Music

Emamouse: Unmasking an experimental cult favorite

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

It’s surprising to see emamouse without their signature mask. The Tokyo artist never plays live or appears in photos on Twitter without the handmade felt headwear, which features green hair with a single blue fish. Yet here it is, in emamouse’s hands inside a Shinjuku Showa Era cafe.

“Early on, it felt dizzying to perform wearing this,” emamouse tells The Japan Times. But after making holes in the side for their hair to come out of, the artist says, “now it’s a lot less suffocating.”

Emamouse, who asks not to share their name due to work-related matters, among other reasons, says they feel 40 percent of themselves is female and doesn’t mind “she,” but that “they” as a pronoun feels better.

The mask represents a core philosophy of the emamouse project. “I can really be who I am. You can totally be the person that you have in your head,” they say.

This approach carries over to their music — off-kilter experimental electronic pop songs powered by synthesizer melodies and computer beats topped off by vocals coated in reverb and other effects. It’s bright and bubbly, but often feels just a little off. It sounds like a trip to an alternate pop reality, complete with artwork drawn by emamouse tightroping between kawaii and grotesque. An apt representation of the sounds within.

It has helped emamouse develop a cult following of fans who love to dig through the dozen-plus releases found on their Bandcamp page alone, not to mention all the albums put out on a constellation of labels. Their latest, “Eye Cavity,” came out last week on American label Primordial Void, and stands as one of the best front-to-back recordings emamouse has made to date. It’s proof of emamouse’s rising status in a new generation of Japanese experimental artists.

“I don’t think there’s anybody doing what she’s doing right now. It takes a tremendous amount of skill to be as prolific as she is and consistently write such thoughtful, boundary-pushing music,” Marcel Sletten, founder of Primordial Void, says. “Her approach to composing, painting, producing, and drawing is magnificent, and whenever she dabbles in any of the above the results are otherworldly.”

Emamouse grew up in Shizuoka, in a family that loved classical music and The Beatles in equal strides, to the point where their mother would play Chopin songs to them while in the womb. The internet wasn’t commonplace, so emamouse found other ways to entertain themselves. “There were no ways to actually make recordings when I was younger, but I was always composing music in my head. I wanted to write it down as notation, but I didn’t know how to do that. So I would write it down in katakana — like ‘do re mi.'”

They did give piano lessons a shot, but this stopped after a few years. “I quit because the teacher was really scary. The teacher would just say ‘finger’ at me, if I put my finger on the wrong keys. That was unpleasant,” they say with a laugh.

Eventually, emamouse took out a loan to get a personal computer and learned you could buy software to create music without instruments. This has remained emamouse’s mode of operation since, save for the occasional synthesizer or acoustic guitar strum. “The vocal and music (are) all done in my home. Sometimes, you can hear an additional noise on my vocals from the surroundings. I am always kind of trying to think of ways to get rid of those noises,” they say.

Their music draws from the classical and rock compositions of their youth, but also takes inspiration from video game music and anime songs, with the Japanese duo Under17 being an oft-cited reference point. One of the styles most tied to emamouse is denpa song, a sub-genre of Japanese music often featuring offbeat vocal delivery and clumsy melodies. It’s a fair reference — one emamouse uses as a tag online — but it’s not the only one, as their music also borrows from strains of contemporary experimental music from all over the globe, not to mention at times recalling Jun Togawa’s group Guernica when the vocals take the spotlight.

Their latest release came together thanks to a bicycle ride, a constant source of inspiration according to emamouse. “I had been cycling in the summer, and it was extremely hot. It was so hot, that it felt like it was suffocating, to the point where I felt like I could almost die,” they say. “This virtual experience of dying made me feel way more alive.”

It was also a chance to just embrace their own musical whimsy and solidified a feeling of not worrying about what anyone else thinks of their art, making it what emamouse describes as their most personal work to date. “Eye Cavity” features some of emamouse’s most unnerving jaunts, from the blown-bass of “Dod” to the woozy tempo changes and distortions of “Puppy.” Others, like “My Cavity,” see just how many shifts can be fit into one song.

“I like to make songs that are complicated and have lots of elements in them. And I like to keep changing the song within itself. What I like is to make chords that are complicated and difficult. And I love to just change the key of the song,” emamouse says.

“I believe the tracks on ‘Eye Cavity’ demonstrate how she’s matured as a songwriter and producer; the arrangements are unbelievably tight, the production is fantastic, and there’s simply a more refined sound overall,” Sletten says.

Emamouse’s goal with the set is to make an impact on the listener’s daily life. “When you are walking around and listening to ‘Eye Cavity,’ I think it should change in a subtle way the everyday reality. It can change in some way, to something surreal or different.”

It’s also a release cementing emamouse’s status as one of the key players in a new Japanese experimental movement, one including artists such as Foodman and Woopheadclrms who are similarly obsessed with the texture of sounds, and creators associated with the left-field-leaning K/A/T/O Massacre party at Tokyo’s Forestlimit venue.

“I can tell a lot of Japanese experimental artists are going out to overseas scenes, and trying to pick up and rise with one another. It’s like the whole community working together, rather than just solo people.”

But, ultimately, the only person emamouse really wants to please with their creations is themselves. “What sounds great to me is what I write, and this is a strong conviction I started to feel a year ago. I don’t think this is music a lot of people would sing along to, but that’s perfectly OK. I feel fine with that.”

For more information and to listen to emamouse, visit emamouse.bandcamp.com.