Yay! Yay! Yay! After years of loving Japan-via-NYC creative duo, Cibo Matto – Yuka C. Honda and Miho Hatori – I get to see them play live tomorrow night (Oct. 29) at The Zoo in my hometown, Brisbane. They’re touring Australia to promote their first album in 15 years, Hotel Valentine, which just very well may be my favourite record they’ve ever released! Well known for writing killer songs about food (Cibo Matto actually means crazy food in Italian) the latest record changes things up, a cinematic bricolage, a concept album with the story unfolding with each track within the setting of lodgings inhabited by a ghost girl and folks coming and going. It all makes for a rich tapestry of mystery and wild imagination in action. I recently chatted with Yuka (she’s one of my favourite producers!) about Hotel Valentine.
BIANCA: Your chart book was stolen last night at your show, I know it really upset you; thankfully you have it back now. Why is your chart book so important to you?
YUKA HONDA: It’s very important to me because it’s basically like a diary. In it, it has a lot of my music, my lessons that I’ve taken from people, ideas that I jot down, and it has the music charts for what we’re playing live now, I don’t have a backup copy! There is a lot of private information in their too, to think that someone else would read it made me very upset. Lucky it’s turned out and I have it back. I’m going to be more careful now.
B: When you got your book back you commented online that the guy who stole it said he took it because he wanted to learn to play your music too. I love that your response was something to the effect of: charts do matter but music just isn’t notation, heart in music matters. Is this something that you’ve always known?
YH: Yes I really believe that. Notation is a part of music, it tells you the notes and the chords but, I think a lot of music I do is not just about the notes, it’s about the sounds. You can play the same note but if you play it differently I don’t think it’s going to be the same thing. I wrote that online reactively because the person who took it said, “Oh I just want to play this by myself”. I was like, well you can’t just take it and play it, its how you play it. I believe that music is about the heart. I do believe that everything is about the heart—cooking, food, painting, theatre, films.
B: In childhood you had classical musical training, so you’ve been creating music for a long time; I’ve read previously that you never thought that you’d be a musician. When was it that you realised you actually were a musician?
YH: I’ve never really realised it, it’s always been a bit of a struggle for me. Basically when I was a kid and taking piano lessons the teacher told me that I shouldn’t be playing music [laughs], that’s still echoing in my mind. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to do this professionally and it’s been great to get such support from fantastic musicians. In a way it’s great because it keeps me humble, I am very grateful I can do this. I guess maybe I realised it when things first started taking off and we got a record deal when we weren’t really trying. It made me feel like, oh my god I really have to do this seriously. Until then it was all just totally for fun, nothing else.
B: I believe that’s the best reason for doing things. It’s funny that your piano teacher told you that you shouldn’t be playing music because my English teacher at school told me I would never be a writer, but now I am, so I can relate.
YH: That’s fantastic!
B: I’ve read that you’re latest album, Hotel Valentine, was actually conceived on Valentine’s Day in 2011; can you tell us about that day?
YH: Miho and I started to get together a couple of months before that. We thought maybe we should just get together and start writing and see what happens. We started to exchange some ideas but we didn’t really want to jump right into it. We wanted to be very careful. We both had a hope within us that it would work out. Sometimes you don’t want to make too big a deal of things because you actually are serious about it. On that Valentine’s Day Miho said, “How about this concept? It’s about a hotel, Hotel Valentine”. It’s part of the chemistry that me and Miho have, we could have one or two words and we can both fly with it. For example we have a song called, Sugar Water. When we were writing that song I remember Miho saying, “Do you like sugar water?” I said I liked the sound of it so we decided to make it a song. We both went home, I wrote the music and she wrote the words and when we met up again we put it together and it just worked perfectly. We work very good with concepts.
When she first said “Hotel Valentine” I wasn’t jumping up and down going, oh that’s it! I thought it was a fun idea though because we stay at hotels a lot. Hotels are a very interesting place, a lot of strangers come by and spend the night and it’s not your real home; lots of drama can happen because of that. I thought it was really interesting because so much could happen with the concept.
B: There’s a ghost character that appears in Hotel Valentine; have you ever had a paranormal experience or seen a ghost yourself?
YH: We’ve had experiences that I could not explain but I’ve never really seen a ghost. Personally to me it’s a little bit made up because it usually has to be in human form. Quite often I will feel presences, I think we always have this feeling of like when someone crosses the room but you’re alone, I get that a lot. I never feel alone. I had this experience once where I was in a hotel room with a group of friends, we weren’t intoxicated or anything I swear, but someone slipped something into the air and it disappeared and it didn’t land for a long time. It really happened! I was there with five other people who saw it. I wouldn’t have believed it if I had been by myself [laughs]. It was so weird.
I get these weird premonitions too and stuff like I’ll think of a song and then I’ll hear it playing somewhere or I’ll talk about something and something related to that will happen.
B: Hotel Valentine sounds really atmospheric; how did you create the mood for the record?
YH: We tried many things. There are a couple of ghost sounds that we put in, it sounds like [makes a ghost noise] “owwww owwww owwww”. Those noises give it a “ghost” feeling. The rest of it, maybe you don’t really know it’s a ghost. For example the song Empty Pool, we made it more ambiguous so you don’t really know if it’s a ghost or if it’s someone actually being there. We left it open to interpretation.
B: I’ve been listening to the record for a few months now, driving around in my car listening to it your songs conjured up all kinds of imagery and stories in my head. I love that it sparks my imagination!
YH: Thank you! We’re definitely a big fan of mystery. We wanted to leave freedom for people to imagine, it’s good not to confine it. Once you confine it, it’s kind of like the end of the story.
B: I know you didn’t set yourself a deadline to create Hotel Valentine, you wanted to work on it until it felt done; did you find it helpful not having a deadline?
YH: It’s definitely helpful in terms of perusing further with the ideas but it’s very stressful during the time…so many times we were like, it’s taking too long! This is crazy! There were times where we asked, how long are we really going to work on this? [laughs]. We thought, next album we’re just going to just record everything in two days [laughs]. We would joke about it. It was driving us crazy. Looking back now though I’m glad that we worked on it for as long as we wanted to.
B: Do you have any favourite moments from making the record?
YH: When the mixing started, when it was actually really happening! It was really, really exciting! That was the favourite moment of this album’s production for me. There is a lot of little pleasures when making music, things are really fun and then there is also the mundane times. Sometimes we don’t agree and that can be painful. It’s like raising children, many colours of stories when we record. We recorded them at home. We definitely wanted to keep a “homecooked” feeling. We were so excited when our mixer came through and did what we really wanted to do which is, keep the little personal touches in recording but also give a refined sound so you can hear all of them really well.
B: Do you have a favourite sound?
YH: That’s a really interesting question. I like a sound that evokes some feelings, I like sounds that reminds me of certain things and that have a little mystery, like I mentioned earlier. I like sounds that have wonder and are just really beautiful.
*Cibo Matto art by me; all photos courtesy of Cibo Matto’s IG; live photo by Cortney Armitage.