Although she has a readily identifiable style—soft, contemplative, and yet deeply felt—the Japanese singer and pianist Yuni Mori also draws from an eclectic array of global sounds. In her recordings, it’s possible to discover elements of French chanson, the songwriters who inhabited the Brill Building during the 1960s and Laurel Canyon during the 1970s, and their Brazilian counterparts of the bossa nova era. There, too, are powerful echoes of German lieder and the Protestant hymnal—which might seem surprising, until one considers Mori’s musical upbringing.
“I initially started learning piano when I was five years old,” she tells the Straight from her home in the foothills of Mount Fuji, speaking Japanese in a conference call with translator Anika Ihara. “My older sister was learning violin, so I decided to take some piano lessons as well. And then once I reached middle school, I enrolled in a Christian school that had a choir, so I decided to join that choir, and that’s how I started to sing a little bit.
“I’m not a Christian,” she adds. “But when I was in choir at school, my school was Protestant, so the songs that they would sing were songs that everyone could sing, that had a uniting quality.…They were very likable, and very easy to get used to, and acceptable to everyone. Another aspect was that I found the soft tones of the hymns and Christian music matched my voice. I always wanted to do rock music when I was in university, but I found that it never quite matched how my voice was. I have more of a soft voice.”
Mori’s voice also suits her version of Franz Schubert’s “Heidenröslein”, which you can hear on her SoundCloud page. True to form, she doesn’t sing it as if she were an operatic soprano, instead preferring to deliver Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s bittersweet lyrics with understated eloquence.
“These songs have a way of being unforgettable throughout time,” she says. “But I’d listen to these classic songs with lyrics, and I always found that the performers had such a strong vibrato sound. They’re very nice, but they’re not like something you would hear in a café where you could just do your work and then have the music just go through you. So I wanted to be able to, in a good way, just play songs that people could listen to really easily.”
In her own writing, Mori goes on to explain, she wants to combine that ease of apprehension with similarly timeless lyrics—especially since moving, in 2012, to bucolic Yamanashi Prefecture.
“In Tokyo, I would always write about people—my boyfriend, my friends, and how I would feel interacting on a daily basis with those people in my life.…Now I live in the countryside. There’s more nature, so my lyrics started to shift to the mountains—to nature, plants, and the seasons changing. I’ve transitioned into landscape painting, as opposed to [portraits of] the people around me.”
The Powell Street Festival presents Yuni Mori at the Firehall Arts Centre at 2 p.m. on August 3, and on the outdoor Street Stage at 1 p.m. on August 4. For a full festival schedule, visit the Powell Street Festival website.