In June 2014, as Koki Nakano prepared for a concert at the Maison de la Culture du Japon a Paris, he was more nervous than usual. The Fukuoka-born pianist had played countless live shows before, both as a solo artist and with his electro-rock band Gas Law, but this time was different. In the audience to watch his concert was Laurent Bizot, executive producer and founder of highly-respected French independent record label No Format!. The concert would change Nakano’s life, initiating his eventual move to France.
“The main reason I headed out to Paris was because of the label,” Nakano says. “I’d been a fan of No Format! since I was 18. It’s an organization that invests in original music projects but is extremely selective in terms of artists. I knew my performance had to be flawless if there was any chance of me being signed. My manager arranged for Bizot to come and I put my case to him after the concert. He said my playing was great, but too classical and was, therefore, interested in listening to more of my work.”
Nakano, who started playing the piano at the age of 3, sent some pieces he wrote featuring the cello and Bizot again liked what he heard. A plan developed for the Japanese musician to work on an album in Paris with revered cellist Vincent Segal, a man known for his collaborations with a variety of artists, including Sting and Elvis Costello. Before the partnership could form, however, the Frenchman would need some convincing.
“With Segal being a famous improviser, I was concerned that he wouldn’t be interested in accepting,” says Nakano. “Several months had passed and there was still no news, so my manager and I decided to visit his studio in France. He said my scores had too many notes and might be too complicated to play. I’d performed these songs with my friends before, so I knew it was possible. I invited Segal to watch me live and afterwards he told me he was very impressed. It was an amazing feeling to hear those words from such an esteemed artist.”
A few months later, Nakano left his home in Tokyo and flew out to Paris to create the album “Lift” with Segal in a tiny studio in the Buttes-Chaumont neighborhood. It was a huge opportunity for the then 26-year-old pianist, who had spent much of his time after attending Tokyo University of the Arts writing songs for Gas Law, the band he formed in 2003, while also composing classical pieces for fashion shows and advertising campaigns.
Working in Europe had been his ambition for many years and while the French capital wasn’t his first-choice European city to live in, he was very excited about the prospect of relocating there. Now, he calls Paris home.
“To be honest, at that time I was more interested in Berlin,” admits Nakano with a smile. “I spent several months in the German capital and found it to be a real avant-garde city with contemporary cultures and excellent electro music. It suited my way of life. Paris, by comparison, seemed quite conservative. The most important thing, though, was the label.
“Shortly after moving, I fell in love with the city. It’s steeped in history and there are few places that can compare when it comes to classical music.”
Nakano quickly got used to life in La Ville Lumiere (City of Lights), and now in his fourth year seems to love being there. In terms of his career, things have also gone well. He’s performed at many prestigious venues including the Louvre and the Theatre du Chatelet, and since the 2016 release of “Lift,” a record with an intriguing mix of pop, jazz, classical and electro music, interest in the Japanese musician has continued to grow. The 30-year-old feels this kind of progress would have been less likely had he remained in his native homeland.
“When it comes to classical music, Japan is lagging behind European countries,” opines Nakano. “We tend to follow what’s happening abroad rather than going our own way. It’s difficult for artists like myself who want to create something new and innovative. I feel as if they don’t recognize what I’m trying to do. Things are different in Paris and other European cities. They appreciate unique styles. It doesn’t have to be one way.”
Then there is the relaxed atmosphere of a Parisian lifestyle.
“It’s a comfortable environment for artists. In Japan it’s all about the economy; make as much money as you can as quickly as possible, there’s barely time to breathe,” he says. “Walking around Paris and Berlin you see people without suits and it just feels much freer. You can choose your own way without having to conform.
“I also like the passion. Some view it as Parisian snobbishness, but I think it’s about having pride in where you come from.”
Though he admits the language barrier has been an issue at times, his French has improved a lot over the past three years and he enjoys communicating with the locals. It may not yet be at the level he thinks it should be, and isn’t as good as his wife’s, he claims, but with no plans to return to Japan any time soon, he says there should be plenty of time to perfect it.
“I’ve been given this amazing opportunity in France and am determined to make the most of it. I’m under no illusions how difficult it will be,” he says. “You can count on one hand the number of Japanese composers who have made a significant impression abroad. People like Ryuichi Sakamoto and Toru Takemitsu deserve a huge amount of credit for what they’ve achieved and (how they) have helped open doors for younger musicians like myself. Previously, if you said the words ‘Japanese performer’ people would expect something ‘Oriental.'”
In some cases, there may still be an element of that expectation in Europe, but, Nakano continues: “I feel that people’s perceptions are changing. There is a growing realization that when it comes to music, nationality is not important.”
Name: Koki Nakano
Hometown: Fukuoka Prefecture
Key moments in career:
1991 — Starts to play the piano
2014 — Plays at the Maison de la Culture du Japon a Paris, where Laurent Bizot of label No Format! attends. Later moves to France.
2015 — Signs with No Format!
2016 — Releases “Lift,” an album with cellist Vincent Segal.
Likes: Food, art and music.
Dislikes: “People who live without dreams and imagination.”
Misses: Sashimi — “It’s just not the same in Paris.”