Kishi Bashi is known for innovation, for using pedals and effects to take his violin, his voice, and his ideas into the electronic pop-rock stratosphere. But a traditional singer-songwriter ethos has always been part of the mix, and on his new EP, Emigrant, he fully embraces the roots of his sound and the history and natural settings that have shaped it.
Considered a companion to his 2019 album Omoiyari, which explored the experiences of Japanese Americans in general and World War II-era internment in particular, Emigrant was recorded as the artist, whose real name is Kaoru Ishibashi, traveled from his home in Athens, Georgia, to the American West last year to work on a film further exploring Omoiyari’s themes. (Omoiyari is a Japanese word that refers to creating compassion toward others by thinking about them.) The rugged, open spaces and natural beauty of his surroundings, amid the darkness and isolation of 2020, are the canvas for Emigrant, whose six songs often evoke the feeling of being small, and sometimes helpless, in a vast and unpredictable world.
We learn another Japanese word on opening track “Cascades,” with nagasareru (“to be washed away”) providing the central theme as the singer offers closeness and comfort against the backdrop of “a fire upon the mountain.” The vocals are thickly layered (four of the album’s six guest performers contribute vocals as well as instrument work), but the melody is propelled by banjo, guitar, and a gallop of brushed drums, lending a Laurel Canyon vibe but a backbone that goes back even farther in time.
Kishi Bashi’s violin, of course, winds throughout Emigrant, but it’s only sometimes front and center, and his playing takes on a much more bluegrass style than on previous recordings, showing off another side of his talent and his considerable musical knowledge. (That side, however, shouldn’t come as a surprise; he’s alum of roots music incubator Berklee College of Music.) A fiddle solo on his cover of Dolly Parton’s “Early Morning Breeze” is one of the album’s instrumental highlights, among many.
The line about having “a word with God” in “Early Morning Breeze” lands differently coming on the heels of the other cover on Emigrant, Regina Spektor’s “Laughing With.” No one laughs at God, the song goes, amid a long list of tragedies that mar the human condition. But “God can be funny” as a joke at a party, or when twisted into absurdity by some of his less-bright followers. The way Kishi Bashi sings “Ha ha” to mark that laughter is both exquisite and excruciating. And it gets right to the heart of a gut-punch of a song.
In no way is Emigrant a bluegrass album, but the bluegrass sounds — including some fantastic banjo work from Mike Savino (Tall Tall Trees) — give the songs roots enough to take hold in a windswept time, and the listener hope that springtime will be worth the wait.