Published on April 25th, 2016 | by Yoshi0
“Requiem for a sound at the end of the digital vortex where the coded mind drifts.”
Chouchou ー an enigmatic electro-pop duo that formed in a “metaverse” called Second Life ー used to be known only in the virtual world.
Independently creating not only tracks and lyrics, but also stage visuals and artwork, the band denies any limitation imposed by others. Uniquely, they used to perform as virtual avatars of their real-life bodies, and recently they’re challenging live-action MVs, and physical media like CD artwork and photo books. Beyond any genre, boundary, or material limitation.
BNU caught up with pianist/composer arabesque and vocalist/lyricist/art director juliet to ask about their background, origin, and intention, and luckily — and also unexpectedly — they were generous in their answers, giving a unique insight into the creation of their music.
BNU: What got you guys into music initially? Can you tell us about your first encounters and your musical background?
arabesque (a): Both my parents are professional classical musicians, so they had me learning piano since before I can remember. I didn’t know if I liked music or not, I just started playing because it was something I had to do.
I think it was after entering junior high school and began making my own songs that I took a more active interest in music. I didn’t have a conscious feeling of “enjoying music” before then, but eventually I started to use my parents’ old Walkman to listen to Brahms symphonies.
I never really felt limited to one kind of music … I used to listen to Portishead a lot.
That really impressed me, so I started really getting into listening to music outside and on the go with my Walkman. I started to feel something good in music and started to like wider range of styles than classical. Nothing specifically, but I guess songs that were electro-based. Growing up, I enjoyed everything from ordinary pop music, movie soundtracks, healing music, and although it’s not music in my age, stuff like Y.M.O. [Yellow Magic Orchestra].
I’ve probably listened to and got to know most genres? Extreme, heavy rock, ethnic music, ethno-electro like Clannad, Enigma, Deep Forest, Enya, and after that, Portishead.
juliet (j): Me too, I never really felt limited to one kind of music and listened to whatever I was interested in at the time, from quiet to extreme, so I think I followed a similar path to arabesque. And I used to listen to Portishead a lot. But with my family background, my parents liked jazz, so there’d always be some kind of jazz playing at home or in the car.
There’s no doubt that my parents’ love of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, and Tony Bennett got me into them. I can clearly remember thinking, “what a dreamy, wonderful voice” when I first heard Ella Fitzgerald. I like the cool style of some jazz but also the warm, candlelit or fire-lit atmosphere that some jazz has.
I can’t forget the sound of my dad’s voice from my childhood
And I can’t forget the sound of my dad’s voice from my childhood; he had a nice low voice and was always humming or whistling something. The melodies were always melancholic. It was really good. I guess he affected me a lot.
My mother majored in composition at university, and a lot of my relatives are involved with music as well, but I never imagined it would end up being my lifestyle too. I always intended to get into fashion design; it’s what I studied at an arts university in New York. Most of my friends work in fashion industries, and it’s what I thought I wanted to do with my life before arabesque asked me to be in Chouchou. So I guess that means arabesque had the biggest affect on the music in my life [laughs].
BNU: arabesque, I heard Chouchou was formed in a metaverse called Second Life after you asked juliet to put vocals to your music. At that time, did you have a concrete image about vocals in mind, and were you looking for a person who could make it happen, or did you just relate to juliet’s personality and decide to ask her?
j: That’s a common misunderstanding, we didn’t actually meet at Second Life (SL), we’ve known each other for a long time, but we did make SL accounts together. That was around the beginning of 2007, maybe? I think you asked me if I knew about it, arabesque?
j: Anyway, Chouchou was formed in SL, that’s right. Firstly I thought about what I would do in SL, as it’s known for its flexibility. I was interested in making something in a virtual world, though I love to talk, so I decided to start a radio show in SL. arabesque was like, “I’ll make the opening and ending songs for the program. Can you try to sing?” That’s how the songs utakata and sign were created.
a: At first I planned to make just a couple of songs, and it never crossed my mind to sell them. But one of the things that was really frustrating me at the time was that I never had time to work on my own music, because I was always so busy making commercial songs. It was like stress relief: I really wanted to reclaim my original style.
I made utakata and asked juliet to sing. Both of us thought it was good, like, “Wow, maybe this could be part of a different thing!”
