Kazu Makino Talks Blonde Redhead, Solo Work, and the Twins

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

While she was growing up in Kyoto, Japan, solo artist and co-founder of the popular American band, Blonde Redhead, Kazu Makino, would wake up every morning to Bach on her alarm clock. For her father, a strict disciplinarian, classical music was a religion. It was the song of the exact, of the specific. For Makino, though, it was stifling. So much so that, as a young woman, she escaped Japan for New York City, leaving her hometown with the artist and musician, John Lurie. But the ups and downs of life didn’t end there. In many ways, they only intensified. As a result, Makino’s life is saturated with subject matter, which she’s expressed over the course of handfuls of records, including her solo LP, Adult Baby, which she released exactly one year ago this week.

“My grandfather was a violinist and I think my father also wanted to be a musician,” Makino says. “But he couldn’t.”

Makino studied painting, too, along with music. But her father was adamant that, while she was to study art diligently, she wasn’t ever to use it for the sake of entertainment. Of course, though, this had the opposite effect. Early on, Makino began listening to everything she wasn’t allowed to. After meeting Lurie by happenstance on a side street one evening in Tokyo, she decided to leave. She hopped a plane and slept the whole way.

“I guess I could say I had a pretty difficult upbringing,” Makino says. “Quite unstable. So, yeah, it was like I escaped. I really like Japan but my family home was not a safe place to be – I had discomfort being me. Now, looking back, I think I was quite pessimistic. Maybe I could have been suffering from some kind of depression. I really didn’t have much hope.”

Lurie introduced her to a “different world,” she says. There were few rules, if any. It wasn’t bliss. But it was new, at least. Makino says there was “so much darkness but so much creativity.” He introduced her to records, music. He became something of an unplanned father figure. He introduced her to jazz – a genre she has since distanced herself from because of his influence.

“It’s interesting,” Makino says, “how the men that I’ve known, none of them are really normal, you know? They are unconventional. But then they are also the ones who gave me the light to be what I am today. Ultimately, encouraging me to be great. But I really had to fight for what I actually wanted.”

It was Lurie who introduced her two the twins, Simone and Amedeo Pace, who would be the other co-founders of Blonde Redhead, which recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of their record, Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, with a vinyl reissue. He’d met them playing music in Italy and when they’d each independently traveled back to New York, he thought Makino would enjoy collaborating. The trio’s relationship would turn out fruitful, though not always smooth. The twins and Makino were rather different people with very different backgrounds.

“It was insanely – there was chemistry but it wasn’t compatible,” Makino says. “But you don’t have to be compatible to have musical chemistry. It took years carving our own ways to work together. It was always a bit of a struggle.”

At shows in the early days, she says, Makino was nervous, fearful of the audience, of being looked at intently and intensely. It was an extension of the hopeless, pessimistic feelings she’d brought over from Japan, from her tumultuous home life as a young person. She didn’t think the band would last. She “hated” when people started coming to see the group. She says she wished should have locked the club’s front door. But while it may have seemed like a “too cool” ethic, it was really the result of discomfort at the unknown.

“I’m sure it came off like ‘she has so much attitude,’” Makino says. “But it wasn’t that. I had such a deep self-loathing that I couldn’t shake. So, I didn’t like that we were successful.”

Today, though, internally, Makino is doing better. While stuck in New York because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she often splits time between the States and Italy. She says those feelings of self-loathing can return but they’re fewer and farther between. She’s appreciative of the fans of her music (“It’s quite amazing to have an audience,” she says). She also said she experienced a great deal of joy writing and producing her solo effort, Adult Baby.

“It was so liberating,” she says. “That feeling that you can do anything you want. Because you don’t have to have any approval of anybody else. That was great.”

On Adult Baby, Makino indulges her soft, floating, fuzzy vocal tones, over which she programs quick, syncopated percussion, from rattles to electronic beats. It’s hypnotizing (see: “Salty”). It’s like moving in and out of sleep on an airplane. It’s the music created by someone seasoned from more than two decades of experience who is also, dichotomously, someone who also feels like she’s often approaching a new song or idea with fresh eyes and ears. Like on “Come Behind Me, So Good!” where she begins with her own vocal rhythm loop.

“I felt like I still didn’t know anything,” Makino says. “I feel like I’m doing something for the first time. But I wanted to own that. But, also, of course, it’s not true that I don’t know anything. After making ten records, I know what sounds I like. I’m sure I have a pretty sophisticated ear. So, it’s a little bit of combination of both.”

To get the precise sounds she needed for Adult Baby, Makino would regularly have to travel far and wide to different studios to find the right instruments, amplifiers and modulators. She didn’t mind the effort. She’s patient. She’s lived a life saturated in, well, life. It’s okay to pace herself now. And Makino does so with a great, measured perspective, even today.

“All that we go through is really good for music,” Makino says. “If it wasn’t for that outlet, I would really be in trouble.”

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