Artist Spotlight: Kahimi Karie, music

Artist Spotlight: Kahimi Karie (week three)

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Every month, Memories of Shibuya will be taking a look at a different artist or group, with featured songs – one per week – highlighting the peaks (and, occasionally, troughs) of their musical career.

After the success of “Good Morning World,” Kahimi Karie was able to enjoy a brief stint as a global pop star in the late ’90s, making hits in her home country of Japan from half a world away. As Karie’s success grew, though, fractures began to appear in her most acclaimed musical partnership, as Nick “Momus” Currie examines in the somewhat melancholy penultimate chapter of our Kahimi Karie spotlight.

Working with Kahimi Karie in the 1990s was a bit like being in an open relationship: as Facebook would put it today, “it’s complicated”. Following Beck’s arty business model (and she was, at this point, very definitely following Beck: he and Harmony Korine were both chalked in as potential husbands), Kahimi had multiple contracts with multiple labels, major and indie. This fostered healthy competition and high standards amongst her collaborators, but also a certain amount of skulduggery, insecurity, rivalry, toadying, bargaining.

You might employ a drummer and bass player, only to find them suddenly working across town on a rival KK EP. You’d find yourself challenged to match the arch, literate songs Philippe Katerine was writing on the other side of the Rue Lepic (a tall order). You’d be happy to see KK making records with artists like Stereo Total, Arto Lindsay and Olivia Tremor Control, then dismayed when her French fashion model boyfriend (the one who’d played Louis XIVth in the video shoot for a song you’d written) started demanding she make a ska record about a fictional group called The Bancho Girls. Fearing the chop, you’d go ahead and make the ska demos anyway (thankfully in that instance it was the project that got the chop, followed by the boyfriend).

But what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. The large sums KK’s hits were generating made publishers and record labels in London and Paris sit up and pay attention: my publisher Martin Heath at Rhythm King began suggesting I scout around for a “cocktail singer” who could reproduce in Europe the success Kahimi was having in Japan. After placing an ad in Les Inrocks I located a half-French, half-Thai singer called Laila France (that was her real name, although it also worked perfectly as a verlan tribute to Francis Lai, the composer of sensual synth music for 70s softcore erotica).

Laila, an art school girl with a playful attitude (“I have the voice of a duck!”) and Audrey Hepburn-esque beauty, came up to my apartment on the Place du Tertre every Wednesday afternoon for songwriting sessions. We started making songs for a concept album structured around the weird orgasmic theories of Wilhelm Reich. Laila seemed to charm the Radio Nova people, the 3D people, and Kahimi herself (although not my publisher, who was suddenly appointed head of Arista Records and had much bigger fish to fry).

In writing the David Hamilton song for Laila I wanted to make a tribute to the English photographer who’d decorated my teenage bedroom wall with posters of straw-haired waifs in floppy hats striking bucolic poses, their butter-coloured breasts bared. Kahimi had recently made a very nice, very Gainsbourgian EP called Leur L’Existence, and one of the promotional items 3D arranged was a David Hamilton t-shirt.

As soon as my David Hamilton song — a pastiche of Gainsbourg’s more melancholy and lyrical songs, like “Ballade de Johnny-Jane” or “Dépression Au-dessus Du Jardin” — appeared, ripples of desire and jealousy began to spread through the increasingly complex infrastructure of female singers around me. In a scenario that reproduced some of Gainsbourg’s dilemmas with Isabelle Adjani and Jane Birkin (who had bargained over the songs “Quoi” and “Pull Marine”), my wife Shazna (with whom I also had a music project called Milky) wondered why I’d given Laila my best song. Kahimi and her management also staked a claim, saying that since the David Hamilton song had been inspired by a Kahimi t-shirt, KK was the logical person to sing it.

We thrashed out a deal: I would gain Laila some early exposure by asking if she could share the vocals with Kahimi on our recording of the song. But Kahimi could also record a Kahimi-only version, and release it first. This effectively gave the song to Kahimi; when Laila and I finally recorded our version in 1997 for Bungalow Records it was in a rather odd, chugging electronic version which lacked the original’s glistening grace. But it worked out for the best: Kahimi’s voice had the Birkin delicacy, the subtle eroticism the song demanded. She had a big and appreciative audience waiting for just this kind of material. It was also, of course, a photographer song, and Kahimi was the photographer.

The song was recorded with members of a Nantes band called The Little Rabbits. I played slide guitar, lending a liquid shiver to an erotic scenario borrowed from a Pierre Louÿs poem (or, to be more precise, the 1977 David Hamilton-directed soft porn film Bilitis based on it, with music by Francis Lai). The narrative takes us back to the faux-naïveté of the flirty ingenues who populate songs like “Mike Alway’s Diary” and “Mr Polyglot:” the narrator is living in a “house for waifs and strays” in the South of France where bed and board is provided in exchange for Pre-Raphaelite posing sessions down by the river. While cows gaze on impassively, the models wonder fuzzily why Mr Hamilton must “gild the lily” with his Hasselblad, his umbrella flashgun, his tank of liquid nitrogen and cloud of carbon snow. Languor turns to boredom.

The song marks the exact point at which my paradise of being a successful commercial songwriter surrounded by beautiful women in Paris — a Scottish Gainsbourg! — began to turn into an unexpected hell. Jealousies, rivalries, pressures and stresses multiplied, and hairline cracks began to appear under the porcelain glaze of my marriage. In the words of the Reverend B.W. Smith: “You got what you wanted, lost what you had.”

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