I’ve officially started working as a freelance harpist in Tokyo!
After a month back home in the UK I arrived back in Tokyo mid-May and have been spending my time setting everything up as a freelance musician. My visa is sorted, I have shiny new business cards and I have spent the last week contacting agencies, wedding planners, high end restaurants and corporations to secure my profession. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have these opportunities!
For those who don’t know my story, I went to Tokyo after graduating with a BA in Music. I taught English for 6 months before I changed job and became a music teacher. During this time I was certainly not idle with my harp playing – I played a lot of live shows, I released a solo EP and recorded another EP with my band that will be out very soon. I received many offers to play at weddings and paid events but with my previous visa I was not permitted to take paid freelance engagements. This was such a shame as one of the ways I paid my way through university was playing at weddings and the like and I always really enjoyed the work. I also saw a gap in the market amongst expats who are organising events and may feel more comfortable with musicians who speak their language. Especially Brits who are missing the wonderful celtic folk music from our country!
So because I’m always looking for ways to move forward in life/masochistically enjoy making things difficult for myself, I started to think about changing my visa yet again so that I could be a freelance harpist in Japan. I’m happy to say that I was approved! Setting up as a freelance musician is scary but also hugely exciting. I’m also still teaching early years music at a lesson studio and Tokyo American Club which was always a lot of fun but actually I’m enjoying all the more now that it’s not my main job. I brought my harpsicle lap harp with me from the UK and I’ve got a lot of ideas how to incorporate it in my lessons with the little ones.
I’m definitely going to be in Japan and available for freelance work at least until May 2018 so if you are getting married in Tokyo or the surrounding area, you have an event that could be brightened up with a harpist or you would like a session harpist for a recording, feel free to contact me! It’s juliamascetti at gmail.com
“Don’t, whatever you do, put your harp in the hold.”
The advice of pretty much every musician ever.
As both an expat and a harpist, my life choices have not exactly made things easy in terms of moving my stuff around. Once last year I did a gig as solely a vocalist and it was incredible. No faffing about with taxis, no desperate attempts to take my harp on public transport. I actually went to the pub afterwards and didn’t have to ask in Japanese if they have a back room where I can put my lever harp while I drank with the band. My old car made things a lot easier but I sold him to come to Japan. I also have a beautiful pedal harp being rented out 6000 miles from here that I pine for occasionally but getting her out here is next to impossible.
Taking my harpsicle on a plane though, would not be impossible. For those who don’t know, harpsicles are small harps that you can carry around with you, are often painted in fun colours and you can plug them in easily. I have one, it’s purple and I love it. I could think of so many uses for it in my Tokyo life – on stage with my metal band so I could perform standing, in my work as a Kindermusik teacher and any casual rehearsal where I could get away without the faff of moving my large lever harp.
On their website, Harpsicle® Harps describe how professionals have started using their harpsicles as their “travel harp,” “the one they can toss into the airline overhead while their big harp is trapped in a massive harp travel trunk.” So I was hopeful that I could take my harp on the plane with me on my flight from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda. I looked on some flight and music forums and found that people had had very mixed experiences taking their harpsicles on planes and I started to be more concerned. I really didn’t want to be in a situation where I had presumed that it would be allowed on with me and then be turned away at security – with the choice of either leaving my harp behind or chucking it into the hold with only a soft case (which is NOT an option at all).
So I called British Airways, gave them my harpsicle’s dimensions and asked if it could come with me in the cabin. The short answer was no and the long answer was no. I didn’t have a hard case as Harpsicle® Harps don’t make them and I didn’t wanted to spend the money required for a custom made case as it would probably cost more than the harp.
So my Dad and I set about making a cardboard construction to keep my baby harp safe in the hold.
First we wrapped the harp and its softcase in 4 layers of bubble wrap…
Then we constructed cardboard around the harp. Making it so it fit tightly around the irregular shape was harder than it looks. Again we used several layers for protection.
Finally we used a tonne of tape and then added fragile tape and a contents label in English and Japanese.
The packing process took a little more than an hour. It did occur to me that if customs told me to unwrap this I would be royally screwed. Luckily, I got through with only a few odd looks and some questions. My real concern, however, was whether my harp would be damaged. Every musician I had chatted with had looked at me in horror when I had told them my intention of putting my harp in the hold. It took me 20 minutes and 3 papercuts to free my baby harp from it’s cardboard case but when I got it out it was undamaged and even mostly in tune. Victory.
It’s been really satisfying bringing my purple harpsicle to work and rehearsals this week and I recorded my first youtube video with it in years last weekend. It’s Galway Girl by Ed Sheeran and I’m not as ashamed of this as I should be.
In the autumn I posted about joining a heavy metal band in Japan and a few weeks ago we had our first gig together! Post is super late due to a trip to Kyoto with my family and several other significant occurrences which will no doubt be blogged about in due course.
