UKICO’s contemporary take on Japanese trip-hop, and her message about love and consciousness

Born to a French father and a Japanese mother in Paris, UKICO started a modeling career in Japan, from being the face of Shiseido campaigns to one of the regular models for the fashion magazines Inred. However, with the desire to express her creativity , she moved to New York to study music engineering. Since then she has worked with Ghostface Killah from The Wu-Tang Clan as an assistant music engineer. She has also worked with the Grammy-award-winner band The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra as a live sound engineer.

With the intention of bringing her artistic expression to the next level, she established her base in Japan as a musician and artist.

“What is the meaning of life?” UKICO spent five years completing her first album, “ASCENSION”, woven from her personal experiences, her sonic influences, her Japanese heritage, and spirituality. In her album, she presents her own vision of the world, her inner journey and personal growth.

The purpose is not only to sing but to depict a story and touch someone’s heart

――You used to work as a model. Why did you think of conveying yourself through music?

UKICO: I’ve loved singing ever since I was little. I initially wanted to be in musicals. But I was shy, so I gave up on that. After I graduated from university in Paris, I had an opportunity to model in Japan. I moved here and worked as a model for four years. But I couldn’t fully express my individuality and creativity, so I wanted to do something where I could express myself.

――Was there a particular catalyst?

UKICO: Around that time, my French grand mother passed away and I unusually found myself inspired to write a poem which got my father very emotional. That is when I decided to make music, more than just singing, I wanted to write a story that could convey emotions to people.

――Which artists have influenced you?

UKICO: I am deeply inspired by artists who have a very strong and particular universe. For instance, Björk’s visuals and storytelling are so unique, as much as her live show concepts, costumes, and music. My aim is to become an artist who pushes its own creatives boundaries likes she does. I also like FKA twigs, Sevdaliza, Lorde, and Lana Del Rey.

――Among the many fields you could’ve chosen, why did you want to study music engineering?

UKICO: I was looking for a music school in NY and by accident, I stumbled upon an open house at a music engineering school. And to my surprise, I got so excited looking at all the analog music gears. They had a recording studio! And I got so into it, I ended up being 2nd of my year (salutatorian) and gave a speech at the Apollo theatre for Graduation ceremony.

――Amid a sea of music, why were you attracted to 90s trip-hop like Massive Attack in particular?

UKICO: After studying sound mixing, we trained our ears to hear the slightest details of every sounds which made me enjoy their music to an other level. The quality of their mixes, details and beauty of their sounds is just perfection to me! When I went to their concert for the first time I couldn’t help but close my eyes and enjoy their exquisite sounds to the fullest. And I fell in love with the hypnotic almost meditative vibe that their music convey I always try to recreate that kind of mood in my own music. The Album I love the most is Mezzanine.

――What does your music-making process look like?

UKICO: I often start writing song by creating beats and loops. I choose every sounds carefully and mix them as I go.The reason why is that the atmosphere, the vibe of a song is what inspires me the most. I believe that is also how trip hop songs are written. (It’s a process that I enjoy very much!) Then I create a structure, write melodies and lyrics.

――Why do you handle that process by yourself?

UKICO: By doing everything from producing, writing lyrics, recording and mixing, I feel my art being the most authentic to me and the closest to my vision. But it can be very lonely, I can get doubtful which delays the process.

――You also founded your own label called Kiseki Record.

UKICO: After thinking about the best way to be authentic to myself, I decided to create my own label. Many people told me “alternative music is not very popular in Japan, if you want to work here, you should make more popular music like Jpop.” But that would mean to deny who I am, stifling my personality. Of course, it took a lot of courage to start my own label. So with the intent of manifesting miracles I named my label Kiseki Record (Kiseki means Miracles in Japanese).

“What I’m creating is my own world and vision of life”

――You’re currently based in Japan. I assume you had the option to go to Paris or New York, but why Japan?

UKICO: At the beginning I decided to move to Japan to learn more about my roots. But now, I live in Tokyo for the quality of life, the culture, the kindness of people and their pure hearts. My whole family is in France and I miss them a lot but the energy of Japan is so healing that it suits me for now.

――What are the appeals of Paris and Japan?

UKICO: Both Cultures are very artistic, and deep and as an artist, I am inspired by them. I feel very blessed.

They both value the beauty of things, and know how to appreciate the now moment. They are both blessed with incredible nature and take good care of it. I feel that French people could use a little more strictness and on the other side Japanese could use a little bit more freedom.

The thing I like the most about French culture is that you share your emotions very naturally and honestly. That is probably why I wouldn’t shy away from writing dark lyrics.

In Japan however, there is the habit of hiding your own feelings to the point of losing yourself. I feel deeply empathic to this pattern which I could also relate to. I integrated both cultures after all. I have therefore grown a strong sense of responsibility to support Japanese people in opening up and expressing themselves honestly.

