Takenobu's Iron Will
Cellist Nick Ogawa makes classical music popThursday February 18, 2016 04:00 am EST
Nick Ogawa blows steam from a cup of hot tea while leading the way to the laundry room of his East Atlanta home. With its white, mostly bare walls and backyard view, the room seems an unlikely incubator for the music Ogawa creates. In the corner, a mass of wires snakes in and out of a red looping pedal. On a glowing computer screen, a grid of time stamps and an audio wave are frozen in motion — a musical composition on pause. A few feet away, a cello stands in an open blue plastic case.
"This is a Doetsch," Ogawa says.
He pulls the instrument from its case and rubs his finger over a few small blemishes in the varnish and a few chipped edges. They are battle scars, reminders of nights spent performing everywhere from East Atlanta to Moscow.
"These instruments range in price anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few million dollars," Ogawa says. "This one falls somewhere in the middle, I guess. But it is a good instrument. It does a fine job."
He puts the cello back in the case and heads to the living room.
Since 2007, Ogawa, 33, has recorded under the name Takénobu. It's his middle name, a combination of characters from his father and his grandfather's names in Japanese kanji.
"The literal translation is something along the lines of determination and self-belief," Ogawa says. "I usually say it means iron willed. That's not quite how it translates, but it's pretty close."
Takénobu's songs are at turns stark, elegant, and stirring. They are the culmination of a life spent mastering one of classical music's most identifiable instruments and using it in a modern pop context. He's independently released five albums. Each one blends pop music hooks, folk simplicity, and avant-garde textures. Influences ranging from Philip Glass, Andrew Bird, and the Books to M83 and the Strokes inform his deeply expressive songwriting and compositions.
Ogawa has carved out an intriguing place for himself within Atlanta's music scene and around the world. He's a classically trained musician. As such, his music doesn't quite fit into the smoke-filled clubs that cater to the local rock and dance music scenes. But he has shared stages with locals such as Little Tybee and Book of Colors and national acts such as Jason Mraz, Stephen Kellogg, and Kishi Bashi. Takénobu's songs even get regular spins on NPR's Morning Edition. His performances at local venues such as Eddie's Attic pack the room. Financially, he's found success through online music sites such as Spotify and Pandora. But he struggles to book tours — the burden of diverging from a traditional musical path.
After years spent toiling as an independent musician, success followed his first two albums, Introduction (2007) and Exposition (2011), in the form of digital download sales. But in the years between 2011's Momotaro and his latest album, Reversal, released Feb. 12, streaming has eclipsed downloads. Despite uncertainty over how Takénobu's fifth album will fare in the current musical climate, Ogawa is pressing forward.
A CLUTTER OF CUPS, bowls, and other vessels painted in dark green and sky blue glaze line the mantle of Ogawa's fireplace. Each one is the product of pottery classes at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. On the floor, a wild-eyed Australian cattle dog named Alvie is as low to the ground as it can press its body. Its movements are unpredictable. The dog is reaching its paws under the couch, scratching at something that isn't there.
"He has been obsessing over something under the couch for days, and it's a mystery to me what he could possibly be after," Ogawa says. "I looked. There's nothing under there!"
The dog reaches under the couch again. Still nothing. Ogawa laughs and calls the confused animal away to another room. He closes the door behind him. The dog scratches and barks only once, and then goes silent. Ogawa returns and hands over a pair of CDs — Introduction and Exposition — Takénobu's first two recordings.
"I don't have copies of my third CD, Momotaro," he says.
The third album is a soundtrack for the famous Japanese fairy tale of the same name.
"I read it a lot when I was a kid. It's probably the most famous Japanese folktale," he says. "It's about a boy who saves his village from invading demons. My soundtrack was written to be listened to as one continuous piece of music, but when I got the CDs back there were track breaks all over. I had to trash an entire run."
Ogawa's Japanese heritage has a place in Takénobu's music, although it's nothing he's actively expressing through music. He says, however, the year he spent in Kyoto teaching English was an impactful time. It was there, at the age of 20, that he started writing his own material.
"I don't have Climactica, either," he says, a little bewildered, of his 2012 record. "That's actually the fourth album I released, but it's third in the series I started with Introduction."
