Nariaki Obukuro has been living in London for a little over a year now, and the Japanese singer-songwriter says the city routinely gets his imagination going.
“It’s all about vibes. I feel creative even when I take a walk in this city,” he says. “People in London are always trying to find a way to do new things, like with rave culture. People in Tokyo always look for reasons why you can’t do new things.”
While the 28-year-old artist has developed a routine in the English capital — wake up at noon, apply some shea butter to his face, work in the afternoon (“I usually tweet around this time because I’m sober”) and then create music late into the night — change has been the norm for him in recent years.
After launching the electronic project N.O.R.K. in the early 2010s, he helped start independent label Tokyo Recordings in 2015. This led Obukuro into the orbit of J-pop superstar Hikaru Utada, who featured him as a guest on her 2016 album, “Fantome.” He then pivoted to a solo career, signing with Sony Music Japan and putting out an album titled “Bunriha no Natsu” (which translates as “Summer of Separatists”) in 2018, complete with Utada guesting on one track.
There’s a path Obukuro could have taken that many indie-to-major artists have opted for before. A path that entails tie-ups with brands and trying to land on music shows in a bid to get bigger in the Japanese market. It’s a serviceable route, but one that doesn’t always facilitate new ideas.
However, Obukuro chose a different route. He relocated to London and got to work on his follow-up LP, mixing up his usual approach by focusing on the kind of beats that could propel his songs forward. He didn’t set a release date for most of 2019, only offering some cryptic tweets about not making any best-of lists before the year came to an end. With just over a week of warning, Obukuro dropped his second album, “Piercing,” onto subscription services in late December.
“We all thought it was cool,” he says of the method of release. “That’s it.”
Yet that nonchalant approach to distribution felt like a jolt in an industry where lengthy build-ups and “streaming restrictions” are still the norm for major label releases. “Piercing,” both in its sound and delivery, highlights Obukuro as someone open to shaking up the Japanese music industry in 2020 and beyond.
“I don’t like Sony Music Japan. They don’t try to lead the music industry at all,” he says, though he emphasizes that the specific team within the company he has worked with is “the best in Japan, seriously.” Yet he doesn’t see the parent company as doing much in a rapidly changing musical landscape.
“They don’t have any courage to break this catastrophic situation,” Obukuro says. “They are just observing that we, the artists, are sinking and do nothing about it.”
Obukuro started creating “Piercing” shortly after moving to London.
“I found a private studio in Hackney Wick. I just go there and cook beats without purpose.” These sessions found him changing up how he approached music following “Bunriha no Natsu,” a collection that stood out for its journal-like attention to detail.
“Every legendary artist that I love, they always say that music is the truth of them. Of course, I believe that too. However, I misunderstood that it only applies to the lyrics or melody,” Obukuro says. “Somewhere I realized that I was not being honest to my rhythm with ‘Bunriha no Natsu.’ I don’t know why. And then, I understood the purpose of my presence as an artist: Make a beat, and people dance to it. Simple.”
To that end, the musician says he tried to make every recording session for his latest album feel like a party.
“One assistant was a quiet guy, so I was always thinking how I could make him dance with my beats,” Obukuro says.
“Piercing” contains some of the most active numbers the musician has recorded under his own name, whether leaning into hip-hop (“Gaia”) or club music (“Down The Line”). He also lets individual tracks bloom into totally different parts, and creates mini-suites of songs blurring into one another.
“If I have to point out one thing, that would be his sound design,” Takashi Watanabe, who works in the Japanese music industry and is Obukuro’s business partner in the label Asever, says. “Incorporating various music into his own soundscape, it’s very modern, but at the same time it’s feeling Japanese nostalgia somehow.”
“Piercing” still offers plenty of lyrical introspection — as was the case on “Bunriha no Natsu,” American artist Frank Ocean’s influence looms large, and field recordings Obukuro gathered are woven in throughout — but now the emotional heft comes from the sounds rather than the words. This shift emerges most clearly in how he uses his voice. Across the album, he manipulates his vocals, pushing them to warped registers on “Turn Back” or layering them to create ripples on “Snug.” The album also features a smattering of guest vocalists Obukuro has met (or, in the case of Japanese rapper 5lack, worked with remotely), including Tokyo rapper Tohji.
“I suddenly made a crazy beat and I sent it to Tohji for fun,” he says. “Three hours later, he replied to me with the verse that ended up on the album.”
The words, from Obukuro or others, are more abstract, focused more on ideas of love and intimacy than recalling specific memories.
“‘Bunriha no Natsu’ was like the process of psychoanalysis,” Obukuro says. “I’m simply bored of it because that process doesn’t make sense for the future of humanity, including me of course. I can’t describe what I wrote about on ‘Piercing,’ but I believe it comes from the hope, not only love.”
Despite a general pessimistic read on the Japanese music industry today, Obukuro isn’t opting for a simple cynicism that often surrounds discussion about all of the country’s artistic industries. Rather, he’s trying to find solutions, whether through unconventional-for-Japan album releases or creating his own label, Asever, which aims to highlight music from across Asia and get it to people globally via the platforms they more commonly use. While that’s taking shape — the imprint has thus far only put out a handful of releases from Indonesian artist pxzvc — the spirit of trying to find a new way forward is Obukuro’s current guiding principle, though even he sees limitations.
“We musicians can’t help (the situation). All we can do is create a new world,” he says. “If you seriously want to solve the problem, you have to study extremely hard and become a politician.”
While a Diet run is still far off, Obukuro says he still wants to do what he can via the power of art to help improve societal problems. A tall task, but one of many he’s ready to face.
For more information, follow Nariaki Obukuro on Twitter @nariaki0296.