In 2020, a year of shut-in artists and restless consumers, we’ve had to improvise concerts to adapt to a global pandemic. Virtual events, live streams on Twitch or YouTube and socially distanced gatherings have replaced the lively concert pit or the familiar coffeehouse stage. One musician who has made the most of these quarantine concerts is Japanese folk artist Ichiko Aoba (kanji: 青葉市子), who’s used Instagram to broadcast concerts from her home in Japan.
Aoba is a very private person, withholding much about her personal and family life from the public. Her birthplace in Urayasu, Chiba, Japan, is among what little we know about her life before music. Yet, she shows so much of herself and her emotions through her music. Through these virtual performances, though clearly delivered from her home, we are given a closer look into her life as an artist — not what she selects to convey in interviews, but in the everyday glimpses of her ordinary domestic space. Recorded on just a phone, the streams carry the essence of her work as a whole and preserve the feeling of her in-person concerts. Despite this new normal for artists, Aoba has managed to cultivate a more intimate relationship with her audience through her Instagram live streams.
Last year marked the tenth anniversary of Aoba’s debut as a musician, spanning a decade of classical guitar compositions coupled with some of the most ethereal vocals in contemporary folk music to date. Her music is, at its core, naturalistic, a pure expression of sound. Her early studio albums were solid blocks of pastel color; albums like her 2010 debut Kamisori Otome (kanji: 剃刀乙女) or the 2018 album qp provide lush instrumentation of her guitar against fragrant, warm vocals.
Aoba does not just complement her vocals with her guitar strumming, they operate more as twin spirits playing in tandem with one another. To call them “lullabies” would be an understatement; each track is a beautiful melody enveloped in dancing guitar playing, cocooning you in her presence. Aoba’s 2013 studio album 0 showcases a sensitivity to physical presence, placing her traditional folk melodies among recordings of performances in urban and natural environments.
Tracks like “Iriguchi Deguchi” (kanji: いりぐちでぐち) are a collage of different sounds strung together, merging physical space, vocals and guitar into one cohesive emotion. Location becomes a part of the music’s poignancy, something that became a challenge to convey when Aoba was forced to transition to online concert streaming. Her usual attention to location could be seen through the visuals of her stage sets, and how she carefully works the design of the set into the warmth of her music.
Across many of Aoba’s live concerts, she is seen on a dimly lit stage next to a careful planning of accompaniments and objects. Perusing through a quick YouTube search of her live performances will show you some of these intricate designs: red string draped over her mic and sheet music stand, a deconstructed living room set, a lush garden with thickets of brambles and wild plants, a floor covered in lamps and light bulbs. One set even has her making a smoothie in a makeshift kitchen while multi-instrumentalist Manami Kakudo sings beside her.
Her set design has as much to do with her creation of space and atmosphere as her music: It isn’t just any space, it’s a space constructed by her and designed from her imagination. Just look at her most recent 2020 album Windswept Adam, a soundtrack for an imaginary movie, or the long-form narration project she embarked on called “Choe.” Aoba invents scenes for us to take in along with her music and visuals; her music becomes an impression of a place, a memory, a dream, a feeling.
Any viewing of Aoba’s home Instagram performances will show how well preserved her sound and her attention to visuals are despite the challenges of online streaming. Moments after the camera flicks on and her hands move away from the phone, her guitar plucking takes hold while her vocals pacify. She decorates her space like her in-person concerts, with not just her music, but little sets and household objects. Flowers, indoor plants and blossoming branches make common appearances in the background of her mini-concerts for her fans. One performance ended with her spinning a crystal doorknob in front of the camera, cascading herself and the trees behind her in a kaleidoscope vision. Although limited, Aoba continues to create little scenes for her fans.
At the heart of these performances is Aoba, her guitar and her music brought up close for us to see. We are made familiar with her: We see her living space and we listen as she lulls and consoles us. Before COVID-19, the world was available to her for exploration, to work into her music and songwriting. Stuck inside like everyone else, these Instagram lives became gifts to her fans. Some of Aoba’s Instagram lives during lockdown strayed away from the comfortable living room set.
One particular virtual show took her to the beach, where she played to fans against the backdrop of crashing waves and whistling winds and eventually took the audience wading through the water. In others, she rode with us through the city streets on the back of a motorcycle, showed us the close-up of her peeling the petals of a rose and even streamed with an artist while walking us through an exhibit while she performed. She has even showcased her piano playing during these virtual productions by playing impressionistic pieces and demonstrating her ability to improvise ambient works. These are things that weren’t well known about her but have now become central to her presence as an artist.
Eventually, the pandemic became manageable enough for Aoba to give virtual performances in a more professional capacity, with studio cameras and equipment, broadcasted on YouTube in favor of the Instagram format. Still, her virtual concerts during the starting months of the pandemic remain as glimpses into the personality of her music.
Although we are thousands of miles away, both physically and figuratively, she manages to create the effect of presence, that she is right there in your living room, singing to you. Despite the world closing off from her, Aoba shows the beauty of life, how comforting and calming it can be in such confining times.
Daily Arts Contributor Conor Durkin can be reached at email@example.com.