Introduction kicked off a five-album cycle based on the traditional structure of a tragic play. The album features 10 songs of cello and vocal arrangements, and two instrumental numbers. The cycle's latest record, Reversal, offers just one song on which Ogawa sings, "Curtain Call," and 12 instrumentals that hone a more sophisticated sound by embracing simplicity.
Reversal by Takenobu
Over the course of Exposition, Momotaro, and Climactica, Ogawa's songwriting flourished with lush arrangements and layered instrumentation. On Reversal, songs such as "Dreams," "Darkness," and "Moonshine Still" give the album an austere and spacious feel as Ogawa strips the operation down to his cello and longtime bandmate Brian Harper's violin.
"There are a lot of his voices on the album," Harper says. "If you listen to the second song, 'Reversing,' he has a wispy line and that contrasting, fiercely bowed cello — maybe that's a microcosm of his personality. There is a variety of ways he can make a point come across in his cello playing."
In the late 1960s, Kenji Ogawa, Nick's paternal grandfather, emigrated from his home in Tokyo to teach Japanese at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His son, Nobuo, Nick's father, was still in college at the time. Soon he too made the nearly 5,000-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean by boat. He made his way to the United States in the 1970s. In 1982, Nick was born in Princeton, New Jersey. It was there that, at just 3 years old, he began playing Suzuki violin.
Suzuki is a method of teaching based on ear training — no reading of sheet music, at least not in the early stages.
"They teach you to sing mouth sounds, and then to emulate that and play by ear," Ogawa says. "I remember hating going to practice when I was a kid. I cried and I fought not to go, but I was forced to do it. All throughout elementary school I had to practice 45 minutes every day."
When he was 6, his father landed a job teaching Japanese at Middlebury College in Vermont. Both his father and mother, Carole, still teach there and live in the nearby tiny town of Cornwall, population 1,185. That's where they raised Nick and his younger sister Morika.
There were no Suzuki teachers living nearby. There was, however, a Juilliard-trained cello teacher at Middlebury, a Dutch woman named Dieuwke Davydov. Ogawa switched from violin to cello under Davydov's tutelage.
At 6, Ogawa was already a fan of rock 'n' roll. The Beach Boys and Chuck Berry were two of his favorites. But he didn't really start exploring his musical tastes until he was a teenager.
"Embarrassingly, some of the first stuff I really started getting into was pop punk," Ogawa says. "Then I started playing guitar and got into guitar-heavy stuff. Hendrix. I was into some of Eric Clapton's stuff, but I wasn't really into Clapton. And, of course, growing up in Vermont, you had to listen to Phish."
His tastes clearly illustrated an inclination for soloing. He delved into the music of Hendrix and B.B. King on the guitar. It was only a matter of time before he returned to playing cello. When he did, he took everything he'd learned from rock 'n' roll and applied it to the cello.
"That was an important step for me," Ogawa says. "It made me realize how underutilized the cello is in the context of modern music."
During live shows he's known to cover pop songs ranging from Britney Spears' "Toxic" to Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River." Reinterpreting these songs for cello sometimes alters the course of his songwriting.
"For one show we played the Strokes' 'Under Control,'" Harper says. "That strum he worked out for cello visibly resonated with the audience. Since working that out, you can hear the same strum on the new album with 'Curtain Call.'"
Climactica by Takenobu
Harper also recalls how a cover of M83's "Midnight City" left a mark on Takénobu. "There's a sax solo at the end of the song, and I needed a really piercing sound," he says. "So I used an octave effect on the violin — pitched the sound up just a bit. After figuring that out I used it on 'Toki Doki' from Climactica, and again you hear it on 'Curtain Call.'
"The structure of the song, and trying to get different sounds by imitating other musicians, reinterpreting what they've done, and trying to get new sounds with different instruments has been a huge influence."
UPON ITS RELEASE, Introduction received little to no fanfare. Things eventually picked up for the album — four years later. Shortly after he released Exposition in 2011, Ogawa was earning enough money from iTunes downloads to cover his car payments. Then he was making enough to pay rent. That year, his music was drawing more than 500,000 spins a month on Pandora, resulting in people buying about 200 albums a month on iTunes. It was enough to quit his day job working with a Midtown marketing company. Ogawa had proven himself a formidable composer, cellist, and a self-reliant businessman.
