By Dan Grunebaum
A veteran chanteuse reconnects with a new audience
look like Im enjoying myself?
courtesy of Readymade
More than an impression of singing in a studio, I feel
like Im a heroine in a short movie Konishi is directing,
says storied actress/singer Mari Natsuki about her relationship
with producer Yasuharu Konishi.
Its an appropriate analogy. Rather than a contemporary
pop idol, Natsuki recalls vintage black-and-white screen sirens
like Marlene Dietrich, who she cites as an influence. And
her recent comeback in middle age as a singer, propelled by
Konishi of Pizzicato Five fame, is about as unlikely as any
Natsuki (born Junko Nakajima) began her career in the early
70s with the frothy 1973 hit Silk Stockings.
A follow up, Barefoot Goddess, established her
as one of the popular idoru of the era, with King Records
issuing no less than four albums within two years. She also
became known for covers of Western pop tunes like Spinning
Wheel and Love Me Tender on 1974s
Mari Natsuki Sings Big Hits.
But after developing anemia from overwork, Natsuki mostly
retired from singing to concentrate on acting. As an actress,
shes had a respectable career, appearing in a number
of the folksy, blue-collar Tora-san movies, and more recently
as a voice actor in anime blockbusters like Hayao Miyazakis
Natsuki hadnt jettisoned her singing career entirely,
though. She continued to release little-heard albums sporadically
through the 80s, gradually making a fan of Konishi.
At the time, the producer was fashioning a new swinging, retro-lounge
esthetic through his project Pizzicato Five, a band that would
become a lynchpin of the Shibuya kei sound.
Nine years had already passed since Natsukis last album,
1986s Womans Club, when she got together with
Konishi for a series of EPs in the mid-90s. The collaboration
proved fruitful, recasting the singer as the voice of experience
that she now was.
Natsuki credits Konishi with teaching me how to sing
again, and the mutually inspiring relationship is evident
on their new collaboration, Senso wa Owatta (The War Is Over),
released on the producers Readymade label. Setting Natsukis
smoky voice against the background of a simple, wartime-feel
jazz combo, the pair weave slinky, noir tales of romance gone
bad. The songs are filled with images of black socks, black
cats and plenty of booze.
When Natsuki performed selections from the album at Liquid
Room recently, she seemed like an icon from another era. Dressed
all in black and topped off with a beret, the singer, looking
as fit as a person half her age, had the crowd, most of which
probably was half her age, in the palm of her hand.
Simultaneously tough cookie and vulnerable, wronged woman,
Natsuki simply oozes experience. Its a welcome antidote
to all the disposable faux-naive Morning Musume-type fodder
clogging Japans media, and places her in a small circle
of mature female jazz singers like Chie Ayado.
Asked why she thinks she appeals to a younger crowd, Natsuki
answers rhetorically: Doesnt it look like Im
enjoying myself? For some singers, its that simple.
Senso wa Owatta is available on Readymade
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