Interview Exclusive

Interview with Mitsune

06/03/2022 2022-03-06 01:00:00 JaME Author: Jasy

Interview with Mitsune

World music ensemble Mitsune discuss their second album, a release event they held for it, and more.

© Shari Marks all rights reserved.

In February 2022, Mitsune, a band led by three female shamisen players, released their second album Hazama. The three fronting ladies Shiomi Kawaguchi, Tina Kopp, and Youka Snell kindly took some time to answer a few questions about their recently released second album, a release event they held for it, and a few other topics.

Hello everyone. Since this is your first interview with JaME, please introduce yourselves to our readers!

Youka: Hi JaME readers! We are Mitsune, a female-led shamisen band from Berlin with members from Japan, Germany, Australia, and Greece. Today, you are talking with the bandleaders from the shamisen trio, Shiomi, Tina, and Youka.

Mitsune was formed in 2018. How did you all meet and how did Mitsune come to be?

Tina: The three of us - Shiomi, Youka, and Tina - met in Berlin because we were looking for other shamisen enthusiasts. Our first gig was an exhibition opening in Bremen and we enjoyed playing together so much that we decided to form a permanent trio. We quickly began to write our own music, moving away from the traditional shamisen repertoire. We are all musicians who play other instruments besides shamisen (Youka plays violin, Shiomi plays flute and clarinet and Tina plays guitar), and we have been exposed to a variety of musical styles in our careers. As Mitsune, we have spent the last few years developing music that both honors and challenges traditional shamisen styles, taking influences from Middle Eastern music, jazz, metal, bluegrass, classical and cinematic music, to name a few. Over the last few years, the band has expanded to include a rhythm section of percussion and double bass. This gives us so many more possibilities and complements the shamisen trio wonderfully.

Almost all of you come from different countries. How does the cooperation and the communication between you work?

Youka: Our common language is English, although we also communicate in a mix of languages from time to time, including Japanese and German. But we always find a common space in music, and much of our non-verbal communication takes place through music and laughter.

Your second album Hazama is now released. Does this album follow a certain concept - and if so, what does it look like? And what is the meaning behind the word "hazama"?

Tina: The word "hazama" translates roughly from Japanese as "in between" and describes the feeling of being in limbo - caught between worlds. This album is an exploration of Mitsune's experiences as a cross-cultural group living in a kind of ‘cultural limbo’. This constant feeling of being in-between is both challenging and beautiful. The band wanted to capture the essence of this feeling, draw on the beauty it can produce, and have fun with it.

Listening to the song Maru, we got the feeling of being at a summer street festival in Japan. What thoughts did you have when writing the song?

Shiomi: When I wrote this song - during the first lockdown in Berlin - I missed connecting with people so much. I felt lonely, there was less reality and it felt like a bad dream. I was worried about my family and friends, who at the time had little information about how everyone was doing. My hope was to be able to hold hands again, to sing and dance together again. I wanted to combine together the energy of our trio singing, and a blend of Japanese and Latin American rhythms with the percussion and double bass. Mitsune's music is the connection of people, cultures, and the world.

What criteria do you use to choose folk songs?

Shiomi: We do not only draw from folk songs, but also many other genres of music. Usually via recommendations from friends or from the radio, DJs, discoveries on trips, bar music, record stores, concerts, random internet results – there are so many places! Especially helpful is the exchange with other musicians, constantly talking about music so we always discover something great, and that's really exciting. I'm always open to folk music, old or new, famous or not. If it’s good, it’s good!

Which track on your new album would you recommend to people who have never heard of you before - and who might not be familiar with the sound of a shamisen?

Tina: Kaigara Bushi is a great introduction because it starts with a fairly traditional approach to a Japanese folk song, but then explores that song from a completely different groovy direction, then in the last few bars echoes the original theme again.

Shiomi: The whole album is definitely a gateway recommendation for shamisen newcomers! After our album release concert, even Japanese guests came to us and said that they had never been interested in such a traditional instrument, but because of our music they were really excited and curious about shamisen – they even miss Japan. The new album has a great essence of cultures behind the sounds created by all our members. It is a mixture of traditional and present-day, so we recommend it not only to lovers of traditional music.

You also write your own pieces. What serves as inspiration for you?

