"Once upon a time, there was a girl and a unicorn. They became friends but sad things happened and they became stars..." is the dreamy description of the opening song of Masayoshi Fujita's second album, Apologues.
Fujita not only has a unique story behind each of his songs, but he also plays and writes with a distinctive instrument: the vibraphone. After being a drummer in bands for years and being influenced by his father's jazz records, he decided to switch to the soft-sounding instrument to compose his own music. This led him to create his first record Stories, which ventured further by incorporating other instruments into his arrangements.
Released on Erased Tapes, Apologues features eight instrumental songs, each with an individual story that he hopes will arouse listeners' own meanings and imaginations. Andrew Darley chatted to Masayoshi about making music, the potential of the vibraphone and how he has grown on his new album.
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The word 'apologues' refers to narratives people have told throughout history to explain a moral. Why did you pick that as this record?
Me and Robert Raths (founder of Erased Tapes) discussed this a lot. We quite liked the title of the previous album, Stories, because it's neutral. We obviously couldn't use the same word twice so we looked for something similar that had the same idea. I knew it meant telling a story with a moral, but that's not necessarily my intention with the music. I wanted a neutral word for the stories within the songs.
Do you see a connection or thread between the two records?
I'm trying to evoke images and sceneries in both albums. I wanted this to be an extension of the first album. I made it broader using more instruments.
Was this to add more layers to the stories you had in mind for the songs?
It depends on each song. 'Swallow Flies High In The May Sky' had quite a strong image and I wanted a clarinet sound to connect it to an early summer mood. I was certain that I wanted to use a clarinet for the scene. On the other hand 'Tears Of Unicorn' was written first on the vibraphone and then I added more instruments and strings later.
Were there any songs in which it was difficult to write the other instrument parts for?
It took a really long time because I never studied how to make an orchestration or arrangements. I just learned it by doing it and it was a lot of fun.
The booklet that comes with the record has descriptions of the stories in each song. Were these the ones you had in mind while writing the songs?
It depends because when I make music it comes first from small phrases on the vibraphone. I hear these nice chords and a harmony on the vibraphone and then I'll repeat it'll give me a visual. Sometimes the image helps the music go further. I always interact with both the sound and the image to make the song richer.
Are you interested by the images your listeners will experience when listening to the record?
The images listeners have don't have to be the same as mine but I like to tell a little bit of where they came from, which is why I put them in the booklet.
Going back to the very beginning, how did you discover the vibraphone?
I knew the sound of the instrument because my father is a big jazz fan and always played records at home. I used to play drums and I was always looking for a vibraphonist to play with, but nobody plays it! One day I was helping a jazz drummer to carry his stuff and he played with a vibraphonist, which was the first time I saw a player in real life. I talked to him and he said that he was giving private lessons so I thought "Why not?". It just felt right when I played it. At the same time, I wanted to start composing my own songs but with drums it's difficult so I changed from drums to vibraphone.
Since learning how to play it, you have experimented with prepared vibraphone by using different materials to play it and push its sound. How did this start?
I was playing in a band after I moved to Berlin that was quite experimental. The drummer always put materials on the drums or played cymbals with a ball or something. One day he said I should try something different on the vibraphone and I liked it. I wanted to bring this aesthetic to my solo material. I began playing it with a bow or placed a hand towel on it to change the sound.
Nils Frahm who is also on Erased Tapes uses different items to explore the sound of the piano and what it can create too. Do you think the way musicians are pushing sound forward, we may be on a road of creating a new instrument?
I wouldn't say that we're creating a new instrument but we are exploring the potential of existing ones. A lot of people have worked with the prepared piano but for the vibraphone it's not very common. That gives me so much room to explore. It's not about looking for a weird, unknown sound but to make more potentials.
As a listener, the sound of the vibraphone is very soothing. What is your feeling while playing it?
I feel like I'm being surrounded by sound. When I play busy songs like 'Flag' on the album, it's quite hard and fast. I prefer the soft and sparse songs with spaces in between the sounds.
You relocated to Berlin in 2006. Do you think you grew as an artist here in ways that you wouldn't have in Japan?
In Berlin, living is cheap and there's more free space compared to Japan. You need less money, which means you have more time. That's really important to me because it takes a long time for me to practice and create my songs. The way I compose is time-consuming; I'm not a well-trained vibraphonist so I need to practice my skills. Being away from Japan, you leave friends and your home as well as all the unnecessary things in your life. You have to have the newest phone or clothes, but I feel that I have less interest in that now living in Berlin.
It feels less materialistic in Berlin.
Yes, Berlin is more relaxing and it's not as focused on business and money. It's also the one of the biggest cities for electronic music and other styles. There's so many artists and labels based here and loads of concerts every night. You can meet and go see interesting people all the time. There's also the freedom to take your time at home and create something.
You mentioned your relationship with Robert Raths who founded Erased Tapes label. How did you two meet?
I met him a few years ago in Berlin when Nils Frahm was playing a concert. I talked to him and we got to know each other over time. When I made a demo for the album, I sent it to him. We started to work together after that. I like what Erased Tapes release and their artists, so I thought they were the best fit for my music.
The artwork was created by Bernd Kuchenbeiser. What does it represent to you?
Robert knew him and suggested that we should work together. Bernd is a visual designer, but we asked him if he could photograph and make images as well. He showed us lots of different photos and designs so it took a long time to find the right one for the album. We loved the one we chose because it's abstract and gives you room to put your imagination in-between. To me, it looks like the woods behind a lake but other people might see something different. I like the idea of having space to see something on your own and it doesn't interrupt the stories of the songs.
You said you incorporated more instruments on this album and different arrangements. Do you feel you have grown and become more confident as a composer?
Yes and no. I'm always learning by doing. I don't know what I'm doing until I try and test it. I'm quite happy with the songs on this record; I know that I can make songs and arrangements. I've thought about studying composition properly, but people have said to me that I would lose something very important in how I create. I'm also a bit lazy to go back and study it! I'm happy in how I work so maybe I'll teach myself and still make unique music anyways.
Apologues is out September 11th via Erased Tapes, but you can listen to it right now thanks to this exclusive stream: