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2024 SXSW Festivals Interviews Music

Interview: Mei Semones is bringing bossa nova to your favorite genres

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Two years ago, I received an email from an artist that I’d only casually heard about through word-of-mouth – gig posters would show her playing with artists like Raavi and FIG, seemingly suggesting another exciting artist to watch out for in the bustling New York music scene. Spotify’s algorithm, as tired as it is, had also emblazoned her name and music all over my recommendations. Mei Semones, was it? I logged the name in my mental rolodex of artists to keep an eye on. “Shinju,” the song that she sent to me, had a unique sound to it, blending jazz with indie pop earmarks to create a song that beautifully blended both genres. So enamored by her music was I that I had to throw her preceding Tsukino EP onto that year’s Best EPs of 2022 list.

On her latest project, Kabutomushi EP, Mei Semones doesn’t largely deviate from the musical style that she’s known for. Ever-present are those traces of bossa nova, jazz, and Semones’ style of singing with elongated, airy syllables. She even continues to seamlessly incorporate Japanese lyrics and English seamlessly throughout her songs – a rarity in the Asian American indie pop scene. The biggest change here lies in a noticeable addition of strong guitarwork that would lure in any indie-rock lover (guilty!), while sprinkling in math rock elements into the work. It’s a gorgeous mish-mash of genres that works like a treat, producing Semones’ strongest, catchiest work to date.

I had the chance to talk to Mei Semones after one of her many unofficial SXSW shows in Austin to find out more about her musical influences, what it’s like to tour in Japan, and what her favorite way to destress is.


Could you introduce yourself for me? What kind of music do you play?

My name is Mei Semones, and I make jazz-influenced indie-Jpop music… is what I call it.

mei semones kabutomushi
Mei Semones – Kabutomushi EP

I want to know a little bit about your new project, Kabutomushi EP. I know it’s coming out in April with Bayonet Records. Could you tell me a little bit about where that project comes from and what your influences are?

Let’s see, I think I wrote the songs in the summer of 2022 going into fall and winter of 2022. I feel like that was a very transitional period for me, because I was graduating from Berklee and moving to New York. And I feel like that comes out from the songs too. It’s different from my previous music and has some different influences — I would say a little more indie rock, more math rock influences. But then also, there’s still that bossa, jazz feel in some of the songs too.

Going into this second EP, how have things changed from when you made your first EP, [Tsukino]?

Well, I’m signed to a label now, so that’s a big change on my end, because they’re so helpful, and they do so much that I would never be able to do on my own. So that’s huge. Also, I feel like I’ve grown as a musician. I think my songwriting has developed a little more and I think I’ve gotten better at singing too, which is good. Like, when I was first starting out, I had a really hard time singing in front of people. But now I feel a lot more comfortable doing it.

Could you tell me a little bit about your musical influences? What are some records that you would recommend people listen to before going into yours?

That’s interesting. I mean, I feel like there’s always a lot of jazz influence, because that’s what I listen to a lot of the time. So like John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Wes Montgomery, and Charlie Parker, and people like that. And then also I’ve been listening to, and a lot of my friends like John Roseboro… he’s been a big influence for me too. Like moving to New York, playing together and stuff. He makes bossa-influenced music as well. And so being inspired by his songwriting, getting back into bossa side of things.

For a bit, I was more into the math-rocky vibe, with a jazz influence. Like there’s a band called Clifford the Band that’s based in Boston, and they’re my favorite band from Boston. And they do some math rocky stuff, so I think that was part of it. And then also I had been listening to some different Japanese bands that have that type of vibe in their music, like tricot and Regal Lily.

How has the move to New York influenced your music? One of the things that I noticed scrolling through a lot of local band feeds is that you’re always there [on the lineups]! Can you tell me a little bit about working with artists in that scene? 

Yeah. I guess in terms of how moving to New York has influenced my music, I think a lot of it has to do with the people I’m playing with, you know? I mean, I was already playing with everybody in my band before moving to New York, but just continuing to develop that and working together — writing arrangements and stuff with them. So that’s, I think, a big part of it. 

Also, I think living in New York has pushed me to play a lot of shows. So that has made me better, I think, as a musician. And in terms of meeting different people, I feel like we’ve met a lot of really cool people. I don’t know if I would say my music has changed because of that… it probably has, I just don’t realize it.

I think one of the features of your music that I always am drawn to is your lyricism, and also the bilingualism that’s in there. So when you’re writing music, is that a conscious decision to incorporate Japanese and English in there? Or are you like, “This is just what I’m used to. This is how I communicate.”

Right. I think when I first did it, it was a conscious decision, because I’d never done it before. That was like, I think in 2020 or something like that. Maybe a little bit earlier. But the first song that I put out was the first song that I wrote that had both English and Japanese in it. And so that was like, a big moment for me and realizing that that’s what I wanted my music to sound like. I felt like that’s what represented me as a person and as an artist, was like having both languages in there.

So now it’s more… like, at first I was like, “Oh, I’m gonna try this,” then I was like, “Oh, I actually really like this. This makes me feel like this is who I am and what I want my music to sound like.” And then now it feels pretty natural, and if I’m writing a song, I’ll kind of just do whatever feels right in the moment. Sometimes I’ll think, “Oh, I want this part to be in English and this part to be in Japanese.” But if I try it and it doesn’t work, then I can just switch the language and see if that’s better. Having that flexibility is nice, too. Because it’s a good way to get at writer’s block. Switch! Just try something else.

With that dualism in the lyrics, is your music well received in Japan?

