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.
Sometimes you have moments when you look around you and think, “My life is utterly ridiculous.” Standing in the changing room at The Quarter Note, Shinokubo, waiting to perform with Die Milch, dressed in Lolita fashion and surrounded by girls in even more outrageous outfits is near the top of my list.
“What kind of things do you get me into?!” says long-suffering boyfriend holding his viola and also waiting to perform. Unlike me, boyfriend is not into alternative-fashion in the slightest so his ouji stage outfit, complete with subtle frills, was a new look for him. One I was enjoying immensely.
How on the earth did two scruffs from Essex come to perform with a neo-classical Gothic Lolita outfit in Tokyo? A lot of hanging around at gigs mostly. I’d been a fan since last summer when I was told about Die Milch’s London gig. I almost didn’t go as it was a Sunday night and I was feeling lazy about doing the drive up the M11 to Islington. You can bet I’m glad I made the effort now! After that we went to a gig of theirs in Ikebukuro in the autumn where we got chatting to a friendly fan who was organising a car share to a special Die Milch birthday gig in Shizuoka and did a very good job of convincing us to come along. It was a great excuse to go to Shizuoka and at that gig the band were kind enough to invite us to go for seafood with them. Over dinner, we got chatting to Coco, the band’s keyboardist and vocalist and told her that we play the harp and viola respectively and she asked if we wanted to perform as guests in a performance. Whilst this was very exciting, it’s not exactly unusual for musicians to go ooh when I say I play the harp and nothing to come of it so I didn’t get my hopes up. But a couple of months later, she sent us an email with our parts and gave us the date of the concert! As long as our playing was up to scratch, this was happening!
I’m not ashamed to say that it turned out that ‘getting our playing up to scratch’ was no easy feat. Die Milch are real pros and pros in the classical sense – no offense meant to pop musicians, but difficult classical music demands boss technique. Our parts weren’t easy, we didn’t go to music college and we have day jobs so we worked really hard to get up to level. And when performance day came I was still terrified – if I cock up performing by myself it sucks but if I messed up on this stage I would not only let down a professional band but one which I hugely respected as a fan.
The theme for the gig was ‘Doll Special’ and so the other artists were suitably beautiful and doll like. The openers were colorpointe, a group who fuse singing and ballet with an alternative twist. They were followed by JULiC, a fabulously dressed gothic rock band. I really enjoyed chatting with these lovely people backstage and both of their live sets were fantastic. We were playing on sad～悲しき王子のため息～, a neo-classical instrumental on Die Milch’s latest album Imperial. Luckily, I did not vomit in terror on stage/break my harp strings/play in the wrong place and the crowd responded well to us and Coco’s typically fantastic MC-ing.
A real highlight for me was the fans of Die Milch. Even though my boyfriend Arthur Rei and I were only temporary members of the band they were so kind to us. A friend of Coco’s hand made me a beautiful ring to wear on stage to match the rest of the ladies in Die Milch. Afterwards members of the audience came up to us to chat and one kind gentleman told us that the song we were in was the best piece of the night!
I would like to thank Coco and the rest of Die Milch for this amazing opportunity. I feel like I learnt so much from you – not only musically but about how gigs work in Japan.
I hope to do more collaborations like this one in the future!
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!
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.
HexaGlaM, Velvet Eden, Die Milch, Lapis Light and Rose Noire: a review of a four hour visual kei marathon
4.45pm Saturday 21 November, just starting to get dark, and long-suffering boyfriend and I are wondering around the ‘dodgy’ (aka. many love hotels) section of Ikebukuro. We’re 15 minutes late to the gig, but Google maps manages to direct us to the venue, Ruido K3. We walk down the stairs and pay, then are directed to what I can only describe as a black walled ‘air lock’ kind of entrance. I’m claustrophobic at the best of times so this alone would be enough to get my heart rate up, but we are also greeted by an extremely loud blast of music. We look nervously at each other, hurriedly put in our ear-plugs, and draw back the black curtain.
The sight of HexaGlaM’s set in full swing is enough to make me wonder if I’ve entered wonderland. With wigs and hair every colour of the rainbow, the tremendous amount of energy in the performance of their brand of melodic hard rock really does make them seem larger than life. Singer Sella puts a spell on us with his ‘prince’ character, telling us with a hint of humour that it was ‘fate’ that lead us to meet in downtown Ikebukuro tonight. His powerful voice is equally effective on the band’s catchy melodies and the occasional screaming sections. All five band-members were big personalities but I especially enjoyed watching guitarist Koro. She was jumping around the stage with the air of a kick-ass pixie and I loved her yukata inspired outfit and the way her purple hair extensions clashed with her green sparkly guitar.
After the high energy visual-spectacle that was HexaGlaM, two-piece Velvet Eden seemed like a big contrast, with their more somber electronic music. Because I’m a visual kei novice I didn’t realise this, but Velvet Eden are a veteran unit that have been going since 1998, with one line up or another. On Saturday, the charismatic cross-dressing, vocalist DADA, (the only remaining original member) was joined by current guitarist Chro. Decked out in black lace, they created a gothic feel, assisted by blue lighting and generous use of the smoke machine. Dada’s deep sonorous vocals over drum machine focused electronics brings to mind 80s British Goth.
