Keepsake. Doors. Dudes & Guitars. A conversation with Shohei Kobayashi

There is a strange door in the soul which only opens in the presence of one voice and one guitar. It can be another instrument, but it’s usually a guitar. Usually acoustic. The door is old. Many have sat outside it, idly strumming, hoping one day it might open for them, too.

Most of these idle strummers won’t ever open the door. If they do, it’ll be only for that fleeting moment in which a sloppy rendition of “Wagon Wheel” somehow transcends itself after a few too many pulls of cheap whiskey and the warmth of friends around a campfire.

I don’t listen to many singer/songwriters. It’s not that I dislike them, it’s more that it’s a such crowded field. I don’t even know where to start anymore. There are a lot of dudes with guitars out there singing songs. If you don’t believe me, go to any open mic anywhere on the planet and I bet you’ll find at least several of them waiting in the wings, tentatively picking out a pentatonic scale or two before their time slot.

Wikipedia says that the singer/songwriter as a figure can be traced back to ancient bardic tradition, though their claim lacks a citation. As an American, I say the tradition can be traced back to Woody Guthrie, up through Bob Dylan, meandering around by way of a young Paul Simon. I’ll be honest–most of the time I’m listening to a singer/songwriter, a part of me is thinking dude, just put on Papa Hobo.

Shohei Kobayashi is not one of those dudes. He’s the guy who picks up a guitar and even if he’s just noodling around, you listen for a second and think, damn, ok. Because when you hear someone who can open that oldest of doors, you know it instantly, unwaveringly, and you listen.

Shohei’s recently self-released album, keepsake, makes me think of doors. It makes me think of thresholds, of arriving, staying and going. Of homes. I’m writing this in Portland Oregon, where Shohei and I went to college together. He now lives in my old hometown, Ann Arbor. He’s studying conducting at the same school where my father teaches modernist literature. This, to me, is proof that the world is smaller than we think, even as it is bigger than we know.

keepsake sounds like passing through a door, stepping out into the chill of the larger world. It sounds like pulling your jacket close around you, the hairs prickling on the back of your neck. In the liner notes, Shohei uses a different metaphor.

This recording is really a bookend for me, for now — an older way of singing, an older way of writing songs.

I like this metaphor as well. The opening cuts on keepsake, “A Prayer for High Places” and “Quiet” are songs from Shohei’s tenure in The Dancing Hats, a band whose presence figured heavily in my collegiate soundtrack. In the way that music weaves its way into memories, keepsake sits for me on the edge of a mental shelf, a bookend on a time when I read more books. Last I heard those songs, they were played by an eight piece band. It’s a trip sitting here now, coming up on three years later, listening to Shohei sing them by himself.

The essence of the blues is this: I had a thing and now it’s gone. Don’t you ever sing alone, goes the refrain on “Quiet.” The line sounds different without the harmonies. Maybe I don’t listen to many Singer/Songwriters because the good ones always make me a little sad. keepsake makes me a little sad, but it’s a good sad. The true essence of the blues is catharsis. I had a thing, now it’s gone, but singing makes it better. And there will always be new things. But damn, that old thing was nice, though. These songs mean things to me. I bet they could mean things to you, too.

keepsake will get you through the door.

Below is a conversation Shohei and I had about keepsake, performing, vulnerability and skateboarding.


Bold text is mine.

Many of these songs have appeared before, in different arrangements. Do you approach the material differently when performing solo? Does the nature of a song change for you over time, or does it stay constant?

I think most of these songs were always meant to be performed by one person by themselves. Definitely all of the ones I wrote. It actually took me some time to learn this. I put out a little EP a couple years ago that included some rearranged, full band versions of some of the same songs from this recent release. On multiple occasions, friends have told me that it was the song recorded most simply and without rearrangement, just with my guitar and my voice, that left the most significant impression. I had that in mind when deciding to record the songs the way I did.

As for the Dancing Hats songs covered on the album, I took a significantly different approach in my performance of those compared to what you might have heard live back in the day. That said, my approach to “Quiet” is not so far off from Corey’s (O’Hara) original demo, though it does differ in how I sang it in an almost uncomfortably high key. My approach to “Prayer” came from a time when I wanted to cover the song on my own for a solo set. I experimented with singing my harmony part instead of the usual melody, and it resulted in a very different sound to that song that I was interested to share with people.

All the songs have changed significantly over the years. I never got used to playing any of my songs one way, nor did I ever want to, I think. Teachers have mentioned to me that performing should appear spontaneous, as if composing in real time, expressing in real time. The way I see it, that presents a challenge to the performer to continuously discover and draw from new personal contexts that make sense for that music… At a certain point, as a songwriter, I detach from my own words, and try to relate to them in new ways in order to find new approaches to performing them. It’s through that feedback loop process that the nature of the song gradually changes over time.

Singing by yourself with a guitar seems in many ways the performative inverse of conducting. How would you characterize the difference between the two in your mind? Where do you see points of overlap?

There are the more obvious differences: that I don’t make any noticeable sound as a conductor, that I don’t face the audience, that it’s usually not my music being performed by any group I conduct, and so on.

