Neon Lights Festival

Gloomy musician, happy outcome

Japanese musician Shugo Tokumaru (above) uses home-made instruments such as a garden hose and a drain pipe.
Japanese musician Shugo Tokumaru (above) uses home-made instruments such as a garden hose and a drain pipe.PHOTO: HIDEKI OTSUKA

Japanese musician Shugo Tokumaru is slowly but surely garnering a wider audience for his work. His song Rum Hee was used by Sony in a 2009 commercial for touchscreen computers.

The following year, his album Port Entropy cracked the top 40 on the authoritative Oricon chart.

This does not mean he is in the mainstream, though.

As he explains in an e-mail interview with Life: "There might be a lot of people who have heard my music at least once, as it gets used for TV programmes and commercials quite often, but that doesn't mean I make appearances on TV, and I think the vast majority of Japanese people don't realise that what they are hearing is made by Shugo Tokumaru."

It is their loss. The lo-fi indie pop singer-songwriter has been making wonderfully beguiling music that evokes whimsy, joy and dazzling exuberance since his debut album Night Piece (2004).

Music fans in Singapore can judge for themselves when he performs at the inaugural Neon Lights Festival at Fort Canning on Nov 28.

In 2010, he had performed at the Esplanade.

It was a thrill for fans to witness up close his dexterity on the guitar as his fingers raced along the neck of the instrument.

But it is not possible to replicate in a live setting the dense textures of his recorded material as he piles on layer after layer of sound.

"While mixing a song, my ears become very sensitive, so I can hear all the instruments that need to be there no matter how much I add, but some of those instruments might be inaudible to others. So I spend a long time on mixing to find the perfect balance through adding and subtracting repeatedly," the perfectionist says of his modus operandi.

To get that sublime sound, Tokumaru, 35, can turn to his collection of several hundred instruments and toys, some of which are one of a kind.

"Recently I had an opportunity to make some self-made instruments for the composition of theatre music and they are some of the most unusual ones: garden hose-turned-French-horn, drainpipe-turned-trumpet, broom- turned-clarinet... that kind of stuff."

The process of making the music might not be as easy as fans might imagine.

Tokumaru reveals: "Basically I'm quite gloomy when I'm making songs.

"Maybe there's a longing for some sort of a dreamy utopia, because of this gloomy character."

There is one thing that cheers him up, though.

"I do feel happy when people let me know how they feel upon listening to my records or when I get to see the excitement of the audience by playing shows."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2015, with the headline 'Gloomy musician, happy outcome'. Print Edition | Subscribe