Last year, legendary cult figure Jun Togawa celebrated her 35th anniversary. This culminated with an extraordinary collaboration album with “brutal orchestra” Vampillia, as well as work with legendary noise band Hijokaidan. Very recently, digital music vendor OTOTOY did a probing interview with Togawa that covered her career, the self cover album and more interesting ground such as a cancelled 30th anniversary album and why she has been almost invisible for a decade, amongst much more.
The extended interview was translated into English by Namikiji (see their tumblr here) and published on fansite “Jun Togawa Forever”. Read on below for the full interview (provided very kindly by permission) and links to music videos from the Vampillia feat. Jun Togawa 35th anniversary album “Watashi ga Nakou Hototogisu“.
OTOTOY interview translation:
I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t know this name now. Well known within the world of Japanese avant-garde for her charisma is JUN TOGAWA, celebrating her 35th year in the industry. To celebrate, she’s releasing a collection of covers of her own songs, “I am a cuckoo that will song.” The release won’t be under her name, though, but rather with the addition of the band Vampilia, whose efforts in VMO have also been incredible in the recent years, forming the unit “Jun Togawa with Vampillia.” For the first time in 12 years, she’ll be including a new song on this Vampillia-backed album.
Today at OTOTOY, we’ll be streaming all of “I am a cuckoo that will sing” in high resolution. To commemorate this, we received a chance to interview Jun Togawa. What we got were conversations about her present activities as a singer, and further her meeting with Vampillia and the writing of her new song.
INTERVIEW: JUN TOGAWA
What did Jun Togawa see in Vampillia? To celebrate her 35th year in the industry, she’s releasing an album of self covers under the name “Jun Togawa with Vampillia.” About their partnership – it started with the appearance of Jun Togawa as a member of Gimme Gimme Gimmicks, who appeared at the “Smelling something good” (ii nioi no suru) in 2007. Plus, on Vampillia’s compilation album “the divine move,” released in 2014, Togawa contributed vocals to one song – “lilac” – that would be performed live by the two of them, leading towards this collaboration.
You cannot overlook that, more than anything else, this was an offer from Jun Togawa’s side, rather than Vampillia’s. Through listening to her stories, I learned that it did indeed take a considerable amount of courage to approach Vampillia about the album. Just what was the whole story here? And we even spoke about how, on her first new song in 12 years, “I am a cuckoo that will sing,” Togawa was incredibly picky about how she would sing the song (how it would sound?)
REPORTING & WRITING: Daisuke Ugusu
EDITING: Takuma Tsubaki
“Betray your own predictions and live up to expectations”
First of all, can you start from why exactly you decided that you’d release a self cover album on the anniversary of 35 years in the music business?
Togawa: I had originally thought about doing it for the 30th anniversary. I’m going back a bit, but my 10th year as a singer was actually the end of Showa, so I released a cover album of famous songs that I really thought epitomized Showa. And then my 20th anniversary marked the end of the 20th century, so I covered songs from the 20th century that I want to leave behind (20th Jun Togawa). So, after that, I found myself thinking, “What should I do next?” At that point, I sort of decided that somehow or other I’d continue it when I reached my 30th anniversary, and because I have a lot of songs, I decided that I’d record covers of my own songs.
But then you only released it when 5 years had passed, yes?
I met a lot of people who believed that I’d be able to release it then, and with each of them I thought “I’ll do it with them!” and was even given an album by a foreign guitar band. But it didn’t work out. So I gave up on it. And then in the 5 years after, because Vampillia asked me to sing a song for them, I went and sang it, and ended up really liking them.
A song called “lilac,” right? I heard that the offer for collaboration came from you. What was the fundamental reason for that?
Togawa: After “lilac,” I would occasionally perform about 5 songs from my own repertoire as a guest with Vampillia. When I saw them rehearsing “Teinen Pushiganga” in the back, I thought it was incredible. Usually when I’d play with other bands, I would ask them to be careful and play close to the original arrangements. But with Vampillia, it was like a totally different feeling than the original song. The arrangements had a newness to them. At that point, I had already seen about 3 of their arrangements, which I realized weren’t just copies, they were fully-fledged covers.