Over the last couple years since graduating from Lewis & Clark, I started considering that maybe my musical skills are not most naturally suited for writing my own music but for interpreting other people’s music. But I’m beginning to think that for me, it’s also a matter of connecting with as many people as possible. Benjamin Britten talked about his ideal of musical experience being reliant on three parties: a “holy triangle of composer, performer, and listener.” That’s three points, whereas being a singer/songwriter is really just two: the composer/performer and the listener. While there is a place for both kinds of music in my life, for me right now, performing other people’s music excites me most because it engages me with the greatest number of people at different levels. I engage with the composer and their music, the musicians, my teachers, the listeners, and myself.

That said, I don’t want to lose touch with all of the great lessons in musical communication that singing my songs taught me over the years. Going to University of Michigan is really my first experience at a big music school and just being there and constantly in awe of the talent around is pushing me to think differently, more openly, about what my idea of conducting is. With so many performers around, I’m starting to think about how I might incorporate my experience as a solo singer/songwriter into how I lead from the podium. My teachers have talked about having singer’s posture while conducting. I’m beginning to think I need to expand that idea. How else can I embody my own solo singing experience into my conducting? I want to include in my conducting the sort of vulnerably transparent communication that I aim for as a solo performer — this sense that my whole being is open to and for the music. As a conductor, I haven’t quite gone there yet, I think. There’s this feeling I strive for in solo performing, that I’m communicating with and expressing aloud something that exists within each listener. Maybe, as a conductor, I just flip that around: I embody the composer and their musical ideas, thoughts and feelings, and the singers, in response to my gestural cues, try to communicate what I’m asking for… Clearly, I’m still working this out for myself!

It’s interesting that you mention that idea of vulnerability in a performance. I’ve thought before that it might be a useful experiment to plot artists on a graph where one axis is vulnerability and the other is confidence. I think you’d get some interesting results in terms of how people balance those seemingly contradictory concepts in successful ways. But it sounds like the vulnerability you’re talking about is more a vulnerability to the power of the music itself. This idea that you’re acting as a sort of vessel, a conduit between your listeners and some almost divine realm of musical potentialities. But your purity as a vessel kinda depends on the extent to which you’re able to kill your ego. Would your ideal performative state be that, the complete removal of your self to make room for the music? Do you even think that’s possible, or do you think it’s important to bring to the music some aspects of your personality? Does it the answer depend on the particular  performance?

It definitely depends on the music and the performance setting and on all sorts of factors. To get to your thought about my ideal state of vulnerability or openness, it is in part what you describe — that dissolving of myself and my ego to make way for the music. At the same time, when I’m performing my songs, I try to tap into something in myself to make the music come alive in an honest, presently human way… I have to be willing to share myself — my errors, my heartbreak, my confusions — as openly on stage as I would in a one-to-one conversation. That’s the sort of “vulnerability” I think I’m more concerned with as a performer: it needs to feel like I’m having a face-to-face conversation with every person in the room, and then the openness that you describe — that musical conduit idea — follows as a result. The music just happens to be the medium of the conversation, if that makes any sense at all.

Totally. I think a lot of that openness does come across in the recordings on keepsake. It’s not overproduced at all, sonically it’s very raw and honest. In the interests of conversation, though, how about a lighter question: What’s your favorite dish to cook for yourself?

Probably some easy Japanese comfort food — tonkatsu or curry or something!

What are you listening to right now? How do you usually discover and listen to music?

The music I listen to is usually the music that happens to be on CDs in my car. Jeff Buckley’s Grace, Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s albums like Rot Got, Domestic, Buzzard, and Slingshot to Heaven, a Leonard Slatkin recording of Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1 and Piano Concerto No. 1, more Jeff Buckley, the Punch Brothers’ Punch, to name a few.. At the moment, I’m “discovering” a lot of older music for the first time. The music I’ve been listening to lately has primarily been what I’m required to listen to for my choral literature classes. This past term was centered on music from the medieval up through late Baroque eras, everything from chant to J.S. Bach!

Speaking of older music, if you could travel back in time to any concert in history, who would you see?

I would probably either see a Jeff Buckley concert or watch Bernstein conduct Mahler…tough to choose between the two!

Who is your favorite non-musical artist? What would you do if you weren’t making music?

Can I include skateboarders as artists? Grant Taylor… Ishod Wair… Dennis Busenitz… Outside of music (and skateboarding), I’m honestly most drawn to words. Can I include writers as artists? This time of year reminds me of Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine and a book by Paul Harding called Tinkers. If I weren’t doing music… I might be in school for math or computer science, putting my math minor to use! Honestly though, in my sophomore year of college, I decided that if I was going to major in music that I had to go for broke. No escape plan. It’s worked out alright so far!

I’m with you on skateboarding as art.  Individual sports are absolutely performative acts. They’re all about style. I also think the idea of going for broke is something that could be learned from watching good skaters. You have to commit to clearing the gap or you’re gonna bail for sure and probably hurt yourself really badly. Go big or go home, and all that. Anyway, who are you conducting these days? Where can the people come out to see you in your new musical capacity?

My conducting appearances next term in Ann Arbor include one piece on the Arts Chorale concert as their assistant conductor on March 29 in Hill Auditorium, a segment of a concert at Stamps Auditorium on April 5 with the Orpheus Singers (the graduate conductors’ lab choir), and a piece or two with the Women’s Glee Club as their assistant conductor on April 15 in Hill Auditorium.

Awesome! Thanks for making good music and taking the time to talk about it.

Thanks for listening!


Download keepsake here