It’s one of the most stressful weeks in the history of the United States as the country awaits the results of the Presidential election and Sen Morimoto’s cat is stuck in a hole. Somehow the cat found its way through a cavern behind Morimoto’s dishwasher and fell down a chute to the basement, spurring an hours-long rescue mission with the Chicago-based songwriter using a scarf to try and pull his cat out.
“I don't know if I've ever believed in a magic, unsolved mystery more than I did this morning,” Morimoto says over the phone later that afternoon, his “cat-fishing” days behind him.
While this may seem like one of the innocuous, weird, and stressful moments in life that we all find ourselves in from time to time, this anecdote ends up speaking to some of the headier themes of his latest work – a self-titled LP out now on Sooper Records. Within his spellbinding, maximalist arrangements that fuse jazz, hip-hop, indie rock, and pop, Morimoto finds himself reckoning with superstitions, self-doubt, and existential crises. And while that all may sound insular, the record plays out as an ambitious and decidedly fun genre-smashing affair.
“I felt like superstition was so interesting to me because I grew up – and probably I think I am still to this day – pretty superstitious,” Morimoto says later in our conversation. “I mean, I told you that we lost our cat this morning and I was really thinking, like, ‘This is punishment for something that I did.’ Like, I didn't appreciate this cat and now it's gone… And it's not something I would say out loud because you sound like a crazy person when you do. But everybody has those superstitious thoughts.”
Morimoto was born in Kyoto, Japan, but moved to the United States when he was still an infant. His parents packed up the family in a Volkswagen bus and lived in the vehicle while they traversed across the country. Eventually, they’d find themselves and decided to plant roots in the small town of Wendell, Massachusetts. A small hippie town with a population of around 800, Morimoto occasionally will compare his hometown to The Shire from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. While in some ways isolated – the town just recently got high-speed internet – Morimoto was exposed to a slew of genres through his dad’s extensive CD collection, covering everything from Led Zeppelin and The Beatles to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Sonny Rollins as well as pop divas like Shakira.
When he was 10-years-old, Morimoto started to learn the saxophone – an instrument with which he’d become synonymous. Encouraged by his parents to “find something to do,” he took to the saxophone because of his love for The Simpsons – Lisa Simpson also played the sax. While he was enjoying his time learning the basics in school, it was when he learned about improvisation that changed everything for him.
“I think that really got me hooked, just feeling like I could make music up on the spot,” Morimoto says. As he’d go back through his dad’s CD collection with a new eye toward jazz, he’d discover that the greats he admired like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Cannonball Adderley were improvising. “I was really kind of obsessed with the genre after that,” he adds. “Because it just kind of blew my mind what they were doing – just technically and creatively on these tracks.”
Serendipitously, Morimoto found a living jazz legend living nearby. Charles Neville, the iconic saxophone player of Grammy-award winning act The Neville Brothers, just so happened to live in a little town in the woods not far from Wendell. While he was internationally known, Morimoto says Neville had significant local fame for the frequent jazz gigs he’d do with a small combo around Massachusetts.
“[Neville] was doing a master class in like a little library somewhere when I was 13 or 12. And I went to jam,” Morimoto says. “Me and my friend both played saxophone and we were around the same age. And afterward, he asked us if we wanted to come to learn every Saturday at his house. And it was amazing. He just had so much to teach, not only musically, but just like lived a crazy life and had so much perspective on things.”
As Morimoto got older, his musical exploits diversified. He’d start rapping and making beats on MPCs, drumming in punk bands, and playing guitar in indie rock groups. Because of this, as he started writing his own music, Morimoto’s influences and styles began to unintentionally merge. He says that his solo music crosses so many genres simply because he plays each instrument in the style which he learned it. All of this crashes together with his love for improvisation.
“I make music more from a standpoint of composing to create a sound that doesn't exist already if that makes sense,” he says. “It's definitely just becoming comfortable with it being in my own voice as opposed to trying to make things sound closer to a specific reference.”
As he approached his 20s, Morimoto started to think about changing his scenery. His girlfriend at the time was going to college in Chicago and she encouraged him to move out there as well. He arrived in Chicago not knowing anyone else and moved into a room in a loft with cardboard walls, thankfully making easy friends with his new roommates. For his first year in the city, he says he stayed musically isolated – holing up in his room making beats before finally venturing out to perform shows.
