In light of the fullness and sonic diversity of songs like “Bad” and Jeff” you may not expect Shakai Mondai to be the musical project of just one person, let alone a person who began experimenting with electronic music less than two years ago. Still, it doesn’t take a whole lot of listens to understand that Rachel Ishikawa defies expectations in more ways her apparent ability to quickly pick up a new thing. With her debut EP Bad, Ishikawa has built a body of work that straddles the best of DIY music and electronic pop. While her clear, poignant vocals endow her songs with personality, their best quality is perhaps their even-handedness; they weave their way up a gradient of dynamic sounds and textural layers without ever posing a distraction or feeling gratuitous. And by combining these vocals with a smooth, reverberating sonic landscape, Ishikawa makes her songs extremely easy to like. This approachable nature is what allows her to make their subtly unpredictable melodic progressions and harmonies come off as effortless.
Coming from a person who saw one music video and was immediately hit with a classic case of “Who the FUCK is this where did they come from and why didn’t I known about this sooner,” Ishikawa doesn’t have to do much to stand out from the crowd as she makes her way around the Philadelphia and East Coast DIY circuit. Having already played Philly’s First Unitarian Church and New York’s Baby’s All Right, she’s been received with open arms by audiences and venues alike. If I had to guess why, it would be because of the absolute newness of Shakai Mondai’s sound. It’s not uncommon for a musical project to go through some growing pains in order to carve out an aesthetic that’s both unique and well put together. Being that Ishikawa has achieved both of these things in Shakai Mondai’s infancy, it’s pretty exciting to think about what’s in store for the future.
Today Shakai Mondai is debuting a new track called “Bird Lips.” Press play and read on for an interview with Ishikawa.
STEREOGUM: So to start off, how did you get to where you are now? Have you been involved in any musical projects prior to this one?
ISHIKWA: I started this project in 2014, so about two years ago, a little less than that. Previous to that I was in a band in college called Peaks that was just a straight up rock and roll five piece, and I was playing guitar. But then after I graduated college I transitioned into a more computer-y sound and I’ve been doing that ever since.
STEREOGUM: How did the switch to electronic music come about? Did you have a particular artist that maybe inspired you?
ISHIKWA: It wasn’t even that as much as it was that I could make music by myself, which was really cool. For a while I was just experimenting with electronic effects on acoustic instruments to make interesting sound pieces, but then it occurred to me two years ago that I could also use the computer to make fun songs that other people would maybe want to hear. And since I was graduating college and moving away from a lot of my friends and wasn’t living with my previous band-mates, I decided that my computer would be a good option to compose music.
STEREOGUM: So what was the pronunciation of the project’s name again?
ISHIKWA: It’s Shæ/kaɪ/ Moʊn/daɪ.
STEREOGUM: Is that Japanese?
STEREOGUM: Does being Japanese play any type of role your making music?
ISHIKWA: I grew up listening to a lot of J-Pop. In general I’m very influenced by pop culture and pop music that’s coming from both the United States and Japan, so I think there are some sounds there that resonate in my music, especially since I listen to a lot of Japanese electronic music that’s coming out now.
STEREOGUM: Do you have any contemporary artists that you’re influenced by?
ISHIKWA: One person that I listen to a lot is Cuushe, and she’s based in Berlin but she’s a Japanese electronic musician. I listen to a ton of Empress Of. Even though she’s only released a couple of things in the past few years, that’s a very important person to me right now. I think a lot of the music I listen to is music that people I know make, so I think things that are happening in Philly kind of indirectly affect me too.
STEREOGUM: Oh, what Philly bands?
ISHIKWA: Some Philly bands I really like are — well I guess they’re now pretty big, but I’m really loving Japanese Breakfast, I think that she’s incredible. I really love the band King Azaz, who are some friends [of mine]. I also really love the electronic and noise music that’s happening. I’m not necessarily making that, but people like Sad Hannah and Abdul Kadir, who [records as] DJ Haram, all those people I think are making really cool, interesting music.
STEREOGUM: The new songs that you sent over sounded more organic than the ones from the first EP. Are you going in a more analogue or acoustic direction with your next EP or album?
ISHIKWA: Yeah, definitely. I’m glad you asked that because the first EP that I put out was kind of me just experimenting with computers, and I only used guitar and MIDI sounds that I was making on Ableton. I kind of really missed the sounds of real instruments, so I’m trying to incorporate a lot of that [in the next EP]. I’m using these really beautiful pianos that are at the Miner Street Recording Studio that’s in Fishtown. I’m doing a work exchange with them for studio time. They have a lot of really cool pianos, including one that has tacks that are built on the hammers so that it creates a really dull, thud-y sound. It creates a more dynamic sound that’s less flat if there are real instruments that are being put into the music, so that’s why I’m doing that.
