“I am a mere pebble.”
As a premier model in the contemporary groove scene who has informed the soul dialect with the global accents of civic cosmopolitanism and worldly savoir faire and the jazz idiom with transgressive definitions on manner and tradition, she has revealed a mural of a muse who concertedly charters earthy soul and funk, classic jazz, and nu jazz hues in a swirl as colorfully cant as a Wassily Kandinsky canvas and concretely confident as a Ogiwara Morie construct.
If Monday Michiru is ever a pebble, she is a big one.
With a solo recording career recently eclipsing a decade young, Monday (named after the day on which she was born) has held the master plan behind an imposing catalogue of inimitable studio albums, with a towering triumvirate (1996’s Delicious Poison, 1999’s Optimista, 2000’s 4 Seasons) impressed upon the close of the ‘90s. Seemingly guided by the auteur theory, she is the consummate artist-and one time model, radio DJ, and award winning actress-handling duties all across the board: performance (vocals, spoken word, flute), composition, arrangement, production, and programming with equal adept. As a vocalist she has convincingly solidified her place in the vocalists’ lineage with a voice possessing the technical operatic exploits of Minnie Riperton and the uniquely especial sensitivity of Ann Sally, while her compositional chops boast an intensely inspiring command of the most complex of song archetypes—it is, in fact, more than anything, her compositional might that sets her on a cloud high above her peers. Yet these artistic capacities appear not as vanity descriptors but as plain testament to this individual’s spanning virtuosity. Such wide-reaching fluency has afforded Monday clearer waters to explore the cosmos of her eclectic soul, uninhibited by technical snags or clumsy elocution, for sounds that play in between the lines, in and around stylistic boundaries. Not just any rock in the pond. She is footing for the complaisant tancho koi-flailing tail ends, fanning fins, flashy faces and all-that litter the music pool.
As a one-off deal with Sony Japan surfaces, the born in Tokyo, now New York resident Monday Michiru returns from a brief maternity leave, twin “best of” compilation albums, and a mix disc by Chari Chari with Episodes in Color, her ninth studio offering set to inspirit the season. But the arrival of Nikita, Monday’s first child with husband and jazz trumpet extraordinaire Alex Sipiagin in November 2000, seemed to have immediate designs over the direction of the new album.
“I had a pow-wow with the head of my management/production company, and he had a vision that I should go deeper into jazz and that “healing” should be my main concept. I had the idea, especially being a new mom and all, that I wanted to make an album of music that you can really chill out to, no energetic bursts or artistic muscle flexing, something you can listen to with a baby; I’d felt since Nikita was born that being in the frame of mind and energy that I was at, and the baby being still so fragile and sensitive, that there was so little music that I could listen to with him, other than old ballads and classical music, and I thought it would be cool to do a modern and original lullabies for adults. So when we met up with the [Sony] A&R guy, I talked about the lullaby thing mixed with the healing concept, and he was of course a little skeptical,” she explains.
Surprisingly, the follow-up to Monday’s forward-thinking 4 Seasons could well have been a tome of lullabies-an unlikely and surprising consideration from such a consistently exhilarating artist. Yet, as she politely excuses herself from conversation on a number of occasions to tend to Nikita’s clamoring for mother’s attention, it becomes apparent motherhood is a pleasure (“as a mother, I barely have time to brush my teeth!”) consumed wholeheartedly—this is only the second time since her Polydor contract that she has taken nearly two years in between original studio album releases, a long sabbatical for an artist accustomed to an album a year pace. Monday did, however, keep creative muscles busy with outside work: a contribution to K.‘s 2001 album, and collaborations with bird, Angel, and Yas-Yaz that will see release this year. All the while, Monday, a health-wise cook certain to impart the same for her son, fed her literary appetite with Super Food for Babies.
Expect no shimmering music boxes or saccharine rhymes on Episodes in Color. Circumstances changed things. “Then 9/11 happened,” continues Monday. “By the time I started writing for my album, Nikita was older and already starting to learn to “dance” so my need to make lullabies was gone. And in all reality, 9/11 just put things into focus-man, we don’t know when we’re going to disappear from the face of this earth. Let’s get real.