The success he received from online spins translated into respect within Atlanta's music scene and with scattered listeners around the globe. In 2013, after hearing Takénobu on Pandora, Margret Wander, aka Dessa, contacted Ogawa to record and arrange the cello on the song "It's Only Me" for her Parts of Speech album. Another listener who was bowled over after hearing Takénobu's music on Pandora flew him all the way to Moscow to play a sold-out show in March 2014.
Despite such attention, booking a tour or even a handful of shows throughout the U.S. remains an obstacle Takénobu can't seem to surmount.
The roadblock he faces is a matter of genre ambiguity. His pensive songwriting and cello-based arrangements are too nontraditional to be filed neatly under the category of modern classical music. Yet the slow ambiance of Reversal songs such as "Curtain Call," "Dreams," and "Darkness" is often deemed too elegant for the confines of a rock club.
"It's difficult because his music is so outside of the box," says Eddie's Attic promoter Andrew Hingley. "There is often a disconnect that certain genres of music have in certain music rooms. I've encountered the same problem while booking everyone from small ensembles to the Atlanta Symphony. It's hard to get people to come to a show if the music doesn't make immediate sense to them. In Takénobu's case, he's an exceptional artist and puts on fantastic performances at Eddie's Attic, oftentimes to a sold-out audience. But other venues might not see him in the same context."
It's a dilemma that Ogawa knows all too well.
"People don't know how to describe what I do, and they don't know what to expect. They want a framework of what it's going to be," he says. "I've always just tried to write what I felt was right at the time, without doing anything genre-based. Then when it comes time to put out a record, and I have to click the genre for iTunes I'm like, 'Fuck ... What kind of music is this?'"
World music is the default setting that's worked best for Takénobu. But it's a grossly inaccurate designation. A lyric writer and musical composer, Ogawa isn't far removed from modern pop and classical music masters. The names of everyone from Philip Glass to Andrew Bird, Kishi Bashi, and the Books pop up in reviews, but these comparisons aren't perfect, either. Violins and cellos are much less common than guitars in contemporary pop.
Ogawa moved to Brooklyn after college in Haverford, Penn. In 2006, he competed in the Williamsburg Live Songwriter Competition, a nine-day multi-venue shootout-style series of performances. A few hundred contestants were whittled down to one finalist each night. On the competition's final night, Ogawa was the last man standing. The win came with $4,000 in prize money. He spent some of it on rent. Most of it, however, was used to pay for the cost of mastering, producing, and pressing his debut. He also used the money to cover costs of sending CDs out to radio stations around the country.
"I didn't know anything about PR," he says. "I was just doing it all myself."
One of the other finalists in the Williamsburg Songwriter Competition was a young artist named Lizzy Grant, better known to most now as Lana Del Rey. Grant, who was still a college student at Fordham University in the Bronx, contacted Ogawa via Myspace after the competition. He recorded cello for a few of her early numbers, but to this day he's not sure if anything became of the songs they worked on together.
In 2006, physical media sales were plummeting while music downloads were coming up. When reality sunk in that all of his money and work had yielded practically no response, Ogawa became disenchanted.
"I was like, 'Man this is pointless! I'm never going to get signed.'"
When his mother saw how frustrated he'd become, she sent him the link to submit his music to Pandora. It was still a relatively new concept at the time. He loaded the album and submitted it.
Introduction by Takenobu
Nearly four years went by with no real action coming his way. Ogawa decided to leave Brooklyn. His sister, along with a few other friends, had moved to Atlanta, so the Southern capital seemed like as good a place as any to set up and start over. Before leaving New York, he made an appearance on the PBS-syndicated program WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour to perform his version of the traditional folk song "Shady Grove."
OGAWA COMPLETED HIS SECOND ALBUM, Exposition, in Atlanta. Still, there wasn't much of a response to his music. Then seemingly out of nowhere, his iTunes downloads started adding up.
He speculates that his performance on the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour earned his songs some radio play. That exposure led to enough listeners to search for and click on Pandora's thumbs-up icon to reach a larger audience. Soon, he was receiving messages from random listeners saying, "Your music keeps showing up on my Tool station, and I normally don't like this kind of stuff. But I love it," Ogawa says.
Brooklyn-based finger oil painter Iris Scott encountered Takénobu's music online.
"I first experienced chills up my spine in 2012 in my studio, while painting and listening to Spotify," Scott said in an email. "The oil on canvas in front of me looked brighter and more alive once engulfed by the hauntingly beautiful cello and voice of Takénobu's album Introduction. I hunted down everything I could by this artist, and he became a staple of my daily painting regimen."
