Artist Spotlight: Haruomi Hosono

Tokyo born and raised, Haruomi Hosono pioneered a unique form of Japanese folk rock music back in the late 1960s. Insisting that the band sing in Japanese as opposed to the more commercial music sung in English, Hosono joined Happy End in 1969. An excellent bassist, singer and songwriter, Hosono is like the Paul McCartney of Japan, without the rockstar mentality that being Sir Paul McCartney brings. So, how have we never heard of him before? You might have heard his music in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation or in Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, but as far as the English-speaking world is concerned ,the popularity of Hosono’s music has been contained to Southeast Asia.

“Kaze Wo Atsumete (Gather the Wind)” is from the group’s 1971 album Kazemachi Roman (Wind City Romance), which features a dominant guitar melody over a simple and steady beat. With touches of electric organ, the song stresses simplicity over flashy, technical, over-produced musical complexity.

Expanding off this kind of Beatles-rock genre, Hosono worked with a loose group of musicians called Tin Pan Alley, which was more experimental and psychedelic. He took full control over production and blended traditional Japanese instruments with a rock n’ roll feel, all backed by a thick, driving electric bass. Off the 1973 album Hosono House, “Bara to Yajuu (Rose and Beast)” contains some tasty wah-wah guitar licks, sliding bass lines and a catchy vocal melody that you can hum along to even if the words are gibberish to you. Swirling electric piano chords and a soothing cigarette-tinged voice mark a departure away from his folk-rock work and begin his venture into more interestingly textured music, full of effect pedals and layers of sounds.

On 1975’s  Tropical Dandy, Hosono developed an exotic concept album. The tracks wove together through oceanic and coastal-sounding interludes while the songs themselves contained marimbas, steel drums and whistling to create a tropical soundscape. With its breathy chorus vocals, bubbly bass line and laid-back piano chords, “Hurricane Dorothy” created the relaxed vacation vibes that the album strived for.

Transitioning from the late ‘70s into the early ‘80s, Hosono again changed musical direction. This time embracing the synthesizer and digital recording equipment, Hosono helped create the group Yellow Magic Orchestra. Similar to the sounds of Kraftwerk, YMO used all electronic music equipment including drum machines, samplers, music sequencers, and state-of-the-art synthesizers of the day (Moog, Korg, Roland, Oberheim, Yamaha, and more). Coming out with Solid State Survivor in 1979, YMO released the track “Technopolis”, a kind of onomatopoeia song that played the sounds of some futuristic, technologically advanced city center. YMO, like Kraftwerk, made a big impact on contemporary music. Many artists have sampled YMO’s music, ranging from Justice to De La Soul.

Born an English-speaking American from New York, I don’t speak Japanese, nor have I been to Asia; but I like Hosono’s work because it is genuinely different from what I hear today. It doesn’t try to be more than it really is, or push to be a ‘serious artform’… it’s simply entertaining. The fact that I can’t understand the lyrics doesn’t draw anything away from the music itself. It’s authentic, and it represents a specific time and space in which the music was created.