Words by David C. Obenour
Nana Yamato’s life would work well as the premise for an independent film.
Her parents paid for a high-quality education with aspirations of a “respectable” job for her, but her aspirations lead elsewhere. Leaving her rural hometown, she relocates to Tokyo and gets a job at the record store, BIG LOVE RECORDS, where she serves coffees and fawns over album covers from bands half the world away. Passion and a hard-driven determination find her experimenting with music of her own that catches the ear of one of those very bands she idolizes.
Which is all too perfect to believe… if it weren’t true. Parquet Courts’ Andrew Savage released Before Sunrise on February 5 worldwide through his label, Dull Tools.
Off Shelf: Before getting into anything, I just wanted to ask how you are holding up? You’re based in Tokyo, yes? It’s a very odd time to be alive.
Nana Yamato: Lucky for me, my life hasn’t been that affected by COVID in bad way. A lot of things have changed, but never got worse. As a university student, I’ve been online all year because of the epidemic. It’s been great for me to be online. It gave me more time for music. At BIG LOVE RECORDS, I still work every day as I did before since I’m in high school.
Through COVID, I’ve been able to think about and learn many things. It made me realize how fortunate I am and what is important to me. That’s what inspired me to make the album. I had to do something.
OS: You had previously released music under the moniker of ANNA, why did you change the name for Before Sunrise?
NY: I don’t really have special feeling for the name ANNA. I just couldn’t use my real name because I was afraid that my parents would find out. I wanted to keep it a secret. And I can’t wear a T-shirt with the name “Yamato Nana” on it. The teachers and my parents would know.
My parents wanted me to become a bureaucrat and enrolled me in a good school. Even though my family is not wealthy, they did not spare any money for my education. I couldn’t tell them that I wanted to do music. My father loved music when he was young, he was in a band. But he stopped playing when I was born. He became a normal father on a jam-packed train who works every day, 12 hours at the office. He didn’t get into a good university, so he had a hard time. He still does. I think he didn’t want me to be like that.
That’s why he wanted me to go to a good university and become a bureaucrat or a lawyer or something. He told me not to be a musician. But the other day, my grandma told me that my dad was jealous and a little proud of me that I do what I really love. I felt weird because I always thought he was against it.
I got the name ANNA from Anna Karina. I was watching “Vivre Sa Vie” in a daze. The main character’s name was Nana and played by Anna Karina. I decided to play Anna in reverse because my name is Nana. But ANNA was hard to find on Google. That’s why I changed my name to my real name this time. There’s no problem because I finished high school, and my parents allowed me to do music finally.
OS: Your press release talks about a transformative experience of going to BIG LOVE RECORDS. Could you describe the shop for us? Why do you think it was so impactful as a space for you?
NY: Best of all, there’s a huge selection of the coolest new records, all of which I barely knew existed, so it’s really exciting knowing something new. Old things are boring. It’s like studying history. In the bar counter music videos are playing. You can have the most delicious drinks there. I’ll pour you a Japanese craft beer called Shigakogen Beer. I’ll make coffee. If I were a customer I could sit there for hours. And that’s what I did when I wasn’t working yet. I can’t do that anymore because I’m a worker there, and sometimes I envy the regulars.
I think BIG LOVE RECORDS is presenting something new than any other store. That’s the most exciting thing for me. I’ve been buying new records for 5 years now and what I’ve learned is that the era is always changing. When I first started buying records, it was mainly noise and industrial stuff, and the only British guitar bands I could find were Fat White Family, Toy and Splashh. Well, Splashh had moved to New York in the meantime. But now, industrial is losing its power, and guitar bands like Shame are making a big comeback. Even Shame wasn’t that big of a deal at first. I interviewed Shame for my fanzine Moderns when their first 7 “Gold Hole” came out, and at the time they were just a support act for Hmltd. I learned that the most important thing is to keep taking action and revising.
OS: You have lyrics throughout the album that talk about other spaces in your life. How meaningful do you feel living in Tokyo is to the kind of music that you create? Can you draw connections from your surroundings to the sounds you’re drawn to?
NY: I moved to Tokyo the summer before last. I convinced my parents to let me. Before that, I lived in Chiba with my family. It’s Neuromancer Chiba City. My hometown was a rural area where there was nothing but a gas station and a mechanic’s shop, and the bookstore and video rental store had gone out of business, so there was no culture. It takes 45 minutes from my house to the station and 1.5 hours by train to Harajuku. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what to do. When I moved to Tokyo from such a place, everything seemed to have changed. I was exposed to culture all day long and learned many things. There are record stores, coffee shops, clothes shops and studios within walking distance, and people aren’t slacking off. I have to do something, otherwise I don’t deserve to be here. I think the power of Tokyo is a big reason why I was able to complete this album.