I made a second song soon after with arrangement that I wanted, but was never allowed to do [at work]. It was like, “This is great! No one can complain at all!” That was sign. I was already satisfied with the instrumental version, but juliet’s singing made it even better. It’s still popular with our fans.
I’ve never limited my scope nor had a marketing strategy nor developed anything around a specific concept
I started to think, okay. We can make this happen, we can move forward. We can do more and more.
j: You thought, “Okay, maybe this could be good,” with utakata and became convinced that it was good with sign, right?
a: Yeah, convinced. So, the way it turned out was a result of, “Okay, this is it,” rather than looking for a singer that could make it happen.
Going back to your first question, we both seem like the same songs at the same time as if by previous arrangement, and they weren’t mainstream songs, but crazy niche songs. It was like, “Far out, I can’t believe you like this!” So while I’ve always thought there were very few barriers stopping us from making music together, I never imagined it would actually happen [laughs].
BNU: Last year you released a physical CD, but Chouchou formed in Second Life and your activity was previously limited to the virtual world. Can you explain more about your aim of “exploring the possibilities of music in virtual environments?”
j: To be honest, we haven’t even been that active in the virtual world over the last few years.
a: Yeah… I don’t know from where to where we call “virtual”, how we define it.
j: Maybe we can include the activity online though.
I have a strong motivation to create music for a very personal world
a: It comes back to my answer to your first question: I originally started to enjoy music when listening on a Walkman. So I have a strong motivation to create music for a very personal world.
When I get down to it, we want to make music to listen to in front of PC or with an iPod, that kind of thing. So far, and as a consequence of that, we’ve released our work mainly on the internet. But I’ve never limited my scope nor had a marketing strategy nor developed anything around a specific concept.
For the moment, in wanting to make music and take it to the utmost limit, this way of releasing music has been best for us.
j: Adding to what we’ve said, I think we’ve also really wanted to offer our music not only to Japanese, but also for other listeners around the world, because we’ve experienced a lot of things abroad, in fact, arabesque’s father is Czech, so probably we have a bit of a wider, global perspective.
However, if we released music in the conventional way, it would be so hard to have the opportunity to get our music in front of different people from all over the world at the same time, you know? But it’s common to do that in SL.
Not only Japanese but also foreigners can listen to and evaluate the same songs at the same time. That kind of SL system was great for Chouchou at the time, and I think you can see from our Facebook page that Chouchou has a fanbase from all over the world, not only in Asian countries, but also America, Europe and Africa. That’s all based on the activity in SL.
Another positive aspect of SL is the flexibility of the system, it allows us to choose a wider variety of visual expressions on stage, like setting up a stage from scratch to suit the concept and direction of each show, and using different effects, like showering the stage with confetti, all of which would be expensive in the real world. Thanks to SL, we’re able to let the audience experience the visual aspect as well as the audio in real time.
Recently, though, we’ve not been acting in the virtual world at all. It doesn’t mean we quit, or that we’ll perform in the real world more often, it just means we’d like to choose the appropriate platform for each project.
We’ve always agreed to produce everything related to Chouchou ourselves, so excluding collaborations with other artists, we always do what we can do ourselves related to the project’s concept.
But we have only two bodies, and time is limited, so we pour as much expression as we can into our work within those limitations. Lately, our energy has been devoted to the production of CD jackets and artwork and music videos, such as a film I took part in for remix04 that we recently released.
BNU: Your songs have a cinematic quality. Are you envisioning any particular scene when you’re writing songs, or do you come up with some ideas for songs when you’re watching movies?
a: I’ve never come up with a song while watching a movie. But, well, I have a kind of imagined scene in my mind, and I put myself into it once the song reaches a certain level. Then I judge whether or not I’m happy with it. It’s my routine process, whatever songs I make.
I guess the scenery is cinematic and cinematic feeling is evoked through this process; it’s related to my decision to finish it or not.
BNU: I heard you’re in charge of art direction, juliet. Is your artwork inspired by the songs, or do you guys share a common direction from the beginning and create both songs and artwork at the same time?
j: We don’t have common direction on artwork. arabesque doesn’t want to have any limitation on his songwriting process, so he creates the whole scope of the song, and I write the lyrics, record vocal part along with the song, then I finish the artwork.
Sometimes I make suggestions about the music, or arabesque has ideas about the artwork, but we’ve always gone ahead and done our parts independently. arabesque prefers to write songs without any limitations, in contrast, I’m good at building my inspiration and sense on a certain subject or theme. So our styles, our roles, are the result of that, I think.
