Sumie – or more accurately, sumi-e – is the traditional Japanese art of ink wash painting. A skill that takes years to master, it requires patience, precision, and a great propensity for storytelling; the principal aim of the medium is to capture the spirit of the subject and to deliver a narrative. Inherently expressionist and closely related to calligraphy, you can’t just pick up a brush and start waving it around. It’s not just paint on paper.
Sumie (Nagano, older sister of Yukimi of Little Dragon) mimics the artform with her Bella Union debut, utilising deft flicks of her voice to unload immense emotion and subtle intonation to monumental effect. It’s a subtle record, delivering a Japanese/Scandinavian folk fusion via detailed nuances, minimalist melodies and Sumie’s oft-frail (despite its delicacy, its no less powerful). You have little time to comprehend the noises unfolding on Sumie’s eponymous LP before they’ve surrounded you, besieging your heart and soul. It’s endearingly arresting partly due to the fragility of her compositions, which feature the odd helping hand from Erased Tapes alumni Nils Frahm and Dustin O’Halloran – a powerhouse production entourage if there ever was one.
The Gothenburg-based musician, inspired by motherhood to embark upon a musical journey, has undertaken an acoustic route, far removed from her sibling’s electro-pop wizardry. She explains her conscious reasoning for the timbre thus: “It was not a style or a sudden choice but more me playing my guitar and having two small children so I could not make much noise… but I also love minimal and delicate music, so that felt like a natural direction for me.”
On Sumie, we see the marriage between two distinct forms of folk. The sparse, tranquil instrumentation and repeated motifs of the Japanese side blends harmoniously with the bucolic warmth and vivid imagery of Scandinavia. The result is something quite astonishing – upon first glance, it appears brittle, like a mere ounce of pressure would shatter the entire construction, but as you wend nearer to the centre of the record, both literally and metaphorically, it becomes considerably denser. Not in terms of texture or harmony, but as Sumie’s microcosm becomes familiar, the focus suddenly sharpens and the music blossoms. It takes some time, but with patience and dedication it proves to be greatly rewarding.
Midnight Glories, for example, becomes this sublime sonata, underpinned by a dusky acoustic riff (not unlike Leonard Cohen‘s Hallelujah) and overlaid with Sumie’s pristine vocal talent. Whilst ludicrously chilled out, there’s a faint sinister streak to be gleaned if you’re inclined to look for it. More overtly sinister (though still pretty relaxed), Hunting Sky is a wonderfully barebones arrangement. With malnourished acoustic strumming and an expert hold over dynamics, Sumie takes a turn towards the shadows.
Much of the record wields a calming effect, however. Burden Of Ease sounds like the smell of clean washing, the feel of cool sea breeze and the colour white. It takes a slightly more traditional English turn with the bobbing rhythm and duelling harmonies, but still retains the pastoral scandi-ness she harnesses so adeptly.
Sumie’s debut effort is a majestic foray. She’s not reinventing any wheels with her sound, though the conjugation of national styles is interesting, but the appeal comes from her masterful approach to arrangements. She’s ensured every detail is finely whittled, from oft-overlooked dynamics to the impact of less-is-more production. Her ability to micromanage is clearly great. It’s not the most unique take on folk, but it is rife with charm; her intimate, sympathetic sounds soothe the most restless minds.