Singer-songwriter Natsuko Nisshoku has released a new album entitled Anti-Freeze. Released almost two and a half years after her previous album, Eikyu Todo (meaning “permafrost”), Anti-Freeze is an album that gives ample opportunity to experience her uninhibited musical sensibilities and represents a dramatic expansion of her usual style of singing to her own piano playing.
In addition to the lead track, “Midsummer Dinosaurs,” arranged by n-buna of Yorushika, the album features collaborative recordings with artists in Asia such as Hong Kong-based Blood Wine or Honey and Taiwan-based Ruby Fatale. Natsuko has confronted the question of what music means to her since the start of the pandemic, and in an interview for Billboard Japan, she spoke with writer Tomoyuki Mori at length about Anti-Freeze and the unrestrained freedom it represents.
How has the response been to Anti-Freeze, your first album in two and a half years?
My music making process has become highly irregular because of the pandemic. I’m just relieved I was able to finish it. I hardly went into the studio, making most of it remotely. Tracks like “Danzare” and “World March” were arranged with a trio of instruments — piano, bass, and drums. Only the piano was recorded at the studio, and I had the drum and bass players record their parts at their homes. I’d worked with the drummer komaki before, but this was my first time working with bassist Kazuhiro Nakamata, and he played a number of songs for me even though I never met him face-to-face. At first we wondered how much we’d be able to accomplish remotely, but none of us had any trouble at all. We talked about how it was possible to do things this way, even though it was a little sad that we had to.
Were you able to concentrate on music making without the pandemic getting you down?
Honestly, the pandemic didn’t really change how I usually do things. I’ve aimed to make music that I can perform on my own — like if the concert venue I’m at has a power outage, the show can still go on with just my voice and a piano. That’s the minimum I always want to be capable of. Not being able to meet up with people actually allowed me to clear my head and engage with my music without distraction. The same goes for playing live: I was doing three or four tours a year before the pandemic, and when all of that stopped I was able to take an objective look at everything. I had actually wanted the time to do just that.
So you had a moment to stop and reflect. Did it help you?
Yes. I’ve become much more flexible now. I had a lot going on in my life when making my last album, Eikyu Todo. Actually, the title was intended to remind me of that “snow country mentality,” since I’m from Tohoku. I’d moved to Tokyo about five or six years earlier and was slowly losing touch with where I grew up, and I wanted to express the idea that “one’s soul remains in their hometown.” Maybe I was just worrying too much about what people thought of me. I was trying to be a people pleaser, I guess. So I wanted to cast off that weight.
You wanted to get rid of excess baggage and focus foremost on getting your music-making environment fun and stress free.
Also, the significance of music was diminished tremendously during the last 18 months; for lack of a better way to say it, I felt like “even if I tried to make music for other people, it’s put me in this situation.” I originally started making music to have fun, so I started to ask myself why I was so focused on pleasing others.
Does the title Anti-Freeze have any connection to your change of mindset?
I just really wanted to add a new perspective to my last album Eikyu Todo’s image. When I thought about carrying around all my burdens for several more decades, while always being prim and proper, it didn’t seem like it would be much fun. [Laughs] Living like that isn’t what music is about. Like I said earlier, having fun is the most important thing. And that’s the meaning of the title: I will be the “anti-freeze” that melts the “permafrost.”
The album’s charm comes partly from your new approach and the things you try on it. n-buna from Yorushika did the arrangement for the lead track “Midsummer Dinosaurs.” Had you two known each other before?
Not at all. But I thought he was absolutely amazing. Although the same goes for Yorushika and Vocaloid tracks n-buna’s released under his own name, he has an incredible ability to turn scenery into sound. I’d wanted to make music with him — in fact, that’s been one of my goals over these last few years. I wrote “Midsummer Dinosaurs” about four years ago, and I remember thinking that I definitely wanted n-buna to do the arrangement.
Interesting. Why this particular song?
Because it’s not really the type of music I usually make. It’s a song about cumulonimbus clouds forming in the summer sky and pretending they are dinosaurs and marveling at them. Usually I put some kind of message in my songs, but the scenery was the so-called “main dish” in this one; it’s just “Summer is great. Summer is fun. That’s all!” n-buna is great at turning scenery into sound, so I asked him to do it because I was sure he would turn it into an amazing song.
