The Japanese word "omoiyari" communicates a meaningful concept — that empathy is rooted in our interest in other people. A basic premise, no doubt, but one that's very much needed today. Omoiyari is also the title of musician Kishi Bashi's newest album, which finds compassion in periods of prejudice and repression from our country's recent past. You need not look back all that far.
Kaoru Ishibashi says his record is about "how resilient we are and how compassionate we can be" as humans, but it arrives at that conclusion by way of heartbreak and pain. Though, along the way, he finds the occasional ray of sunshine.
"I focused more on the human stories of love, desire and loss, the universal things that are the real ways we can connect to the past," Ishibashi tells the Inlander from a tour stop in Dallas. "This isn't a dusty picture from 75 years ago. This could be my dad, or me. That's why my album's more reflective of human nature rather than tragedy."
The singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, studio engineer and Seattle native began his musical career as a founding member of the band Jupiter One, and later played as a touring violinist with acts like Regina Spektor and Of Montreal. As a solo artist, he's always been a sensitive storyteller, and this new album takes it one step further.
"I feel like [the topic of] minority identity, and inclusivity and diversity, is on everybody's mind," he says. "It's tumultuous, but America is becoming a more inclusive place, I think."
Ishibashi has also been working on a documentary film that will essentially be a companion piece to the Omoiyari album, and he's hoping it will premiere early next year at the SXSW Film Festival. Alongside director Justin Taylor Smith and a group of graduate students from Brown University, Ishibashi visited the sites of six former Japanese internment camps, including Heart Mountain, Wyoming, and learned the history.
"Sometimes it's in a beautiful place, and you feel conflicted because you're trying to process tragedy and beauty at the same time," Ishibashi says.
This new album performs a similar kind of balancing act, reconciling ugly facts of humanity by way of bright folk-pop and gorgeous Americana. It also does it through the prism of intimate, personal stories. "F Delano," named after the president who gave the go-ahead to the internment of Japanese people in the 1940s, is set within one of those camps, "in the desert where no one should live." "Summer of '42" is the story of lovers separated by that same internment, and another romance is splintered by the injustices of the Jim Crow South in "Angeline."
But the songs have a musical buoyancy that belies their harsh subjects, with lush arrangements that impart an operatic grandeur, and vocal harmonies that sometimes seem a thousand voices deep. It also abandons the electronic leanings of its predecessor, 2016's Sonderlust, which relied heavily on synths and violin loops.
Ishibashi wrote the songs that appear on Omoiyari over the last two years while he was touring and making the documentary, though he recorded the bulk of the album in about a week. He typically works alone, he says, but this time he enlisted a band that could help him shape the sound.
"I walked in [to the studio] with nine songs and came out with nine songs," he says with a laugh. "It was a departure in that I relied on other musicians to achieve this vision."
Kishi Bashi is now on the road with a four-piece backing group, and the show that's heading to Spokane on Monday is, as he describes it, a rock show that morphs into a mini symphonic concert, and then back again. There will be heaviness and seriousness, yes, but if you know anything about Kishi Bashi's music — how uplifting and expansive and downright danceable it can be — it's also going to be a high-energy show.
"It won't be a lecture on discrimination," he laughs. "It's just a big, fun time, and a celebration of what it means to be a human being. With all the terrible things humans are doing to each other, you can't let that take over your life." ♦
Kishi Bashi with Takenobu • Mon, Oct. 7 at 8 pm • $20 • All ages • Knitting Factory • 919 W. Sprague • sp.knittingfactory.com • 244-3279