Britsh harpist in a Japanese metal band?!

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.

studio smiling
Enjoying the Union Jack while taking a break from rehearsing

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.

My first performance in Tokyo at the Bio Ojiyan Cafe

bio 2Yesterday 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.

My boyfriend/harp slave being a saint as per.
My boyfriend/harp slave being a saint as per.

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.

Photo credit: Takashi Inomata
Photo credit: Takashi Inomata
Saskia Thoelen about to drop some sick harmonies
Saskia Thoelen about to drop some sick harmonies

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 🙂

All Tokyo and no harp…

My lovely celtic harp
My lovely celtic harp

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.

hikouki-gumo01For 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.

windrises4I 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!”

Julia Mascetti featured on Twisted Jazz’s debut album ‘Jazz Pressure’

Recording at Miloco Studios
Recording at Miloco Studios

Whilst living in London last year, I had the pleasure of recording with Nel Kabas for her project Twisted Jazz at Miloco Studios. I am excited to share that Twisted Jazz’s debut album Jazz Pressure is out now and available on iTunes, Spotify and Amazon.

Jazz Pressure is perhaps best described as a jazz-electro album, but with an idiosyncratic mix of influences. Personal bias aside, I would recommend the album to anyone who likes music which is both unusual and the accessible – a combination I aspire to in my own music. Check out www.twisted-jazz.com to find out more or get yourself a copy.

I really enjoyed working with Nel K and Twisted Jazz. If any musicians are interested in future collaborations, please feel free to contact me.

jazz pressure

Adventures at London Anime Gaming Con

I’m not ashamed to admit it, I grew up going to cons. My parents are old school sci-fi nerds and convention organisers (my Mum was organising a con in the USA when she was pregnant with me, so I never really had a chance at a normal life).

Pre-gig selfie with Megan Valentine
Pre-gig selfie with Megan Valentine

Saving up my pocket money to take the train down to London with my nerdy friends for MCM Expo and buy some pocky and an Edward Elric plushie was a defining aspect of my teenage years. So when I was asked to perform at London Anime Con, the answer was a resounding yes! I had never been to the convention before but I knew several regulars and I had done an interview with the convention’s sister publication, The League of Extraordinary Cosplayers, after my performance at the lolita event Enchanted six months previously.

I was also really pleased to be performing right before Heroine Syndrome, an anime pop punk band who I met when we were both performing at Enchanted. I really like their music, we’ve become good friends and have collaborated on a number of occasions. Arthur Rei was kind enough to play tenor guitar from me so we drove down from Leeds in my Vauxhall Vectra and had a great time enjoying the con and hanging out with Heroine Syndrome before it was our turn to go on.

IMG_7773For my set, I played a combination of original songs and anime, gaming IMG_7766soundtracks on the main stage. I performed my cover of Itsumo Nando Demo from the Spirited Away soundtrack, To Zanarkand from Final Fantasy and Hikoukigumo from The Wind is Rises. The latter two I had never performed before and I hope to record them as they’re both fun pieces. I had a lot of fun and the audience seemed to really lovely people, thank you to everyone who came up to me afterwards!

IMG_7777

Afterwards we had great fun dancing to Heroine Syndrome’s set. They played a lot of songs from their upcoming EP ‘The Wrong Side of the Road’ as well as some covers of anime soundtracks from Naruto and Digimon. I particularly enjoyed their catchy original ‘Songfic,’ which also seemed to go down particularly well with the crowd. And lead singer Megan Valentine looked awesome in her Sailor Neptune cosplay!

If all goes to plan I’ll return to London Anime Gaming Con in July. I hope to see you there!

Photo credit: Briarley Van Zyl
Photo credit: Briarley Van Zyl

Check out this awesome video of Heroine Syndrome’s performance, with hitherto unreleased audio from their upcoming EP. Also features exclusive footage of me dancing over-enthusiastically 😉

Real Junk Food Recordings

Towards the close of 2014 I was involved in a project which helped rejuvenate my enthusiasm for my music and gave me a little more faith in humanity.

Before November I had been vaguely aware of ‘that cafe where you can pay what you like,’ but I didn’t have a clear idea of what the Real Junk Food Project was. It turns out that the Real Junk Food Junk Food Project is just that: an initiative which intercepts food that would otherwise be wasted from restaurants and supermarkets and cooks high quality meals, which are served on a pay as you feel basis. Founded in my university city of Leeds, the flagship Pay As You Feel cafe was just down the road from me in Armley, but similar cafes are popping up across the country.

I heard that friends at the University of Leeds Folk Society were recording some music to raise awareness and funds for the cafe so I went along with them to the studio to show moral support and soon learnt that the Armley Pay As You Feel cafe was under threat of closure as the landlord had put the premises up for sale, and that the founder and head chef Adam Smith had started an indiegogo campaign to raise the money to buy their home. A group of musicians from the folk society and Leeds College of Music were recording an album to try and help them, and were kindly being offered free studio time at the incredible Old Chapel Studios.

In my typical over committing style, within half an hour I had agreed to contribute my PR experience and my music to the album. The former involved sitting down with project leader Lorentz Bloom and photographer Maria Alzamora to try and garner some direction for the album. We decided to call our project ‘Real Junk Food Recordings,’ and agreed that it would be available on bandcamp on a pay as you feel basis like the food from the cafe. We set up a facebook page, Maria did some gorgeous artwork for us and I threw together a couple of press releases and gave the other two some hashtagging lessons.

The musical side of my involvement was a lovely experience. I chose my song SAD to put forward to the album, because of its seasonal relevance and its simple, acoustic sound. With some help from songwriter Arthur Rei on tenor guitar, we recorded it at the wonderful Old Chapel Studios in Holbeck, Leeds.

Recording the harp at Old Chapel Studios
Recording the harp at Old Chapel Studios

We had a very limited time to record all twenty artists who were to feature on the album and so we managed to get SAD down in two takes. This ninja speed of recording was nerve wracking but also liberating: I knew I wasn’t going to get it 100% perfect in the limited time I had so I could really enjoy giving an emotive performance. Thanks to some nice guitar-ing from Arthur and the impressive sound engineering and production skills of Darcy Taranto, I’m pretty content with the final result.

The album was released on bandcamp on 15th December and is available to download on a pay as you feel basis, with every penny going directly towards the cafe campaign. Just under a month later on 10th January, I was thrilled to hear that £23,000 had been raised for the cafe, enough to convince investors to fund the remaining cost of the cafe via social loans.

Album artwork by Maria Alzamora
Album artwork by Maria Alzamora

It was wonderful to be able to donate my musical skills to a great cause and work with some great artists. The album is still available on a pay as you feel basis on the Real Junk Food Recordings Bandcamp and there is some really high quality music on there. Fans of folk and jazz in particular are well catered for. My personal favorites are The Evan Davies Band’s ‘Nightingale,’ and Aino Elina’s ‘Lähdetään.’

Why not check it out realjunkfoodrecordings.bandcamp.com
#junkfoodrecordings