After Bridge’s disbandment, Hideki Kaji made the decision to set out and make his name as a solo artist; which proved to be quite a good call, as his releases under his own name consistently rank among the best examples of the Shibuya-kei musical style one is likely to hear. In week two of our spotlight, we look at the early years of his solo work, in which he stepped out from under the shadow of his peers in the Shibuya-kei scene and made his own identity known to the world.
While Shibuya-kei was always international, when it came to musical referencing, some parts of the world were invariably favoured more than others. While far from the only elements mixed into the eclectic music of the ’90s Shibuya-kei scene, British guitar pop, Brazilian samba and bossa nova, American hip-hop and French chansons provided the bedrock of the Shibuya-kei style, and for the most part one wouldn’t find a lot of Scandinavian influences in the music – but, in his inimitable fashion, it was Scandinavia that Hideki Kaji went to when it came time to make his way as a soloist.
Working with Swedish producer Tore Johansson, best known for his work with The Cardigans (you can blame/credit him for every time you get “Lovefool” stuck in your head) and Franz Ferdinand (likewise “Take Me Out“), Kaji wasn’t the only Japanese artist to seek a Swedish touch for his recordings – Johansson mentioned in a HitQuarters interview that, in the mid-’90s, “many Japanese artists came to Sweden” and that there was “quite a strange and amazing period for a couple of years, where [he] had 2-3 Japanese acts coming over each year to record [at his studio in Malmö]” – but he was the only prominent member of the Shibuya-kei scene with such an interest. Johansson produced a quarter of Kaji’s 1997 debut album Mini Skirt, and Kaji was so enamored with the Scandinavian nation that in 1999 he adopted the persona of “Mr. Sweden” for a single. Touches of the Swedish language in his discography go back as far as 1997’s “Ramlösa” (all apologies for the Playmobil video, it was all YouTube had), and while the familiar touchstones of Shibuya-kei can be found throughout Kaji’s discography, his connection to the dreamlike sounds of Swedish pop helps to distinguish him from the crowd and mark his work as his own.
When a musician works primarily as a gun for hire, playing in backing bands and on studio recordings as Kaji so often does, there is a very real need to toe the line and let the featured artist shine – which can lead to rather confused solo works from those that spend most of their time behind the scenes, but thankfully Kaji has no such difficulties. Whether working with the noisy post-grunge messiness of something like “My Favourite Tofflör” or the Franco-pop pastiche of Muscat‘s “A Small, Good Thing” (no YouTube link for that one, sadly), he performs with confidence and panache. As there were no missed beats across the Trattoria years of his career (he continued a working relationship with Cornelius’s label up until its dissolution in 2002), it can be incredibly difficult to pick out songs as more notable than the others, but perhaps the best example of his early solo work is 1997’s “Siesta” – an alternate version of a song he had previously written for mononymic Avex talent Jodi, improved massively in Kaji’s rendition. Fun, whimsical, spirited and definitively Shibuya-kei, “Siesta” is every bit Kaji’s own, so much so that the original version seems like a strange anomaly. While Kaji continues to write songs for other performers to this day, he has since learned how to write differently for others than he would for himself; back when he composed “Gonna Be a Supermodel” for Jodi, however, he was still very definitely writing Hideki Kaji songs.