No denying it, Die Milch were the band I wanted to see. Their July concert in North London was the first music review I wrote for this blog and the last gig I saw before leaving the UK. I fell in love with them there, so seeing them from my new home in Tokyo was really special for me. The three-piece unit did not disappoint, with their fusion of electro neo-classical music and Lolita fashion making for the ultimate audio-visual treat. As usual, they seemed impeccably rehearsed, playing their instruments and their living doll personas to perfection. Only Coco (vocals and keys) and Mocha (violin) performed at the London gig so it was great to see additional violinist Yui perform at Saturday’s show. She adds a lot to unit both sonically; playing off Mocha’s violin parts in delicious call and response duets, and visually; two brunette violinists flanking blonde Coco works very well for the band’s cutesy clockwork choreography.
It was interesting to see how their performance style varied slightly from London to Tokyo. In London they favoured catchy, vocal-centric songs such as ‘Operette’ and ‘Go! Lolita’ whereas Saturday’s gig featured more instrumental, neo-classical repertoire. Either works for me and it was great to hear tracks from their newest album ‘Imperial’ alongside older hits such as ‘Rosaria.’ In their performance of ‘We R D.M’ (We are Die Milch) in London, as well as encouraging their audience to participate in the dance moves, they passed the microphone round almost the entire room so everyone could introduce themselves. They skipped this part this time, perhaps due to the sometimes shyer nature of Tokyoites than Londoners.
All in all their set exceeded my already high expectations and I didn’t want it to end. I’m hoping I can catch their January gig, which is on Coco’s birthday I hear, but it’s in Shizouka… Well I have been needing an excuse to visit that area of Japan!
The lights are low and and the silhouette of a beautiful girl walks elegantly to her violin. Lapis Light certainly like their theatrics. It gets brighter and we can see that singer/violinst Rei (零) has certainly won the prize for best hair and make-up of the night. What seems to be her natural hair is complimented by flowing extensions and a gorgeous autumnal leaves head dress. She has impressive false eyelashes and red glitter under her eyes that compliments her red themed outfit.
After a brief tranquil violin solo, the tempo goes up. And stays up. The best way to describe Lapis Light’s sound is heavy metal meets baroque pop meets video game music. On steroids. Seriously, the energy of this band was relentless – almost too much for my taste at times – and so gentler passages with prominent violin and occasional vocal narration were welcome. I really enjoyed how Lapis Light incorporate traditional Japanese imagery and sounds into their visuals and music – from the autumn leaves in their banner and Rei’s kimono inspired outfit to flurries of pentatontic, ‘koto like’ electronic music decorating their music.
First off, these guys get points for playing an electro-industrial version of ‘O Fortuna’ from Carmina Burana to open. That’s something I’ve always wanted to hear and I can think of nothing better to get an audience pumped up.
The red curtains rose to reveal Rose Noire, of which violin duo Jill and Louie, who may or may not be siblings, are the core members. On Saturday they were joined by bassist tAk and a drummer whose name may be Ebisumaru. Or not. Come back to me in a few years when I’m fluent in Japanese.
Louie does electric violin and lead vocals while Jill plays acoustic violin. I’ve never seen this kind of combination before but it works, chiefly due to Jill’s impressively strong tone on the violin. She was one of the best instrumentalists of the night; her playing really sung and she spun and moved across the stage in a way that had lots of personality but was not overdone.
A few songs into their violin-centric brand of melodic gothic rock, there was a bit of a surprise when Louie started singing counter-tenor. Yes, you heard me right, counter-tenor. At a visual kei concert. A pretty decent one too, and it worked with the more classical theme in these songs, complete with harpsichord electronics. Seriously, these guys make Emilie Autumn look like an amateur.
Bassist tAk had a wonderfully quirky stage presence. You can’t really see it in this photo because his face is covered by the mic stand but his make-up genuinely scared me and he was doing this creepy eye thing to a fangirl at the front who was loving it. At one point he stacked it over the monitors. Even though this cracked the gothic veneer somewhat, he recovered really well which made me warm to him even more. As he smiled apologetically, revealing his teeth for the first time, I heard my boyfriend murmur, “So he’s not scary really…” He gave the cutest little awkward wave when he went off stage, next to Jill and Louie’s flamboyant bows.
Rose Noire seems to have very dedicated fans who rightly demanded an encore. The night finished with their hit FEED, a wonderfully crafted track which favours both Jill’s violin and Louie’s vocals and really shows this genre at its finest. I really recommend listening as an introduction to the band, the yearning violin line will charm its way into your dreams.
A friend who is a fan of old school visual kei said he wanted to go to a visual kei gig when he visits me in Tokyo next year, but expressed concerns that the scene was either dead or the fans were entirely fourteen year-old girls. I’m no visual kei expert, but this afternoon of excellent music and spectacular outfits showed me that the scene is very much alive, even if it has changed markedly from its original form. I was impressed by the age range at the concert actually; there seemed to be a mix of people from about 18 to fans in their fifties, some in gothic, Lolita or visual-kei style outfits but also a fair few in ‘civilian’ dress.
For a visual kei virgin like myself, the event was a sensory overload in the best possible way. I’ve never known a non-classical gig to start at 4.30, but I guess if it’s going to be four hours long I can see the wisdom in it. I definitely needed a lie down afterwards, thanks to such intense music and brightly coloured outfits as well as being on my feet for so long (granny alert). Looking forward to having my mind blown again, bring on the next one!
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 🙂