In Conversation: With “Mellow Waves,” Cornelius Crashes on American Shores Again

It took eleven years, but the Japanese songwriter has returned.

After Cornelius released Sensuous in 2006, he took a backseat. The musician born Keigo Oyamada hit the brakes on his burgeoning solo career to pursue other interests. It turns out that those other interests included a little bit of everything. Between wrapping Sensuous and releasing his excellent new LP Mellow Waves, Oyamada played as a sideman, scored children’s television, and produced for other musicians. He relished the opportunity to be everything but the focal point. This extended hiatus provided a much needed respite from the rigors of recording and touring as Cornelius, and after Oyamada wrapped up a set of shows with Japanese supergroup Metafive in 2016, he sat down to finish the songs he’d been teasing out for a number of years.

He called us from his home studio in Tokyo via Skype and chatted through his quick-talking translator, Bryan Burton-Lewis. In between puffs of vape smoke and subdued giggles, the conversation was lively—aside from Oyamada’s pregnant pauses as he carefully chose his words.

Mellow Waves is a remarkably strong statement from Cornelius, fitting in perfectly with the rest of his discography while showcasing a fully realized shift into a more eclectic, mature songwriting style. He touches on R&B, soft rock, and jazz, while still retaining his trademark electro-acoustic sound. During our call, we chatted about on the distance between Cornelius and his American fan base, understanding lyrics, and aspiring for a utopian music.

Was there a particular reason why you took so long between the records? What about these other projects left you so creatively satisfied?

There’s a big difference between what I can do as a solo artist—make an album and tour—[and what I can do] in working with other people and on other projects. I can produce, be a guitarist, or do something specifically for kids. I can work in film and collaborate. Those were all good things for me.

Were there any details from these various projects that you applied to Mellow Waves?

Lots of different things lend to the album. It’s just that I can do so much more with these other projects than I can as a solo artist, that when it came time to do my own record, there was a reverse side of it: It was now time for me to do things I hadn’t done with others, things I could only do for myself. The realization of this was through singing my own songs—writing music to be sung by myself.

The album does a beautiful job of playing between electric and acoustic instrumentation. What do you find so fascinating about this collage-style method?

It’s a natural thing for me. I don’t really think about the collage so much. I play instruments and I do programming. Maybe the balance of that has something to do with the living situations in Japan. For example, my home studio in Tokyo allows for me to do the music the way I do it now, although I can’t necessarily record a full, blasting, live drum kit. The easiness of being able to work in my own environment and do things the way I want to do [has] a direct result on the sound as well.

Do you find that your surroundings and Japan in general make their way into your music?

I think so. As far as my living environment goes, if I was brought up in rural Japan where there was a lot of space and land, I’d be doing less live music. In retrospect, it is the environment that created my original sound, in a sense. It definitely has a large effect on my music.

You have a large following in America. Do you feel distant or alien from your fan base here because you’re so far away?

Definitely; being in a different country is a big deal. Even though the Internet does bring people closer and make more information available, there’s still a distance to be felt there. That being said, America is a special territory for me because I have a following and base there. I can keep in touch and relate there because I have management and a presence there. It allows me to feel close and work out of America. It’s more countries like Mexico, where the fan base surprises me to this day. [It’s wild] to think that there are people in countries that follow me that I truly am distant from, that I have no way to reach.

How do you feel about people outside of Japan not necessarily being able to understand your lyrics? Does that barrier affect your approach to writing?

I understand and I’m aware that the words might not come across directly, but then again, I’m a listener and a fan of music and I listen in that same sense. I’m always listening to music where I don’t necessarily understand the lyrics. I somehow pick up on a feeling, something in there that I like. To this day, beyond English, there can be a song in Portuguese that I really, really like. There’s a certain way of listening to music—it’s not foreign to me.

There’s more of an emphasis on emotion and sound?

There’s a more enjoyable part of being able to understand the words or lyrics in some fashion, and that could be a more enjoyable experience, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. There can be enjoyment from listening to sounds in a different way as well.

There’s some serious R&B influence on Mellow Waves. What sort of stuff were you listening to while writing and recording?

In terms of specific influences, if we’re talking about stuff I’ve been listening to for eleven years, it’s going to be a pretty long conversation [laughs]. But if I were to pick up a particular incident, Morrissey finally played in Japan [last year] and I wanted to go so [we] ended up getting front-row tickets. Morrissey is known to shake hands with the front row in the audience and to be really active with the audience, so I shook hands with Morrissey live onstage during “How Soon Is Now?” Going back home and listening to “How Soon Is Now?,” I realized it has a lot of tremolo guitar. When I listen back to my album, there’s a lot of tremolo there as well. The wave concept, the concept of the wavy tremolo, was perhaps largely inspired by that—or, at least that incident triggered off my interest in the wave and made this album what it is.

You said it’d be hard to trace influences over eleven years. How long has this new album been in gestation for?

It goes back. I was doing all of these different projects and different works, but I can specifically see influences going back to when I finished my last album [Sensuous] and wrapped up the touring. Going back to 2012 when I was touring with Yoko [Ono], that era was the first reference to song structure with this album. Doing the Metafive tour last year, I realized that it was time to put a close to the songs I had collected since that time.

I was reading an interview with you back in ’06 where you said you were trying to make “utopian music.” With the state of the world today, is that still your goal?

I don’t actually remember that specific interview or what I was referring to, but as far as the world climate affecting my music—as far as the utopian side of it goes—maybe because it is such an awful world, there is a driving force behind wanting a utopian side of things. This album isn’t relating to utopian this-or-that at all, but is about dreams and realities—something in between the dreams and reality. FL

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