Moko Shibata uses music to escape the dreary realities of the nine-to-five. Aaron Coultate pays her a visit in Tokyo.
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History is littered with artists who balanced ordinary day jobs with their creative pursuits. One example is T.S. Eliot. For eight years the great poet worked Monday to Friday as a clerk at Lloyds Bank in London. When the novelist Aldous Huxley visited Eliot one day, he saw his friend in a basement "sitting at a desk which was in a row of desks with other bank clerks." The poetry that made him famous was written by candlelight after a long day in his subterranean office.
Moko Shibata, who makes music as Powder, lives her own version of this day-night dichotomy. Most of what's been written about her so far has touched on this dual existence. This is largely thanks to some playful press notes that accompanied Highly, her 2015 EP for ESP Institute, as well as a general absence of other information about her. When he was promoting Highly, ESP Institute founder Andrew Hogge said making music was Shibata's way to "exorcize her daily demons" from a "bland office building where her day is consumed by the electronics industry."
"I hope one fuels the other," she says. "But actually my working life and creative life just mean I have less sleeping time." Shibata works for an electronics company in Shinjuku, a dense, hyper-commercial district in Tokyo. Her office is a windowless room on the 43rd floor of a high-rise building. Everyone she works with wears the same uniform, and she says the only sound comes from fingers tapping on keyboards and her co-workers answering phones.
She'll often work long hours, until about 9 PM. "I'm usually feeling frustrated and tense at this point," she says, "so I'll rush home, gobble down dinner and get into my mini studio." This studio has two synthesizers, two rhythm machines, a turntable, some records and a laptop. She made the room's record rack herself, buying an old bookshelf from a secondhand shop, fixing it and painting it light blue. For a long time, the studio's window looked out onto a vacant block—a rare sight in Tokyo—in which there stood a large zelkova tree. "I didn't hang a curtain in the window because I really loved that scene," she says. "But recently the tree was cut down and they started building a tower on the block."
The music Shibata makes as Powder is a form of escape from her working life. She's released three solo records to date. In addition to Highly, she's had two EPs on Sling & Samo's label Born Free: Spray, which came out in 2015, and the recent Afrorgan EP. Her music is subtly entrancing. Her tracks unfold in vivid, arresting detail, a blend of rich melodies and dance floor rhythms.
Shibata's music can broadly be described as house, but within the space of three EPs she's explored many different tones and moods. On Spray, the tracks were lean and tooly—"Alien" was more likely to tickle techno dance floors, while "Kiwi Blue" and the title track were both streamlined yet overflowing with unusual samples. Highly was feathery and serene, with tropical dance floor tunes like "Busy Port" and "Humid Wind." "Lost Of Light" features Shibata's own heavily manipulated vocals. (She tells me that she hates her own voice and says she's keen to work with a trained vocalist.) Highly's title track, however, was the one that stuck with me. It's a profoundly relaxing song whose crackly, soothing ambient textures wouldn't sound out of place on a Haruomi Hosono record. Listening to "Highly," it's hard to hear it as anything other than an ode to afterwork downtime.
No one in Shibata's office knows she makes music. In fact, because she's kept such a low profile to date, not many people outside her close circle of friends and family know she's a producer and a DJ. Though she's worked at the same company for five years, she remains the youngest in her office, which means she still gets lumped with modest tasks like data entry and making tea. She says the only saving grace of her working day comes at lunch time, when she takes her homemade onigiri into the building's courtyard, sits down and listens to music in her headphones. Often she'll listen to music she made in her home studio the previous night. She calls it her "peaceful time."
I met Shibata at INS, a former car park with low ceilings in Shibuya that has been stylishly converted into a studio and office. Though she's not a particularly active part of Tokyo's club scene (her day job, combined with her studio commitments, don't leave much time for partying) she hosts the odd event in INS with 5ive from Cos/Mes and her friends Andry and Master Zumi, who's known as #richardtour. These events seek to address Shibata's chief concerns with the city's club scene, namely that it's "too serious." The sense of originality and playfulness that seeps through Powder records is obvious at her parties, as is her focus on quality over quantity. (There have only been two parties to date, plus one private event.)
The first event, in September of 2015, saw Powder DJ with the Mood Hut crew. As the Vancouver collective weren't very well known in Tokyo at the time, Shibata and Andry made a colourful leaflet that explained just why Jack J, Liam B, Cloudface and Neo Image were special. (Tokyo DJs Nozaki and Sonic Weapon also played at the event.) The second party, in March of 2016, was a live showcase where Shibata and Cloudface both played live. The "flyer" was a fluffy ball of cotton wool presented in a clear snap-lock bag, with a small piece of paper, on which the lineup was written alongside some illustrations, inserted in the front. There was also a free cassette given out on the night, containing recorded live sets from Powder and Cloudface.
On the night, the INS computers were hacked by Japanese digital artist Baku Hashimoto, who used software to create a "ghost office" where the office's monitors and fluorescent lighting flashed eerily like strobes. A third event is currently in the works— a "hyper deep, super spiritual, ultra healing and extra meditating" night called 11-25 Musical Ear Massage that Shibata says will "be an eye-opener" for attendees.
Though she doesn't aspire to DJ every weekend, Shibata's mixes for Australian radio show Noise In My Head as well as Juno Plus have shone light on her influences, which range from Brian Eno and Jon Hassell to drowsy deep house, curveball electronics, modern piano compositions and strange Japanese pop. Even more enlightening is her all-originals set for Australian fashion brand P.A.M. An engrossing live jam recorded in the INS studio, it shows that she's sitting on some excellent unreleased material, though she says most of those tracks will remain that way.
Shibata connected with 5ive, Andry and Master Zumi after moving to Tokyo five years back. Growing up in Nagasaki near the southwestern corner of Japan, Shibata struggled to find anyone who was into the same music as her, which at that time was no-wave. She would sometimes drive for two hours to attend a party she was excited by. "I wanted to start a band but there was no one around," she tells me. She turned to dance music because "it was something I could do on my own." She began making music while she was still in Nagasaki, starting out with techno before dabbling in house.
It was in Tokyo where she first met Born Free co-founder Samo DJ, real name Samo Forsberg. She went to see him DJ and gave him a demo. Forsberg tells me he was drawn to her music immediately. "My first impression was that Powder's music sounded very non-European," he says. "Her music makes you dream, and you can hear the same track a million times and not get tired of it." In 2015, Shibata went to Stockholm to DJ at a party that also featured sets from Sling & Samo, 5ive and Chida. She said she was struck by the city's close-knit scene. "It was a nice environment. The artists help each other. At Samo's gig, lots of artists who make different kinds of music came to check him out. It was beautiful."
Shibata is currently working on an album, which could go deeper into the ambient sounds explored on the track "Highly." "I want to make it conceptual but I'm having a hard time making something that has character," she says. She's also in the midst of organising a tour, which so far includes stops in Berlin, London, Vienna, Moscow, Poznań and Vancouver. She's booking annual leave from her job to go. One day she hopes to go full-time in music, though she says at this point she "can't imagine" that happening. So for now she'll keep working her day job, heading into her windowless office on the 43rd floor before returning each night to the machines in her mini studio.