TOPArt & Culture10 Questions With French-Japanese Singer Ukico

10 Questions With French-Japanese Singer Ukico

Singer-songwriter Ukico speaks to TW about her new album Ascension, her charity project and how she got started in music

By Matthew Hernon

Born to a Japanese mother and a French father, Ukico (stylized as UKICO) spent much of her childhood in the suburbs of Paris. After graduating from Sorbonne University, she moved to Japan where she worked as a model. Wanting to do something more creative, she eventually turned to music and five years ago started working on her debut album. Released on April 28 of this year, Ascension has a unique and dreamy sound that is driven by themes of spirituality, reincarnation and karma. TW recently caught up with Ukico to hear more about the new record as well as her charity project with Sumire, Tigarah and Crystal Kay

Ascension album cover photo by Yulia Shur

1.Have you always envisioned making an album like Ascension

Not at all. I loved singing Disney songs when I was younger and dreamed of one day performing in musicals, but I never saw myself as someone creative who could write an album. I felt I was more of a scientific person than an artistic one. Things changed after my grandmother died. Out of the blue I wrote a poem for her. It was something I’d never done before.  

My father, who hardly ever gets emotional, started tearing up when he read it. He still has it now. That for me was the trigger to becoming a musician. Until then I’d been working as a model in Japan. I realized music would give me the opportunity to fully express myself. Not just as a singer, but as a storyteller.  

2. You studied music engineering in New York. How important was that for your development?

Very. I learned from many talented musicians and became fascinated by the equipment. What I found particularly eye-opening was the importance of sound mixing. Up until that point I wasn’t aware of how essential it was to the creative process in terms of shaping the mood of a song.  

I was already a fan of trip hop bands such as Massive Attack and Portishead but as I got a better understanding of how they mixed tracks, my listening improved and I grew to appreciate them even more, especially Massive Attack. They are just on a different level. Their music is hypnotic.  

3. What other musicians have inspired you? 

There are many. I grew up listening to all kinds of music. As well as trip hop, I was into R&B, hip-hop and grunge bands like Audioslave and Soundgarden – Chris Cornell was like a god to me. More recently I’ve been inspired by artists like Lana Del Rey, FKA Twigs and Lorde.  

Then there’s Bjork. She’s someone I’ve always admired. She has a strong world view and conveys that through her songs. She’s constantly telling a story. I see her as the complete artist. Her shows always have a powerful concept and her videos are just amazing. It’s like she’s creating her own visual universe.  

4. Is that something you’ve tried to do with your own videos?

Yes. I’m quite particular about what I want. I try to arrange as much as I can myself including the videos. There’s a strong spiritual theme running through them as there is with the album. One of the main ideas I had was to create a trilogy based on Izanagi and Izanami, the central deities in the Japanese creation myth from the Kojiki (the oldest history book in Japan). 

My grandfather comes from Izumo, an area strongly linked with Japanese mythology, so I was naturally drawn to their story. It’s my own perspective on their tale. It’s about falling in love, having to deal with hurt and loss, reaching the depths of despair and then rising from the ashes. It’s like a spiritual transcendence. You integrate all the pain you have been suffering with an inner power that can take you to a higher place. 

5. Can you tell us more about the trilogy?

It begins with “Denial,” one of the earlier songs I wrote for Ascension shortly after going through a bad break up. At the time I had a fear of opening my heart up again, hence the line, “Hiding from a new romance.” Writing that song became part of the healing process for me. In the video you see Izanami slowly dying after giving birth to Kagutsuchi (the incarnation of fire). She then goes down to the land of Yomi (the Underworld).  

In the second video, “Hostage,” she vanishes into the darkness. At this point a light starts to shine through. You could say it reflected my own feelings when I started working on the album. I felt trapped in my own insecurities, like a hostage to myself. This record became a healing process – like a light that gave me a chance to open up and face my thoughts and feelings. The story will continue with the third video, “Temporary Amnesia.” That’s due out in June.  