Yeah. I’ve actually only ever played one show in Japan. I’d like to think it was well received! I think it was good. And that feels different for sure, ’cause living in the US, obviously, there’s not usually anyone who speaks Japanese at a show. Or maybe there’s like one or two people. And that’s nice in a way, because I don’t feel quite as exposed because I don’t know what I’m saying, at least for the Japanese part.

But then on the other side, it’s nice to be singing for a Japanese audience because like, “Oh, they actually know what I’m saying!” Maybe they appreciate the lyrics in a different way than people do who don’t know what I’m saying. I think you can still appreciate the music and what it sounds like, but not exactly know what the meaning is.

What was that experience like playing that one show? Are you planning to do more?

Yeah, me and Noah, who was playing viola… I think we might go back in May to do a couple duo shows. But my first show in Japan… it was really fun. I was extremely nervous because it was a solo set, and I’m not super used to doing that. I also had lost my voice three days before the show. Like literally no voice coming out. And then the day of the show it kind of came back, but it was not… like I didn’t sound very good in my opinion. Everyone’s like, “No, it’s fine. If you hadn’t said anything, I wouldn’t have even noticed!” I’m like, “Okay, thank you.” But for me, I didn’t feel 100% because of my voice. But it was a really good show. People were really nice and I’m excited to be back and hopefully, like, eventually take my whole band there is the goal.

Especially with your music, there’s a lot of moving parts like the strings. How does that work for you when you’re playing a solo set?

It’s just like… everything is gone! It’s just me singing and playing guitar. And I think that’s okay, ’cause that is how the songs started. Like that’s how it was first written. So I think it’s okay to do it that way too. It’s definitely a different experience, but that is the song.

I’ve gotten more used to it. Because last week I was on a solo tour, and that was my first time playing that many solo shows. And so I feel way more comfortable now than I did when I was in Japan. I think it’s a good skill to have.

Come to LA!

Fingers crossed. I feel like something will work out later this year.

I think another aspect that I think you as an artist do really well is your artistic image. Could you tell me a little bit about your cover artwork and your fashion style?

mei semones youn kim
Mei Semones. Photo by Youn Kim.

I guess for the cover art, all my recent cover art my mom has been drawing, so that’s been really special and it’s been really fun to work with her on that. And she’s a really talented illustrator and graphic designer, so she helps me with the flyer that I posted for SX, like, she made that. It’s really nice to be able to do that.

And then in terms of like other image stuff, I guess for clothes… I don’t feel very fashionable because I feel like I’ve been wearing the same clothes. These pants I’ve had since sophomore or junior year of high school. A while! It’s clothes that I like and I just wear them! I do need to get new clothes. It’s all thrifted for the most part. Hand-me-downs from my sister and stuff.

I think also another question I wanted to ask was – Justin [Ricafort, one of our writers], he’s really big into Midwest emo. And he feels like a lot of your music kind of draws upon that. But I don’t know, does it?

It probably does in a way. Like, I don’t listen to that much of that type of music, but one of the bands I mentioned, Clifford, I think kind of has that vibe a little bit and they’re one of my favorite bands. And I’m from the Midwest. Yeah, it’s a part of me! Also like Berklee, like being in Boston and stuff, I think there’s a lot of bands that are in that vein, so I’m sure that there’s influence from there too.

Whenever I listen to your music, it actually kind of destresses me a lot since it’s very relaxing. I’m curious if you could share your favorite ways to destress?

Destressing… I’m so bad at doing that. I feel like sometimes I’m constantly stressed. Hmm… sleeping? I love sleeping. But that’s just like… you’re just unconscious, so I don’t know if that counts.

Sleeping is nice! Sleeping is underrated.

I guess talking it out with people helps. If I’m really stressed about something, I’ll vent about it to my boyfriend or something. Just like get it out, you know? Or what the best solution to my stress is to like… normally I’m stressed about like, “Oh, I need to do this thing.” Or like, ” I need to answer this email” or like something. If I do it, I don’t have stress.

I know you do a lot of covers of classic jazz standards. “Waters of March,” for example… I’ve listened to it so many times. Are there any more in the future that you’d love to do a cover of?

There are so many good ones. I think there are a lot of bossa tunes that would be really fun. Like, I like to sing “Corcovado” sometimes at shows, so it would be cool to record that. Or like, there’s a few tunes that I don’t really even know that well that would be fun to learn like “Otra Vez,” which I kind of know… not super well. There’s this tune called “Brazil,” which I don’t think it would make sense for me to cover but I really like it.

Oh, on this past solo tour I was singing this song in Spanish called “Algo Contigo.” And I got feedback on that that I should put a cover out. So maybe I’ll do that.

Have you had any good food around here in Austin?

We got food from this cafe called Teal House. It was good. They had a breakfast sandwich and a croissant that it was on was really good. But I was like, “Damn, this is like New York prices because it was so small!” But it’s fine.

I thought it was gonna be… I thought coming to Austin, I was like, “Oh, it’ll be a bigger serving size than it would be or something.”

Bigger prices, maybe.

Yeah.

Have you gotten the barbecue or anything here?

No, I’m vegetarian. Claudius, who plays violin, literally makes fun of me every day for being vegetarian. And now that we’re here, he’s, like, talking about barbecue! I’m like, “Oh, what are we going to do?” I don’t mind it because I’m happy being vegetarian.

It would be remiss of me not to mention “Red,” Mei Semones’ collaboration with KAI (who produced Kabutomushi EP), bringing a bossa nova twist to an EDM/emo song.

Kabutomushi EP is out now via Bayonet Records.

Header photo by Lucas O.M.

This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu in Austin, Texas during SXSW 2024. Mei Semones only played unofficial shows and was not part of the SXSW lineup.

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