(Note: Earlier this year, I shared on twitter my self-arranged cover of a well-known Japanese pop song on the 20th anniversary of its release. Though it may be unrelated to the theme of this blog, the recording carries a special meaning in my life, so, just as a one-off, I wanted to share the story behind it.)
“Kaede” (「楓」) was released by Spitz as the band’s 19th single on July 7, 1998. The rare Spitz number with a melancholy tune, it became a timeless classic that has since been covered by many artists, both professional and amateur. If you had told me at the time of the release that I too would someday cover it, however, I would not have believed it.
Music never was my strong suit at school. Throughout my childhood, I fared much better in the sciences than in artistic subjects such as music, in which I would often rank near the bottom of the class. I have family members who can tickle the ivories with graceful skill, but it was evident from an early point in my life that I likely did not inherit the same genes.
Nevertheless, the glory years of Britpop and alternative rock in the mid-‘90s inevitably drew my attention to music, and I would listen to songs on the radio every night and my Walkman on my way to school each morning as a schoolkid. I was a huge Oasis fan, and I would even go so far as to say that Noel Gallagher was the single biggest influence on me during my teenage years. Just about everything he was known for, from the crafty songwriting to the epic guitar solos to the venomous zingers, I revered and wanted to emulate. It was due in large part to my desire to learn to play Oasis songs that at around age 17, I picked up my first guitar, a Yamaha folk acoustic, and started teaching it to myself. For the better part of the next decade, however, my playing was embarrassingly poor. I enjoyed playing, especially in college where I had a guitarist roommate and we would write songs together and play live in the dorm and at bonfires on the beach, but without any training or apparent talent, you can only go so far. Until when, in my mid-20s, something clicked.
Finding that I wasn’t cut out for the textbook style of playing, I forged my own style of fingerstyle guitar, which, while more technically challenging and decidedly unorthodox, obviated the need for singing, and which leaned heavily on playing by ear—something I had a knack for. I found that I could cover songs instrumentally by listening to the song, deciphering the chords and notes, and playing both the guitar and vocal parts on guitar. In layman’s terms (not that I could give you a technical explanation; to this day I have never taken a lesson, and I still can’t read music), it may be best described as playing the guitar like a piano. It was under this style that I was able to have something of a breakout on YouTube, where my homemade recordings of cover songs garnered tens of thousands of views—a feat that in my youth would have been utterly inconceivable.
By 2011 I was recording songs at a private studio, a converted bedroom in a detached house on the sloping streets of Yoyogi-Uehara. After completing a couple of collaboration projects at the studio, I returned on April 24, 2011 with my Yamaha silent guitar for my first-ever solo recording: one of “Kaede”, which by that point had taken on a special meaning in my life and which I therefore wanted to cover as a personal memento.
I have a tendency to get the jitters when recording at the studio, which often led me during recording sessions to request take after take being ever the perfectionist, but on this day I was in the zone from the beginning. I was able to play even better than when practicing at home—so well, in fact, that when the audio engineers were done mixing the track and played it back to me that day, I could hardly believe what I was hearing on my headphones. Is this really me playing? I thought. I was just filled with wonder; everything from the tone to the timing to the harmony of the timbres turned out better than I could have imagined. I had needed only one take for the piano and just a few for the guitar parts, all completed in an afternoon’s work. Not that this recording was going to chart anywhere or even be iTunes-bound of course, but considering my skill level and time allotment, I really outdid myself that day.
Most gratifying to me, however, was the pure feeling with which I was able to render this song. Poured from the heart with a warm yet wistful touch, the recording is of an emotional transparency I have not since been able to match. The track therefore occupies a special place in my heart, and is arguably the most defining three minutes and five seconds of my music career.