We’ve covered a lot of ground with J-Tunes, from an underground grindcore band to mainstream melodic dubstep, and today is no different! We recently got a chance to check out a show featuring the Sapporo-based electronic artist Unii and were so impressed that we had to share her music with our readers!
Check out our interview with Unii, where we talk about her music, world-wide touring, and the state of experimental electronic in Japan and abroad. We’re sure you’ll enjoy her sweeping, ambient soundscapes and ethereal singing.
Though a native of chilly Hokkaido’s Sapporo, Unii actually studied in the College of Art and Design at the Musashino Art University in Tokyo. There, she transitioned from playing in bands to composing, recording, and performing solo as an experimental/ambient/minimal artist. Though her fist album, new world, sea, and your eyes, sits squarely on the border between pop and ambient, her most recent album, long scene, before sunset, an album filled with organic sounds and synthesizer soundscapes, is what really captured my attention. After checking out a short performance in the tiny Tokyo bar Art Space Bar Buena, I sat down with the globe-trotting artist for a discussion on her music, inspiration, and world travels.
To start with, we tried to establish exactly what genre Unii fits into–the answer we came up with was entirely inconclusive.
“I make drone/minimal/ambient/experimental music,” she said laughing. “But I’m not sure I fit any of those genres exactly.” And I’d have to agree with her–there’s certainly threads of each genre running through music, but it’d be hard to call it any one genre.
Unii has been an active “computer” musician for around six years, though she started playing guitar and synthesizers and singing in bands in high school. So, why did she change to electronic music?
“I wanted to try making music solo. Making music with a band is completely different. There’s a huge difference in how you focus on the music. The whole electronic music scene is different too–it’s a whole other world in terms of the kind of places you perform at and the people you perform with.”
This really shouldn’t come as a surprise–there’s obviously a giant gap between sweating in a cramped studio with four other people trying to pound out a song and sitting in your bedroom clicking around a DAW. But there’s also a very essential difference in inspiration.
“With a band, the inspiration is…hmmm…it’s the show. It would be like, ‘we want to have this kind of performance and get this kind of reaction, so we have to make this kind of music.'” With a solo project based on electronic music, though, Unii said, “The music is more for myself.” She explained that her inspiration for long scenes, before sunset was memories and feelings from moments in time, like visiting the ocean with a friend or how a relationship with someone else felt at a specific second.
In addition to the inspiration being different, the actual composition of the songs is completely divergent. Obviously, a band records with guitars, drums, and other conventional instruments, but like most computer-based musicians, Unii has a wider range of sounds available. In addition to using synthesized sounds that hum, pulse, and warp, she also makes use of “field recordings,” which are just snippets of sound that she’s recorded in her travels like people praying on the Ganges or an Indonesian friend talking to her little sister.
This led me to wonder what kind of music she enjoys listening to.
“I actually don’t listen to much music now!” she laughed. “Though I do really like solo piano music.” While that might seem strange for an ambient/electronic producer, she explained, “I used to listen to a lot of ambient music, but since I make it now, I don’t as much. But piano music is also really minimal–it’s just one instrument. But you can express so much just with the touch of your fingers. I think, in the same way, with the computer, you can still express a lot.”
“There’s a lot of music with so many different sounds, but I actually prefer music with fewer sounds right now. Like Ainu singing.”
Compared to Unii’s current music, though, her first album was much poppier–and had far more layers and sounds. What prompted the change?
“It wasn’t intentional. It started as sort of an accident.” An ambient-loving friend introduced her to the genre and as she grew to like it more and more, her music naturally changed on its own. “It sort of became the concept for the album,” she said. However, the young artist has no plans to limit herself and expects that her next album will be quite different, though she hasn’t had a chance to start working on it yet due to all her touring.
While Japanese artists do perform outside of Japan, Unii seems to have toured overseas almost more than she has domestically. “It all started last year,” she told me. “It started as a collaboration with the French video artist Escargo Vide.” They toured South East Asia together and then they decided to go to Europe. “I really wanted to go to Europe! It’s a dream for a Japanese artist like me to perform in Europe.” Sadly, her collaborator had to cancel, but she went ahead by herself–without any help. She was–and still is–managing everything herself.
So, how is playing overseas compared to playing in Japan?
“Every country is different!” While this is probably obvious, the differences were quite interesting. Japan has a well-established electronic scene with artists in every genre, but that’s not the case in places like Indonesia where most of her audience had never even heard of ambient before. “People told me they were surprised by it,” but they also said that “it was like dreaming or floating. Even beautiful.” It’s safe to say that she got a very positive, honest reaction in the South East Asian countries.
Meanwhile, her European tour took her to four countries: France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. And she found an even wider difference in the responses there. French audiences seemed to really get into Unii’s music. “There are a lot of people who like Japanese culture in France. And I think there are also many people who like emotional music.” Germany apparently has a much more defined scene, like Tokyo where Unii would get comments focused more on genre than on the music itself. “In Berlin, there’s a lot more techno!”
In addition to touring, Unii has also started her own label: Northern Lights. When asked why, she explained that it was initially just so she could release long scenes, before sunset but now she’s planning to use it to organize more local shows. She explained that while there are ambient and experimental musicians living in Hokkaido, most of them travel to Tokyo to perform. She wants to organize shows under the Northern Lights name in the Sapporo area, at least to start.
“It’s a great place for ambient music–it’s cold but beautiful with all the snow in winter!”
As you may have noticed from all the photos, Unii generally performs with videos displayed behind or even over her. In addition to adding to the atmosphere of the performance, they also give her a chance to collaborate with artists in different mediums.
“I generally collaborate with local video artists,” she explained, but when there isn’t anyone available, she’ll use a video created for her by Samuel Andre, who runs the Kyoto-based label Pollen Rec. In fact a DVD of their show is in the works, though no official release date has been set yet.
As our interview wrapped up, I asked if Unii had any particular message she wanted to share with our dear readers. After a pause, she just seemed relieved. “When I told my friends I was doing an interview with RocketNews24, they were a bit worried you were going to make me eat a giant stack of cheese.”
Sadly, we didn’t have any cheese available…but maybe we’ll have to ambush her at her next Tokyo show in November. Someone get Mr. Sato ready and we can have a cheese-eating competition!
If you live in Japan or China, she’ll be performing in both countries next month. You can get more information on her November 16 Tokyo show here. Be sure to follow her on Facebook for more information about the five Chinese shows in Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Hanzo, and Chingtao.
Finally, we’d like to extend a big thank you to Unii for taking the time to chat!