Music

Kitri: Sisters are doin' it for themselves

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Monami Kida can’t remember the last time she had an argument with Hinano, her younger sister and partner in the classical-meets-pop project Kitri.

“It might have been a disagreement regarding the order of the songs we would play live,” Monami, better known as Mona, says. “We have always been so close. When we were young, we would always play with dolls together, talk about everything together. Just always hanging out.”

Hinano, or Hina, notes that’s still true, to the point they share a room in their base of Kyoto.

Bandmates need to have good communication with each other to avoid making mistakes while performing. It’s even more important when they use one instrument simultaneously. Kitri’s signature move is piano four hands, which has a pair of people playing the same set of ivories simultaneously. It is an approach the two have dabbled in since childhood, and years of closeness have allowed them to make it the backbone of their sound.

Kitri revolves around Mona, 26, and Hina, 22, creating songs that walk the tightrope between classical and pop, using the piano as a foundation to build intricate and dramatic numbers. The project began in 2015, and they spent several years as an indie act, putting out one album in the process. In late 2018, they joined Nippon Columbia’s Better Days label, a celebrated imprint that also houses projects featuring the likes of former Deee-Lite member Towa Tei and Yukihiro Takahashi of Yellow Magic Orchestra.

At the start of the year Kitri shared its major label debut EP. Titled “Primo,” the five-song set maneuvered between sparse tracks built entirely around the piano four hands duet style and vocal harmonizing, and busier cuts working in electronic percussion among other touches. On July 24, follow-up EP “Secondo” will be released. It finds the siblings expanding by developing more ornate creations revealing layers on repeat listens.

“It is very much classical influenced and inspired, but now we are working within the realm of J-pop,” Mona says. “I don’t think we are quite strange, but we are definitely coming at it from a different place. I want to be different, though.”

The sisters grew up in a musical environment in Japan’s ancient capital.

“Our mother loves singing, and our dad loves singing and playing the guitar. Sometimes we would get together and arrange a song together and play it as a family,” Mona says. Both sisters started taking piano lessons from an early age. Mona says it was hearing traditional Japanese children’s songs on TV and the radio that sparked a love of music in her.

The first time the sisters tried piano four hands was when Mona was in junior high school and Hina was still in elementary school. They would revisit the format several times every year as part of their lessons, but they played around with it for fun at home.

After university, the two eventually found themselves back in Kyoto, and Kitri — named after a character from the ballet “Don Quixote” — took shape.

The sisters sketch their songs from their home studio, which features a grand piano flanked by an electronic piano, with a handful of other instruments scattered about (including guitar, a frequent element that Hina picked up thanks to her father’s passion for it). Mona says she tends to lay out basic ideas like rhythm before adding more decorative parts, and takes her ideas to Hina for feedback. They build the songs from there.

Early on, they also ventured into Kyoto’s live music scene.

“We played mostly at ‘live restaurants,’ which serve spaghetti and omuraisu (omelet filled with rice),” Mona says with a laugh. These shows in front of 30-some people presented an early challenge for Kitri. “When we played well, people would stop and they would pay attention to us,” Mona says. “But oftentimes they would focus on eating.”

These dinner shows, along with others at more traditional venues, taught the sisters how to highlight their actions during a live performance, as they recall those in attendance couldn’t tell they were both playing the same piano initially. Watching them today finds them define their movements clearly, making it obvious when they sit down on the same bench or split apart to handle guitar or percussion.

Kitri’s early work attracted the attention of Ohashi Trio, a popular singer-songwriter who found what the sisters were doing “cool and interesting.” He produced their 2017 independent release “Opus 0.”

“It wasn’t like he would give us advice or tell us what to do, but rather he was looking after what we were doing,” Mona says. “He made us realize how we could make the music better.” The sisters remember not even being nervous, because they were just so caught up in the moment.

Following their arrival on a major label, the duo recorded the tracks for “Primo” and “Secondo” around the same time. From the resulting songs, they say the more immediate catchy ones landed on their first EP as a way to introduce themselves to a larger audience.

“‘Secondo,’ though, of course we want people to listen to it, but we had the intention to have people listen to it closer,” Hina says. “We wanted to put a deeper musical level into it, and have people see more depth in it.”

“Secondo” captures the duo as they push toward new personal territory, from Hina’s first attempts at writing lyrics on the tender “Dear” to Mona approaching songwriting from a new angle via the number “Mujunritsu” (“Law of Contradiction”).

“The difference is, usually I write the song starting with the melody, and I’d focus on that first. Then I’d arrange the piano part,” Mona says. “But with this song, I wanted to challenge myself and create something that I could listen to as an instrumental song.”

While the final product features singing, the arrangement underneath twists and turns in ways totally captivating without the voices. It makes for a song with a catchy center, but backed by shifting sounds often far from the pop station.

The next step for Kitri will be a nationwide tour behind “Secondo,” which includes a show at Christ Church Shinagawa Gloria Chapel in Tokyo. It’s another opportunity for Kitri to share its take on classical-spiked J-pop, and to continue growing as performers.

“I was always nervous playing in front of other people. That’s still the most difficult thing for me,” Hina says. “The fact that I’m playing with my sister, though, the fact she is there kind of encourages me to feel a lot less nervous.”

Kitri’s second EP, “Secondo,” will be released July 24 through Nippon Columbia. The duo will tour through October and November. For more information, visit www.kitriofficial.com.