5 questions with Hiroya Tsukamoto

Japanese-born musician Hiroya Tsukamoto is sometimes mistaken for a finger-style guitarist by those who haven’t experienced his performance. In fact, although Tsukamoto usually tours as a solo act — or as a duo with a drummer — he explains that his show is “a mixture of guitar songs, vocal songs (Japanese folk music and originals) and poetry with audience participation.” But there is some truth to the finger-style classification, because Tsukamoto’s introduction to music came in the form of bluegrass banjo.

When he was 13, his father brought that particular instrument home one day, “but there was no way to find a banjo teacher in my hometown in Japan,” Tsukamoto says. “So I tried to learn from the only bluegrass record I had, Foggy Mountain Banjo, by Earl Scruggs.” The album by the North Carolinian proved to be a challenge because of Scruggs’ renowned top-speed picking, “but I just loved the music very much,” Tsukamoto says. His friends introduced him to the guitar, which he started playing guitar about a year later, “but I still played banjo because no one [else had one], and I liked that fact.”

The musician, who is currently based in New York, where he performs with his band Interoceanico, makes a stop at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall on Thursday, March 10. He’ll play an intimate set in the venue’s upstairs lounge. In advance, he talked to Xpress about his move to the U.S., his global influences and his newest project.

Mountain Xpress: Your bio mentions the South American musical and social movement Nueva Cancion. What attracted you to that sound, and is it something you incorporate in your current work?

Major in college, in Japan, was Spanish [and] one of my professors [introduced me to] Nueva Cancion. And I was in a group that played South American folk music. I felt that music is simple, but also deep. I am not sure that music directly appears in my current work, as I play the mixture of everything I like, but recently some of my audience from Chile asked me, after the concert, if I like Chilean music.

After studying at the Berklee College of Music, why did you decide to stay in the U.S. rather than return to Japan?

Because I thought there are still many things to learn in the U.S. not only in school, but also being in the real music scene and from musicians. Around the time I graduated I was focusing on jazz, so I moved to New York.

In what ways has living in New York changed your approach to music?

After I moved to New York, I met and played with many talented musicians from all over the world, and that made me think that I can write any style of music and they can play it very well.

I love the description, “Cinematic Guitar Poetry.” What does that mean to you?

I was looking for a phrase for how to describe my music. When I played in North Carolina about three years ago, I asked my concert organizer how to described my music, and she came up with “Cinematic Guitar Poetry.” I didn’t intend to make my music cinematic, but maybe [because] I write most of my music when I travel, many people mention that it has cinematic vibe or traveling image thought it.

Are you currently working on an album?

Yes, I am writing new material now. At the concert, I overdub voice and guitar in real time and improvise, and I have been enjoying it as every time is different, so I want to incorporate those elements into my compositions.

WHO: Hiroya Tsukamoto
WHERE: Isis Restaurant & Music Hall upstairs lounge
WHEN: Thursday, March 10, 7 p.m. $15

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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