You’re saying their arrangements exceeded your expectations?
Yes, yes. For a long time, there’s been something I’ve championed. It’s a bit difficult, but it’s a thing called “betray your own predictions and live up to expectations!!!” (Laughs) Vampillia preformed arrangements on the album that exceeded what I could imagine possible.
“Betray your predictions and live up to expectations” are good words, huh?
That’s not something that I planned. Singing it in that kind of voice.
It’s hard, but (laughs), that’s the way I want to live. At first I had just suggested a mini album, but Vampillia responded with “How would a full album be? And on top of that, we can do a new song.” I was surprised, because for a long time I hadn’t been able to write lyrics, and I thought Vampillia had such a skill at covers, I still had my problems” too. But I ended up saying “yes.”
Instead of copying your older songs, you’re covering them. That is to say, you’re using a different approach from the past – did you have a doubt that you could do that?
If the trend had continued and I had used the same band, my vocal style and a bunch of other things wouldn’t really change, and so I thought, ‘will they really be covers?’ But thanks to Vampillia’s arrangements, they really became covers. Recently, if I was to change my old songs, I’d change them into more direct rock or punk shouts. But inversely, I’ve had bands do arrangements where I have to sign in a clear, even cuter voice than I did in the original. That was also fresh. For example, I totally repudiated the original version of “Suki Suki Daisuki.” Like I had never done it.
Was it because you weren’t pleased with the arrangement?
Yes, and my voice as well. When I put out Togawa Kaidan with Hijoukaidan, we performed it in a noise style, and my own band isn’t noise, but if thought if I did it sort of rock-esque it’d be possible, and so I ended up trying some shouts. But this time, Vampillia told me “Wouldn’t it be better if you did it in a cute voice?” Of course if it’s that kind of arrangement, singing one chorus in an obedient and cute voice would be good. That’s not something that I planned. Singing it in that kind of voice.
Besides that, what other kinds of interactions did you have during the production of the album?
The songs and the order were both chosen by Vampillia. I really ended up relying on them. So mainly what we talked about was my vocal style. At first, with “Red Tank,” I recorded it using a voice nearly overflowing with passion that I tended to use when playing live. Vampillia said that this gave them the courage to tackle the song too, but that song’s passion was more in the lyrics and Vampillia’s arrangement. It ended up feeling like I broke the song, and instead I ended up being able to take it closer to the singing style I used in the original. There were times when Vampillia’d gone to a certain point, I’d give myself over to the flow and make it there too, and other points where I’d go ‘maybe this is better.’ So that’s why I’ve been calling it a collaboration.
So you really were picky with regards to your singing style, huh?
About 10 years ago I injured my back, and because of that, there’s a 2-year ‘blank’ in my career. I couldn’t do any live shows during that time, so my voice really deteriorated. When I finally was able to do live shows again, while before I had kept 3 and a half octaves, I couldn’t manage more than 1 and was absolutely shocked. From then on I endeavored to be able to use falsetto again and to widen my range. Even now I train using karaoke.
You train using karaoke?!
I select my songs, and then I sing them without using the mic – I sing from the diaphragm with an incredibly loud voice. 8 years ago, recovering after my ‘blank’ period, when I first thought, ‘why not train with karaoke!’ I never considered not using the mic. But sometimes I would listen to Italian music and think how I’d want to practice a Bel canto falsetto. I’d listen to “Torna a Surriento” and think about how, for opera singers, using a mic would be strange, so I’d put it down and just sing, and it’d be more difficult, but I want to practice it, I’d think. And I continued practicing like that for years. Even though it’s just my voice coming back, it takes a lot of effort and time. If it had been 5 years ago, for my 30th anniversary, I don’t think my voice would sound like it does now. So I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished until now. And I’m especially grateful to Vampillia, for creating arrangements that were suited to my voice. I think they really studied what kind of voices I could pull out. I’m glad that we put the album out under the name “Jun Togawa with Vampillia” and not just under my own name. If I hadn’t, the voice I had on the album would never have come out.
