Music

Pioneering singer-songwriter Sachiko Kanenobu finally gets her due

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

If she had to sum up the past couple of years, Sachiko Kanenobu would probably opt for a simple “OMG!”

“That’s what I’ve said so many times, repeating over and over and over: ‘Oh my God!'” she says, speaking by phone from her home in California’s Sonoma Valley. “Things are just coming to me and happening, and I’m just overwhelmed.”

It’s an understandable reaction. At 71, the singer-songwriter is finally enjoying the acclaim she should have received when her debut LP was released back in 1972. For years, “Misora” was the kind of album you heard about through word of mouth: A singer-songwriter record of translucent beauty, redolent of early Joni Mitchell and Sandy Denny, whose creator disappeared from view before it was even released.

Next month, the album gets its first-ever stateside release, with new liner notes and English translations by Kanenobu herself (her preferred rendering for the track “Misora” is “Look Up, The Sky is Beautiful”).

Last November, she returned to Tokyo to play “Misora” live in its entirety for the first time, and was joined by old pals including Haruomi Hosono, the record’s producer. She says she’d long been reluctant to revisit the songs and the Martin acoustic guitar she originally played them on.

“I was so afraid to touch that guitar, because I thought I didn’t remember any of the chords,” she says. But when she tried, she discovered she could still recall “every song: guitar chords, and also the lyrics. That was fantastic.”

Kanenobu grew up as the youngest of six siblings in a musical household in Osaka. Her eldest sister, Kaoru Yodo, was a star with the all-female Takarazuka Revue acting troupe, known for playing male roles.

“I always really respected her,” she says. “Later, she became like my second mother — because we were that far apart in age.”

In her late teens, Kanenobu started playing music with a high school friend, who suggested they head to Kansai University to meet the folkies who congregated there. She became such a frequent attendee at gigs organized by Masaaki Hata, founder of the indie label Underground Record Club, that he invited her to join their circle. URC released her first song, “Alice,” in 1969, and she followed the label to Tokyo when it relocated there.

But from the start, the folk tag never really fit. She mentions the Beatles, Donovan and Pentangle as early influences. The music she was writing fell into a “totally different category” than the anti-war and protest songs that were currently in vogue: “I was singing more about inner feelings.”

Being a female singer-songwriter at a time when the concept still barely existed in Japan also presented challenges. The liner notes for “Misora” describe a concert at which, as she takes the stage, a male voice in the audience shouts: “It’s a woman!” — something Kanenobu says happened frequently.

URC also repeatedly sidelined her in favor of newer male artists. She eventually got a break thanks to her friendship with the hit folk-rock group Happy End. Kanenobu first met the band when they shared a bill at an avant-garde theater performance in 1970, and ended up dating one of them, Eiichi Ohtaki.

“He was my boyfriend for years, but it couldn’t work out, because he was a creator and I was also a creator,” she says. The pair collaborated on a couple of songs, and Ohtaki was keen to produce her debut album, “but I had to say no, because he’d want to arrange everything in his style.”

Instead, she opted for another member of Happy End, Hosono — which might have seemed like a snub if Ohtaki hadn’t held his bandmate in such high esteem. Kanenobu recalls that Hosono took a lighter touch, letting her guitar playing come to the fore.

“He just picked a few songs to arrange, and let me play all the others acoustic,” she says. “He said, ‘(I will) more like arrange around your songs, not changing your songs.’ And that’s exactly what he did.”

“Misora” was recorded over seven days, with most of the songs captured in single takes. By that time, Kanenobu had begun seeing a visiting American writer, rock journalist Paul Williams. The album’s lyrics are full of allusions to their relationship, and also to her earlier romances with Ohtaki and singer-songwriter Kenji Endo.

“Always, if I love somebody, a song appears,” she says.

When she became pregnant, Williams proposed; by the time “Misora” was released, they had already departed for a new life in the U.S. Not the most obvious move for someone hoping to kick-start a solo career, but she insists she doesn’t harbor regrets.

“Actually, making the decision was pretty easy,” she says. “I wanted to keep this baby, and Paul said he wanted to be a father.”

Faced with the pressures of motherhood and adapting to life in a country whose language she could barely speak, she stopped making music altogether, only to be coaxed back into action by none other than Philip K. Dick. The sci-fi writer had become friends with Williams after being interviewed by him, and encouraged the couple to move to California.

On learning about Kanenobu’s earlier musical career, he asked to hear “Misora.”

“He listened really quietly for an hour, and he asked me, ‘Are you still writing songs?'” she recalls. “He said, ‘You shouldn’t stop. You should start writing again, and singing, because I love your voice and I love your music.'”

This wasn’t just idle praise. Dick bankrolled a single in 1981, and was keen for her to release a full-length album, though his untimely death the following year meant that the plan never came to fruition.

Later in the decade, after divorcing Williams, Kanenobu reinvented herself as the leader of an alternative rock band, Culture Shock, and went on to release several solo albums during the 1990s. In addition to going electric, she was singing mostly in English.

Yet after all this time, it’s her Japanese-language debut that has found the widest audience. One of the album’s fans, American singer-songwriter Steve Gunn, invited her to open for him on tour earlier this year, which led to a feature in The New York Times.

The downside of the renewed attention is that, with touring and promotional duties, it “is very difficult to write new songs.”

“And I have arthritis,” Kanenobu adds. “My finger joints are getting worse, and the doctor said I’m overusing them.”

I mention that Bob Dylan’s had similar troubles. “Oh, I didn’t know that,” she says. “My goodness! Well, we are Gemini, both of us. We are in some way connected.”

“Misora” will be released on July 12 by Light in the Attic Records. For more information, visit www.sachikokanenobu.com.