Artists From Japan #8: An Introduction To Lily Chou-Chou

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Who Is/Are Lily Chou-Chou?

Maybe you’ve seen this scene from Kill Bill, and wondered to yourself, whose haunting voice was that in the background? Well, the answer is a bit complicated.

Lily Chou-Chou is a fictional artist created for influential japanese director Shunji Iwai’s 2001 film, “All About Lily Chou-Chou”, a film about troubled teens escaping violence, prostitution, and their own powerful, and dark urges through an obsession with a fictitious artist, Lily Chou-Chou. To create the kind of warm, dreamy music he wanted Lily Chou-Chou to represent, Shunji brought together Takeshi Kobayashi, an incredibly prolific and talented composer for film and tv, and Salyu, a rather unknown female vocalist who would go on to be an icon of japanese music in her own respect. The two would frequently work together after the release of the Lily Chou-Chou album, but it would mark their only full-scale album as a group.

Much like the soundtrack for his earlier film “Swallowtail Butterfly”, which saw Shunji bringing famous japanese singer Chara together with a full band as the Yentown Band, Lily Chou-Chou was a massive success outside the movie, launching Salyu’s career and spawning a huge, devoted cult following for the group.

While there is a traditional orchestral score for All About Lily Chou-Chou, the real treasure is the complete album of 9 pop songs released as an actual album by Lily Chou-Chou called Kokyu, or Breath.

1. Breath (2001):

Borrowing equally from Bjork’s Vespertine (who is mentioned by name in the film), and Brian Eno’s art-rock phase, Breath is an astoundingly diverse set of songs, especially considering the constraints of a film “soundtrack”. The ballads, like “Arabesque’ (above), feature gentle pinging electronics, and a hushed, whispery vocal performance by Salyu, equal parts relaxing and haunting. Her voice has that kind of gentle quality Bjork had in Vespertine, but much more austere and melancholic. It’s almost classical in how bright and sustained her vocals can be, but it never feels emotionally distant, or forced, as she’s more than willing to let you hear her heavy breaths, and lip smacks. The electronics are smothering and dream-poppy, with lowly mixed guitars slowly intertwining in the bottom of the song, but Salyu’s voice somehow manages to conquer the whole mix.

On tracks like “Kaifuku suru Kizu” she almost sounds like she’s giving a solo performance of Perotin over ambient synths. It sounds untouchable, and almost, religious in a sense, and yet somehow on the more art-rocky tracks like “Hikousen”, she manages to sound like a Fiona Apple-esque tigress, holding her own over saxophone bursts and heavily treated guitars. If anything can be said about Salyu, it’s that she knows how to work with her voice, molding it to every context while never losing the very low raspy tone that defines it.

The album settles into some more poppy numbers in the back half of the album, with The Bends sounding alt-rock numbers “Tobenai Tsubasa”, and “Kyoumei (Kuukyo na Ishi)”, all before finishing with the fucking massive “Glide”, the song used to devastating effect in the final act of the film. Backed by a piano and melted guitar lines, Salyu belts out lines like

I wanna be / I wanna be / I wanna be just like the sea
just swaying in the water/ so to be at ease
To be away from all, to be one, of everything
Lyrics Are In English*

It’s resignated, accepting the complex, and dark realities of growing up, much as the lead character of the film did, but it certainly doesn’t need the movie’s context to convey that. This album truly manages to transcend its position as a “soundtrack”, it’s a fully separable album of 9 somber pop gems. One which predicted great things for its two creators.

2. After Breath:

After their work together on Lily Chou-Chou, the two would continue to collaborated for a good amount of Salyu’s future work, but mainly continued on with their respective individual careers. Takeshi Kobayashi continues to work as a film composer, including work on a film for infamous director Takashi Miike. Salyu would go on to have a very successful solo career under the Salyu moniker, releasing 5 albums since her debut as Lily, one of which was produced entirely by the Japanese music legend, and fellow “Artist From Japan” Cornelius, and is highly recommended (it’s called S(o)un(d)beams (song above)).

Surprisingly they would revamp the Lily Chou-Chou moniker once more in 2010 for a song called “Ether” (a reference to the word used to describe Lily in the namesake film). The song was a very odd departure from the more textured sound of Breath into sparser indie-folk territory. I’d hardly call it essential, or even at all similar to Lily Chou-Chou in the slightest, but it was officially released by the duo.

Oh, and the movie is great by the way.

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