Zen Pop & the Art of Masa Iida

WELCOME to the Way to Japan Autumn 2022 interview series!

I’m delighted to kick off with my wonderful friend Masa, a London-based ‘Zen POP’ singer/songwriter & artist from Yokohama, Japan. I first met Masa about 12 years ago, and shortly after that, O-ARC played their ambient ‘Zen Pop’ at the JapaneseLondon.com launch party!

Some of O-ARC’s other highlights have been playing at Tate Gallery, Whitechapel Art Gallery, ICA, Le Pop In, Pairs and Myosaiji Temple in Tokyo. 4 songs from EN album were used for Channel 4’s Hollyoaks! Masa’s art has been exhibited at Cass Art Hampstead, London, Chrom Art Gallery, London, Toukou Gallery in Tokyo, and gallery L’embrasser in Paris.

In this episode, we chat about:

  • Gobsmacking advice he got about his ‘fake English’ that changed everything
  • My fave kanji ‘MA’ 間
  • Spaciousness & the art of subtraction
  • Masa’s ‘healthy addiction’ tips for staying motivated

Vanessa: Today my guest is a wonderful friend of mine, Masa Iida. He’s a Zen abstract painter and singer/songwriter from Yokohama, Japan who’s based in London.

I’ve been really looking forward to speaking with Masa, as his creations, and indeed, he himself embody certain Japanese philosophies which can add so much to our lives by removing as much as possible. So welcome Masa, I’m really happy to speak to you.

Masa: Thank you very much for having me, I’m really excited to be on your podcast. Yes, fantastic!

Vanessa: Excellent. Thank you. So… I’ve known you, Masa, since you played at the launch event of my website, JapaneseLondon.com back in 2010, that was as a duo, with your partner from O-ARC Neil Mason, but you’ve been in London even longer than that, haven’t you?

Masa: Yes, since ’96. So… I’ve been here 26 years, in London.

Vanessa: And why did you decide to move to London?

Masa: Because I started writing the music, the songs, actually, when I was 15, and I always kind of fancied coming to London. Because I really liked – first of all, I liked the Beatles. And also all the taste in design, fashion.

I really liked the aesthetics in the UK. So that’s why I came. This is the reason why. I liked the taste and I liked the music so I wanted to try myself as a musician in London… so that’s why I came, ’96, yeah.

Vanessa: You told me an anecdote – which I loved – about some very honest feedback you got from a lady at one of your early gigs. Could you share the story and how it shapes your creation?

Masa: Yeah, I did a solo and I played, and then she came up to me after the show. She came up on the stage actually, and she said ‘oh I really like your music – it was great and unique and original’ and I thought ‘wow, this is fantastic, you know’! I mean – I was really honoured. And she said ‘can I say one thing?’ and I said ‘yeah, please do’. ‘If you can just change a little bit of these… can I say… this is like my opinion, if you change that you’re gonna be fantastic. And I said ‘yes, please…’ and she said ‘I didn’t understand what you were singing about!’ And I thought ‘What?! Is this because of my pronunciation?’ And she said ‘Yes!’.

So it means I was singing English, but for her, my English is not English. English like English, sounds like somehow in a way, like a fake English, with a strong Japanese accent or something like this…

And I was gobsmacked as I practised a lot when I was in Japan. Listen to – basically – The Beatles – so I might have a bit of a Northern accent, you know… (laughs).Then, after that, I just tried not to put a lot of words in one sentence, in the lyrics, just a few words so I can pronounce each word clearly.

Then it led to me thinking about haiku poetry – the shortest poetry in the world is a Japanese poetry.

So… I was shocked, but it led me to another dimension to write lyrics, and now that’s my core style of writing lyrics now, yeah.

Vanessa: So you describe your music as ‘Zen Pop’, which I love, as well, and it’s very… the lyrics are very stripped down and you’ve just chosen some words rather than trying to fill it with a lot of words.

I think that makes it much more powerful, so thank you to that lady! (laughs)

Masa: Definitely!

Vanessa: I really enjoy the sense of spaciousness that comes through in your art and music which you attribute to the Japanese concept of space and time known as ‘MA’.

For listeners who might be unfamiliar with this term, the Japanese kanji character is one of my favourites, it’s a combination of door, or gate, with sun, and so there’s like sunlight streaming through an opening or a crack in the door.

Could you tell us more about your perception of MA?

Masa: MA I think, for me, MA is the place for the relations.

Suppose, let’s say, you & me are talking. I express myself, you express yourself, then we start thinking about how we can communicate.

When I think about communication, it goes beyond you, beyond me, going straight into the MA. The space between you and me, that’s MA.

This empty space, has kind of energy field of communication, that’s MA.

