One of the most unexpected and endearing Laurel Canyon-style folk-rock albums came from Japan.
The storied folk rock that resounded out of Laurel Canyon in the ‘60s gave birth to such legends as the Byrds, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Their essential, accessible work can be found anyywhere you hear music, and, as the recent documentary Echoes in the Canyon demonstrates (albeit with mixed results), its influence can still be heard today. Nearly 50 years ago, that echo reverberated across the sea to inspire one of the most unexpected and endearing Laurel Canyon-style albums: Sachiko Kanenobu’s Misora, originally released in 1972. Recorded in Japan, its vision of nature was so California-centric that the artist moved there after the album was released—and never left. As part of its revelatory Japanese archive series, Light in the Attic will be giving the album its first ever U.S. issue on July 12, and it’s essential folk rock.
This won’t be the first time Misora has touched down on these shores. The album has been rereleased several times since the mid-‘90s, and the late, lamented New York record store Other Music helped spread the word about the singer-songwriter when it featured a Japanese CD reissue in one of its weekly email missives, in the days when social media was still a dream. The highlighted song was “Toki Ni Makasete (Leave It To Time).” From the opening acoustic rhythm guitar, you were hooked. After a sensitive rhythm section and lightly amplified folk-rock guitar chimes in, sweet vocals gently deliver a melody that would have been a Top 40 hit and AOR staple if it had been in English.
It’s appropriate that the instantly memorable track that introduced many to Kanenobu’s work is about patience: “It’s a waste of time to check up on things/ When your thoughts come, let them come/…Just do it right and leave it to time.” “Leave it to Time,” and the rest of Misora, sound like the work of a natural musician, and a musician in tune with nature. The title can be translated specifically as “open sky,” but Kanenobu explains to reissue producer Yosuke Kitazawa that it can have many meanings: “Sky, meaning the inside of myself, and my mind, my creative mind. And emotion. It’s like the sky also has emotions—rain, crying about it; storm, feeling very angry.” So the simple imagery of the title Open Sky suggests anything that can be contained in that sky.
Kanenobu grew up in a musical family; her oldest sister, Kahoru Yodo, was a star in traditional Japanese stage musicals, and one of her brothers studied classical guitar. She grew up in thrall with the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion. Her interest in the UK folk group Pentangle led her to join a folk club in college; then she discovered alternate tunings and Joni Mitchell—Kanenobu heard what she called an “Okinawa scale” in her music. She recorded a single for the Japanese independent label URC in 1969 before she became part of the celebrated group Happy End, which is how she met Misora producer Haruomi Hosono, the prolific musician who has been the subject of his own essential reissue series.
“He never directed me,” Kanenobu writes of Hosono; he wrote unobtrusive arrangements around her, and plays bass and electric guitar, but much of the album relies on her voice and acoustic finger-picking. Hosono gave her plenty of musical space, and her lyrics reflect that with nature imagery in which she takes in a wide vista and tells us what she sees. From the title track: “A dog runs through a flock of doves taking flight/ The sky is an endless, beautiful blue/ Suddenly my hands reach infinity/ I am embraced by a moving cloud/ Flying over a magical sea.” Her finger-picking and the timbre of her voice show a Joni Mitchell influence, but Kanenobu is less mannered. She scats a little on the gorgeous “Anata Kara Toku E (Far Away From You),” and whether she’s singing or playing, she seems to be tapping some kind of element pop melody.
It took a week to record Misora, and it was a dream come true for Kanenobu. But before it was even released, she dropped it and left home for love. She met Crawdaddy writer Paul Williams (not to be confused with the songwriter), who was visiting Japan at the time; she was pregnant, he proposed, and in June 1972 she was in another country, her album was due out in September and she wouldn’t be there to promote it.
But that wasn’t the end of her musical career. Kanenobu and her family moved to California in 1976, thanks in part to the influence of writer Philip K. Dick, who Williams interviewed for Rolling Stone. After the sci-fi writer heard Misora he encouraged Kanenobu to keep writing, and even paid for the release of a 45 in 1981. An album was in the works that was to be her first American release, but after Dick died unexpectedly in 1982, it fell through. (Maybe Light in the Attic has it in its sights?)
Last year Kanenobu played Misora in its entirety for sold-out audiences in Tokyo, her first shows in Japan in 20 years. She opened a few shows for Steve Gunn, who discovered her music through a WFMU interview, earlier this year. Kanenobu is now 70 years old, and is invigorated by the renewed interest in her work, forever young.