If By Yes: Yuka Honda and Petra Haden collaborate with the musical goal of 'making the landscape as believable as possible'
The pairing of Japan-born, New York-based multi-instrumentalist/producer Yuka Honda and L.A.’s multi-voiced singer-violinist Petra Haden for their long-germinating If By Yes project created an "organic" way of music-making, according to Honda. If you can call a bicoastal collaboration organic.
This collaboration sprouted when Haden guest-sang on ex-Cibo Matto Honda’s 2002 solo album, "Memories Are My Only Witness." The results were so pleasing to them that they decided to pursue a further recording project, and after several years of cross-continental communication, they’ve now released "Salt on Sea Grass" on Sean Lennon’s Chimera label.
"I’ve always thought Petra was one of the greatest singers, not just great technically but very unique," says Honda. "When I was releasing my solo album and had the opportunity to do a record-release party, I thought I would just go crazy and do the things I’d always dreamt of. So I flew her to New York with my frequent-flier mileage ticket; she came and we performed the show, and she stayed and we started to write little songs here and there."
The pair’s songwriting sessions were loose and informal, combining their varied yet resonant musical experiences in a way that would ensure a different character to the music –– an album might be the outcome, but they’d record only when and if they felt like it.
"When I collaborated with Yuka, she made me feel relaxed," says Haden. "It put me in a place where I wasn’t so worried about if it sounds OK. And I felt like we had the same kind of style, kind of like the Beach Boys, with lots of harmonies."
So two natural partners smashed their atoms together, and a volume of zillion creative particles flew. Honda (who’s worked with the Plastic Ono Band, on Sean Lennon’s solo album, and as part of Floored by Four with Mike Watt, Nels Cline and Dougie Bowne) and Haden (ex-That Dog, Beck and Rikki Lee Jones, the creator of an all-a cappella version of "The Who Sell Out" and a member of the musical Haden family that includes father/jazz bassist Charlie, Spain founder/brother Josh and sisters Rachel and Tanya) give "Salt on Sea Grass" an oddly affecting poppy sort-of-pop air loaded with melodicized soul-pop -- taken on rather complex rides across wildly diverse emotional terrains.
The songs’ frequent slides into darker and denser places is aided by contributions from guitarist Hirotaka "Shimmy" Shimizu and drummer Yuko Araki, along with mixing work by electro-pop composer man Cornelius and guest work by guitarist Nels Cline and singer David Byrne.
The difference in this music is audible, maybe because Honda and Haden worked so slowly and intuitively toward the album’s fruition. That difference might also have to do with the intriguing egolessness of both Haden and Honda’s musicianship.
"I’m not so interested in chops, except maybe when I listen to Mahavishnu Orchestra or Jimi Hendrix," says Honda. "I want to present my music more compositionally and not in terms of skill. I’m more interested in creating the landscape and making the landscape as believable as possible."
That may mean that she holds one note for eight bars, and that note might be a soft, near-inaudible sound that colors the air.
"If you just want to listen to this music, you can," she says, "but if you want to dig deep, then there’s a lot of things you can find that are very unusual in terms of rhythmic structure, for example."
She credits Cornelius for this nontraditional view of how to subvert the beat.
"He’s the most advanced innovator of the rhythm of pop music. He revolutionized how things need to be played, where nothing happens in the rhythm you know. And he completely deconstructed it, but also reconstructed it in a way that you can groove with it, so you’ll feel like it’s still breathing. It’s easy to make things different; it’s amazing to take it so far away, yet you feel so close."
Honda’s background as a Japanese music fan also plays a part in If By Yes’ alternative harmonies and pleasingly skewed rhythmic angles.
"In Japan, there are two categories: Japanese music and foreign music," she says. "So heavy metal and rock and hiphop and Brazilian music and 'The Godfather' theme all go into the `foreign music’ genre. But I always considered all of them the same genre –– I just naturally hear them together."
Viewed this way, the Haden-Honda connection makes its own kind of sense.
"I think what Petra brings to the music is very sunny and beautiful," says Honda. "Now that I’m working with L.A. musicians, I do think my world seems a little bit darker –– I tend to go to the gutter [laughs], to a New York dirty-apartment sound. But I did grow up on the ocean in Japan, so I think I have a sunny side to me too. And I really enjoyed finding this integration of worlds.
-- John Payne