“So I just wrote from the heart, just from where I was at, me, now. And that’s the concept. Musically, it’s organic. There’s nothing “new” per se in terms of musical style, but for me the music is the most challenged I’ve written to date, although I also see I have far to go still.”
As much as Shéna Ringö defied the commonly dulling affect of motherhood on the artist blade with an excursion into poly-cultural immersion, Monday will play with her oceanic depth and seemingly indefectible track record to elevate Episodes in Color, which was produced under a budgetary constraint, to a plateau on par with the implausibly high benchmark set by the magnum opus of 4 Seasons.
“The new album follows in the footsteps of 4 Seasons on the organic and jazzy tip. Simpler sound production, consistency and flow of sound as I use the same musicians, production/arrangement team (myself and my husband, Alex), engineer, and studios. It is more mellow than in my earlier releases, and I believe it has matured somewhat in content and writing-dare I say such a thing,” Monday shares in her commonly unassuming manner. “Up until recently, I flirted with different styles and sounds because it was fun; I was curious; I was still searching; and I was open. I am still curious, still searching, and open, but I’ve slowly honed in on what I truly like, what I want to stand for, and am less inclined to work with underground club-oriented sound makers as I had in the past just because I’ve moved away from club music and don’t DJ anymore; and it’s not as important to me as it was then. I suppose in the past I was conscious of coming out “new” each time, from a different perspective than from the last work. Part of me didn’t like to be pegged or pigeonholed into a certain style and I liked to be a chameleon with the styles of music. To me, the true music lied in the songwriting, singing, and lyrics, and the styles that I chose to play around with is just the exterior. It’s like the songwriting and the singing were the naked me, and the arrangements and styles were just the outer clothing and makeup. Take off the clothing and makeup and the naked self always remains.”
It is true the musical brushes fly in from all over: the ‘90s Aoyama club inflections of Maiden Japan to the Brazilian-tinted acid jazz of Jazz Brat to the classic soul imbued funk-jazz of Delicious Poison to the electronically clubby Double Image to the deep in-the-pocket Latin propulsion of Optimista to the zealous nu jazz of 4 Seasons. And however mindful Monday’s attempt to spring anew with each album the results are sincerely inspired and wholly successful artistic visions fluent in traditional and contemporary groove vocabulary.
Episodes in Color will serve as a further traverse away from the eternally hip acid jazz dimensions of the Gilles Peterson (a supporter of Monday since inception) landscape, which Monday insists has little to do with the absence of former boyfriend (of three years) and musical collaborator Osawa Shinichi or the presence of her husband Alex Sipiagin. It will be her subtlest stylistic transition as she further befriends the singular mode set by 4 Seasons.
It will be a monumental feat to trek upward when it seems a sort of summit has already been reached, but as Monday explains, the point of meridian is never near: “I’ll be honest-yes, there is a point that I think, “what if I make a total dud compared to the last one,” but I never think that what I’ve made is the best that I can do in the future. I believe I am still growing as a person and as a musician and certainly as a singer, and as long as I am capable of expressing that growth, I hope I come up with stronger stuff as I go.”
For this stuff, the process began in November of last year with Dave Darlington as engineer and Monday, as usual, in the producer’s chair. Yet, as of early January she had yet to complete a single song. ” . . . So I was really panicking as the recording was to begin the 6th of January, but somehow I made it into home base, and surprisingly the recording went without a hitch. We were fairly organized; I didn’t waste time with anything; my engineer is ridiculously on it. [There were] talented musicians who got it like yesterday [and the] charts were in order-I was really lucky. We recorded off and on and mastered on February 12,” she says of the situation.
