A week into her stay in Tokyo, Chelsea Jade makes her Japanese live debut. It’s a Saturday night in November 2014 at the Red Bull Music Academy’s Culture Fair, at the Ba-Tsu Gallery in the Japanese capital’s fashion-forward Harajuku suburb. Taking to the stage in a long grey overcoat, black top and knee-length skirt, she stands behind her laptop and MIDI controllers and performs live versions of the dreamy vocal electronica on her last two EPs, Portals and Beacons.
She regularly steps off the stage, walking through the crowd while singing directly into people’s faces. She climbs on tables, leads the room in group clap-alongs, and tells funny and intimate stories between songs. Her reward is increasingly louder roars of approval. At the end of her set, she makes her way from the stage to the bar and toasts a couple of sake shots. “I enjoyed that,” she says, before vanishing into the crowd to watch a performance from another Academy participant.
In the crowd there is a medley of many languages. Just down the street is a shop devoted to Tintin. Tokyo is a city of contrasts, niches, rituals and colour, a place where you can find anything your heart desires, especially if you like Tintin. Whether browsing through tiny, packed record shops or hyper-colourful avant-garde fashion stores; drinking at psychedelic-themed bars or taking selfies at owl cafes – cats used to be all the rage in Tokyo coffee shops, but tame live owls are the latest trend – there is literally something for everyone, which makes it the perfect host city for a gaggle of musicians.
Since 1998, Red Bull Music Academy has brought selected artists to one city for two weeks of stimulation and creation. By day, the participants attend lectures from key musical figures. By night, they collaborate in recording studios, attend curated concerts around the city and perform live shows. It’s an environment where sleep is an afterthought, lifelong friendships are formed and inspiration runs rampant.
On day five of Chelsea Jade’s Tokyo Story, the 25-year-old is making the most of her networking opportunities. She’s hanging out at Red Bull Music Academy HQ in Tokyo’s storied Shibuya district, swapping stories with participants-turned-friends including Cat500 from Los Angeles, Valesuchi from Santiago and Mimu Merz from Vienna. A few days earlier, engineers Hiroaki Nishijima and Tatsuya Takahashi, from electronic musical instrument company Korg Inc, gave a lecture. The experience left a lasting impression with Jade.
“Hiroaki Nishijima spoke about how he designs Korg machines,” she says. “He was talking about how the circuit diagrams have to be aesthetically beautiful to him, like a painting. He had such a romantic view of it. He talked about how a little bit of his essence is in each of the machines he makes.” As a poetic singer-songwriter who works within minimalist beatscapes, romance and metaphor are powerful forces for Jade.
Inside one of the eight studio rooms at Academy HQ, she has been working with a cheerful bearded man from Brooklyn known in dancehall and hip-hop circles as Dre Skull. In the past, he’s created anthems with Jamaican stars Popcaan and the incarcerated Vybz Kartel. In Tokyo for this fortnight, he’s a studio mentor.
“I spent the last month in New York,” says Jade, of Dre Skull’s home turf. “We stay in the same area, work at the same studio, and even both know some of the characters that kick around there.” After getting to know one another, it turned out they both had aspirations to write and produce for pop stars. “We’re doing a song together for him to pitch to someone, but I’m not allowed to say who.”
Three days after the Culture Fair, Jade is on stage again, but not in the spotlight. Instead, she sits in a circle with 15 other participants inside the Dance Hall Shinseiki. Seated in front of their laptops, they’re all focused on a serene-looking long-haired man, Yamataka Eye, founder of Japan’s experimental rock titans Boredoms. For nearly an hour, Eye signals to the participants with hand gestures, leading them through a flurry of sub-bass explosions, on an immersive journey into sound as a physical feeling.
After this, the participants switch from laptops to traditional instruments and Otomo Yoshihide takes centre stage. The great instrumentalist leads them in a light-hearted and colourful exercise in jazz-rooted improvisation. He encourages the participants to join him in conducting and brings audience members up on stage to have a turn. Even the mother of one of the Japanese participants gets involved. It’s celebratory and comedic, the flipside to Eye’s performance.
The following evening, killing time in a concert hall lobby waiting to see piano music mystic Lubomyr Melnyk and Icelandic cellist Hildur Guonadottir, Jade reflects on the performances. “Last night helped me make sense of why we’re all here,” she says. “With Eye, we became his computer orchestra. We were given some software so all our computers were the same. He taught us this improvised sign language. It was beautiful and terrifying. The way he was swooping his hand and the sounds corresponded so perfectly spoke to me on an aesthetic level. The second set with Otomo Yoshihide was full of humour. Both sets needed each other. I felt like the experience galvanised everyone. At the end, everyone was exchanging hugs. We’d gone through this terrifying but nourishing experience.”
Inside the concert hall, Guonadottir’s evocative drone cello pieces set the scene perfectly for Melnyk’s life-affirming piano compositions. He performs three long works in his idiosyncratic style, notes exploding in and out of one another at supersonic speeds. Later, back at the Academy building in Shibuya, Jade is inspired by the pianist’s ability to convey stories and feelings through composition: “It was so beautiful.”
It’s 11pm on a Friday night. Dre Skull, an arranger and a small string section are still hard at work in the studio. They’re recording string parts for Jade’s collaboration with Dre, the song they intend to pitch to a pop star. Jade is spellbound. After the string section records its final take, everyone heads upstairs to the dining area.
“On a life experience level, that was really special,” says Jade. “It seemed very serendipitous. Everyone here is so great, but to strike a rapport with someone with the same goals as you is a bonus. To walk into the studio and listen to the strings being laid down was amazing. It feels like it’s all aligning to a desirable end result.”
A day later, in the Academy’s lecture hall, Jade is back on the sake shots, with other participants, while they listen to one another’s tracks. Dre and Jade’s song drops, and it’s a monster. Her soaring voice rings out over marching drums and heart-aching strings and synthesizers. Participants and staff whoop and holler in approval while she grins. “This place is a supernova,” she says later. “It illuminates everything you think about life and music and your career, and how and why you make things. Afterwards, we’ll all go home and be alone again, but at least we’ll have our memories. That’s a good analogy right?”