Recently, western electronic music has started to overlap with the sounds coming out of Japan and Korea. Take PC Music, whose sugary melodies and notion of this synthetic pop star borrows heavily from K-pop. And even more notably, North American and European producers like Ryan Hemsworth and Gold Panda have both musically and vocally expressed their affection for the sounds of the Orient, with the former collaborating with Japanese singers Tomggg and Qrion.
Cuushe, the production and vocal project of Mayuko Hitotsuyanagi, has followed up 2013’s Butterfly Case with Night Lines. Written and recorded mostly in Tokyo, the EP acts as a little storybook for the busy, nocturnal lifestyle of a city that she loves, as much as fears. ‘Many parties are held, where people are connected but unconnected. It’s easy to feel alone, [but] feeling lonely makes me stronger. Night Lines tells a story of loneliness, instability and strength’ –she told Dazed. So in many ways this is an autobiographical EP, projecting her owns sense of self and identity through the sights and sounds of the city that shaped them.
Hitotsuyanagi is a producer before she is a singer. It’s not that she isn’t a pleasant vocalist, but more the way she treats these vocals, bending them into the backdrop of the song at times as if they are an extra instrument. The refrain on ‘Tie’ is so muffled that it could easily be played by a synthesiser, whilst on ‘Daze’, its used as much as rhythmic tool as it is melodic, like we’re listening to the chopped, uneven sounds of a sequencer. And despite the glossy sheen that covers these songs, they are still busy, complex productions. Hitotsuyanagi is excellent at building these intense, rich textures that feel fully formed and filled with character, without ever really striving to be so. The recurring synth motif that runs throughout the steady ‘Shadow’ is almost hypnotic like some kind of tuneful metronome that’s catchy, but you couldn’t exactly hum the tune. ‘Daze’ is the closest Night Lines gets to danceable, with the dull thud of a kick drum barely escaping out of this thick layer of scattered synths. It’s the sort of song you’d listen to a few days after a heavy night, where the memory of the club is still too raw to face, but too cherished to completely let go. These songs are complicated without ever really sounding complicated, and this illusion of simplicity allows these songs to twist, unfold and move around in your mind and heart naturally and of their own accord.
These kind of woozy, ambient soundscapes create this impression of a dream-like state where the synths, vocals and percussion can be some kind of protective barrier between you and reality. Hitotsuyanagi has often related her music to dreams, speaking about it as this powerful, ethereal agent capable of not only moving her listeners, but actually transporting them into these profound states of otherworldliness. On face value, you’d be forgiven to thinking these songs were nothing more than mood setters - songs to accompany the thoughts and emotions you’re already feeling, rather than provoke any on their own. ‘I just want to close my eyes’, she repeats on ‘Shadow’, ‘we just can’t keep going’ she sings on ‘We Can’t Stop’, her voicing cracking and straining just out of tune. She sings with the kind of weariness reserved for the jaded and the exhausted, as if the only thing more painful than the tensions and complexities of her circumstances is the knowledge that she can’t do anything about it. There are times where Hitotsuyanagi’s voice barely resembles a whisper, almost as if the notes and tones coming out of her mouth are just a natural, semi-conscious exhale. It results in this kind of accidental intimacy, like the movements and processes of her mind have involuntarily been turned into sounds.
Cuushe is a project that is rich in identity. Whether it’s her candid interviews, or collaborations with artists to create visual companions to her songs, or more simply; the unique way she writes, records and performs, you still feel like you know her through her music. So even if the lyrics are unintelligible, or the vocals so ambient that you can’t distinguish them from a synth or a guitar, you still feel like you know exactly what she’s saying.