My band’s name is Gjöll and we play melodic metal. I joined the band as part of a drastic line up change, which has resulted in a dramatic change in sound. They had one release before I joined and we’re currently in the process of recording another, so hopefully soon I’ll be able to blog about what it’s like to go into the studio in Japan!
Our gig was at the Crescendo Live House in Kichijoji and we were honoured to play alongside some amazing acts including the awesome Aresz from Osaka who have been playing together for over 20 years. We had our soundcheck and rehearsal then I went off to enjoy the nearby Studio Ghibli museum in the hours before the gig.
Sound-checking in Japanese is an anxiety button of mine. I don’t like doing it in the UK either because sound engineers rarely know what to do with the harp and there’s only so many times you can say, “I still need more in the monitors,” before you start to annoy people. But in Japanese it’s even worse, what with all of the specific vocabulary and because the distance between me and the sound engineers means that I can’t rely on my usual hand gestures and significant looks to make up for my poor language skills. But I got through it and I was very impressed with the professionalism of the Crescendo’s staff.
It’s less common to see foreigners in smaller music venues than in larger gigs (where sometimes we dominate the audience…) but if I’m the only non-Japanese in the room it doesn’t bother me at all, obviously. What I do find excruciatingly embarrassing is when the bands point it out… from the stage. Believe it or not, this happens almost every time I go to a concert in a small venue. The last visual kei gig I went to one of the bands said こんばんは to the audience and then looked directly at me to say ‘Good evening,’ causing everyone to turn around and stare. I know this is kindly meant but it makes me wish a trap door would open underneath me. So when Rumiko, the gorgeous singer from Aresz comments on the ‘international’ nature of the audience and apologised for not being able to speak English the Britishness in me could not handle it. “Please, please don’t apologise! You are not expected to change anything your amazing band does in any way on my account!”
We were on last and thankfully everyone stuck around so we played to a nice crowd. I was pretty nervous – not only was this my first gig with them it was the first time I had sung without the harp in front of an audience in ages. Even though singing with the harp is very complicated, I guess I feel I can hide behind it. But there was such a friendly atmosphere in the audience and we had been practicing really hard which gave me confidence. I really enjoyed performing and I can’t wait for the next one!
In September I wrote a review of one of my favourite Japanese bands, Mushi Furuu Yoru Ni. As well as their stunning performance, I was also enchanted by the venue – The Aoyama Moon Romantic (青山 月見ル君想フ). The Moon Romantic is a ‘live house’ (Japanese English for gig venue) in Omotesando with idiosyncratic yet ever-so-trendy décor including a FRICKIN HUGE MOON behind the stage. When I was awed by that gig in September I didn’t think that I would be playing my harp at the very same amazing venue 6 months later.
A couple of months ago, my boyfriend decided he wanted to start gigging in Japan and so started sending out his music to various live houses. On a whim, he chose to send his EP to the Moon Romantic, not thinking that they would want an unknown to them to perform. Surprisingly, they wrote back really quickly, saying that they would love to have him play just two months later! We often play together, though it’s more common for him to play on my music than vice versa, or for us to play covers together. We wanted this gig to be special so we decided it was time to reverse roles. We had fun figuring out which songs would work with a sprinkle of harp or female backing vocals. A couple of weeks practicing and plugging the gig to our friends and followers flew by and then it was show time!
A less glamorous part of the day was walking from Meiji-jingumae station to the gig with harp, keyboard and the rest of our gear. Believe it or not, taxi prices are even worse in Tokyo than London and so my spindly arms and I were hating life a bit. Mostly I can do fine living without a car but it’s times like this when I really miss my bashed up Vauxhall Vectra.
When we got there everything was great though. The venue’s set up and treatment of my harp (something I always worry about outside the classical arena) was really professional. Something I’ve noticed when hanging around gigs in Japan so far is that soundcheck appears to be more thorough – I’m used to the, “Is it plugged in? Good,” approach but sound engineers in Japan sometimes want you to run through your entire set. I really enjoyed chatting with the bands backstage, and they were kind about my harp taking up more than it’s fair share of space…
It was both of our first times performing to such a large crowd in Japan so we were nervous. In the end though, we had a lot of fun on stage and our set was well received. Performing in such a beautiful venue felt magical. The other acts were all of a really high standard and we felt proud to be able to play alongside them! I would particularly recommend checking out Mami Kawamae, an impressive vocalist with a lot of energy and large presence for a solo act.
Here’s a video of us playing one of Arthur’s songs spaces. We really hope we can perform here again!
Of all the times I’ve thrown myself into the deep end inadequately prepared this has to be… well, it’s probably not the most overly ambitious, but that probably says more about my life and my choices than anything else.
I have joined a metal band. In Tokyo. With Japanese people. Who can’t speak English.
