UK musician, composer and producer Guy Sigsworth’s long list of credits includes production and songwriting collaborations with, among others, Madonna, Britney Spears, Alanis Morissette, Alison Moyet and Imogen Heap. He also made significant musical and co-writing contributions to Bjork’s albums Homogenic and Vespertine as well as touring with her as keyboard player and musical director. This month he has been visiting Okinawa for the first time along with Norwegian singer-songwriter Kate Havnevik and the pair played a successful concert at Naha’s Sakurazaka Theatre at the end of their Asian tour.
Guy Sigsworth in Okinawa
Much less known is that classically trained musician Guy Sigsworth has also had an interest in Okinawan music for many years and was keen to visit Okinawa this time in order to meet and record singer and sanshin player Mika Uchizato for a new music project he is working on. I was lucky enough to be able to put the two of them together and to spend time in the studio with them as Mika flew to Okinawa from her home on Minami Daito Island last week to record some vocals for Guy’s compositions.
I also took the opportunity to record a short interview with Guy and his answers to some of my questions are below:
(JP): How did you become interested in Okinawa and its music?
(GS): I remember buying the album Beauty by Ryuichi Sakamoto. It was at the time when I started going out with my wife and it was the one album we could both agree to listen to because of our different musical tastes and so we listened to it a lot. And I just fell in love with that singing and I wanted to know more about it. Curiously, I wound up in Japan playing keyboards for Japanese singer Nokko and in the band was Talvin Singh. He was also, funnily enough, a huge fan of that Sakamoto album. Later, when we got back to London and he was making his own album he actually worked with Nenes on a track.
So I’d been aware of the flavour of Okinawan music from that experience and periodically I’ve gone back and tried to listen to more of it. It’s not the easiest music to find in the UK. There tend to be a lot of compilations and you have to import full albums, but I think it’s the singing and the sound of the voice that’s just really special.
You came here to play a concert with Kate Havnevik and spend some time in Okinawa but there’s another reason for the inclusion of Okinawa at the end of your tour isn’t there?
It’s a kind of busman’s holiday. I think I wanted to record an Okinawan singer and with your help I’ve tracked down Mika Uchizato. I’ve written some pieces which I think are very influenced melodically by Okinawan music and I just wanted to hear an Okinawan artist play with those melodies and take ownership of them and so far it’s looking great. Mika really delivered on two of the tunes I had prepared.
So now I’ve got to go home and turn them into finished pieces of music. It’s a real treat and I would love to do more with those voices. Yesterday you introduced me to some of the fantastic male singing which I wasn’t so aware of. I think on the CDs I’ve heard before all the male singing tended to be in the style of what sounds to me more like party tunes and so it was hearing those longer melodies yesterday that I loved.
Why did you choose to work with Mika Uchizato?
I went through your book The Power of Okinawa and then I was listening to various different artists I discovered there and she stood out with her very strong vocal personality. I like that sort of raspy quality in her voice. I was so used to Nenes which is unison singing, which I love, but I thought that the idea of working with a single artist rather than a kind of track sound of three or four singers was really appealing to me.
Is the aim ultimately for you to make your own solo album?
Yes, I think so. It’s a kind of journey of discovery. I try and find out as I go along. I don’t always have a clear picture, although sometimes I do. There are times when I know exactly what the album art is going to look like right at the start but this time it’s more of an adventure and I was trying to think how to situate the music in a context which isn’t just ethnic vocal over breakbeat music as I think that’s been done a lot already. So I was kind of wary about doing anything that sounded like that. That’s why so far I haven’t put any drums on anything. It’s not that I won’t but I want it to feel more joined at the hip with actual Okinawan music and then if a beat comes along it comes along.
Do you think it’s fundamentally the same working with Mika as it was working in the studio with Bjork or Britney Spears or any of the many other singers you’ve recorded with?
Well, it was so different. I actually put Mika in quite a tricky situation. I’d come with very clear ideas of my own and she had to adapt to them which probably wouldn’t have been the case working with Bjork or someone. But she rose to the challenge marvellously. That’s something which is intriguing because she was under a lot of pressure whereas I suppose in my first outing with those other artists I had to take on the pressure myself in order to keep the pressure off them. I have to say that Mika responded to the music very well and was amazingly adept at finding lyrics and vocal phrasings. She did it all so quickly.
Guy Sigsworth (right) with Kate Havnevik (centre) and members of MKR Project
On your tour with Kate Havnevik you went to China and Taiwan and then to Okinawa. How was it?
I really enjoyed Taiwan a lot and then coming here to Okinawa was great. It was actually quite fun here in Okinawa because we had these support artists, MKR Project, and I was able to jam with them at least for one song and didn’t make too much of a mess of it. We literally just went on stage and I didn’t even realise the bass player wasn’t around when we were talking about doing the song ‘Tinsagu nu Hana’. He was suddenly on stage and wondering what key we were in. But in a way you need those seat of the pants moments, don’t you?
And so you’d like to come to Okinawa again?
I’d definitely like to come back to Okinawa. I have the feeling that it’s a very musical island. It’s a very tricky thing to get right, this balance, because if you are too possessive of your musical culture then you almost close it off hermetically. But if everything goes then it just gets devolved and everybody is doing the same music that you could hear everywhere.
One weird effect of globalisation is that you can travel the world to arrive somewhere where they have exactly the same shops and the same brands and exactly the same pop music playing as the place you left. I sense in Okinawa that people are aware they’ve got something special here and they treasure it. It doesn’t mean that they’re not up for innovation and playing with it and taking it to new places but they also realise it’s unique to them.