The following was originally published in Japan Times on October 1, 1999.
With big black eyes and a mane of thick dark hair atop an elfin body, Haco looks like a fairy queen. For the past 10 years, she has built her own magical musical kingdom far from the mainstream. After Dinner, a postpunk pop group that was one of Japan's first indie groups to tour abroad, mixed bits of prog rock with almost baroque musical touches. Her more experimental work has prodded the edge of both noise rock and improvised music. Though this has gained her a rabid following abroad, with her new project, Happiness Proof, she looks set to hit Japan's mainstream head on.
Though lyrics like "you are an astronaut" or odes to mushrooms might make it tempting to lump Haco's lyrical content with the more mundane musings of Shonen Knife, kitsch here is leavened with a dose of innocent irony. If anything, Haco's songs are distilled observations about life that are then grafted onto pop songs turned inside out.
But with Haco, it's not so much what she sings, but how she sings it. Björk has often been credited with bringing the voice to the fore of pop music as a musical instrument; Haco, however, beat her to it by a decade. On After Dinner's classic 1989 album "Paradise of Replica," Haco modulates her singing from whispers to almost operatic cadences.
"We had a vision for each sound and the way we recorded each of the tracks was like a mosaic using analog technology," she says. Since it was her first attempt at production and arrangement, still a new realm for female musicians, she found the positive response to the album, particularly in Europe's new music circles, especially touching.
"Everyone admires my vocal parts, and I like to concentrate on singing with fine rhythm and sound," she says. "But another aspect of my work is as a composer and arranger because I think music is made from a lot of layers of physical phenomenon."
With Happiness Proof's new eponymous album, recorded at her home studio, Mescalina in Kobe, Haco's voice is only one shade of a palate of sounds she coaxes from synthesizers, toy instruments, rhythm boxes and guitars. Swirling electronics and frenetic beats subsume the simple vocals of the opening track, "Element," while dense layers of guitar, recorded to give them the gentleness of My Bloody Valentine or the Cocteau Twins, bump up against a more assertive vocal track on "Feather Time."
Though the controlling intelligence behind the album is most definitely Haco, she is helped by a revolving roster of guest artists, including the Boredom's Seiichi Yamamoto, Pierre Bastien, best known for his mechanical orchestras, and German percussionist Peter Hollinger.
"I like to collaborate with interesting musicians very much because their playing and tracks inspire me to make new types of songs with new kinds of melodies and lyrics," she explains.
"Also, I get a special enjoyment working as a coordinator and director. For example, Yamamoto didn't know anything about Peter Hollinger, but the first time I heard Peter's drum tracks, I thought that it would be interesting with Yamamoto's guitar.
"Pierre Bastien also sent me some tracks, and then I asked Kazuhisa Uchihashi [from avant-jazz noise group Altered States] to overdub them and then I made a song. Peter has never visited Japan and Pierre has never performed here. They still haven't met Yamamoto or Uchihashi, but they could understand each other and communicate with each other through sound."
While "Happiness Proof" looks set to gain Haco a wider audience, she has a slew of side projects to explore more avant-garde musical interests. Mescaline Go-Go is a guitar duo using open tunings similar to Glenn Branca or Sonic Youth. Hoahio is her all-female trio with koto player Michiyo Yagi and sample artist Sachiko M. More recently she has been collecting field recordings with fellow producer Haruna Ito for a project called "View Masters," to explore, she says, "the natural roots of Japanoise."
Happiness Proof may be more accessible, but Haco's gift for welding unlikely musical tropes into a convincing whole are found throughout the new album. The album covers a lot of territory, with bits of drum and bass beats, to almost Nina Hagen-sounding new wave. Turntable artist Yoshihide Otomo's quiet, ambient scratches are perfectly coupled with a bluesy guitar on "Fluid of Wisdom," while Bastien's gently rollicking violin and harp provide the spacy background for Haco's calm, almost maternal mutterings on "Invisible Fireworks."
"Happiness Proof is a landmark for me," says Haco, "because it includes all of my tastes from the postpunk rock of 1979 to the postrock of 1999."