Additional aid comes by way of her husband Alex, whom she met at the Newport Jazz Festival in Madarao (Nagano, Japan) in the summer of 1999 and married just five months afterwards, three days after Christmas, in a small wedding at New York’s City Hall where about twelve of their closest family and friends gathered. Sasha, as Monday lovingly calls him, resumes role as horns and strings arranger, as on 4 Seasons (the couple’s first collaboration), and acts as co-producer. He is also responsible for the words to be seen on the album cover. “He was the one who came up with the idea for the title of the album: he commented that the tunes had more “color” than my previous compositions,” says Monday. Alex has lent his playing to a Sakamoto Ryuichi album; such an illustrious claim certainly gives, at the least, weight to his words. Monday adds, ” . . . His insights definitely helped me to shape the music. He doesn’t mince words on his criticism; and his honesty, as blunt as they can be sometimes, makes me challenge myself to the utmost. I feel like I can’t slack off.” Not that she would.
* * * *
Monday is unduly generous with her time, having obliged in conversation for hours-and shines a textured personality: she reveals she has a quick temper; she explains some label execs in Japan consider her a bitch, because her Western tendencies conflict with their customs; she was an avid Law & Order viewer when the economics of time were in her favor; she hides her thumbs inside her clenched fist so to prevent her parents from death, a Japanese superstition; her first kiss came at fifteen and her first love showed at 20; and only reluctantly does she confess to purchasing the Alicia Keys’ album.
But she is more than the celebratory, euphonious songbird refracted by her work. There is a counterpoint to the relentless optimism and hope of her poetry, a complexity akin to her work.
As an alpha element in this halcyon period in the contemporary groove sphere, a golden age of groove, who along with the Compost Record collective, West London innovators, and Japanese underground galvanized the present day jazz reality to a refreshing vitality and fervid excitement recalling the ‘50s jazz age of innovation and spirituality, Monday’s arrival as luminary has beginnings in innocent circumstances.
It’s hardly relevant to mention her parents are jazz greats Akiyoshi Toshiko and Charlie Mariano, but it sets up a story. Under her mother’s wing, Monday made her recording debut at the age of twelve as a voice in her mother’s 1976 recording Insights. “It was exciting to be in the studio, and I meant to do better, but she tricked me! She told me that it was a practice take and that the next one would be the real take, but after the practice take, she said, ‘That’s it! You’re finished.’ She never gave me another chance. I got a box of chocolates for my pay,” Monday recalls.
A multi-cultural upbringing from parents of Japanese and Italian heritage-and a childhood that shared time in America and Japan-eventually ended in a divorce while Monday was still a kid, but family separation and relative financial straights never translated into a problematic child. Toshiko and Charlie were fun loving, strict parents and Monday was obedient for her age. She did attempt her first puff at nineteen (because she desired acceptance from a certain group of people), but had to hold back the need to cough to come off natural. “I’m glad [my mom] was as strict as she was with me. I was scared to death of her! Otherwise I’d been in more trouble I’m sure,” says Monday, an only child with four half sisters.
She grew up listening to Top 40 radio—cites Police’s Synchronicity and Stevie Wonder’s Secret Garden of Life as favorites—and was surrounded by the subculture of her parents’ jazz life. With famous and respected musicians as parents (mother, father, and step father are all successful jazz artists), it is no wonder they would imprint a certain dose of brilliance onto Monday, who might just nurture one of the world’s most inconceivably gifted households if baby Nikita decides to follow the family history and continue a building legacy where all involved are gripped by the spirit of jazz. “They say if you have a piano around since babyhood and if you listen and play with it often, by five you have a good chance of getting perfect pitch. Too bad we don’t have an acoustic piano in the house for our son,” exclaims Monday, or Nikita could, perhaps, be the next Makoto Ozone.
* * * *
Monday picked up her first instrument, a harmonica, when she was six; the recorder followed, but she settled on the flute at 11. Relying on her inborn ability, she practiced only half an hour to an hour a day; all the while making permanent, not perfect, as she believed. By 12 or 13 she realized the idea of music as work was just her fit.
The process to realization was a gradual fruition. After spending the first two years of elementary school in New York and moving to Los Angeles in fourth grade, Monday transferred to Michigan’s Interlochen Center for the Arts, the nation’s first independent high school dedicated to the arts. She subsequently failed to garner a full scholarship from the University in mind, and figured to re-audition after a year of dedicated practice. Having envisioned a future as a classical flautist, Monday’s dreams later had to be reconsidered: ” . . . Somewhere along the way I lost my drive and by the time the auditions were on, I had gotten into a car accident two weeks before and lost two of my lower teeth, which meant I couldn’t practice during that time, and totally failed my auditions.”