Shiomi: I have been inspired by my feelings and thoughts in different life situations. Also by new things I want to try with Mitsune, for example, singing in vocal harmonies or leaving the solo part to a certain band member. I find it exciting when we play together, and the presentation of my songs becomes much more colorful and comprehensive when we perform.

How does the writing process work for you in general? Do each of you write pieces or do you work on them completely together?

Youka: Usually one of us has an idea and brings it to the shamisen trio first - it can be anything from a melodic fragment to a fully fleshed-out arrangement. We work on it in the trio until we're happy with the structure and arrangement, then we bring it to the rhythm section to add their groove and flair. We draw inspiration from both emotional and conceptual things - personal stories, celebration, grief, nature, different scales and tunings, sonic textures, rhythms. Mainly we are inspired by playing together, and the sense of community we have as a group.

There are three basic tunings for playing the shamisen (honchoushi, niagari, and sansagari). Briefly explain the differences and which tuning you personally like best. To what extent do your own mood preferences flow into the writing process?

Tina: There are four different tunings on the new album alone – even more if you consider not only the relative tuning of the strings to each other, but also the fundamental note. The shamisen was originally created as an instrument for vocal accompaniment and was always tuned to match the pitch of the voice. Honchoushi describes the basic tuning, where the strings are tuned I-IV-I. In Niagari, the second string is tuned up to the fifth (I-V-I), and in Sansagari the third string is tuned down, I-IV-VII. Most of the pieces we play are in Niagari. However, we also play various special tunings that deviate entirely from these tunings. We literally match the tuning to the mood of a song.

You have produced a stop-motion animation video for your title song Hazama. How did that come about and why exactly did you decide to use this elaborate technique?

Tina: After Shiomi finished her artwork for the album cover, I immediately wanted to bring these characters to life and have them play our music. With stop-motion animation we had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the “hazama” feeling, to be in limbo, to get lost and put pieces back together, to find a space of belonging that we couldn't have imagined before. All three of us contributed ideas and handcrafted pieces to this music video, and the set designs by Berlin artist Sabine Sikora put everything into a universe of its own.

As artists, do you express yourselves primarily through music, or can you imagine incorporating other artforms (e.g. stop-motion films, painting, performing arts) into your performance?

Youka: Definitely, we love incorporating other artforms into our expression. We are currently collaborating with a VR artist from the US on a VR animation for one of our songs. Shiomi is a trained sculptor and very talented in visual media - she created the original artwork for our album cover and all the artwork for the singles Maru, Fusako no Hula, and Kaigara Bushi. Tina is also a talented animator and graphic designer (she created the Hazama stop-motion animation video), and I also moonlight as an art director/stylist. So, we have a great pool of visual talent in our arsenal!

The past few years have been tough for the event industry and artists. How have you experienced it? What particular challenges have you had to overcome? Has this time perhaps also brought something positive?

Tina: First of all, this time has made us even more united in our friendships. Consideration for all band members and their health had top priority. The last few years were financially and mentally very stressful. But we were also able to work intensively on new songs and the recordings for the new album during this time. We know that there is more to each other than just musical exchange. We went through it together and were always there for each other.

Along with the release, you hosted a concert at Badehaus Berlin on February 18th. Can you describe the concert?

Youka: The launch concert was awesome! We presented most of the songs from our album, plus a few special extras – including historical Tsugaru Jonkara style music – and a medley of our favourite rock/metal songs. Our concerts are always a feast for the eyes… we go all out on stage design, lighting, costumes and makeup looks. We want the audience to experience a fantasy, not only musically but in all senses.

What are your wishes and expectations for the release of your second album Hazama?

Youka: Above all, we would love to be on stages all over the world - sharing our music, exchanging energy with audiences, and sharing the magic of shamisen with people near and far.

Thank you very much for the interview. As we close, please share a few final words to our readers!

Tina: We love to share our enthusiasm for shamisen music with you. If you want to know more about us or meet us in person, you can always find news on our website, or follow us on Facebook and Instagram (@mitsunemusic). And if you have any wishes or requests about what we could do with shamisen music, let us know! Who knows, maybe we will fulfill them. There are so many great styles of music and instruments in the world to discover and experience, we enjoy every bit and invite you to join us.

JaME would like to thank Mitsune and NuzzComm Music Office for this interview.

Live footage of Fusako no Hula can be viewed below.

 Official Website  Official Facebook  Official Instagram  Official YouTube Channel  Get your copy of "Hazama" on Bandcamp

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