“My father gave me a banjo one day when I was in middle school,” says musician Hiroya Tsukamoto, known simply as Hiroya. “He found it in a thrift shop or something. I didn’t [even] know what it was.” This sort of origin story might be commonly heard around North Carolina. If not given one in infancy, many people end up plucking a banjo for a year at a liberal arts college. But it’s not what you would expect from a guitarist who was born in Japan, graduated from the Berklee College of Music and plays a synthesis of contemporary jazz, ’70s AOR folk and South American nueva canción.
Hiroya — who will be performing at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 25 — began his musical journey on this most Appalachian of instruments, though growing up in rural Japan didn’t make it easy for him to learn. “I taught myself,” he says. “There was no way to find a banjo teacher in my small town, so I tried to learn from records [like] Foggy Mountain Banjo by Flatt and Scruggs. I really liked their music, even though it was very hard to play. So I tried to fake it.”
Hiroya eventually noticed that all of his friends were playing guitars and starting rock bands, so he switched instruments and started expanding his sonic palette. His initial discoveries were the soft-touch folk of Simon & Garfunkel and James Taylor, and the influence of solo-era Simon can still be heard in Hiroya’s work.
Once he began college in Japan, though, Hiroya found a music that would deeply alter his artistic trajectory and remain with him to this day. “My major was Spanish and South American culture,” he says. “One of my professors was a very good musician, who had vast knowledge of South American folk music. I ended up joining his group while I was in college.” Primary in these studies was the music of Victor Jara, a Renaissance man and activist who is credited with spearheading the nueva canción movement in Chile during the 1960s and ’70s.
This part of Hiroya’s development is most fully realized in Interoceanico, his collaborative band that has oscillated between an octet and a trio. The group juxtaposes contemporary jazz and torch ballads with more polyrhythmic South American-influenced sounds.
After gigging around Japan for five years, he received a scholarship to the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston. Following graduation, he moved to New York in 2004. But it wasn’t until he returned home to Japan for a family visit that his current iteration as a solo performer opened up before him. “When I was first playing with a group, I was not very confident,” says Hiroya. “I mean, I was very comfortable as a part of the band. But whenever I went back to Japan by myself, [I’d be] at family gatherings and they would ask me to play some music. And I couldn’t do that because I just played in the band and could only play my guitar parts. So I decided to [practice until I could] do a whole concert by myself.”
Now, Hiroya performs almost exclusively solo. In his work, each era of his development is evident. There are the finger-rolls of Scruggs, the dramatic beauty of Jara, academic jazz chops, Paul Simon’s lilt and, at the times when Hiroya sings, even the faintest hint of Nick Drake. His music is unapologetically consonant, the way that landscape calendar photos are meant to be pleasant for the eye to rest upon. Though he could veer dangerously close to pumpkin-spice-latté preciousness (it’s not just his album covers that skew toward Windham Hill), it’s Hiroya’s earnestness that carries his music into a direct connection with his audience — much like the best New Age music once did before it was banished to the café endcap of eternity.
In his usual live setting, Hiroya performs mainly on the acoustic guitar, using effects pedals and looping to establish broader soundscapes as foundations for improvising. But, just as his family’s goading years earlier prompted a crucial expansion of his style, writing and performing in this way for the past few years has sparked a need for growth.
“In a way, I am very comfortable playing solo, but at the same time I feel like I play it too safe, especially at concerts,” says Hiroya. “I want to play something new; that’s my next step.”
WHERE: Isis Restaurant & Music Hall, 701 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Wednesday, Jan. 25, 7 p.m. $15