Artist Spotlight: Sen Morimoto

    Sen Morimoto is a multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter who was born in Kyoto, Japan and grew up in Western Massachusetts, where he began studying saxophone at an early age. After moving to Chicago in 2014, he spent the following years connecting with the city’s music community and honing his skills as a genre-blending producer, washing dishes for a living before deciding to focus on music full time. A co-owner of Sooper Records alongside collaborators NNAMDÏ and Glenn Curran, Morimoto put out their first two albums, 2018’s Cannonball! and 2020’s self-titled effort, via the label. Now, the musician has returned with his third album, Diagnosis, released by Sooper in partnership with City Slang. Marking their first time recording in a professional studio, it’s an urgent, dynamic collection of songs that nevertheless possesses a quiet and self-aware sensibility, easily enjoyable on a musical level but richly rewarding and nuanced at its core. Lyrically, Morimoto weaves in day-to-day observations with memories from childhood in an effort to unpack American identity and the ways in which late-stage capitalism commodifies it – all while trying not to let it taint the honest feeling and collaborative nature of the art itself. “The sun went down as I searched/ Every inch of the earth/ Not for a place but for a memory,” they sing nostalgically on ‘Surrender’, and arduous as the process might be, landing there can feel like a revelation.

    We caught up with Sen Morimoto for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about the outward-facing nature of Diagnosis, the cognitive dissonance of creating art under capitalism, and more.

    There’s a certain pressure that comes with releasing a self-titled album, which is supposedly meant to serve as a representation of the artists themselves. What were the challenges, in your mind, that came with following it up?

    Ultimately, it just ended up being self-titled because it felt like a continuation of what I’d been working on in my artistic practice as a solo artist for the past five years before that. It was very much the same process I had been using to make music since I started doing it by myself; I was making beats in my room, it was a very isolated experience and very much just about my own psyche. A lot of those songs from the first two records are just psychoanalyzing myself, and with this one, it kind of felt like I had gone as far as I could in that direction. When the album is just about you, then you have to flip the lens around and investigate other things. Both lyrically and sonically, I think I was trying to pivot intentionally, and I wasn’t sure exactly where it was going to go, but just knew that I wanted to do things differently. So I invited my bandmates into the studio, folks I’ve been touring with past 6-7 years, and that alone was a huge transformation for the music – giving it some live feeling, actually playing with each other in the room, and also it just being a studio record, in a sense, was different. Everything just sort of turned outward, and then I did the same thing for the lyrics. It’s a lot less about analyzing myself and more so about the world around us.

    So you feel like there was a direct relationship between how your musical approach and lyrical perspective developed?

    Yeah, totally. I think that’s usually how I start figuring out that an album is being made. Especially now, a lot of artists make such genre-defying music, because everybody’s making music that’s influenced by like 20 different things, so it’s hard to know, when you’re making songs, if you’re making them in the same universe. And once I start feeling like there’s a few where the sonic element is doing the same thing as the lyrics are intending to do, then it’s like, “Oh, this could be a record.”

    You talked about the outward-facing nature of the record being a natural reaction to what you had been writing about in the past. Outside of thinking about the trajectory of your albums, how did it allign with your headspace and the things you were preoccupied with at the time?

    It definitely was written in reaction to what I was experiencing and learning at the time. After touring for a handful of years, and then everything being shut down during the pandemic, shows being canceled, and then coming back to touring as venues reopened, and finding that it was a totally different landscape – expenses for everything had inflated so high that it’s impossible to tour. Experiencing a year of trying really hard to do that, and also having gone through a couple of years of being at home and engaging in constant political unrest while we were experiencing lockdown and economic shutdown, just made it feel so different. Coming back to what you had been doing with it a totally different perspective was eye-opening. And I think a lot of people probably experienced this in whatever field they’re in; getting the sense that they had new eyes for the ways in which their industry works, and the different ways in which capitalism affects every aspect of our life. I think these have been things I always thought about, but always carried a lot of guilt for, in the sense that there’s no ethical way to engage in a capitalist-driven world.

    It’s been really hard to even discuss, because a lot of what went into the record was just trying to figure these things out, and then realizing that there’s not really a good answer;  there’s just other people that are experiencing the same thing. And ultimately, that was what I came to, is that the reason the album is so outward-facing – both in my critique of capitalism and the systems that govern us, but also outward-facing in a way that it reaches out to connect with people who are feeling similarly – is that the only answer I could come to was that being in community and connecting with folks experiencing the same thing seemed to be the only thing that helped.

    Aside from coming into it with a different perspective, was there also a shift in confidence that allowed you to articulate these questions in a more clear and intricate way than you previously felt able to?

