Andrew Sloman has the weathered voice of a true troubadour that carries listeners through stories of love, loss, hope and exuberance, but you won’t hear it on the singer-songwriter’s latest EP titled Yoakè.
For Yoakè, which means “breaking dawn” in Japanese (夜明け), Sloman put down the acoustic guitar and microphone and put his fingers to the keys, composing four bittersweet piano compositions in memory of his late mother.
Each grave composition serves as a reminder that even though we are isolated, sheltered from routine and muted from the outside world, the Earth keeps turning, and raw emotions don’t fade away. The songs are a cascade of arpeggios with deceptive cadences ending in bright notes, because each song, while morose in form, emerges as a message of hope and peace for those shouldering through hard times.
“Yoakè really symbolizes a new beginning, which this album has very much been for myself,” says Sloman, who is releasing the EP under his full name – Andrew John Sloman. “My mum had always been my biggest fan when it came to my music. Being a songwriter herself in her younger days she had always had a keen interest in music and had been a fantastic support and ear to bounce ideas off. I suppose I wanted to show her I could do more than just write singer-songwriter-style songs.”
Sloman started his music career in his native Bristol before locating to India and then Japan. He formed the Tokyo-based folk-rock group The Kave and gained notoriety in 2012 when a video of Sloman serenading stranded train passengers with his guitar during a typhoon went viral. For his 2019 solo album One and All, Sloman collaborated with French composer and multi-instrumentalist Mathias Duplessy.
About two years ago Sloman took an interest in returning to his piano roots and decided to try his hand at classical composition. It was also around the same time he learned his mother had terminal cancer.
“Being the youngest of three brothers, growing up I was always the little kid saying to my mum, ‘Look at me, look at me, look what I can do mum!’” says Sloman. “I think this was my last attempt at saying to my mum, ‘Look at me!’”
Starting from Square One
The piano was something Sloman had always used as a songwriting tool, helping him hammer out a sing-along rhythms in the style of Lennon-McCartney.
Taking inspiration from Debussy and Chopin as well as contemporary composers such as Nils Frahm, Sloman pieced together classical compositions over the course of a year. He left the voice recorder on his iPhone running as he rattled out ideas on the digital keyboard. Sometimes he would record the right-hand melody separate from the left hand’s syncopated triads and later mesh them together.
“It took a huge amount of practice to get my hands to do what was in my head,” he says. “I’d send the tracks over email for my mum to listen to while they were works in progress. It was great to get some feedback and some reassurance that I wasn’t completely wasting my time.”
“That was the last time she ever spoke to me”
Last summer Sloman’s mother had a series of strokes and in August 2019 he flew home to England to share her last few days. She was stricken with short-term memory loss. For five days he shared the same conversation with his mother on an endless loop – “Why am I in the hospital?”
“On the morning of the 14th of August last year I sat with her in hospital and decided to play the piano songs on my iPhone to her to try and relax her as she was becoming more and more agitated,” says Sloman. “It was the first time since I returned that we had a normal conversation and she seemed relaxed. We sat there and listened to all 10 songs. She told me how she could remember them all, how I had to do something with them and how impressed with them she was. After we listened to all the songs she fell asleep. That was the last time she ever spoke to me.”
Time to Buy a Piano
Sloman had been trying to record his EP using digital samples of concert grand pianos recorded at the likes of Abbey Road Studio, but they were missing natural touch and nuance. So at the end of last year, he bought a Kawai K-700 upright piano, which has the traditional grand piano tone and expression but is small enough to fit in a Tokyo apartment.
“I set it up in my studio at home and played around with microphone placements until I found the optimum sound,” says Sloman. “I needed to do some extra sound dampening in the room as my studio is only a small, six-tatami room in the second bedroom of my apartment. It was a matter of trying to get rid of as much of the sound of the room as possible and add some reverb on afterwards. I’m really pleased, and nicely surprised, with how it turned out.”
Sloman teamed up with classically trained dancer and actress Saaya Suzuki to produce a video trilogy for the EP. The trilogy tells the story of “somebody leaving a past trauma behind and awakening and flourishing into a new sense of beauty and freedom.”
The first video, for the song “Le Rêve,” was released on July 17. Anshul Chauhan, the award-winning director of the feature films Bad Poetry Tokyo and Kontora – who also directed the video for Sloman’s 2019 single “Burnt” – returned to helm the video.
The video was shot shortly after Japan ended the Covid-19 state of emergency declaration this past spring, and Chauhan’s storyboard captures the existential disembodiment brought on by this extended period of doubt, wonder and isolation as Suzuki portrays a woman who has succumb to depression. She is cared for by her boyfriend (portrayed by Sloman) who tries to comfort her.
“I love the moment when she smiles at the end,” says Sloman. “Saaya did a wonderful job of capturing the emotion.”
What’s Next for Andrew Sloman?
The title video “Yoakè,” directed by Andrew L Phillips, is next to be released. In stark contrast to “Le Rêve,” which was shot in black and white, this time around Suzuki performs a dance of awakening and rebirth amidst the vibrant colors of nature.
“Over the next two videos you will see the story unfold and the beauty and happiness flourish in her life,” says Sloman.
Sloman himself is hoping one day to perform live music again. He hasn’t had a gig since March. Prior to the pandemic he was gigging every week in Tokyo hotels. On August 8, Sloman will share a pre-recorded set on Tokyo Weekender’s Facebook Live.
The Yoakè EP will be released on August 16 – on the one-year anniversary of his mother’s passing. All proceeds from sales on Sloman’s Bandcamp page will be donated to Give India – an organization helping families in India affected by Covid-19.
Andrew John Sloman’s EP Yoakè is available on Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, Amazon and more from August 16, 2020.