OS: Singing in both English and Japanese, what do you see as the strength of both and why do you choose one of the other at times?
NY: When I write a song, I write it in English first, and then I change it back to Japanese. I was influenced by American and British foreign songs and singing in English comes more naturally to me. I actually don’t listen to Japanese music and I don’t find it exciting. So, when I had my first Before Sunrise demos and gave it to Johnny (P.E.), the producer, the lyrics were mostly in English. At the same time, we decided to release it in the USA, and I thought about my music again with that in mind. I thought that if my records were going to be sold in America, I needed to show more that I was Japanese. “I’m Yamato Nana, representing Japan.” If I sang in Japanese, people would immediately know that I was Japanese. I emailed Johnny to re-record the song in Japanese again. Sorry Johnny for making you fix it again and again! I changed some of the English lyrics into Japanese in a hurry, so there’s a funny mixture of Japanese and English. It wasn’t meant to be that way from the start, it was a gradual process.
OS: The instrumentation throughout Before Sunrise is just masterfully balanced, all the more impressive considering it’s your debut album. What is your process like as you flesh out a song beyond the initial demos?
NY: To tell you the truth, I still don’t know how to make music myself. When I make Moderns, I always ask the question “How do you make a song?” to the musicians. I don’t even know if my music is good or not. I feel like the records I like to buy have similar elements and thought if I was going to make my own record, it would have to be something like that, but not sure if other people would ask me about it face to face. There are dozens of songs that I couldn’t use, and Before Sunrise is just twelve of those that I was able to get right. I feel like I’m still trying to find my way.
OS: You describe your style as “critical fantasy” – can you talk a little more about what you mean with that?
NY: The truth is that the term “critical fantasy” was just a random thought. I didn’t start out with that image in mind, it just came to me when I was interviewed by A. Savage [Parquet Courts]. It was used in an article in Brooklyn Vegan, and I was a little embarrassed. In this word, I just wanted to say that I’m not a girl who lives in a fairyland. I’ve spent most of my life imagining things. But in the end, what I ended up doing was imagining how I could get through difficulties, how I’ve been able to overcome any situation. The real me is a ridiculously negative person, but once I stopped thinking in a negative way, things started to move forward. I guess that’s what “critical” means.
OS: You also handled the drawings used for animation on “If” – how important for you is it to be involved in the many different aspects that come with the marketing and presentation of your music?
NY: I think that I don’t have that much musical talent, so I need other elements. I can’t be like Snail Mail or Phoebe Bridgers so I have to make up for it in other ways. I’m good at drawing, I like it, and I enjoy it, so I gave it a try and it worked out better than I expected. Then the world of Before Sunrise started to expand. I hadn’t thought of using animation from the beginning. I just tried it and it worked, and once I had the idea, I came up with a bunch of other interesting things. Some people say you can see the results before you do, but I never know what will work unless I try.
OS: I tried to do some research but wasn’t able to find much. Have you done many live performances at this point? How does that experience differ for you? Is it something you look forward to when the world is at a safer space?
NY: I did it twice. But to be honest, I didn’t think it was worth it. Japanese gigs are totally different from overseas gigs. Overseas gigs have a culture where you can meet new people and learn from them, but in Japan it’s just a presentation or like a school event. I had to wait over an hour for the band to come out, and it was a weird atmosphere during that time. I’ve been watching foreign gigs on YouTube and I think they’re totally different from Japan. Of course, it’s not the band’s responsibility, but the character of the Japanese people, and I think each of us is enjoying ourselves. But I don’t think that the same kind of culture as that of other countries will be born from that. I think it’s hard to create a real scene like in other countries.
On the other hand, a different culture may emerge, such as OTAKU culture. Maybe that’s the reason why there are world-class musicians and bands in certain genres. Hardcore, noise, techno, city pop, and so on. Personally, I think city pop sucks. That’s why I’ve never really wanted to do shows in Japan. But I think I have to change that by myself. I want to go abroad when the COVID is under control. Actually, I’ve never left this country before. I’m afraid of flying. It accelerates like a roller coaster when takes off. It makes me sick
OS: When you were putting together the final touches of Before Sunrise, did you imagine how it would live and look at a record store like BIG LOVE RECORDS?
NY: I hadn’t imagined it when I was writing the song. I imagined it for the first time when I was deciding on the jacket. I imagined what would be the most exciting. I love buying records on the wall the most in my life, so I’m really happy if people are buying my records. And I’d be even happier if you bought not only my records, but also with the new albums of my favorite bands.