“I think my first gig here was at a Mongolian restaurant,” Morimoto says and laughs. “They were playing like traditional Mongolian music and then I came out and rapped with my MPC and they kind of like did these dances. It was a really strange night. But I was like, ‘I got a show!’"
Once he started performing out, it wasn’t long before he got connected with the local DIY music scene. He’d have a chance encounter with Chicago musician NNAMDÏ who came to one of Morimoto’s shows to see another friend playing on the bill. Morimoto was already a fan – NNAMDÏ was already something of a local legend, playing in a multitude of local bands and releasing wildly inventive, trippy music videos. The two quickly hit it off and started to hang out and began collaborating – their first venture being an “outrageous, weird song” that heavily sampled the theme from Nickelodeon’s extreme sports gameshow GUTS.
From there Morimoto only got more entrenched in Chicago’s scene, becoming roommates with local rapper Qari and other DIY mainstays like Lala, KAINA, Kara Jackson, and more – all of whom appear on Morimoto’s new record. In 2018, NNAMDÏ’s burgeoning Sooper Records released Morimoto’s breakthrough sophomore record, Cannonball.
Cannonball saw Morimoto honing in on the style and dynamics heard on the latest release, Sen Morimoto; bridging free jazz and hip-hop with unpredictable, staggeringly complex-yet-thrilling arranging. After the album’s release and realizing how involved Morimoto had been throughout the entire release process, Sooper Records brought on Morimoto as a co-owner.
It was on the Cannonball tour that his latest album first started to materialize. Touring was new to Morimoto and suddenly he found himself spending the better part of a couple of years traveling across the country in support of his record as well as supporting NNAMDÏ and KAINA. Having spent his youth writing lyrics in his head while working dishwashing jobs, he was used to gathering fragments to flesh out later when he got home. But the very act of traveling was proving that have a deeper impact than he could have anticipated.
“It drastically shifted how I moved every day and waking up in a different place every night,” he says. “I don't know if this is maybe something that's relatable too, but whenever I feel like I sleep in a different place that I'm not used to, I have really vivid dreams. And maybe that seems like such a small thing – once you're awake, it's not a big deal – but it was happening constantly.”
These dreams, Morimoto says, veered toward the mundane. He’d spend his sleeping hours with his subconscious conjuring an alternate reality where he was back home grocery shopping, making dinner; essentially having an “average day.” Then he’d wake up, finding himself in a different city, in a different bed.
“I was waking up being a little confused about whether I belonged in this waking situation or was actually living in my dream,” he says.
This disorientation began to plant the seeds of Sen Morimoto; feelings of movement and a desire to be more connected and present to his current reality. As the world and settings, he found himself in changed, Morimoto also began to notice the changes happening in himself and burgeoning desires to be more present and connected with the people around him instead of his proclivity to isolation.
“I think ultimately what I started feeling when I felt confused about how meaningful waking life was or what kind of weight or gravity or meaning was in these dreams I was having too was that... I felt just that the people in my life were the anchors for me,” he says. “And so kind of investigating how I can strengthen those bonds and be an anchor for those people in return was something that I wanted to learn too and just to shut myself off a little less from the world.”
Anxiety coats the record as well. Lead single “Woof,” which may his most pop-leaning track to date with bouncing keys and jangling guitar tones, opens with Morimoto expressing, “I'm so tired of pretending to be happy/Now I’m crying so loud that my dog is barking at me.” As skittering high-hats lead into the jubilant-sounding chorus, Morimoto sings, “How do you keep track of the madness you know I don’t talk about?”
A more palpable dread looms over songs like “Daytime But Darker," Morimoto sings and raps in a ghostly voice, sharing visions of driving down scenic routes and losing perspective from the pain in his reality and pain in his dreams. On “The Box,” Morimoto pines, “Anxieties live with me, but they don't pay rent/They don't text back, they don't get me out of bed.”