STEREOGUM: Is that what you used on “Bird Lips”?
ISHIKWA: Yeah, I was using that little tack piano and then just a bunch of other pianos, and they have a [Roland] Juno-6 [synthesizer] so there’s just a lot of fun stuff there.
STEREOGUM: What are the samples at the beginning of “Bird Lips”?
ISHIKWA: Oh gosh, I almost don’t even wanna say because it’s super cheesy. I guess also what I do a lot is I find samples online and then change them so they don’t sound like the original because, you know, there are so many horrible samples on the internet. But that one is from a “pinecone” sample pack.
STEREOGUM: Oh nice!
ISHIKWA: So it’s like the sound of what someone imagines a pinecone to sound like.
STEREOGUM: That’s cool, that’s like some deep web stuff. At the same time though, “Bird Lips” also seemed a lot more singer-songwriter-y, like your voice was a lot more prominent.
ISHIKWA: Yeah, there are [some different] recording techniques that I’m also trying to use. And I think that because I feel self-conscious of my voice at times, it’s really easy to drown it out and make it more submersed in the song. But now I’m being more intentional with my lyrics, so I kind of want to highlight that and experiment more with the mixing process and try to make my voice stand out a little bit.
STEREOGUM: How does your music translate to a live setting? Do you try to replicate the recordings, or do you try to make it different?
ISHIKWA: I think live sound is something I want to work on more and more, but currently I try to stay very true to the recordings in that a lot of what I do is triggering sounds and triggering samples just using a MIDI controller with my computer. I think the thing that is different is that I try to really use my voice as the main performance aspect. I think trying to do different things with that is really good, especially now [that I’m] better with using certain live effects it’s exciting to be making my recordings better in a live setting by doing things that I didn’t know how to do before
STEREOGUM: In terms of songwriting I know that people always come to new realizations as they’re changing and growing and getting better. So what do you think was your most recent “ah ha” moment with regard to songwriting or your approach to music?
ISHIKWA: I think for a long time, at least lyrically, I was doing almost just whatever came to my head. I think that’s a good way to write lyrics because it’s earnest and honest to whatever words are popping into your brain, but recently I’ve been interested in making more intentional lyrics and playing with sounds and the way that words string together and what sounds are interesting. I guess then sonically I’m really excited about just being able to do more with making beats. I feel like that something that I’m moving forward in is just experimenting more with beat progressions and the way the song is propelled by the beat. I’m not really a natural at any sort of percussive instrument. This is something I’ve been working towards I guess.
STEREOGUM: You said you were trying to be more forward with your lyrics. Do you write lyrics in a more structured, poetic way, or do you make lyrics beforehand? And what do you wanna convey through your lyrics?
ISHIKWA: In a song, everything will always happen at the same time for me, so usually I’ll do things section by section. It’s very rare that I’ll have the instrumentals done before the lyrics. The melody I think always comes with the lyrics, they come hand in hand, and then the melody effects what the lyrics will be. Lyrically, “Bird Lips” was a very honest song for me and also a pretty straightforward love song, which I’m not always super amped about writing. But this one felt exciting for me and felt like it was worth writing because it felt like I wanted to write it. It had a direct connection to feeling really small and that being put on me, and also just holding that internally. So I like the song because lyrically it was an honest love song but at the same time I’m trying to assert my not-smallness — which is a thing that I get a lot, especially performing alone on stage. People will be like, “Aw, so cute” afterwards, which is a really frustrating feeling. And so I felt like it was kind of a two-part song lyrically for me. I had two things that I really liked about it, love and not being small.
STEREOGUM: Nice! This is question is sort of overused, but you are a girl alone on stage. How do you deal with sexism in music, or what has your experience with that been like?
ISHIKWA: Yeah, it is an important question that hopefully one day won’t have to be asked or even warrant a response, but I think at this moment in time it’s relevant. It’s definitely frustrating because gender is really weird, and of course I present myself in a femme way or as a woman, but that’s not the end to my gender or part of it or all of it at all. So I guess I want to say when answering this question — because I don’t necessarily always feel like a “woman” or anything even though this is the way I’m presenting myself most of the time — in terms of performing, one of the frustrating aspects is being perceived as very femme, or that in order to be a woman making music you have to put that at the forefront of your music. I don’t have anything against doing that, but at this point, I’m making music, and being a woman is part of that, but it’s not all of it. And yeah, bullshit will happen all the time where people will say things while I’m performing or after, or the booker will be weird — you know, these endless things that everyone experiences. But I’ll be excited to see the day where that isn’t an issue, if that happens.