This article was first published in Ampersand, the magazine publication of The Red & Black. Founded in 1893, the Red & Black is UGA's only independently-owned and student-run newspaper.
It’s been almost exactly a year since K Ishibashi — otherwise known by his stage name, Kishi Bashi, although that can hardly be called a pseudonym — came to call Athens home. And what a year it’s been.
After living in New York City for 10 years, Ishibashi says that a place like Athens is a “breath of fresh air.” He, like most Athenians, appreciates living in a place where he’s constantly surrounded by good people, good music, great art and really good food. It’s a very small city with a very high quality of life, he says.
Although his move is fairly recent, Ishibashi came to love Athens years earlier in the time he spent here rehearsing with of Montreal. When it came time to find a place to relocate his family, Athens was an obvious and practical choice.
For Ishibashi, music is a family affair. Much of what would become his second full-length solo album, Lighght, was recorded in his own home studio. His wife, Keiko, also a seasoned violinist, provides vocals on several tracks of the album, and he credits his eight-year-old daughter, Sola, for her “goodwill on everything.”
It only makes sense that the talented duo are teaching their daughter to play violin as well. Unsurprisingly, “she actually has a lot of musical talent,” according to her father.
Lighght was released this past May through Joyful Noise Recordings, a label for artists that seek “to bridge this gap between pop and noise.” Referred to by NPR as a “one-man orchestra” and by countless others as a violin virtuoso, it’s hard to believe Ishibashi could produce anything remotely close to noise.
Even so, the industry has difficulty categorizing the music of K Ishibashi, perhaps because what he achieves is something so unfamiliar. Some call it “experimental indie pop,” others “avant-garde pop” (although as Ishibashi says, that’s almost a contradiction) and others still “orchestral pop.”
Having studied violin at Berklee College of Music and toured with the likes of Of Montreal and Regina Spektor, it’s taken some time for Ishibashi to come to terms with the label of “pop” musician.
“I used to think of it as a bad word, very simple or provincial,” he says. “But I think it describes my music pretty well.”
Lighght (pronounced “light,” Ishibashi is careful to clarify), has already received a lot of attention — starting with its title. Cryptic, yet thoughtful album titles seem to be a trend, as well as a reminder of how intentional Ishibashi is with his work.
While Kishi Bashi’s debut album, titled 151a, derived from the pronunciation of a Japanese phrase meaning, “one meeting, one time,” lighght is originally a one-word poem by minimalist poet, Aram Saroyan. The word is obviously misspelled but pronounced the same, because the gh is silent.
“The whole idea of playing with words and invoking larger emotions through just small changes is something that kind of resonated [with] me,” Ishibashi says, “I’m a pop musician but I’m also classically trained. I consider myself an experimentalist a little bit, but I’m still adhering to classical forms.”
Ishibashi says that he just wants to make music people will listen to over and over again. Many listeners may have first discovered Kishi Bashi after several songs from 151a were placed in television commercials for Windows, Sony and Smart. This catchy, stuck-in-your-head quality of Ishibashi’s music is particularly impressive when many of the lyrics are in Japanese, a language the average American listener doesn’t typically understand.
In a recent interview with Steve Inskeep of NPR, Ishibashi explains the origins of “Philosophize With It! Chemicalize in It!” The song was originally a 30-second television commercial that aired in Japan. So many listeners demanded to hear the rest of the song that Ishibashi had to quickly write the rest of it just to satisfy them.
Though his songs are as thematically diverse as they are musically, he says they tend to “juxtapose strange imagery on top of beautiful, orchestral landscapes.” One such example of “strange” imagery comes with “The Ballad of Mr. Steak,” a tune quite literally about a dancing piece of meat that also happens to be topping the charts in Japan. It is reportedly a favorite of Sola’s, due to a line about booty shaking.
Relatively new to town, Ishibashi is already fitting in nicely with the local community and has showed support to the music scene by headlining festival lineups such as March’s Slingshot and June’s Athfest.
Kai Riedl, director of Slingshot Festival, says, “[Ishibashi’s] music struck me right away as something fresh, and that’s what we want to bring to Athens.” Ishibashi actually cites his performance at Slingshot as one of his favorites so far.
“It was kind of a new thing for me, because I had stage props [and] a little bit of performance art included,” Ishibashi says. “That was so much fun.”
For Ishibashi, performing in Athens comes as a nice break from the ordinary routine of touring and an opportunity to perform while surrounded by his family and friends. These shows do have certain drawbacks, though.
Ishibashi laughs, “You’re coming from home, so you’re like, ‘Oh, did I forget my shoes?’”
As Riedl says, “[His] music helps keep the Athens music scene moving forward, diverse and even playful.”
For Ishibashi, the goal has always been the same. “I want people to either do one of three things,” he say, “dance, be very happy or cry.”
Or maybe, all of the above.