6. “Temporary Amnesia” has a different sound to other songs on Ascension. Was that intentional?

It was mixed by Mike Larson who worked with Pharrell (Williams), so I think it naturally has a different vibe. Also, from an emotional perspective I was in a very different place when I wrote it. For me, making Ascension was like a spiritual journey of the last five years of my life. The first song I came up with was “Deserted” when I was at my lowest point. As well as my relationship ending, my apartment in New York had been broken into, I had bed bugs and felt so alone. “Temporary Amnesia” was then at the other end of the spectrum. 

I wrote it last year while in quarantine. I was also depressed at that time, but it was nothing like the feeling I had when I started out with the record. We can all get a little lost in life and sometimes forget the strength we have as humans. We need those little memories from the past to remind us. In the song I refer to home as being “Utopia.” What I mean by that is we need to go within to find the answers and unlock our true potential.  

7. How did you feel when Ascension was released? 

Emotional. As I mentioned, this was five years of my life. You put everything you’ve got into something and then suddenly it’s out there for the public. It’s like you’re stepping out into the open naked. You never know how people are going to react. I remember the day before Ascension was released, I was teaching breathing exercises in a class and my heart was pounding. It was hard to focus. Later that evening I was with my manager waiting for the clock to strike midnight. I just couldn’t wait.  

Thankfully the reaction has been amazing. Some people have privately messaged me on SNS saying they’ve got it constantly playing on a loop which really surprised me. It’s so nice to get positive comments. To then see it on the Best Alternative Albums chart for iTunes Japan was another great surprise. On the banners I saw it positioned next to Billie Eilish’s upcoming record Happier Than Ever.  It’s strange to see your name alongside someone you respect so much.  

8. As well as Ascension, you’ve also been working hard on the “All Four One Project” with Sumire, Crystal Kay and Tigarah. Can you tell us about that?  

The focus is on mental health. While this has always been a big issue, the situation has intensified for many people in the last year and a half due to the coronavirus pandemic. Like many in Tokyo, I live alone in a small apartment and that first state of emergency last March made me feel very anxious. Feeling sick and depressed, I thought there must have been several others in the same boat so I started to think if there was something I could do. I then had this vision of making a cover song and music video with my friends.  

Sumire, Crystal Kay and Tigarah were the people that immediately came to my mind. They all quickly responded, eager to do it. We All loved the song “Rain On Me” by Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande so we covered that. Tigarah then provided some lyrics to add a rap element to it. All profits from the track and the t-shirts we’ve made go to Inochi no Denwa, a telephone counseling service helping people in need of emotional support.  

9. Do you think enough is being done in Japan to combat mental health issues? 

No, I don’t. I think more needs to be done in countries all over the world to assist people with mental health issues and that’s particularly true of Japan. We know suicide rates are high here and have been getting much worse as a result of the pandemic yet there still seems to be a reluctance to have a proper discussion about mental health. We need to raise awareness because this is a society where people tend to keep things to themselves.  

Some in this country still see it a sign of weakness to openly speak about their problems. That’s something that needs to be addressed. There are some wonderful organizations that are helping to save people’s lives like Inochi no Denwa but they need more support. They are understaffed which means at times it can be difficult to get through. That one phone call could make all the difference. I believe all humans have the inner strength to persevere, but we can’t always do it alone. 

Photo by Solène Ballesta

10. What are your future goals and plans?

I would love to have shows so I can perform the album and interact with an audience. Due to the pandemic, it has been a while. More than just a show, though, I would like to create an immersive experience which allows the audience to take a journey through the five senses. I am also planning my next steps which include a few collaborations with friends and for my next EP, with an Argentinian pianist.

It’s not the future as it has already been released, but something I’ve been very excited about in the past few months is a project related to Nike’s collaboration with Matthew Williams (creative director of Givenchy). I made a meditation track for their app while also lending my face and music for the collection. It came out on May 27 and I am so happy with it.

Ascension is available on all streaming services. Find out more at Ukico’s official website.

Feature photo by by Solène Ballesta