Fright set in. “After I realized that I wasn’t going to be a classical flautist as I’d envisioned all my life, I was scared that that would mean that I wouldn’t be a musician either and I had no idea what to do,” she remembers.
Fright transmuted into a lull as a secretary and assistant (“glorified secretaries”) for six years. Monday reasoned with herself: ” . . . At one point I thought if all else failed at least I had [this] to fall back on and it’s not so bad. I learned what was important in life, that being a good person is important, that how you interact with people in your life is perhaps more important and may effect more people than what I’d do musically; and that it was alright, whatever happened, happened.” An impossibly peculiar thought process considering her confident standing today.
However, the lull eventually rendered an opportunity: in 1987 she was scouted for the lead role in the film Hikaru Onna, which prompted a move to Japan and garnered her the Best Newcomer award at the 11th Japanese Academy Awards. A proliferation of movie, TV (including an MC event for Sakamoto Ryuichi in 1989), CF, and DJ offers arose and Monday accepted, shuffling such duties until 1994 where she appeared on a TV Asahi drama and hosted a FM Osaka program for the last time. The airwaves and celluloid did not serve her purpose.
After a steady run of jobs Monday retrained her focus on the aural expression-having had the strong support of soul singer Bernard Ighner (“even though I called upon neighborhood dogs if I sang”) during a stay in L.A. back in ‘82. Also sensing it too late to pick up another instrument she concluded, “Singing was going to be how I would get there.” Under the name of Michiru Akiyoshi she released her debut solo recording Mangetsu in 1991 for Virgin Japan. But it was inclusion in the 1994 Mo Wax Royalties Overdue compilation alongside other abstract hip-hop movers that set Monday’s music mind in motion.
* * * *
From the onset, Monday pulled in the big, revered names from the jazz and urban circles. Her debut recording benefited from the swinging playing of former Art Blakey’s Jazz Messenger Bobby Watson, Miles Davis alto-saxophonist Kenny Garret, and the exceptional stylings of her veritably legendary pianist mother and sax/flute blowing stepfather, while the underground, old school rap touchstones of MC Muro and the DJ Krush Posse lent their voice—her biological father later contributed his sax sound to Monday’s best selling album, Double Image.
The collaborators have become ever more momentous, noteworthy pairings presenting distinguished productions seething on contemporary groove scenes from the Oslo Underground to London to New York and back to Japan. It would be rash to credit her connections with the potential ease in asking her parents for their Rolodex. “I just try not to use the fact that I am their daughter as a free pass to be able to work with anyone. I feel that I have to earn it and always feel blessed to work with all the people I have,” Monday points out.
If anything, she has more to prove. “I don’t believe it’s worked against me at all, it only adds to this notion that I’m going to be talented and have a genetic imprint on the truth to music, which of course has nothing to do with it because I’m just trying to figure it out like the next Joe. I remember my mother and I were walking around Harajuku looking for a jazz club-this was over 10 years ago when I was more known as an actress and my mother would joke that now she’s known as Michiru Akiyoshi’s mother by the younger generation-and we were approached by this young woman, mid-late 20s, who asked, ‘Are you Akiyoshi-san?’ I assumed she was talking to me because she was the generation of people who normally is associated as being my audience, but it turned out she was referring to my mother, and she gushed, ‘I’m a huge fan!’”
Now, with an storied passage on course to equal the legend of her mother and a commercial standing, albeit modest, enough to provide for a BMW X-5 midst the parking lot stiffing of New York, Monday emerges an artist in her own skin-regardless if others fail to disassociate her from her parents. But much like her mother, she still faces lingering distortions and deviations from the cultural preconceptions tacked onto notions of jazz authenticity. Just as Diana Krall and Jamiroquai play against the tides of such absurdly farcical perceptions, Monday and her fellow Asian jazzers must face the question imposed by a minority rabble: Can Ivory swing? With Monday as one such exemplar, they obviously can.