Scott sparked a friendship with Ogawa by sending him an email with the subject line "Free album cover art." It caught his attention.
"I wanted to give back to this person who was filling my studio each day with that creativity-boosting soundtrack," Scott said.
The two began a long-distance conversation, sharing ideas that would ultimately become Momotaro's cover art: a peach floating in water.
"My first peach needed more definition and a leaf, and he was fabulous at putting the image in his mind into words enough for me to execute it in oil paint," Scott said.
Since then, she has continually drawn inspiration from Takénobu's music and their working relationship continues to this day. Most recently, Scott completed a painting titled "Francesca." She shot a three-minute video documenting her process in real-time. She sent the footage to Ogawa via email, who then composed a three-minute piece of music to match the scenes, cuts, and attitude of the painting and filmography. Together, they've hatched even more pairings of his music and videos of her work. One documenting the creation of a painting of a dog shaking off water has amassed nearly 200,000 views on YouTube.
"I hate imagining what my art videos would sound like if Takénobu and I hadn't connected."
The exposure offered by streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music can be a powerful asset for artists such as Takénobu. But the payoff is difficult to quantify. Ogawa says they "cannibalize" the downloads, which bring in more money. As a result, limited revenue is reduced exponentially, making it even more difficult for independent musicians to make a living off of music sales, regardless of how many spins a song or a whole album receives.
"With an iTunes download I get about 66 cents per song," Ogawa says. "With a stream it's about 1,000th of a cent. Maybe 2,000th of a cent, depending on the listener."
The dilemma is compounded by the difficulties Ogawa faces booking Takénobu shows outside of Atlanta.
"The adage that musicians really make their living off the money they earn from touring doesn't work for me," he says. "If I could make a living from touring, I wouldn't worry about it quite so much. But it is disconcerting."
The audience for Takénobu's music is scattered. Requests for shows come in from across the country.
"He has fans everywhere, but it's tough to get a group of people together to come to one location and watch a Takénobu show," Harper says. "I also think a lot of the popularity on Pandora is from intimate listening experiences — on the headphones. I think a lot of people enjoy it in a private setting, but going to see it might be a leap."
Harper, who has a full-time job and is an expectant father, can't commit to playing music on the road.
"Touring is also especially tough if it's just Nick," he says. "I'm pretty much anchored here."
During live performances, there's a shyness to Ogawa's presence as he bows his cello, rocking back and forth as if the music is in control of his movements. Through it all Ogawa keeps his eyes squeezed tightly shut.
"Closing my eyes on stage is more of a concentration thing," he says. "It takes so much concentration for me to be playing a fretless instrument, and singing, and keeping everything in tune. It's just one less thing for me to worry about."
Aside from his Bandcamp page, Ogawa has refrained from streaming Reversal, although he says it will stream eventually. On the financial front, licensing his songs has also been a good source of income.
"More often than not filmmakers or video producers approach me after having already gone through the selection process, and have determined they want to use a specific song," he says. "It isn't always clear to me how they've come across my music, but my guess is either Pandora or Spotify, or through some sort of related-artists algorithm from other sources."
Last year, Samsung programmed a video featuring music from Momotaro in every 4K TV it sold. Ogawa also wrote a piece of music for a Georgia State Tourism commercial that's still making its way around the Internet. The music for both was licensed from Ogawa.
He still owns the rights to all of his music. That's usually the deal he goes for: He'll write a song at a lower rate so long as he keeps the rights and can sell the song and relicense it.
"When I was growing up, the idea of selling out was the worst thing a band could do," Ogawa says. "That was the '90s, the golden age, when people were still buying CDs, and artists had big fat record contracts. Those record contracts barely exist now, so, as an artist, you have to do whatever you can do to make it work."
In the distance, the dog barks once again. Ogawa steps away and returns with Alvie by his side. Once again, the dog stares longingly under the couch for whatever it is that may or may not be under there. Ogawa shakes his head and turns to survey the pottery lining the mantle. He laughs before saying, "I don't know what to do with all of these! I've made so many of them."
He grabs a BB gun that's been leaning against the fireplace, just out of sight. "I bought this so I could have something to do with all of this pottery. I need to do something with it."