But one of the many beautiful thing that I highly respect in Japanese people is their ability to support, help, love someone without wanting something in return, or acknowledgement. Their kindness is Gold.

――As someone born and raised in that sort of environment, what themes and concepts do you have as an artist today?

UKICO: What I draw into my art is my own vision of the world, my life’s journey, my growth and all the questions that arises in the process.

My view of the world is very spiritual and yet psychological. I believe we, humans are extremely powerful beings with the ability to manifest our thoughts and create our reality.
But those thoughts and patterns of thoughts are influenced by our family, how we grew up, our culture, our traumas, etc. and therefore we repeatedly attract certain situations, people and reactions to them. I like to analyze which raises a lot of questions and a search for answers. That is how I believe we grow as humans, understanding/discovering yourself more and more each day. To me, the purpose of living is growth. I think each person has a different purpose. And my journey, my growth and my healing of the past 5 years, is illustrated in my first Album and its visuals. That’s why I named it “Ascension”.

――Did you develop that mindset from your personal experiences?

UKICO: I started writing songs after reaching quite a low point in my life. I had a lot of questions about life, about myself and relationships with people. I searched for answers in various places. Yoga, meditation, books, coaching, spirituality and more. ..And one of my healing process was songwriting. It was like a diary. I expressed my feelings honestly, without lying. There are songs of light, there are songs of darkness, and I gradually understood that all of it is part of me, part of life. I began to accept myself as i was, with my light and my darkness.

――You externalize your experiences in life in your work.

UKICO: Yes I do and I’m happy I can finally share it with the world.
The title of the Album, “ASCENSION” has various meanings, but for me, it means awakening, growth; My growth.

Making music is my healing process

――You previously released some songs from ASCENSION as singles. Could you first talk about what you wanted to say through “Denial”?

UKICO: This is the second song I wrote on the album. After experiencing the greatest heartache of my life, I started a healing process, and once the pain subsided, the lyrics “Hiding from a new romance” came to me. I realized, while pretending I was all better, I was numbing my real feelings: I feared to open my heart again. But I wasn’t even aware of it before writing this song. That’s why I named it “Denial”. This song gave me an opportunity to see my real feelings.

――Could you tell us more about the Japanese traditional instruments in your songs?

UKICO: I went to Los Angeles to work with the producer Justyn Pilbrow (The neighborhood, Halsey, Elemeno P, etc.) But when I came back to Tokyo I felt there was something missing, it didn’t feel personal yet. That is when I came up with the idea of recording some traditional Japanese instruments like Koto, Shakuhachi and Shamisen. It was also an homage to my Japanese ancestors. From that point on, I immediately got connected with the head Koto teacher at the notorious Tokyo University of fine Arts Geidai who took me under his wings and introduced me to wonderful musicians. It truly felt like fate!

――There’s a Japanese feel to “Hostage” too.

UKICO: I wrote “Hostage” half way through the album.This song is strongly influenced by 90’s alternative rock as I used to listen to Audioslave, Soundgarden etc… . And of course, I asked my friend and shamisen player, Yuji Kubota, to participate in the recording.
‘Hostage’ is about being obsessed with someone so much you become a hostage of your own mind, trapped in the obsession of a desire. You give up trying to escape and succumb to the desire, filling the void in your heart. Darkness overpowers you until you realize it was just an excuse to run away from yourself.

――What is the theme in the song “Mirage?”

UKICO: This song is based on the concept that the world we perceive through the 5 senses isn’t what it really is but rather an illusion, an interpretation; like the optical illusion of a Mirage. It also explores the paradox of being frustrated of not being able to see the real truth, being human, and at the same time appreciating the experience through the senses, and exploring the collision of darkness and light within.

――I heard you wrote “DESERTED” at an early stage.

UKICO: This song is very special to me. It’s the beginning of my journey as an artist. Initially, I wrote Deserted to help me heal after experiencing the greatest heartache of my life. I was still living in NY then. This was the first song I collaborated with Justyn, on. ”Deserted” expresses the push and pull I experienced, between love and hate, anger and sadness, the intensity of the pain and the void you feel before accepting and starting the healing process.

――Your vision is very clear in your music videos too.

UKICO: The Music Video of Denial, Hostage, and Temporary Amnesia ( 3rd one to be released in June) , are part of a trilogy based on Japanese mythology. Izanami and Izanagi the first two existing Gods that appear in Kojiki (an ancient Japanese book of myths and legends). are the main protagonists. I chose this story as an homage to my Japanese heritage. My grandfather is from Izumo a holy place in Japan where a lot of Japanese Mythology take place.

――That’s a famous myth in Japan.

UKICO: The first gods Izanagi (male) and Izanami (female) who loved each other, created the land of Japan and gave birth to multiple gods. However, when Izanami gave birth to the god of fire, she got burnt and died, leaving for the land of the underworld. This is the story told in Denial MV.

