ago this November, became Japan’s most popular band over several years and is still one of the country’s biggest musical exports, influencing electronic music acts around the world.

During the 1980s and much of the ’90s, he was at the forefront of the ambient electronic music scene. Since the millennium, he has consistently released albums that mix various styles and music from America, local Japanese roots music and elsewhere into something with a distinct, trademark Hosono sound.

Looking back: A recent photo of Haruomi Hosono who, just last year, released his 21st solo album,
Looking back: A recent photo of Haruomi Hosono who, just last year, released his 21st solo album, ‘Vu Ja De.’

He accomplished all this while penning hundreds of songs for Japanese pop stars, creating at least three record labels, not to mention being a prolific session musician, producer, mixer, arranger and being part of numerous other projects, broadly defined as belonging to the “Hosono family.”

Hosono now looks set to get at least some of the recognition he deserves as an individual artist outside of Japan. This month and next, some of his best solo works from the 1970s and ’80s will get their first overseas releases courtesy of the U.S. label Light in the Attic.

In June, Hosono and his band performed at the Barbican Centre in London, then again a couple of days later in Brighton.

I sat down with Hosono outside a pub just behind the venue in Brighton before the show.

He performed in the U.K. with YMO at the end of the 1970s, early ’80s, and then in 2008 as part of Meltdown at the London Royal Festival Hall. Despite previous invitations, these concerts were his first ever solo shows in Europe. So why now?

“I’ve never thought that much about playing concerts overseas, but when I heard Light in the Attic was releasing the records and I got invited to the show in London, I thought why not? Earlier this year, going to Taipei and Hong Kong and getting a great reaction from the audience, helped,” he says.

Light in the Attic founder Matt Sullivan explains how the U.K. dates and releases came about.

“Our focus as a label is archival work, trying to release things for the first time or things that haven’t had the right context, they need liner notes and giving a little extra love,” he says. “We’re deep into now what we call the Japan Archival Series and the first thing we did last year was a compilation called ‘Even a Tree Can Shed Tears,’ a compilation of Japanese folk and rock from the early 1970s.

“Then we’re in town because of a show at the Barbican in London celebrating the 16-year anniversary of Light in the Attic with a number of artists whose music we’ve reissued over the years including, of course, Haruomi Hosono.”

Sullivan says Light in the Attic will release five records to start with: “Hosono House” (1973), “Paraiso” and “Cochin Moon” (1978), “Philharmony” (1982) and “Omni Sight Seeing” (1989).

“They’re going to look really nice,” Sullivan says. “We’ve added liner notes with interviews, the lyrics translated into English and a number of old photos — incredible shots — so we’re really happy.

“For me, they’re masterpiece after masterpiece (from a) criminally overlooked artist. He really has an incredible body of work, but one that is extremely varied in terms of genres and styles. I don’t know a lot of artists whose work is that broad and also cutting edge the whole time. Even his new record is great. At 71 years old, he continues to push the envelope, which is beautiful to see.”

Hosono, who was also behind the soundtrack to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winning film “Shoplifters,” is often described as a pioneering influence on so many types of music. How does he himself view this?

Haruomi Hosono poses for a picture in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture, in 1973. That same year Hosono released his debut solo album
Haruomi Hosono poses for a picture in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture, in 1973. That same year Hosono released his debut solo album ‘Hosono House.’ | COURTESY OF MIKE NOGAMI/ VIA LIGHT IN THE ATTIC

“I don’t think I’m a pioneer,” he says. “I’ve never tried to be a pioneer, I just did what I wanted to do. But for these 40 or 50 years, as I’ve started doing all these different types of music, the world gradually caught up with what I was doing and I slowly built up a fan base. But all this time I’ve just being doing what I wanted to do. I haven’t had to answer to anyone or tried to be a pioneer or anything like that, just play my own music.”

One style of music that seems to have been a constant throughout his solo career, from those 1970s albums until the most recent, and very evident at the U.K. shows is boogie-woogie. This is music that was especially popular in Japan in the 1940s and ’50s, when singers such as Shizuko Kasagi were mixing Japanese folk styles with various Latin and other rhythms. Perhaps this was the catalyst for his own penchant for mixing up the styles?

“Yes. After the war, so much American music came to Japan,” Hosono recalls. “I think I started listening to boogie-woogie from the age of 4 or 5. It was constantly on the radio, and I must have been listening to boogie-woogie for the next 10 years.”

The artist says he was only somewhat surprised that an American record label was choosing to release his albums now.

“I feel there has been a slow resurgence in my music in different parts of the world,” he says, “but what I was most surprised about was Light in the Attic would be releasing so many albums.”

Back at the Barbican show, there was rapturous applause when Hosono’s fellow YMO members joined him on stage to play one of the band’s tunes. Rumors abound that this could be the beginning of a reunion, but Hosono is quick to dismiss them.

“That wasn’t a reunion, just pure coincidence that everyone was here at the same time,” he says. “It’s a bit of a mystery as to why it happened like that. Ryuichi happened to be doing his own shows in London and Yukihiro was doing his own thing here. There are no YMO plans, but if something like this happens again then I’d go along with it. There will be no new recordings though. YMO has finished, our solo careers are more important now.”

These new re-releases might just have sparked some future ideas, though.

“I’m thinking of re-recording ‘Hosono House’ when I get back to Tokyo,” he says. “I don’t have a clue though yet what it might sound like.”

And possibly more dates overseas?

“Yes, I think I could now be ready to play in, say, Los Angeles or New York or somewhere.”

Haruomi Hosono plays Rohm Kyoto Theatre on Nov. 22 before shows in Nagoya, Kobe and Tokyo. For more information, visit www.hosonoharuomi.jp. For more information on the Light in the Attic releases, visit www.lightintheattic.net.

Nice start: Haruomi Hosno (front) performs with his band, Happy End, at Shibuya Seibu May Carnival in 1970.
Nice start: Haruomi Hosno (front) performs with his band, Happy End, at Shibuya Seibu May Carnival in 1970. | COURTESY OF MIKE NOGAMI/ VIA LIGHT IN THE ATTIC