Putting the harp in places where it shouldn’t be has long been my thing. Aside from my own songwriting, I’ve played on electro-jazz and pop punk tracks, at anime conventions and fashion shows. What I’ve always wanted to do but have never gotten the chance to is play in a band. See, people often want a bit of harp for that one quirky song but they don’t want to keep you around as an actual permanent member. I wanted to continue playing the harp in Tokyo, but the band bit was not something I intended.
So there’s this website oursounds, which is a kind of social networking for Japanese musicians. Starting a band in Tokyo was something my boyfriend always intended (seeing as his Japanese is far better than mine, this isn’t going in over his head so much), so he was using the site to find bandmates. I thought, “Why not, lets make a profile and see what happens?” I got a number of messages. I perhaps made a mistake in including a photo and some of the messages… didn’t seem like music was their primary concern. Some were for projects I wasn’t that interested in but one stood out. A singer (or rather death vocalist) for a symphonic metal band was looking for a female singer and instrumentalist. His band had been going for a while but several people had left to they were looking to rebuild it with a new lineup. He had seen my profile and he liked that I could play the harp and sing in English. He was really complementary and it seemed interesting so I thought I would give it a shot.
I was pretty nervous when I went to the first rehearsal, in a studio in Shinjuku. Studio hire is cheap and commonplace in Japan – probably because strict landlords restrict practice of even classical instruments or ban them altogether. This particular studio was super trendy, with tonnes of posters of Japanese and Western rock bands on the wall. After I clumsily introduced myself, we ‘warmed up’ by playing through some symphonic metal favorites.
My bandmates are great people, and excellent musicians. Seriously I have lucked out with the level of technical ability and musicality they all possess; to be honest I feel a little inferior. None of them, however, know any significant English. This means that rehearsals are difficult. Really difficult. Interestingly, I find my bandmates far harder to understand than my colleagues at my school, despite their best intentions. I think this is because they speak mostly in plain form, whereas the teachers at school use polite form. For those who don’t know, Japanese language varies a lot depending on the level of formality of the situation. Foreigners are almost always taught basic polite form first, then plain form, and then the super scary keigo (honorific speech) for advanced learners. I only really started getting to grips with plain form this year, whereas I’m much more comfortable with polite form. This means that I can cope in the staff room, a work situation. However, in a rehearsal with my bandmates (men in their 20s – men usually speak less politely than women) I’m pretty lost most of the time.
It’s all very well to say that music is a universal language there’s also slight cultural differences in ‘the way music is done’ that are difficult to understand that I really should have been more aware of. For example, even in metal songs, Japanese tunes tend to follow a pretty set structure. When I played them a song of mine I was hoping we could add to our repertoire, what raised eyebrows was not the lyrics in English (singing in English is pretty standard for Japanese metal bands, which I think is a shame) but the structure. What I considered a variation on simple verse/chorus with a couple of time sig changes was really pushing the boat out to them. Also, my bandmates seem to place a greater emphasis on ‘influences’ than I’m used to. In my limited experience of collaborative writing, we mostly jammed or did our own thing and fix it as we went along. Before my band tried my song, they wanted me to link me examples of songs I wanted to sound like to find its ‘image.’ This was really hard for me to do, one because of the language barrier, two because the concept of ‘do your own thing and we’ll see how it goes,’ seems foreign to them as well.
I realise this is all very vague but I don’t want to name the band or my band mates yet because it’s still early days but we will be gigging next year, possibly when my parents come to visit. I’m not sure who will be more scared, my whiter than white parents and my 6’1 blonde brother or my bandmates…
In the mean time, I’ll be dutifully learning my music related vocab sheet, schooling myself on Japanese metal, enjoying myself and terrified at the same time. Peace.
Yesterday I took a step out of my comfort zone and performed for the first time in Tokyo! As it was my first performance in Japan as well as my first performance on my new lever harp (I’m trained as a pedal harpist but moving to Japan forced me to ‘downsize’) I was pretty nervous. I wanted to keep the location low key and so I was really pleased when I was asked to play at the Bio Ojiyan Cafe in Harajuku. This cute, trendy cafe has great food and a lovely atmosphere as well as being a generous host to art and music. Definitely worth a visit, there are also English speaking staff.
The journey there was a bit of an adventure. Harp covers are expensive and I am waiting until payday to buy one so we ‘used our initiative’ and made a makeshift cover out of sheets, plastic bags and our clothes line. It was a bit of a struggle getting it on the train without a trolley or a cover with handles but to be honest I’m enjoying the experience of an instrument that it is actually possible for me to carry, being used to my pedal harp that only just fitted in my old Vauxhall Vectra estate.
