As Kishi Bashi, Kaoru Ishibashi finding hard-earned success on the solo circuit

March 30, 2012

Kaoru Ishibashi stood on the stage of Sixth & I Historic Synagogue one night last fall surrounded by instruments. He laughed anxiously, reached for his violin and kicked on his looping pedal, a digital sampling machine that layers sound.

Pluck, pluck, pluck, pedal. Pluck, pluck, pluck, pedal.

Every eight counts, he added a new element — drums, keyboard, guitar, beatbox — building a one-man orchestra from the ground up. Melodies swelled over harmonies, strings danced with drums, and he pedaled and plucked along.

In the front row, a woman was moved to tears. People in the back stood for a better view. At the end of his last song, the audience rose with a thunderous standing ovation. He was the opening act.

“That was a special night for me,” Ishibashi said. “I told my wife I was only playing synagogues from then on.”

When we speak on the phone, Ishibashi, whose stage name is Kishi Bashi and who goes by K, is signing hundreds of CDs. He’s in Atlanta to rehearse with the indie-pop collective Of Montreal (Ishibashi has been a member since 2010) but needs every spare minute to tend to his mounting solo career. Ishibashi is opening for the band on its current tour, which comes to the 9:30 Club on Tuesday for a sold-out show.

Ishibashi, 36, isn’t new to the music scene. Born in Seattle but raised in Norfolk, he began playing the violin when he was 7. After flunking out of Cornell’s engineering school, he transferred to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he studied with renowned jazz violin instructor Matt Glaser and met Keiko, a pianist. After a string of strange jobs that included a seat in the orchestra of the Big Apple Circus, Ishibashi and Keiko married in 2002 and moved to Brooklyn. There, he and a fellow circus musician founded the band Jupiter One.

The group’s rise was too slow for Ishibashi, though. He and Keiko had a daughter, Sola, in 2006, and the pressure to support a family drove him to test the waters with a solo act. As Kishi Bashi, he scored touring spots opening for Regina Spektor and Sondre Lerche, which connected him to Of Montreal founder Kevin Barnes.

The duo hit it off. Barnes asked Ishibashi to provide violin for a few tracks on Of Montreal’s newest album, “Paralytic Stalks,” which was released in February.

“K’s a perfectionist, so working with Of Montreal has been good for him,” Barnes said. “We’re less conventional, we want that experimental sound . . . and I think that was liberating for him.”

It was. Last May, Ishibashi released his first solo EP called “Room for Dream.” In August, he and his family moved back to his parents’ house in Norfolk so that he could focus on a full-length album. “I had this ‘it’s now or never’ epiphany that I imagine a lot of rockers in their mid-30s have,” he said. “So I just went for it.”

But first, he needed money.

Ishibashi turned to the online platform Kickstarter to raise funds. Its premise is simple: Entrepreneurs pitch their cause in a video and offer prizes based on how much supporters donate. Ishibashi promised a signed CD to those who donated $25 to the creation of his independent record.

“Twenty-five dollars is a lot of money for a CD,” he said, “but the idea is bigger than that. People want to be a part of something, to support someone they believe in and to have a hand in their success.”

Ishibashi’s ultimate goal was $12,000. He made $20,000 in three weeks. That’s a lot of CDs, which explains the clanging of jewel boxes that resonates through the phone as he signs each one.

“To see the generosity of total strangers who just dig what you’re doing kind of makes you believe in people again,” he said. “And yourself, for that matter.”

The support was reassuring for Ishibashi, who admits that between recording and touring, he sees less of his family than he’d like.

“It’s been a tough eight months,” he said. “Keiko is a great mom and my parents are supportive, but I’m still figuring out how to give my music 100 percent and my family 100 percent. So, yeah. Tough.”

But his hard work has started to pay off. Word has spread quickly about the Japanese violin looper with the Kickstarter campaign. Ishibashi has been featured heavily on NPR’s “All Songs Considered” and played three shows at SXSW. He’s signed to Joyful Noise, an Indianapolis record label that specializes in experimental indie rock.

The circle of loopers is small, making comparisons to fellow multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird inevitable. But Ishibashi sees few parallels.

“Our techniques are similar, but our sounds are worlds apart,” he said.

Intent on staying true to himself, Ishibashi tapped into his Japanese American heritage with “151A,” due out April 10. The album was inspired by the phrase “ichi-go, ichi-e,” which means “one meeting, one time.” Ishibashi said the saying reminds him to embrace his mistakes and move forward.

“In martial arts, you don’t stop or start over if you make a mistake because there is no starting over in a real fight,” he said. “It’s the same with performing music.”

Ishibashi goes so far as to sing in Japanese on certain tracks (listen to “Bright Whites” for a taste) but the album is more than a culture fix. It’s also a reflection of the man behind the pedal. While the melodies on “Chester’s Burst Over the Hamptons” shine like summer (think Vampire Weekend’s “One”), they turn dark and psychedelic on “Beat the Bright Out of Me,” the album’s closing song.

After he finishes touring with Of Montreal this summer, he’ll release two new music videos and perhaps plan a solo tour. He doesn’t think too far ahead anymore. He learned his lesson.

“One day, you’re at Cornell; the next, you’re in the circus,” he said. “I’ve learned to roll with life’s curveballs. One meeting, one time.”

Kishi Bashi opens for Of Montreal on Tuesday at the 9:30. The show is sold out.

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