Mayuko Hitotsuyanagi, the artist behind the electronica-leaning moniker Cuushe, is ready to raise her voice and reclaim her love of music with her latest project, FEM.
Known for her light vocals, textured synths and dream-like atmospheres, the Tokyo-based artist first drew attention with her 2013 album, “Butterfly Case,” released via record label Flau. Following up with the “Night Lines” EP in 2015, the soft-spoken singer-producer kept herself busy with a smattering of feature spots and solo work.
Since Hitotsuyanagi’s initial stint in the spotlight, however, there has been a noticeable pause in her musical output. A lot can happen in five years — and it has.
“For the first two years (since 2015), I used to go abroad a lot for live shows and sing on other artists’ tracks,” says Hitotsuyanagi. “But I’ve been struggling mentally since I became the victim of online sexual harassment three years ago.
“I became unstable and couldn’t bring myself to create music.”
Hitotsuyanagi details the traumatic effects of being stalked by a “fellow musician,” and how the actions of a person in her own community made her feel so fearful that even something she loved to do — making music — didn’t matter anymore.
“I still have a fear of walking down the street at night, and I find it hard to leave the house,” she says. “I didn’t go to gigs at all, I felt like my music wasn’t worth it.”
She has found a renewed sense of strength with her new project, FEM, and Hitotsuyanagi says she feels like she is stepping out of the shadows with FEM’s first single, “Light,” which eschews the synthesizer and drum machine sounds typical of Cuushe for real-life instruments. The track’s progressive trickle of sound cascades before picking itself up and soaring into the stratosphere, skittering drums propel it forward with gleaming guitars, different points shine and glitter in a gradual awakening of light itself. All the while, Hitotsuyanagi’s voice — in her characteristic near-whisper, though more vivid than her Cuushe oeuvre — skims over the surface, glimmering with the urge to “asobu, asobu, asobu kaze ni notte” (“We play, we play, we ride on a playful wind”).
FEM’s first release is all that remains of a 5-year-old demo from a band Hitotsuyanagi was touring with at the time. After her harasser broke into her home and stole musical equipment and personal belongings such as clothes and photographs, as well as songs for an album she was working on — the only piece of music left behind was “Light.”
“I originally created ‘Light’ because I happened to read an article about how light stimulation can transform a negative memory you have into a positive one.” she says. “I find it very interesting that light can change the way we remember our memories.”
Realizing that perspective changes with time, Hitotsuyanagi notes that looking back on past events from the present, rather than being a negative activity, can be healing.
“At first I saw those memories as a light, but now I feel like I’m seeing it as a thought or a will or a strength within me,” she says.
For Hitotsuyanagi, “Light” is a symbol of overcoming trauma, finding strength and taking back the part of her that was taken away not just by the burglary, but by a period of sexual harassment.
“I was a victim and I knew it wasn’t my fault, but I was involved in this kind of incident and I tended to think that no one wanted to get involved because it was kind of a pain in the ass,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m sensitive, but I actually felt that way at times.
“When there is a difference in visibility or power between the perpetrator and the victim, it’s easy for the victim to be blamed.”
The name FEM was born out of a mistaken Google search, after Hitotsuyanagi typed the first three letters of a newly discovered word that resonated with her: feminism. A mathematical term, FEM is an acronym for “finite element method,” a problem-solving method in which large systems are better understood and computed by breaking them down into smaller segments. Hitostuyanagi took this scientific approach for tackling problems to heart, and realized it could be adopted to deal with real-life issues.
“I thought it was kind of linked to the issue of feminism, and I could say the same for other issues,” she says. “There are so many problems, they are piling up and we are at a loss, but if we move forward one by one, we can move forward as a whole and change the consciousness of society.”
Initially, Hitotsuyanagi was too fearful to speak out about the harassment she had gone through but, inspired by the #MeToo movement that gained traction worldwide in 2017, she decided to share the details of the experience on Instagram.
“I was afraid, so I wrote it in English. But now, three years later, I feel that it’s easier to speak up,” she says. “I think that doing nothing is the same as ignoring the victims and the oppressed, as being complicit with the oppressors. I put my will toward being the one to solve the problems and take action.”
Last year, Hitotsuyanagi took part in the Flower Demo, a public event that has taken place on the 11th of every month since April 2019, as a sign of solidarity with those who have experienced sexual violence. At the gatherings, survivors often share their experiences and feelings.
“I want to continue to support the end of sexual violence, so I want to participate in demonstrations and speak out,” she says. “I’m looking for things I can do to help, including music.”
Using FEM as a vehicle to explore ways to speak out makes sense. Hitotsuyanagi says Cuushe is more of an escapist dream for self-healing, and although she calls it a “really personal story” and will be releasing more Cuushe music later this year, she admits she was getting tired.
“My music has been called ‘experimental music’ and ‘electronica’ for a long time,” she says. “I feel like those genres are only valued for their musical commitment, their ability to do crazy things, their hammering skills and that kind of thing.
“What I wanted to make was a song, and I love to sing.”
Although veering away from cosmic synthesizers and fantastic soundscapes that make Cuushe tracks otherworldly with soft textures and electric imagination, FEM’s raw instrumentation allows Hitotsuyanagi’s vocals to shine through.
“Light” comes complete with a remix by Iglooghost, the recording name of London-based producer Seamus Malliagh. The atmosphere of Malliagh’s repurposed production — bristling with sharp gleaming sound and metallic percussive strikes — is an exercise in destroying and rebuilding.
The journey “Light” has taken, from its beginnings as a demo to its rebirth as a fully-fledged debut, is like a parallel to the events that have shaped Hitotsuyanagi, and acted as a complement to her newfound voice.
“I got my energy back little by little, and here I am now,” she says. “My voice is still small, but it’s getting stronger and louder.”
For more information, visit http://flau.jp/releases/light/.
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