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Friday, Oct. 2, 2009

Little Boots serves pop a remedy

British singer Hesketh scores new fans in Japan with a little bit of help from her Tenori-on


Special to The Japan Times

"I don't know what it is about my music that appeals to the Japanese," says Victoria Hesketh, the British pop sensation better known as Little Boots. "A lot of people in England miss the point, and they're like, 'Oh, it's just pop music.' And the whole point is that I was trying to do something simple in a clever way, which people in Japan really seem to understand."

News photo
New in town: Japanese fans have embraced the music of Victoria Hesketh, better known as Little Boots. DANIEL ROBSON PHOTO

And understand they do. Hesketh's first-ever appearance before a Japanese audience was on the huge Sonic Stage at the Chiba leg of August's Summer Sonic festival (and the next day in Osaka). Her debut album, "Hands," had been released just one month earlier and, despite her early afternoon slot, a crowd of perhaps 10,000 turned out to hear her sassy pop tunes, which cram 1980s synthesizers and '00s production into onionlike layers.

As for Hesketh herself, she was clearly bowled over by the reception, telling the crowd it was the best gig she'd ever played.

"I'm on the other side of the world and there's a room full of people — a big room — who know the words and are clapping along and dancing, in a completely different culture, different country," she explains as we sit on huge sofas at her record label's Tokyo office. "So yeah, it was a really special one. It was up there with Glastonbury."

But while 25-year-old Hesketh's sudden popularity here is in line with that of many other young foreign artists, for whom the old "big in Japan" cliche often rings true, her success at home also seemed to come from nowhere. Although she had toured with her school orchestra as a child, appeared on TV talent show "Pop Idol" at 16, played in a jazz trio as a late teen and released a few singles with her band Dead Disco in her early 20s, it was when Hesketh went solo that she suddenly exploded. With no album, no single — nothing but a bunch of songs and videos on MySpace and YouTube, most of which were covers — she suddenly began to receive a frightening amount of media attention. And while still working on the album in Los Angeles with producers Greg Kurstin (of The Bird And The Bee) and Joe Goddard (of Hot Chip), she started topping ones-to-watch lists and being nominated for awards.

Despite all this scrutiny, Hesketh — who shares a nickname with Emperor Caligula, chosen by her best friend because "I've got little feet" — was determined not to rush her album onto the shelves.

"I felt pressure at the time," she admits. "I wasn't ready; I hadn't finished the album, and everyone was like, 'Where is it?' I think a lot of people made up their minds what it should be and what it should sound like before I'd even written a third of it. But I had to just try to shut it all off and focus on what I thought would be good. Luckily everyone stuck around."

"Hands" appeals on many levels. On the surface, the melodies and lyrics are not particularly unique, but they sure are catchy. The production offers a generous number of little details, so that something new pops out on every listen. Tracks such as "Remedy," "Meddle" and "Stuck On Repeat" are built solidly for the dance floor, while "Ghost" and "No Brakes" are dark ballads that draw the listener in. The standout is "New In Town," a perfectly paced pop smash that celebrates her stint recording in Los Angeles.

Hesketh has also made use of some interesting gear, including the Tenori-on, a space-age sequencer designed by electronic artist and video-game designer Toshio Iwai and a Yamaha team headed by Yu Nishibori. With its touch-screen interface and mesmeric flashing lights, the Tenori-on is a curious instrument indeed, generating electronic loops that Hesketh used to fill out her sound. She's probably the first artist in the world to enter the charts with a Tenori-on sound, since most of the gadget's followers seem to use it for more avant-garde means.

"It's really easy to mess around with," says Hesketh of her toy. "But to do specific programming is tricky, and to make it work in the live situation with a band is an absolute nightmare. We've got a system now, but it's very complicated. There are a lot of limitations; it's not designed as a band instrument. It kind of speaks its own language and doesn't want to talk to other things. It just about talks MIDI, but not that well."

Hesketh says she felt proud to bring her Tenori-on to its home country for her Summer Sonic appearances. She can count among her fans the gadget's inventors, who have embraced her as something of an ambassador.

"Toshio Iwai found Little Boots on YouTube," says Kiyohisa Sugii, a senior engineer at Yamaha's technology planning division who was among the Tenori-on's designers. "We were surprised when we watched her movies, because it was our first time to see someone sing with a Tenori-on. I think the charm of her music lies in the melody. She understands how to use the Tenori-on to complement her melodies."

"I feel so clumsy with it!" admits Hesketh. "There are people on YouTube using it a thousand times more technically than me. But I guess I'm just putting it in a format that people can relate to easier. The designer (Iwai) wrote on his blog that he cried when he saw me playing Tenori-on! If you can make the person who invented it cry, it's pretty cool."

As well as meeting some of the Tenori-on team in Tokyo after Summer Sonic and discussing potential improvements for a future model, Hesketh has a close relationship with Yamaha's U.K. sales team. After all, playing the Tenori-on on prime time TV and breakfast news shows (not to mention talking about it in newspaper interviews) has boosted its profile more than they could have ever hoped.

It's undeniable that Hesketh has been lucky. While she's existed on the indie-music fringes for the last couple of years, her pop reinvention comes just as the West is enjoying a resurgence of "smart" pop music, with artists such as The Ting Tings, Florence + The Machine and La Roux responding to what Hesketh considers a polarized decade of manufactured idols and cringingly earnest indie music.

"It's a backlash against that," she says. "People have gone a bit more electronic, a bit more escapist, a bit more colorful. It definitely feels like a healthy time. It feels like pop music isn't such a dirty word any more."

"Hands" is out now. Little Boots plays at Duo Music Exchange in Shibuya, Tokyo on Oct. 9 (6pm; ¥5,500; [03] 3462-6969).

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