“Beats Without Borders” is an exclusive Impact 89FM series that serves to spotlight music from all around the world. Whether it comes from a different country or is spoken in a different language, music is a universal truth that ought to be explored.
With technology and sound evolving so rapidly, it can be difficult to stop and appreciate sonic simplicity. Japanese artist Ichiko Aoba relies on her ethereal voice and classical guitar to create music that’s a breath of fresh air for its listeners. However, she is far from boring or unexpressive. She takes “simple” and gives it depth, she takes “real” and turns it into a dream – and vice versa.
Aoba is a storyteller, but not one of books or movies. Instead, she finds inspiration in her dreams, when she feels herself outside of her body. Her poetry of love and life is, like these dreams, often hazy but introspective. Along with the cinematic quality of her guitar’s dialogue, a vivid picture is painted. However, the picture, though set with elaborate lyrics, is not necessarily focusing on an exact plot or sequence of events but rather the emotions that come with it.
Her style hints at impressionism and jazz because she plays and sings different moods. Her music’s enchanting nature comes from the way she can effortlessly shift mood by a change in chord or strumming pattern. It is hard to know what is around the corner in most of her songs. This creates a sense of tension and excitement, although her songs may seem to just be “pretty” at first listen. Yes, they are pretty, but they are also deliberate, yearning, intricate, aching, joyful, tumultuous and pensive. This list has only grown since she began making music.
At the young age of 19, Aoba released her first solo record in 2010. 剃刀乙女, or Razor Girl, boasted a maturity beyond that of a teenager. After only a few years playing guitar, it seemed the instrument had become a part of her. In Razor Girl, Aoba’s vocal melodies dance flawlessly with her illustrious yet charming, complex yet effortless strumming. In her albums to come, she explored the realm between humble and serpentine both between and within songs. A whole dreamscape of twists and turns is created in the song “IMPERIAL SMOKE TOWN” from her third studio album.
In her most recent album, qp, she features sweet lullabies intermixed with melancholic ballads. The “dreams” in this album are more nostalgic of simpler times, perhaps those from childhood. Her music video for “月の丘” (or “Moon Hill”) actually realizes this idea of her “out-of-body” experiences, and the visuals capture her surreal yet simple sound. Just like the video for her song “いきのこり●ぼくら,” Aoba is tethered to her guitar.
The surface-level simplicity featured in Aoba’s songs and videos is also showcased in album art. All but one of her album covers are one solid color – usually a pastel. Even though we could speculate why 檻髪 (or Origami) is pale yellow or why 0 is light pink, we aren’t given any themes or theatrics; Aoba is simply setting a mood. Before listening to the album, she gives us the faintest hint of feeling and allows us to fill in the rest – a nearly blank canvas.
After 10 years of making music, Ichiko Aoba has mastered the art of mystery and how it resonates with an audience. The reason listeners are so drawn to her presence is because she leaves space for us to exist in her music. Listening to Aoba is like trying to remember a dream that you only have bits and pieces of – gauzy colors, hazy portraits, a sudden pang of heartache – and then putting them back together in the conscious mind.
And it’s not just music consumers who have been enchanted by Aoba’s music. Other Japanese artists have become spellbound by her magic, like the influential and long-standing musician Cornelius, who worked with Aoba on the song “外は戦場だよ” for Ghost in the Shell: Arise. In an interview with Redbull Music Academy, he says she is “really at the forefront of her generation.” In the years to come, I would not be surprised if people all over the world begin to see that, too.