You feature a gospel choir in “Forty” (cluster ver.). Is the idea here that everyone is singing together in camaraderie?
Precisely. “Forty” is the last song we played during our tour in the beginning of 2020. I had the audience do the chorus part, having them come up on stage to perform at the finale. It was a pretty unorthodox thing to do. People liked it, and I figured that those who heard the song at the concert would bring that image to mind when listening to it again later. That’s why I wanted to re-create the live-performance feeling in the album version.
The lyrics “Nothing is stable for us” “There’s no way for us” seem appropriate for the times we live in. But you made this song before the pandemic?
Yeah, the song has nothing to do with the pandemic. [Laughs] I wrote the song after exchanging views with a fellow female singer-songwriter friend about our respective teams. After talking about a lot of things, we realized that it must be difficult for our producers, who are both in their 40s, to listen to the kinds of things we say. But we’re thankful that they do. [Laughs] You take on a lot of responsibilities when you get into your forties, and the people looking after you and guiding you fall away. It’s a time when you have to push forward even though you can’t see what’s ahead. That’s what I was thinking about when I wrote Forty.
And you did your own sampling on “Peak”?
It’s a song about cafés. I sampled sounds you hear at cafés, like hot water being poured and pencil and typing sounds, and put a rhythm to it all. I sing about a café, which used to be in Tokyo called Mine [meaning “peak” in Japanese]. It was near a TV station, and I used to go there to get into the right headspace before a recording session. Unfortunately, it closed down after COVID-19 hit.
On “Parade of 99 Demons,” Hong Kong-based Blood Wine or Honey did the arrangement and played the instruments. Had you had a relationship with them before?
No, I didn’t know them at all — my producer told me about them. My producer knows a lot of artists in Asia, and we talked about how it might be viable to work with someone from Hong Kong since we’re recording remotely. I figured Blood Wine or Honey would be good for Parade of 99 Demons since their songs have a psychedelic vibe and bring to mind sweltering nights. I actually wrote the song on a sweltering night. I was living in an apartment downtown at the time that was like a solitary cell, and I couldn’t write any music at all. Parade of 99 Demons is that whole situation put into song form. The lyrics “goodbye dreams, I don’t care where you go / we’ll see each other again in 25 years” capture my emotional state at the time. It was to the point that I didn’t care if I couldn’t write another song for the next 25 years. [Laughs]
You worked with Taiwan-based artist Ruby Fatale on “Ephemeral Miniature Garden.” It’s got a wonderfully raw sound that makes you feel like you’re floating.
My fans really like it, and say what an amazing song it is. Ruby was another introduction from my producer. After listening to her songs, I really wanted to have her sing “Ephemeral Miniature Garden.” The song is a direct translation of a dream I had. The places and colors described in the lyrics are just as they appeared in the dream. And the “you” I refer to in the song is a real person. It’s someone I sort of had a thing for as a kid, and I guess they must have been in my subconscious. We gave Ruby an English translation of the Japanese lyrics and she did a great job turning the Japanese language’s unique softness into sound, picking up on that “ephemerality.”
The phrase “we fools should get together again” in the album’s last track “An Encouragement of Music,” which was arranged by Satoshi Takebe, hits home for me.
I rewrote the lyrics after the pandemic came. The 2019 Rock in Japan Festival is what inspired me to write the song. The last performer on the day I performed was 10-FEET, and they put on this performance that was like a monster sweeping up tens of thousands of people with one arm. It made me think, “now this is why festivals are so fun.” I think many of my fans aren’t the type that go to music festivals, but this song was intended to make them want to.
Did finishing up the album Anti-Freeze bring any future plans into view?
I have the confidence now to try doing things in different ways. I haven’t decided whether to do a similar album or try something different. I feel more free now about what I could do, like “maybe I can be a little selfish now that I’m 30.” I’ve always been one to try and read people based on their expressions, and getting things done without delay was really important. But music is not about that, and that’s something I only realized recently.
Do you also want people who listen to your albums to feel more freedom in their life, too?
I do. I want them to know that maybe it’s OK to be more self-centered. I’ve changed a lot about myself, too, in the last 18 months. I hope people will see that and be inspired to try something new or break away from something — that it will flip a switch in those wanting to make some change. I don’t like when something becomes routine; keeping my options as open as possible is how I want to live.
This interview by Tomoyuki Mori first appeared on Billboard Japan.