    Yeah, absolutely. It’s not something I’ve discussed with anyone about this record, really, which I’m so glad you brought up. I feel like so many artists probably felt similarly, where you’re considering the ramifications of being involved in an industry about marketing yourself and marketing this art that you hold so pure, and there’s a dissonance within yourself about participating in that. But it’s hard to discuss and create the art at the same time. It’s almost like if you’re admitting that it’s a corrupt industry and that you’re partaking in it, then you can’t really engage in the art the same way. It becomes difficult to, like, write a love song that someone’s just going to run the numbers on for streaming or something. I think a lot of what went into starting the record was feeling like if I didn’t focus on that discomfort, and I just let it stew while I was trying to make music about something else, it would sort of tear me apart, and I wouldn’t be able to make art at all.

    Once I had made the record or the the bones of it and realized what it was about, it was difficult to feel confident enough to share it in that way, because I’ve always just been a person in a room making beats. I’m not a political activist or an academic mind in this, so there’s a feeling a lot of artists share that maybe you don’t want to say the wrong thing or seem uninformed about these larger topics. But part of what’s really exciting to me about putting out the album, which is kind of the scary part but also the good part, is that I hope it makes people more comfortable discussing these things without feeling like they have to know every aspect before the conversation starts. I think just normalizing the idea that you’re thinking about it is such a good step.

    The song ‘What You Say’ begins with the lines, “Don’t go making metaphors out of/ Seemingly meaningless moments/ Parables out of friendship patterns/ Picking at scabs won’t heal them faster.” That sounds like stream-of-consciousness, but I wonder if it’s also specficially being self-conscious about the writing process.

    There’s often a couple ways I’m thinking about a lyric in a song. Sometimes I’m thinking about the way that you could interact with it if you’re hearing it for the first time and projecting your own life onto it as a listener. And then I’m thinking about, for me, words have so many double meanings, and that line is definitely a jab at myself about the ways in which I interpret things. I think less than a definitive “This is the correct way of thinking” or “This is the answer to these questions” on the album, it’s more so about sharing my experience in a way that hopefully feels somewhat relatable, so leaving those moments in where I’m unsure of things, or even some opposing views on the record, I feel like fit into it. Even a song like ‘Bad State’ is about trying to still have some joy in your life and think less about the thing, and then the rest of the album is like, Think about it, think about it, think about it. Some of it’s just about documenting both sides.

    Did you struggle with having the album adhere to any kind of coherent philosophy as you were assembling the songs?

    I think some people can, and it’s really admirable and cool, decide, like, “This is what my album’s gonna be about, the story’s gonna go from A to B.” But I just let things come out and then take a look at it afterwards, and it sort of tells me, “Oh, that’s what this is about. Interesting.” And I’ve had that experience with other records like in the past – sometimes you even think you know what your album’s about, and then you release it, and after a year of seeing what it does in the world, how people react to it, you’re like, “That makes so much sense, I was going through this at the time and I just couldn’t see it because I it was my own shit, and that’s the hardest shit to see.” Because it’s an album that’s a little more specifically about one thing and not just sort of exploring my own thoughts, though, I did feel some pressure, mostly self-inflicted, to wrap it up in a bow and have an answer. Ultimately, showing it to friends and sharing it with peers was where I found the answer, in just that folks were responding in a way that was like, “I’m so happy to hear these things said this way, because I’ve been feeling them myself but sort of unable to articulate it.” So that was my answer, that we’re both feeling it, and that’s as far as I care to take it, really.

    You’re also being quite intentional about encapsulating these thoughts in the title track. You frame that line, “You live a long life doing what you have to do,” as the diagnosis, but at the same time, it also feels like what we’re prescribed to do.

    Yeah, that’s a really good point. It’s the prescription and the diagnosis. It’s funny, I guess that’s sort of the “catch-22” of it – you can figure it out and you can have these thoughts, but you still have to live your life through it. That whole song starts with the idea that you’re at the gas station thinking about all the carnage and monstrosities that had to happen for oil to reach your car that you need to fill your tank up to get to work with to pay your rent this month, you think about how awful it is, and then you just have to continue on with your day. There’s a certain dose of reality that kind of pushes in the opposite direction of your radical thinking, and there’s a place in the middle that you end up having to live in, because we just live under capitalism and you have to pay your rent and feed your family.

    You showcase a lot of stylistic versatility throughout the album. I’m curious if it was easier or more difficult to find the right musical language to express these ideas, or if it came the other way around.