BNU: Warmth, joy, sadness, whatever emotion your work evokes, I feel a kind of bird’s-eye perspective or a sense of loss, like accepting everything is a part of nature. What does creating the music mean for you?
j: I haven’t really thought about it, though I guess I get that kind of bird’s-eye view of the lyrics and the song during the writing process. Sometimes I feel as if I’m a narrator of stories, like reading picture books for someone, I feel like I become a guide to a story.
And, although it’s not really conscious, I’m aware of not forcing my emotion onto listeners. I want to leave space for the listener’s own feelings, I prefer that different people have a different interpretation.
That’s why I mostly don’t explain the meaning of my lyrics even if I’m asked. Personally, I prefer songs that take a step back to ones that are specific to the singer, so I can consider what they mean to me. Like a conversation with my inner self, I think Chouchou’s music is very introverted.
Standing in some beautiful place only you know and listening with headphones alone. That fits the music, and I hope some people listen that way. I hope listener could feel like they are the first person in the music at that moment.
a: Yeah, and I think juliet’s vocals play an important role in creating that sense of perspective as well. For example, in the last part of sign 0, I play the piano passionately, though juliet didn’t sing emotively in response. It may be the result of that combination of emotion in the track I made and detachment in juliet’s vocals that gives it an objective point of view, and stops our songs from being too “full of tears”.
j: It sounds like I’m cold, but I don’t intend it to be that way. Sometimes I sing in that way, and with others I sing from heart. But, yeah, I feel I’m not seeing the song’s environment as my own when I’m singing and describing it. It’s more like adding sound onto the scenery instead—although CATASTROPHE contains personal feelings, but still has that “bird’s eye” distance.
a: I’m kind of glad you mentioned a “sense of loss”, because I think nothing starts without a sense of loss and I have a sort of feeling of resignation, but at the same time I may want to talk out it, so that expression is intended.
The meaning of creating music is “expression”
j: The meaning of creating music is “expression”. Expressing myself. That’s it for me. I can’t breathe without expressing, creating something.
a: Me too. In short, we have desire for food, sex, sleep, and expression, an outlet for internal things somehow. Any way is okay, though I guess creating music has been the most efficient way for us to radiate our desire for expression so far.
j: That’s right. I’ve been loving not only the design aspect, but also writing and singing, so it’s really a joy to be a part of Chouchou and to satisfy not only that desire for expression, but to express things I hadn’t been aware were there before.
BNU: You’ve released a lot of remixes. I feel like many of them are the “night side” of the songs on the main albums, and I feel you are trying to express some a kind of impatience or strangled frustration that seems to be amplified at night-time. Why do you release a lot of remixes?
a: Thanks very much for listening to Chouchou deeply.
j: It may sounds presumptuous, but I believe we make good songs, so we like to make variations.
a: Yeah, of course, and also, although it might seem we’re operating without boundaries, we do have “frame” that we work in with Chouchou. I really want to try something different out of that frame. So the remixes are like a shelter for me. [Laughs].
But on the new one, remix04, we attempted to dig deeper into Chouchou’s own vision. After all, the reason why we make remixes, when I feel going outside of Chouchou’s world, is that we have confidence in our songs. I’m sure we can introduce them as good songs however much time passes, and each has many different facets to be shown, listened to, and enjoyed. So I want to explore and bring out their potential.
j: Other artists do a similar thing, sometimes it happens that they release another version of an original song after a few years, and it sounds better.
a: Yeah, exactly! And some artists play a completely different version of the original live, that’s exactly how we approach Chochou’s remixes. It’s like our version of a “live arrangement” as recorded tracks rather than actually playing live. It’s like an alternative way to present and enjoy our music.
BNU: Your songs are written in Japanese, English, German … Did you intended to share your music with people from all over the world from the very beginning? What has been your experience in terms of having a global audience, do you sometimes feel there’s any difference between Japanese and foreign listeners?
j: Probably the “German” you mentioned refers to the song coma, but it’s not written in German, it’s actually anagrams of Japanese lyrics. All the other songs are written in Japanese and English. Speaking of coma, I think if we could communicate in a totally original language other than English or Japanese, I think it’d be okay to use for lyrics.