“Hostage’s” MV is an extraordinary all-CG piece showing Izanami in the underworld. Due to the influence of the food and energy of the place, she slowly drowns into darkness which illustrates becoming a hostage of her own mind. The moment she fell into the depth of her darkness, her black skin peels off and let the light within to shine through: She reborn as a higher being.

Finally the last piece of the trilogy “Temporary Amnesia” continues the story in which Izanami reborn in our timeline.

――What makes Japanese mythology interesting?

UKICO: In my opinion, they help us see life in a more objective way and deepen our understanding of life.

Wanting to change how people in Japan view mental health

――Together with Crystal Kay, Sumire, TIGARAH, you founded ALL FOUR ONE PROJECT, a charity project to support mental health. Could you talk about your aims?

UKICO: In 2020 the pandemic broke out and the world was in lock down from around March. My whole family lives in France and I live alone in a small Tokyo apartment. I got sick then and started to feel very anxious and stressed, which eventually got me feeling quite depressed. After overcoming this depression a couple of month later, I thought of all the people in Japan who were going through the same thing.

Japan has always been a country with a high suicide rate. The environment isn’t very supporting on the issue which is highly criticized, feared or avoided. We started this project with the intention to help change mentalities on the topic and support people to get help.

――As your first release through the project, you covered “Rain On Me” by Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande. Why did you choose this song?

UKICO: Sumire liked this song and was playing it very often when we would hang out. TIGARAH wrote the powerful rap lyrics with the message we had creating this project.

――What values do you all share?

UKICO: I think it is Love. The desire to share love with everyone and to help people in any ways we can. Even the four of us, with very different personalities (culture, way of thinking, work, country of origin …) by coming together, are able to generate more strength, power and Love then if we were alone. We would like to inspire people to support and care for each other more in these tough times. We are all in the same boat.

――What do you want to do with ALL FOUR ONE PROJECT?

UKICO: We would like to shift the negative image that mental health has in Japan and encourage people to ask for support when they feel depressed. There is no shame in feeling down and depressed. Our purpose is also to create a space where people can talk more freely about mental health. “You are not alone” is our message.

――Aside from covid, in a world where we have environmental and human rights issues, what subject do you think we have to tackle to create a sustainable society?

UKICO: There are so many issues that have to be addressed in society nowadays, but one I strongly feel about is the status of women in society, especially in Japan. Even I suffered from this issue in a male dominant industry like music engineering or entertainment. But overall, there should be more equality between people, even in the of distribution of wealth.

Ecologically there is a huge need to change consumerism. We humans don’t need so much things. We need to review what is true happiness and awaken to a simpler way of living. Of course, this includes myself. There are other issues too, but I want to start by making small, manageable changes.

――What should artists do to solve those problems?

UKICO: I believe that our strength as artists lies in our capacity to raise awareness and create movements through art. Personally, I feel that our planet will survive if we awaken to our true power, remembering that all humans hold immense potential. My song ”Temporary Amnesia” which I wrote during quarantine conveys that message.

I would also like to continue to support other charities. Currently, I hold the title of ocean Ambassador for Greenpeace International, but I would like to take more concrete actions with them in the future.

――What does a thriving future look like to you?

UKICO: Through the concept of Oneness, All (everyone and everything) is you and you are all. Rather than sharing love, we become Love itself.
It also means to live with the Earth as one, where everyone awakens to their own power.

――Lastly, could you talk about your vision for your future?

UKICO: I would love for people to listen to my first album ASCENSION, which came out on the 28th of April. It is such an important part of my life as it took 5 years to write it. And this is the first step towards my artistic journey, from which I have grown so much. I’m happy beyond tears as the first response was very good. It even charted 24th on iTunes top alternative albums!

I also want to do live performances in the future, but not in a standard way. I would like to create a space where people can experience a show through the 5 senses. A place of healing, of activation, of release… . I’m also planning my next EP with special collaborations, 2021 is going to be a very creative year.

Born to a French father and a Japanese mother, UKICO is a singer songwriter and producer who was raised in Paris. In her late teens, she began a modeling career in Japan, from becoming the face of Shiseido’s campaign to being one of the regular models for the fashion magazines InRed. With the desire to express her creativity , she moved to New York to study music engineering. While in NYC, she has worked with Ghostface Killah from Wu-Tang Clan as an assistant music engineer as well as the Grammy-award-winner band The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, as a live sound engineer. She came back to Tokyo where she truly found her unique sonic world and inspirations.She writes, sings, arranges, and mixes her own music.

Photography Tetsuya Yamakawa
Text Analog Assasin
Translation Lena Grace Suda

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Shuichi Aizawa

Born in Miyagi Prefecture. After editor of street culture magazine and catalogs, he joined INFAS Publications in 2018. After working in the editorial department of “STUDIO VOICE”, he currently belongs to the “TOKION” editorial dept. Currently, He enjoys parenting.