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Indie-Pop Violinist Kishi Bashi: Digging Deep Into How He Writes His Cosmic Songs

Kishi Bashi (at right). (Sham Hinchey)closemore
Kishi Bashi (at right). (Sham Hinchey)

“Maybe we're a small part of a larger being. The universe could be this tumultuous love affair [and] we have no idea what's going on.” — Kishi Bashi

Kishi Bashi, who headlines the world music extravaganza CrashFest at House of Blues in Boston on Sunday, Jan. 24, is the stage name of K Ishibashi, a singing-songwriting violinist known for his work with the electro-pop group Jupiter One and the indie band Of Montreal.

As Kishi Bashi, the Seattle-born musician focuses his songwriting around his violin; sometimes he performs solo, running his instrument through effects pedals and loops, and at other times deploys a full rock band. His music is sweeping and exuberant, a richly-woven sonic tapestry with cosmic ambitions.

Take, for example, Kishi Bashi’s “Bittersweet Genesis For Him AND Her.” The song, originally released on the 2014 album “Lighght,” begins with a tinselly electronic loop and crescendos lushly with churning strings and translucent backing vocals. The version on Kishi Bashi’s 2015 live album, “String Quartet Live!,” is at once earthier and more transcendent than its studio equivalent, as a quartet’s many hollow-bodied voices extract elegant catharsis from Ishibashi’s score.

I recently talked to Ishibashi about how he came to write “Bittersweet Genesis,” which reimagines the story of Creation as a love affair between two gods: “In the beginning we were scrambled together/ Mixed in a celestial bowl and hand-fluffed with a feather.” By the end of the song, the lovers have destroyed the world they created and stand on the precipice of something new. The story could easily serve as a metaphor for romance in the mortal realm: Two people make something beautiful together, and destroy it together, too.

Below, Ishibashi relates the creation tale of “Bittersweet Genesis For Him AND Her.” Quotations have been excerpted and edited for clarity:

“The initial sample that I came up with — the sound in the beginning of the song, of the studio version — is what inspired the song. So I made that loop and then I liked it enough that I kind of forced myself to write a song on it.

It sounded cool, so cool that I was like, ‘Oh this has to be a song.’ And I kind of struggled with it for a while.

So when I was struggling to write that song, I couldn't figure out a melody to write that didn't sound weird. So I was approaching it from my own perspective, how I would [normally] write a song, and could not write anything on that loop, on that sound. And then I started listening to Lou Reed. And he's kind of telling a story, and half singing, and that's kind of how [‘Bittersweet Genesis’] started. That's how I ended up approaching the verses of that song. I got inspired to be like, ‘Oh, well he's talk-singing. Maybe I’ll try something where I'm talk-singing, to tell a story.’ And I think that's where the story started.

The inspiration for the story [of ‘Bittersweet Genesis for Him AND Her’] is this creation myth … about how the world wasn't created by one being, but instead the world — the creation and the destruction and everything — is basically this love affair of two cosmic creators.

I was raised in church, so I know all those stories. I know the Bible pretty well. Genesis and all that stuff. I don't know too many other creation myths, but I know about as much as most people who went to college, I guess.

I was also into the idea of Gaia [from Greek mythology]. ... The idea that the Earth is a living organism, but we just don't understand it. You know how cells probably don't understand how they're a part of the human body? But they are. So maybe we're a small part of a larger being. The universe could be this tumultuous love affair [and] we have no idea what's going on.

I wanted to do italics, but I don't think you can do the italics in iTunes. So it was suggested to put it in caps. It's like: ‘for him and her.’ Like: ‘now: for him — AND her.’ That's what it's supposed to be like. Beauty products, shampoos: ‘L’Oreal for her and him.’ I think it was supposed to be something like that.

I don't think about how I'm going to perform things, usually. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh this will be fun to perform.’ But I don't let that decide how the song's going to be. When I'm in the studio I just think, ‘What will sound good coming out of speakers?’ Then when I have a tour I'm like, ‘Oh s---, how am I going to do that song?’

I used to do [‘Bittersweet Genesis’] by myself, looping. So the string quartet version is actually more close to how I do it solo.

Instead of strumming guitar and having strings behind it, I really wanted to have the string quartet as the pulse of the music, where the rhythm is actually from the string quartet.

The quartet's really beautiful. It's kind of this perfected medium. ... I love chamber music, and just acoustic instruments anyway. It's kind of a luxury. It's really enjoyable. There's a story and [the audience] can hear the words, and then to have this beautiful texture propelling the song is just this real special thing.

Violin, for me, was my job, for a long time. I would play for other people. I always wanted to be a rock star, playing guitar. And in my old band, Jupiter One, I played guitar and keyboards and [sang]. And I didn't realize until recently, until I started Kishi Bashi, that playing the violin was kind of unique for songwriting. A couple of people were doing it, like Andrew Bird and Owen Pallett and stuff like that. But it wasn't a widespread thing at all. I don't even think it is still. So it kind of helped me, it made me realize that a lot of people really like my violin playing. And then I started to really experiment with it as a unique way to stand out. And then as I realized, ‘Oh, this helps me write songs that are different from other people,’ then I started to just really get into it.

It's still kind of my job — I don't think I really enjoy it that much. It's that it's a part of me; such a part of me that it's difficult to put down.”

Amelia Mason Music Reporter/Critic, The ARTery
Amelia Mason is a music critic and reporter for WBUR’s The ARTery, where she covers everything from indie rock to avant-garde to the inner workings of the Boston music scene.

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