Reflections on ‘Sonderlust,’ a talk with Kishi Bashi

Kishi Bashi_Joyful Noise Recordings.Courtesy
Joyful Noise Recordings/Courtesy

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The definition of “cool” has changed and shifted often, but the recent times that it has included classical violin are relatively few and far between. Working to bring it back to the forefront of the music scene is experimental indie pop artist Kishi Bashi.

Raised on classical and jazz music in Norfolk, Virginia, Kaoru Ishibashi followed a quiet path to the limelight. After studying film scoring at the Berklee College of Music, he toured as a violinist for several renowned artists such as chamber pop crooner Regina Spektor and psychedelic rock gods of Montreal.

As solo artist Kishi Bashi, Ishibashi made an immediate splash with his 2012 debut album 151a, standing alone with complex violin audio looping present throughout his bright compositions. After further exploring the melding of classical instrumentation and electronic post-production in his similarly well received sophomore album Lighght, however, Ishibashi has gone an entirely different direction in his latest work.

The title Sonderlust, inventive in itself, holds great significance to Ishibashi as well as to the album as a whole. Ishibashi discovered the term in John Koenig’s “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,” a blog that crafts words for usually indescribable emotions.

“Sonder,” he explained in an interview with The Daily Californian, “is the realization that every passerby has a life that’s just as vivid and complex as your own — it’s this worldview that everybody around you has these micro-universes around them that will make you have a larger view on humanity.”

The depth of emotion just in the title of the album is similarly reflected throughout Sonderlust, an examination of a romance’s birth and death from bubbly courtship (“m’lover”) to detached peace (“Honeybody”). Whereas emotional layering is no anomaly in Ishibashi’s music, the intimacy of the subject matter is unprecedented.

His earlier repertoire includes diverse, sometimes heavy topics ranging from vampire children’s fall from innocence in “In Fantasia” to the cycle of life and death in “I Am The Antichrist To You.” Although these songs suitably demonstrate Ishibashi’s boldness in grappling with complex emotions, his own presence is notably missing from them.

Sonderlust breaks this mold, concretely tracking the musician’s own tale of heartbreak — he and his wife, fellow musician Mocha, went through a separation at the time he recorded the album.

Ishibashi admitted that revisiting such material, composed during a challenging time in his personal life, so often in a hectic tour schedule can be taxing: “A lot of the songs are very emotional to me, so it brings me back to when I wrote them.” He was quick to assure that the stage also delivers relief, though. ”The adrenaline of the shows is really great, and my fans are really special, really supportive,” he said. “I love performing.”

Aurally, too, Sonderlust represents a stark departure from Ishibashi’s previous works. Unlike his experimental, string-focused tracks of 151a and Lighght, Sonderlust’s influences lie more in the music of the 1970s. “The 70s are this golden era of recording, with dry drums and smooth vocals,” he said.

The disco and electropop elements of Sonderlust can partly be owed to the album’s producer Chris Taylor, the bassist for indie darling Grizzly Bear. Taylor, the band’s in-house producer, has added a retro luster to synthwave artist Twin Shadow’s debut album Forget as well as Blood Orange’s eponymous album.

Sonderlust’s disco and funk influences are especially clear in highlight “Hey Big Star,” where a brief overture of Ishibashi’s customary string looping gives way to a Blondie-like four-to-the-floor beat just beneath his voice, reminiscent of Stevie Wonder in the way its velvety texture balances the pulsating synth. Just as Sonderlust lyrically expresses wistful nostalgia for the excitement of a budding relationship, so too does it yearn for the greats of the 70s, from Donna Summer to Earth, Wind & Fire.

But Ishibashi didn’t seem prepared to end his exploration of different styles; if anything, he’s at something of a stylistic crossroads. “I think I’m required to change,” he said. “It’s my job now to inspire people, so I have to keep pushing myself to new things. It’ll probably be very different.”

Ishibashi’s uncertainty isn’t for lack of potential future direction. “I’m taking a dance music mixing class online next month, so I’ll probably make some dance music or a dance album,” he said. On the other end of the spectrum, though, he might go back to more symphonic arrangements, following his scoring of the snowboarding action film The Fourth Phase (“It was really exciting, actually. They gave me an entire string section.”).

Ishibashi also hopes to continue collaborating with others in the industry following his positive experience with Taylor; his aspirations include another artist famous for revitalizing classical music with a glimmer of cool relevance — Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne. “It’s probably too expensive, though,” he admitted with a chuckle. Despite his doubt in actually collaborating with the symphonic rock veteran, Ishibashi’s intentions reveal one love story that’s still going strong: the one between him and classical pop.

Kishi Bashi will be performing at the Fillmore on Friday.

Contact Sahana Rangarajan at [email protected].