Music

Kate Sikora carves out a space in Tokyo’s indie scene

by Ian Martin

Contributing Writer

Kate Sikora is an odd sort of import.

Brought up in New Jersey, cutting her musical teeth as a student on New York’s live circuit and self-releasing her first album there in 2005, most of her musical career has nonetheless been carved out among the indie nightspots of Tokyo — to the extent that she now seems exotic on what used to be her home turf.

“When I go back to New Jersey and New York, I’d say people are interested in the fact that I’m based in Tokyo,” she notes, adding, “I am trying to have more of an international appeal these days.”

Her latest release, “The Days We Hold On To,” is a quietly beautiful album of deceptively sweet, folk-tinged indie rock. Sikora has drawn comparisons to singers like Liz Phair and Kristin Hersh — her music more understated than the former but less of an open wound than the latter — but despite these American indie roots, she is now deeply embedded in the local music scene.

“I was fortunate enough to find myself amongst an incredible group of Tokyo bands and musicians almost from the get-go,” Sikora says, listing off acts such as Shugo Tokumaru, Muffin, 4 Bonjour’s Parties and Henrytennis.

Sikora has always drawn her own band members from the pool of musicians around her in Tokyo. The current lineup of drummer Reiko, bassist Naruke and keyboard player Minmin are all active in other projects, and it’s these musicians who have helped keep her anchored in the live music scene.

“I really think it’s my band who has helped deepen my involvement in performing and recording,” she says, “while the actual songwriting is so ingrained in me that I’d be doing it no matter where I ended up.”

Growing older has brought more responsibilities, including a husband and child, meaning that songwriting is now an activity she has had to actively carve out rather than letting herself drift along with her muse, and perhaps, as a result, the album took shape in pieces over a long period of time. Producer David Naughton helps add a subtle shimmer of 1960s Phil Spector around the edges of opening track “The Hundreds,” which bursts off the starting line with superficially upbeat energy. However, there’s a melancholy gravity to “The Days We Hold On To,” with the songs regularly returning to the sense of a past slipping away and the need to focus on the things that are important.

The song “Asphalt Ghost” was born out of a trip to her old school in New Jersey and learning of plans to renovate it.

“The thought of it brought back so many memories and I was reflecting on them as I wrote the song,” Sikora recalls. “Although the lyrics and mood are a bit sad, I also feel there is a hopefulness in this song. I felt like destroying the building was erasing a part of my childhood.”

A more oblique take on this theme is “Cloud,” inspired by an incident in 2013 when a huge dust storm enveloped Tokyo in what looked like a soft-focus apocalypse — an image echoed in the album artwork.

“I had a dream that I was standing on a mountain with my husband, watching the world end, and we were drinking a beer,” Sikora explains. “We were just taking it in and calmly thinking about how beautiful and ephemeral it all was. The cover of the album is an illustration of that dream with images from the songs drawn into the city below.”

The album is also the first time Sikora has sung in Japanese on one of her records, in the song “Under the Snow.”

“One day,” she says, “it snowed pretty heavily and, as I was walking around in the snow, I pictured what it would be like to bury all my problems under it. The words ‘shizuka de shiroi‘ (‘quietly white’) came to me like a mantra and the rest of the song followed pretty quickly.”

Sikora draws a comparison with the way that non-native English speakers phrase things and how that can sometimes embody a strangely poetic quality, and notes how her own limitations with the language influenced the pattern of the song.

“Since I don’t have as much vocabulary in Japanese, I felt that the lyrics really commanded the shape of the song,” she says of the process. “When I write in English, I often rewrite or change words around if they don’t fit with the melody.”

The qualities of the Japanese language itself also played a role, with Sikora noting, “It didn’t occur to me until I tried it for myself, but Japanese is a very rhythmic language.”

As time has gone by, Sikora’s songs have increasingly found their way out into the world in ways that still trip her up, such as the time she heard her song in McDonald’s and her startled jump set off a chain reaction of nervous responses between her and the cashier.

“It seems to be happening more and more, which is really exciting,” she adds. “I also wonder why it’s happening now instead of 10 years ago, but beggars can’t be choosers!”

“The Days We Hold On To” is on sale from Nov. 2. Kate Sikora plays 7th Floor in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 4 (noon start; ¥2,000 in advance; 03-3462-4466). For more information, visit www.katesikora.com.