Right now, I’m in singing mode.
This album contains your first new song in 12 years, “I am a Cuckoo that Will Sing.” It was mentioned a bit earlier, but this new song was from Vampillia, right?
Shuuichi Mabe from Vampillia wrote the lyrics together with you, yes? How did you go about making this new song?
Well, first of fall, I can’t write. Lyrics, that is. I thought up the title. But by no means did think it could ever become a song title! During another job, (the representative of the Jun Togawa Office) I said to Ishido as a joke, “If I was a busho, I’d say, “If you won’t sing, then I’ll be a cuckoo and sing.” – what if I used that as a title?” and then it ended up as the title of a new song. It’s just something I tried saying (laughs). But even then, I had the song down but the lyrics wouldn’t come out. And so I asked Mabe to add some.
So Mabe created the lyrics for you based on the title?
Even then it was a bit different at the start. The title was really Sengoku-y, but I had an idea of the Sengoku Period being more just military than a mix of military and literary arts. So then I figured I’d add some Chinese tradition in it, and he didn’t just add a reference to a “sword that gleams when taken out,” but also to “peaches and plums.” Every time I said something, he’d get what I was saying and add stuff like “When the west wind blows” for me. Because I had Mabe’s ideas on the base, I was also able to come up with a lot.
Those kinds of intricate back-and-forths regarding songs are common?
Usually, like, you’re told “we want you to bring the hook.” But, ah, since I first heard this tune, my opening lines “The refined spring – ah, it is daybreak” came to mind. I listened and thought, “ah, this is refined, huh?” Mabe turned that into “The refined spring – ah, it is daybreak” for me. And then, at the end, which was different too, I said “Because I want to keep singing continuously, I want to write lyrics that say that,” and he turned it into “No matter how many years pass I will keep singing.” All the bird sounds were also basically Mabe.
Is there anything you’re particularly enthusiastic about when you write new songs after so long?
Because they’re new songs, I don’t really have anything I prepare in advance. Because the melody changes, structure can be difficult. So I felt ‘I want to sing this precisely and carefully.’ That I’d make the best of the melody.
You said that you couldn’t write lyrics, but have you not written any lyrics within the past 12 years?
I have! I’ve written songs before the music, but then attaching music to them is hard, and such. For example – when I had my blank and couldn’t produce more than one octave, everyone comforted me. “When you get older, no matter who you are, you lose them!” etc. But that didn’t make me feel better, I was thankful for their words but I hated it (laughs). And like I practiced singing, I never really thought ‘Oh, I can’t write lyrics.’ I didn’t give up, and I think I’d like to make more from here on out. One of the reasons I can’t really write right now though, is because before I write I’d like to fully get my voice back. Right now in my solo performances, my backing band is performing a lot of songs and has to drop the key of a few of them, but I’d like to do them in the original key again. Right now, I’m in singing mode. I want to really get better. Then I feel like I can continue.
Entering into this year, you’ve been extremely active, collaborating with Hijoukaidan and Vampillia, and from what we talked about today I really felt your strong desire to continue bursting through from here on out.
My meetings with both Hijoukaidan and Vampillia were unexpected. Those chances, the way everything has flowed, it shows I’ve got some luck. Meeting Hijoukaidan and BiS Kaidan were part of the flow. Therefore, it was a different feeling than as if I’d gone and went up myself. Before that, I published a compilation of lyric commentary, and though I had had that brought up before, I had never really said anything about it myself. So I figured I’d jump on, was what it felt like (laughs). So what I’ll pull myself onto from now, I’m not sure (laughs)! This is a bit rude, but if “lilac” by Vampillia didn’t happen, I would never have known about them. So yes, it’s all about the unexpected flow. But as for what I intend to do – I am set on singing songs in my original range. Anything more than that, I’m holding on to as a kind of self-awareness.