    It felt really natural on this record, more so than usual. I think I was feeling this unrest within myself, and discomfort that we talked a little bit about, but also anger and frustration with the world. A lot of songs start instrumentally for me, so naturally the music was pushing in a way that was different than music I’d made before. A lot of my older music is very kind low-key beat stuff, and these beats that I was demoing were just pulsing in a darker way. Also, a big part of my practice is just exploring different instruments, and for this record it was definitely so guitar-focused, which is funny. It’s kind of the most basic – I mean, not to hate on guitars, but guitars have such a, like, shitty dude energy. [laughs] There’s definitely some sense of humor in that. But it really helped me express a certain rage than in my past albums.

    For a record that seems so lyrically and conceptually packed, ‘Pressure on the Pulse’ feels like an example of that kind of track where the music leads the energy behind it.

    Yeah, I think that probably is the most music-centered – it could have been an instrumental and sort of felt the same way, which I don’t feel about the rest of the songs. They’re so like lyrically dense, and that one totally is more, you just feel it in the urgency of the horns and the lopsided beat.

    I’m interested in how the two most intimate and introspective songs on the record, ‘Naive’ and ‘Forsythia’, are both tied to nostalgia. For you, how are they connected to each other and the album as a whole?

    There are definitely moments where I’m considering how my humanness still engages in this sort of radical and rebellious thought. There’s such a lack of humanity, I think, in a lot of cycles of thinking – which is natural, because there’s so much work to be done, so it’s like, when you start thinking about all the things that you would like to make positive change in, it gets to a point where you feel selfish or unable to think about your own life and your own feelings, which are real. And even to sort of not trust them, because especially as an artist, your feelings become art, which becomes product. I feel like nostalgia in both of those songs is written about in a way that is trying to encapsulate how the feelings are real, but the sense of nostalgia is almost, potentially a manipulation, the way in which we’re indoctrinated with nostalgia.

    ‘Naive’, even in the sonic elements of it, but also lyrically, is so Americana in a certain way, and the lyrics are about feeling free and love. It’s sort of balancing the ways in which those are real emotions and real memories and things that I hold dear, but I’m also considering how much of that is tied to the way I’m brought up and the way culture and media shape my sense of nostalgia, and sort of poking fun at how labeling your emotions that way can leave you vulnerable to being manipulated. Feeling naive, or the intention to feel free, in this almost patriotic sense, can kind of contaminate the real feeling, the pure feeling. ‘Forsythia’ is similar, although that’s a song that I feel like branches out in a complicated way lyrically.

    It’s easy to be cynical about even just the existence of that pure feeling if it’s so manipulated, but I don’t feel that cynicism in your music. You treat it as something precious. 

    Yeah, I think the record is more so protective of that real feeling as opposed to questioning it. It’s more so questioning the environment of your feelings, so that the real feeling can live. Even the first track, ‘If the Answer Isn’t Love’, it’s figuring out what’s going on in the world, asking what the point of it all is and what will remain, but ultimately feeling like if it’s not that real feeling – whatever, love, God, sort of the same thing – then I don’t know if it’s worth it.

    Given that the album revolves so much around societal issues, what do you feel like is the biggest thing you’ve learned about yourself while making it?

    I think most significantly, specifically in my thoughts to making art, which is part of what I’m exploring on the album, is how to continue doing that – ethically, or just sanely, or with love still, and without becoming cynical. I’ve found that just exploring these topics but continuing to release music in the same way didn’t change how I felt about the music industry or participating in it or marketing myself. I think it helps because I’m being honest, and that sets me free in a certain way and helps with that cognitive dissonance issue while creating art under capitalism. But, it’s funny because it’s so simple. Something I had been thinking about and discussed a lot once it was done – I had finished the record and I was working on promoting it, talking to the labels and engaging in the music industry, and I would come home at night and just be like, “I don’t know what the point is anymore.” Because I work on a record that’s about freeing yourself from that, and then I go engage in it again, or feeling like I don’t have a choice. And obviously, you always have a choice. I can unplug, and I can go back to working in restaurants or whatever, and it’s fine. But I think I would feel the same thing anywhere I work, as every industry suffers from the same condition, which is ultimately the diagnosis.

    But just taking a moment to appreciate the ability to make art and feel gratitude for the space to do that, and the ways in which the album creates more space for me to be creative in with my community – you know, I get to work on this record with my friends, I get to make music videos with creative and like-minded artists, I get to play the music live, I get to engage in the creative process. That is the prize you get. That’s the real payment for doing this, is continuing to get to have a space where you do the thing that you know you’re supposed to be doing, and everything else is just the work you have to put in to be allowed to do that. It feels like something I should have known a long time ago, that it’s not about the record reaching as many people as it can or people even resonating with it – it’s almost like the concept of the album and the lyrics are secondary to just the space it creates for people to do something that they love with. That’s the reward.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Sen Morimoto’s Diagnosis is out now via City Slang/Sooper Records.

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