Terao Saho (寺尾紗穂) begins this year’s “Someone’s melody” with her breathy voice floating down from a piercing high note along with a flowing piano arpeggio. This characteristic, lighter-than-air lilt to her voice has defined Terao’s nearly two-decade-long musical career. But an especially melancholy edge and a full orchestral backing make her 2022 solo effort one of her best albums yet.
“Good end,” an emotional piano ballad with spunk. “Under the black locust,” a jittering, wandering tune with harmonica and guitar solos. The halting plea “Putting aside expectations” featuring artful flute harmonies. These are just a few of the highlights of this unique, affecting album. But Terao’s ethereal voice is the glue that holds it all together.
“I believe the message of a song is the place where my music is born,” says Terao. “I can try out some wordplay and layer the words with atmosphere. But when I sing the lyrics, the message comes from the heart, and that’s what I really want to come across in my music.”
Terao has been active musically, producing two albums in 2020 and a soundtrack in 2021 after her last solo records in 2016 and 2017. But she’s also been focusing on writing more than ever before. She published essay collections focusing on “the things our eyes can’t see” as well as original reporting on World War II history and Japanese society. Terao’s work has yet to be translated into English, so we had a conversation with her to explore her diverse body of work and her differing approaches to music and writing.
Terao’s diverse musical career
The Tokyo-born Terao has always made music. “I’ve been singing my own songs since I was three years old,” Terao says. She joined the chorus and her own music club in high school, and then joined a band with classmates from a stargazing club while also researching jazz. This band became the Thousand Birdies’ Legs, where Terao sung and composed music, before playing piano for her own first solo album in 2007, “Onmi.”
Terao says major influences on her composition style include city pop legend Onuki Taeko, Disney, and classic choral music. Meanwhile, encountering Nina Simone influenced her approach to piano and vocal performance. A variety of collaborations has also led to her composing soundtracks and joining the 3-piece band Fuyuni Wakarete, which performs with more funk and jazz flair than Terao’s other efforts but still boasts the pathos of her vocal performances.
“There will always be differences of opinion with a band, so it can be tough during production,” says Terao. “There are times when I cry on the way home from recording [laughs].”
“But the result is music that I couldn’t come up with on my own. I actually prefer live performances to recordings. I’m not very good at recording, re-recording, and fiddling with something over and over again. I think the most important thing is to simply have fun, and to express that in the music.”
Essays and social exposés
Terao’s parallel writing career dates back all the way to 2008 with the publication of Yoshiko Kawashima: A Stranger in Men’s Clothing. This reported nonfiction book tells the story of the life of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Qing dynasty princess who was raised in Japan and served as a spy for the Japanese army during World War II. Six years later, Terao released her first essay collection. Since then, she has released two more essay collections plus works of reported nonfiction on workers in the nuclear power industry, the survivors of the Battle of Saipan, and life in Palau during its days as a Japanese colony.
Terao says that music is more like a home station to her, where inspiration comes in flashes. “In terms of how I come up with inspiration, musical ideas come to me passively, while I need to be active to create works of writing. I hope that my writing can serve as a gateway to understanding the past, reviving the memory of the people who lived through history,” she says.
This deep interest in history and especially the memory of World War II shines through with her books on Palau and Saipan. Ano koro no Parao o Sagashite (“searching for the Palau of that time”) revolves around the work of Nakajima Atsushi who lived in Palau during the Japanese colonial period. His story inspired Terao to go to Saipan and interview locals when she was still a student, although she had no idea it would turn into a book for her at the time.
Her nonfiction reporting of working conditions in the nuclear power industry seems, on the surface, to be a very different subject matter. But Terao’s chief concern is the same: the struggles and experiences of everyday people living through adversity, whether imperial occupation or a dangerous working environment. It was a different book, a Higuchi Kenji exposé of the industry, that inspired Terao to begin her own research. “I heard the voices of the former laborers who were suffering. I realized that the energy that people claimed to be ‘clean’ was actually stained with blood,” Terao says.
A longing for “blank space”
A concrete, humanistic concern permeates Terao’s writing. But this subject matter doesn’t clash with the emotional, instinctive approach that Terao takes with her music. In Terao’s lyrics, she often sings not about the black or the white but the gray, not about the sphere but about the ellipse, about blank space, the margins. “The root of singing is the feeling that something is lost and a longing for it,” Terao says.
Terao’s instinctive approach ends up combining with her passion for thinking about real-world problems. “There’s always a hidden feeling inside of me,” Terao says. “On a daily basis, I’m thinking about the problems of the world; war and peace, love and death. And because of some trigger, those feelings get drawn outside, and become songs. The trigger could be scenery, something someone said, or meeting someone new.”
Currently, Terao is working on researching local and folk history in Nagano and Kochi prefectures. She’s also focusing on a book project about Japanese World War II repatriates, including those who went on to immigrate to South America.
Terao embraces the fact that she isn’t sure where her projects are taking her. “My work is more like a record of my life, a diary,” she says. “I don’t have any enthusiasm for intentionally trying to make this type or that type of song. It’s impossible for me to come up with a predetermined concept. It’s just that the songs that I come up with need to find some kind of arrangement.”
Terao Saho’s official website can be found here.