IT'S DIFFICULT to describe the sensations that Kishi Bashi's debut album, 151a, provokes without digging up some very tired and terrible-sounding clichés: angelic choirs, rhapsodic harps, orchestral swells that ascend straight on up to heaven. But far from sounding like the dreadful treacle of your grandparents' Mantovani-ridden record collection, Kishi Bashi—the nom de record of K. Ishibashi—is making surprising, artful, daring, and unabashedly gorgeous pop, on a dramatically huge scale.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that Ishibashi's live show currently consists of a violin, a microphone, and a few loop pedals. "It's something that I really developed out of necessity," says the multi-instrumentalist, who studied violin and composition growing up. "I wanted the freedom to just go and play a show by myself, and I really worked hard so I could do that. And the looping thing came as a result. I think it's kind of interesting for people to see how I do it from the ground up," he says. "At first I had other instruments, and I'd be switching around, and I had a drum machine, and I was doing all this stuff—but at one point I just dropped it all. But there are other great people who do it well, too, so it's not like I discovered it or anything."
Ishibashi mentions Reggie Watts, Tune-Yards, and Andrew Bird as artists he's inspired by, particularly from a technical standpoint, but perhaps the biggest single influence on the sound of 151a is Of Montreal's Kevin Barnes, with whom Ishibashi has worked on several Of Montreal albums and tours. "Kevin Barnes was really excited about the production stuff I was doing for him, which was based on the violin. And that got me to think that maybe I should just do something with the violin this time. In working on Paralytic Stalks, which was the last Of Montreal album, he really pushed me to kind of look for new sounds that he couldn't do. Because he can play any instrument, basically, except violin. So in searching for new sounds, I discovered a lot of interesting things you can do with the violin through the loop pedal, and that's kind of the basis of a lot of the sounds that are on 151a."
In addition to Of Montreal, Ishibashi also played in synth-rock group Jupiter One, but his Kishi Bashi alter ego differs quite dramatically from the kitchen-sink approach of that band. "I always had the problem of delving into lots of different types of genres. With Jupiter One, a lot of critics said it was all over the place, if there were any critics who said anything at all. But I kind of learned from that experience and I decided I would focus a little bit more on this album. And I definitely wanted a positive kind of thing. I didn't want it to go too dark—although there are some weird elements to it. And I wanted it to be very violin-centric, which is something new for me. Violin had always been my moneymaker, my professional instrument, and not really my creative instrument."
Ishibashi recorded 151a at home in Virginia, writing sketches of songs in brief, concentrated bursts. "I'd spend a 30-minute block just working on something—making something up, and then quickly recording it on a little recorder. And then doing lots of those, and then the next day just going back to see if there was anything interesting. I did that a lot. The album only has nine songs on it, so it kind of shows you how kind of picky I am. There's a lot of really crappy material that never ever saw the light of day."
What has seen the light of day, though, is intoxicatingly good—one of the year's most sonically entrancing records. There are songs sung in English and Japanese; hauntingly hallowed vocals and bedtime-story strings; cartoon skirmishes and celestial resonances. Kishi Bashi's pop sensibilities are on par with the Beach Boys, ABBA, and Electric Light Orchestra, and 151a is a record that's as effortlessly loveable as you'll find.