“I have seen it affect my mother, who still struggles today to be respected for what she has contributed in jazz. I think she has deep-rooted resentment towards those who see jazz through the color of the skin as opposed to the color of the soul, and I really respect the integrity she has always had in focusing on the music, no matter what the odds were against her.
“The matter of authenticity has affected me and still affects me to this day, although the person I have to answer to the most is myself and I always question what I define as being authentic or not and try to address it the best I can, to be true to myself.”
* * * *
Although, thankfully, free of the extremes that often plague great minds—unfamiliar with the radical route of overdose that consumed Kaoru Abe and separate from the growing consumerism that values skin over substance, intrigue over social discourse—Monday met the new century with a disappointing dovetail to 4 Seasons; a label dispute was in plain view. “I had a problem with Polydor towards the end because they were definitely looking for another “You Make Me” which was a big success for them in sales [22,810 copies], but I wasn’t interest in duplicating the same ol’ tired shit. Let someone else do that. I also had a huge fight with my A&R guy in the Spring portion of 4 Seasons and had him fired from my project, which didn’t sit too well with the Polydor gang—he lied to me big time and pretended it was a mistake. And because I wasn’t willing to play the game, they decided to play games with me, which in the long run was stupid on their part because they sabotaged sales on an album they put up money on-‘hello.’ Whatever.” The resulting effect: Monday’s lowest sales numbers for her most ambitious and accomplished album.
Perhaps there, the reason certain suited execs paint her a bitch: she will not stand to be wronged. Just as much, Monday’s socially observant, thematically fresh lyrics speak of and against the wrongs in every waking life. She rhymes comfortably upfront on the inertia of Japan’s societal topos and intones in a universally cosmic parlance on the handicaps of racial exclusion in an openhearted manner and tone, minus the exhausted sensationalism that the majority would normally discredit as mere high-flown oratory. There is a wisdom she’s acquired and parlays into her songs, as on “Mysteries of Life,” a descant of a personal lesson: “The kind of life that I’ve learned/is better than the life I was taught/and over the years I’ve grown/into unknown/mysteries of life.”
“I saw a movie, an old one from the ‘40s or ‘50s, where an old guy was saying to another, ‘the kind of life I’ve learned is better than the life I was taught,’ and I thought that was so true,” Monday explains of the lyrical origins. “I think we all feel that it’s the experience of life that ultimately teaches you best about life, not what others try and impress upon you by telling you about it, and I’ve always been one to shun others’ advice and preferred to learn by myself. My mother did not impress too strongly on me the traditional Japanese values, although she was very strict with me and taught me manners and general good social behavior which is rooted in Japanese customs . . . In the end, I learned most through my parents by their actions and how they lived their lives, not by what they told me.”
* * * *
Pocket bells dangling from the wrists of Tokyoite youths play to the ring tones of the latest Morning Musume and Utada Hikaru confections as exquisitely expansive TV screens on the face of Shibuya 109 and Q FRONT shine with the mellifluous district streets plugging the newest Hamasaki Ayumi sponsored Tuka phone and marvel with the hipper-and-hotter-than-James Dean conglomerate of Kimura Takuya; all the while, the stylish Tsutaya wraps itself with spanning displays of the latest offerings from Spitz and wyolica. This is what Monday Michiru does not have: Exposure.
Although the Jazzu Kissa shops that marble the street sides of Japan’s stylish metropolises will place Monday records as a charter member in their discerning playlists, she remains mostly unknown in popular circles. Monday is to present times as Rotary Connection was to Chicago in the ‘60s—too few knew of that hidden treasure and too few know of this one. Clearly without the deliberately derivative demands of club fare, nor with the inanely antiquated Marsalis—conventions elemental of traditional jazz outlets, Monday left for the underground, only to leave it soon after for a groove all her own.