We don’t really have a policy either way with using Japanese or English. Of course, lyrics have thought and meaning and emotion, but the words themselves are separate from them.
a: From a practical point of view, we decide which to use—Japanese or English—by trying to imagine whether the song would appeal to people from overseas, or if it feels like “Japanese is not fitting with this song” or vice versa.
j: Yeah, imagining if a song is right for English or not.
a: Maybe TRICKER would sound lame with Japanese lyrics, for example.
j: Every time I write lyrics, I choose either English or Japanese after melody line is created by arabesque, and then I write lyrics.
a: There are sometimes songs that can work both in English and Japanese, and in those cases we consider the language balance of the songs in an album and then decide.
j: It’s surprising though sometimes that we think that listeners abroad might prefer a song in English, and we try to make a balance between songs, but they sometimes prefer songs in Japanese.
a: Yeah! We never expected that to happen. [Laughs]. Especially at first, we guessed that the songs in Japanese would be ignored because people couldn’t get into the lyrics.
I think Sigur Rós’s music is beautiful even though it’s sung in Icelandic, which we’re not used to, so I started to think that difference in language is not such a big issue
j: Yes, a Polish movie director once asked if he could use sign 0 in his movie, and we were like, “Seriously?” [Laughs]. It’s a completely Japanese song, but he was insistent!
a: I’m surprised that listeners abroad accept songs in Japanese. It’s really wonderful that Lunaria is loved overseas.
j: Yeah, it’s popular.
a: At the very beginning there were many foreign listeners who liked B612; my Czech nephew as well, so I thought foreigners preferred English, though, I don’t think so anymore. A lot of Japanese like B612 also.
j: It’s pretty normal for Japanese to listen to songs in English, but there are very few foreigners that frequently listen to Japanese songs.
At first I wondered how they related to Japanese songs, but then I think Sigur Rós’s music is beautiful even though it’s sung in Icelandic, which we’re not used to, so I started to think that difference in language is not such a big issue nowadays.
To answer your question about the difference between listeners, I guess listeners abroad tend to be more forthright, though most give us fantastic support and feedback whatever their nationality.
a: Yeah, poetic words.
j: Yes! People try to express their feelings by listening to the intention of our songs.
BNU: arabesque, you’re also a member of Orcaorca, a folk-tronica duo as well. Do you have a different approach to the concept or theme to Chouchou? And also you’ve been releasing piano solo and instrumental-version records as Chouchou. Do you intend to keep a space in the songs and make listeners imagine their own melodies?
a: Well… Probably there’s no difference in theme. There’s like a fount deep inside of me, and the expression of each is just the difference in the filter that the current comes through. So I just choose one of two filters for Chouchou and Orcaorca, but the essence is the same.
In the end, whatever kind of music I make, a similar feeling remains, though the biggest difference between the two is the refinement of expression. If I polish it over and over until it’s finished, I release the completely refined song as Chouchou. As Orcaorca, I keep some “dirt” in the process as I’m uprooting the song.
As Orcaorca, my intention is to show contrast between the purity of Chouchou and the dirt that I inevitably remove in those songs.
The piano solo stuff is completed work. As to why I release them under the name Chouchou, it’s because Chouchou has become the biggest outlet for me after seven years of work. I wanted to try to present my own piano work as a solo album through that channel, that is, the solo piano of Chouchou.
About the versions with no vocals, I wanted to let listeners recognize the melodies of the other instruments that might be covered by the melody of the vocal line.
j: I hope listeners get an appreciation for arabesque’s song construction with the instrumental versions. I’m sure that they will find a lot of hidden but essential notes, and get an insight into the detail of the song construction in the alignment and harmonization of even the softest notes. Even I am surprised sometimes by it, like, “Oh, was that note always there?”
It’s also really nice to have them playing in the background. Some of our fans have said that they hear the main melody of the song in my voice [Laughs]. Of course the melody lines are really important, though the other aspects of arabesque’s songs are equally beautiful. You can hear it in the instrumental versions.
BNU: Lastly, by whom and in what way do you want people to listen to your music?
j: I’d like anyone to listen to it. I hope people are just listening in their daily lives, and in the scenes only each of them know. I hope our music can color the scene.
a: Anyhow, for me, music is very personal thing, so I hope our music fits into listeners’ personal time. I humbly wish that it sounds good and suits their feelings at each moment.
j: I hope people listen when they feel like it rather than listening every day and all the time.
a: I wish that the music of Chouchou could be with them with a feeling of gentleness.