Despite it being forecast to rain, when we arrived at the cafe the weather was beautiful so the organisers suggested that we do the performance outside! I was pleased because it was almost like busking – something I enjoy but hardly get to do because of the physical limitations of the harp (aka. it would be impossible to hear it in a shopping street without some serious amplification). Yesterday’s performance had the accessibility and freedom of busking with the added benefit or Bio Ojiyan’s first rate sound system. And their free delicious coffees – I do enjoy my performer’s rights sometimes.
I was pretty nervous, mostly because of the language barrier when communicating with the organisers but performing with two great guitarists to a sunlight Harajuku back street and the patrons of a trendy cafe turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Fashionable Japanese shoppers and tourists alike stopped to listen, take photos and compliment us. Everyone was so nice to me that I quickly stopped feeling nervous. One of my highlights of the day was jamming with Saskia Thoelen – an amazing visual artist and jazz singer from Belgium. Saskia performed jazz standards with musicality and energy and, despite never having heard many of the songs I played before, managed to improvise some fantastic harmonies during my set. She has a gig at the Bio Ojiyan cafe on December 13 at 19.30 which I thoroughly encourage any Tokyoites to check out – I hope to see you there.
All in all I had a lovely time at the Bio Ojiyan cafe and I hope to come back soon. I feel like I’ve crossed a psychological boundary with my first gig in Tokyo and I plan to get stuck into more music making soon 🙂
So until now, this blog has been all Tokyo and not much harp.
I suppose that isn’t surprising – I arrived in Tokyo overwhelmed by everything and skint to boot. My first couple of months were spent soaking it all in, as well as making enough money to stay afloat. Once I surfaced from ‘survival mode,’ I could start to think about a vital part of my identity – my musical one.
We haven’t always been easy bedfellows, but for better or for worse the harp is an integral part of my personality. If I don’t play for a while, I feel lost. After looking into hiring a harp I discovered that the Japanese rental market is pretty unforgiving and began to look into second hand celtic harps. I found my new baby in Yahoo auctions of all places. He’s a beautiful second-hand Aoyama lever harp and I got him for far less than he’s worth (and less than it would cost to rent his peer for a year) thanks to the guy not knowing what he was selling. He was out of practice when I brought him home but that’s ok – so am I. Regular tuning, playing and general TLC has improved his tone and tuning, as well as my mental well-being. It felt so good to be able to be play again after so long without a harp.
It’s no secret that I am hugely insecure about my harp playing ability. I know I’m not amazing, and thanks to some bad experiences and an anxious personality sometimes I’ve been tempted to quit all together as I feel I’ll never be able to play the way I want to. Because of this, in a way, the pain of separation between me and the harp world was a good thing. Knowing that it hurt not to be able to play confirmed to me that I am a harpist, even if I don’t play ‘good music,’ even if I have double jointed fingers and muscle tension that cripples my technique, even if I lack the self-discipline to practice properly, even though I started playing ‘too late to ever really be any good.’ The most important thing is that when I play I feel like me. Perhaps it took an enforced break to make me realise that.
For my first cover in Japan and my first online upload ever on a lever harp (excluding my covers on my purple harpsicle), I chose Yumi Arai’s Hikoukigumo, ‘vapour trail,’ the theme song for my favourite Hayao Miyazaki film The Wind Rises. It was originally written by Arai decades earlier as a requiem for a deceased childhood friend. The lyrics to Hikoukigumo are a masterpiece of Japanese vagueness and English is just too much of a blunt instrument to do them justice, although my boyfriend had a good try at a translation. Though the song title is often translated as ‘vapour trails,’ Hikoukigumo literally means ‘airplane clouds,’ and the text gently compares our lives to the ephemeral clouds produces by airplanes. The tension between the imaginative, artistic potential of airplanes and their huge destructive potential is central to the The Wind Rises, which focuses on the life of World War Two aeronautical engineer Jiro Hirikoshi. This is what makes Hikoukigumo a perfect soundtrack for the film, as well as its romantic, meditative sound which I tried to capture in my cover.
I found the juxtaposition of Jiro’s life – an unworldly boy who dreams of flying planes and designs them with the care and love of a master painter, but his beloved creations turn into the killing machines of World War Two – extremely compelling and I fell in love with the song and the film. I have been playing around with it for months and actually performed it live at London Anime Con in July but I chickened out and got Arthur Rei to accompany me on the guitar because playing harp and singing in Japanese was too much at the time. I’m very happy for it to be my first upload of my Japanese life. I’ve been dabbling in mindfulness and Japanese thought since arriving here and so letting go of my attachments to the self, as if my life is a hikoukigumo, resonates with me.
I have several ideas for covers in the pipeline as well as an original release, and I’m hopefully doing a gig in a cafe in Harajuku in the next couple of weeks. But mostly importantly, I’m practicing regularly and enjoying it. Still the same amount of Tokyo, but with more harp. We’ll see what happens.
In the mean time,
“Le vent se lève! . . . Il faut tenter de vivre!”