The groove Monday made has resulted in prodigious collaborations with established names: the experimental wits (Bill Laswell, Yas-Kaz), the acid jazz family (Mondo Grosso, United Future Organization), the classic jazzers (Mingus Big Band, Airto), the electronic dance lot (Basement Jaxx, Masters at Work), and the hip-hop mob (DJ Krush, The Angel). An obvious array of admiration and respect comes from all corners, yet she remains doubtful, somewhat understandably, of acceptance in the largely conformist, black and white (literally), mainstream-driven American market.
“Would they want me?” asks Monday, as if any sound suit could dismiss her. She recalls a time when she was still open to the idea. “America is just so vast and the people are so aggressive in the business. I remember back in ‘96 I tried to approach Verve in New York about just licensing my stuff for release as we were with the same parent company and they had shown interest in my stuff back in ‘94, but the guy just totally shunned me. At the meeting, he had this real blasé attitude, but when he looked at my bio and list of people I’d worked with, his eyebrows raised and [he] said, ‘Really? You’ve worked with these people?’ But then just sort of fluffed me off in so many words. I finally got insulted by his attitude towards me and the Leo in me roared, hissing, ‘I’m the shit and you don’t even know it.’ He got really excited then, and almost spit on himself, ‘That’s the attitude you should have coming into this meeting!!’ At that point I thought, fuck it, if that’s what it takes to get something released in America, where you have to be in someone’s face and be totally aggressive and ugly in your heart, man, I don’t want anything to do with it. It’s all such a game and it’s not where I want to be.”
So there it is. Monday knows it. She is, indeed, very much an artist of and for our time. While she may never admit to it under normal circumstances, it is comforting to know she isn’t wholly oblivious to her blooming genius. Yet, in keeping with her character, her humble self would never allow her such consideration.
When asked to evaluate herself, Monday shows a familiar face of grace, with a remark to the side. “Oh, I don’t know, that’s such an awkward question. I’m generally a split personality type. On one hand I’m shy yet I’m outgoing and show-offy; I’m Japanese but I’m American; I’m hip and I’m tacky; I’m tough yet I’m sensitive; I’m talented and I don’t know shit; I’ve got it goin’ on and I don’t got shit; I’m old-fashioned and I love the avant-garde; I love jazz and classical, yet I love raunchy funk and a killer groove—what else is there to say than I’m a bag of mixed up goods.” Said in humor, yet all true.
* * * *
And with all her humility it does seem more truth would never go to her head. Thus, those familiar with her art—and unhampered by self-modesty—have some candid words to share with Monday and the world.
Arisaka Mika (Loop Junktion) informs that Monday “is definitely one of the bests . . . . She is a complete artist, a creator. She is way too sophisticated, and talented to be categorized just as a vocalist or a performer. I believe she will be recognized as an female artist icon in near future.” Expectedly, Monday shoots back with a deprecating reply: “Man, Mika must have been on dope or something. How nice of her, really.”
The schools of academia think much the same, of Monday.
E. Taylor Atkins, Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Northern Illinois University and author of the landmark Blue Nippon book, a thorough account of Jazz in Japan, equates Monday as a vocalist of “amazing range, flexibility, melismatic dexterity, textural variety, and expressive capacity” possessing “skillful [phrasing that] rides the complex rhythms and melodies well. Monday is every bit a iconoclastic as [Cassandra] Wilson and [Norah] Jones, in that she puts together combinations of sounds that are not readily recognizable.”
Elucidating on this observation is Robin Eubanks, professional jazz trombonist and Assistant Professor at Oberlin Conservatory. On the distant parallel to Wilson and Jones, Eubanks revises, “She covers much more ground than any of them.” While mentions of Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, Indie Arie, and the soul revival flock, meets with this remark: “She has more depth and breadth, in my opinion . . . and her musical scope definitely surpasses the others . . . I hope I get a chance to do some work with her sometime.”
Thom Jurek, Rolling Stone and Spin contributor, adduces a final assessment. With words to take to heart, he asserts, “As a singer, lyricist, and even as an arranger, she moves me like no one else currently does . . . a more poetic voice doesn’t exist currently.”
Pebble or legend-to-be, one thing is certain: she is a demigod to the medium. “I love music purely for what it is, what it offers to me. As I told one person centuries ago, music is my God, and it still rings true to me today.”