As Morimoto explains, these anxieties don’t come just from self-doubt, but questioning of purpose. There’s a desire in his lyrics to be more present with the people and world around him, but also an acknowledgment of the choices he’s made and worries about the decisions he’s made to pursue his art. It doesn't always show up in the bleakest of senses. The nostalgic closer, "Jupiter," finds Morimoto waxing on the past passing him by and the faces of the ones he loves melting into one. (For added comfort and nostalgia, the song's video was directed by Morimoto's filmmaker brother Yuya Morimoto who created a 'Boyhood' esque feature of sorts, using clips of Sen throughout his life).
“A lot of it was guilt, feeling like I hadn't been present for most of my life or even just thinking that the lifestyle itself was maybe selfish or not contributing in a good way to the world,” Morimoto says. “I think that's something that musicians think about a lot now too… It can definitely be stressful trying to figure out if what you're doing with your life is worthwhile to anyone but yourself.”
These different thoughts, ideas, and worries repeat in different variations throughout the record. By self-admission, Morimoto is an overthinker – or rather he finds himself often stuck in what he calls “internal mental loop.”
“I don't know how to explain it except for like what you feel when you're like in a manic state,” Morimoto says. “When your mind feels like it's pulsing or you're just running in circles over some ideas that never get resolved because you can't just let those thoughts go and let things be as they are. I think a lot of the songs on the album even are different ways of talking about that act of surrendering to just the way it is and working with what you got instead of overanalyzing and overthinking every little thing.”
These mental loops just don’t go away. “Love, Money Pt. 2” opens Morimoto’s latest record but the song’s predecessor first appeared on his 2017 EP ‘It’s Late.’ And not just that, both songs keep the same chorus – “Love, what’s it mean to you? Money, what's that mean to you? Do you need the two? I need them too.” While his arrangement has changed from glitchy, electronic experimentation to the jazzy, hip-hop leaning opener it is today, the song’s sentiments retain.
“The reason there can be a part two is because that thought never goes away,” Morimoto says. “How you define love for yourself and look for love for yourself is constantly changing. And I think also our understanding of why we need money or what the expectation is to have money or what richness is to your life – even outside of money – is constantly changing. How you survive under capitalism, how you shift your thinking under capitalism... These things are always changing.”
Whether it’s the perils of capitalism, distorting realities, or incredulous thoughts about a higher power, Morimoto seeks to use his music to ask all of these big questions and thoughts that often live inside our heads. While his music is often fun, jubilant, and thrilling with his exceptional musical prowess and vision, he seeks to use these foundations to explore the existential and put words to those mental loops and creeping thoughts.
“It's definitely something I try to do in my writing is just say the things that are harder to say,” Morimoto says. “Like, if I heard someone sing a song about something that I had been thinking but never heard, it would make me feel less alone.”
Perhaps all of this is best embodied on the standout track “The Things I Thought About You Started To Rhyme.” Over a plunky, guttural guitar line and rhythm that feels like a ticking clock, Morimoto finds himself firmly inside one of his mental loops and pondering the unknowable. He compares believing in God to his dog believing he’s dead until he comes home from work. It’s a song of wandering through the abyss of your mind, but at the root is Morimoto’s own superstitious proclivities.
“I definitely grew up avoiding cracks in the street so that nothing bad would happen to my mom,” he says. “Weird little things that you learned growing up or ways that you start to think that anything bad that happens in life is your fault because you center yourself in everything.”
The cosmic implications of this idea had Morimoto thinking about the notion of God or an almighty being in control of everything. In particular, he thought back to a comedian he heard who said that they “only believe in God for the good things.”
“I felt maybe more accurately, I only believed in this kind of higher power for the bad things,” he says. “Like if something bad happened, that made me think there must be some larger force that is doing this to me. But I think writing the song helped me just get those thoughts out, sometimes speaking it and hearing how unreal that is helps you come back down to reality a little more and solve those problems.”
In that sense, Morimoto calls “The Things I Thought About You…” a love song. He describes it as finding someone who can ground you back to the reality of the situation, trying to remove the threat of the unknown and stop you from placing meaning where there isn’t any. It’s a role that his self-titled record plays for the listener. By wrestling with the thoughts and coming to these conclusions through rhymes and saxophone squalls, Morimoto’s record is a humbling and comforting reminder that it’s okay to ask these questions but also that there isn’t always an answer or a price to pay.
“Maybe the cat's just stuck in the wall. It's not a curse,” Morimoto says.
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