And I think it’s a very abstract concept but for Japanese people that’s the main way of communication: the most crucial way of communicating with people.

Vanessa: That’s great. Yeah, I mean so many words in different languages capture these different ways of perceiving reality. So, knowing that word in Japanese allows me to have more of a concept of that space between us.

Yeah so, you have been a musician for a long time, and you were speaking about the starting point of the music being more the silence. Can you tell us a little bit more about that, that MA, or that silence in the song.

Masa: Yep, so for the music, I think it is notation. The notes are usually the most important thing. And I agree. But at the same time, there is a space between notes and notes. And I value that space equally as important as notes. So the notes – that sound and silence – are equally important to me. And when you combine these two elements in a very sublime manner, the music is going to be sublime and profound. This is what I wanna do. And maybe, focus on the silence is more important than focusing on the notes itself. Because the notes are starting off the silence and creating the sound. So that if silence is pure silence, the note which is born from silence might be also pure and clear.

Vanessa: Yes! Oh, I love that, ‘the note which is born from silence’.

Masa: The simplest way is: nothing creates everything. Something created from nothing, nothing. But it means what? Why is that? I don’t know. Maybe you can ask someone who is doing quantum physics, maybe…

Vanessa: Sure…

Masa: That’s my observation towards silence and notes.

Vanessa: Sure. You’re kind of expressing the void, as it were.

Masa: The void, yeah. Yeah.

Vanessa: So this is a very Zen concept, and as well your painting mirrors it… why did you start painting after being a musician for a long time?

Masa: Um, because I just wanna add some new elements to our music. Neil and I have been playing now since 2002, so nearly… 20 years now. But I started painting in 2015. At that time I thought, I want to do something, you know. Music is great but I want to add something.

So I started off.. what I did was I just went to Japanese bookshop and I bought a Japanese brush called ‘fudepen’ – it’s kind of easy to… it’s like a Japanese inkbrush but ink is already inside. So I grabbed the pen, and I bought a little notebook and I just was doodling. It’s a bit like Japanese calligraphy but it’s not calligraphy. I followed my intuition and I just doodling, doodling. So it’s like 20 pages of my doodling with brush pen. I really like it, it inspired me something. Then I started using the colour red and I thought ‘this is interesting’. Then it developed to using more colours and bigger papers. Then now I just use different colours, bought the brushes from Japan and this is what I do now, brushstroke paintings.

Vanessa: So the concept which runs through your paintings is your perception of non-duality, again the essence of Zen. Zen is notoriously difficult to define but it’s a way of liberation from dualistic thinking, of good & bad, and black & white, it’s a middle road, isn’t it. How do you address this non-duality in your painting?

Masa: OK. For me, the painting has two elements. The beauty of addition, which is, you put ink on to the paper. So you add it, done. But between brushstrokes there is a space, a kind of void space. That’s for me, the beauty of subtraction. You didn’t add anything, totally opposite of addition. So there’s the beauty of addition and the beauty of subtraction, in one painting.

And what I wanna do is, I want to make a fine balance of beauty of addition and beauty of subtraction. And I suppose, if the balance is profound and sublime, I can create the paintings which you cannot see. Which is impossible, in the true world, but it’s like this: like the sound. You know, if you listen to two sounds which is totally opposite wavelengths, the sounds cancelling each other and you can’t hear anything. This is the mechanism of a noise generator in the ear.

Vanessa: Ahh! I did not know that.

Masa: Some people have tinnitus, and it’s annoying, if the tinnitus goes, let’s say, I don’t know, high pitch, then you can put lower pitch. Then you can gain kind of a cancelling noise. So it’s the same thing. It’s like there are two noises, but they are cancelling each other, and you can’t hear it.

Vanessa: You can’t hear it, yeah.

Masa: But there is sound there. So if my paintings – this beauty of addition and beauty of subtraction – is a fine balance – it’s almost like a noise generator. There is a vision there, but no vision. But that vision, which is no vision, will stay in the mind.

So you don’t see it, but you can see it in your mind, or in your heart.

Vanessa: You can feel it, yeah.

Masa: You can feel it. That’s impossible physically, but this is what I’m aiming for when I create.

Vanessa: Perhaps it’s like a cloud, or some smoke, or something like that? It’s kind of capturing that’s ‘there’ & ‘not there’.

Masa: Yeah, I love that, yeah.

Vanessa: I think that you have incredible dedication. You know, lots of people try different things and they give up quickly. But you have allowed yourself to really live your music and your art and I just wondered how you stay motivated?

Masa: I think I get so much pleasure out of it. From both things, both mediums. Pleasure is something really strong and it is almost like healthy addiction, I would say. So much inspiration coming out when the time is right. Sometimes there is no inspiration, but when the time is right and everything is kind of like… being in harmony and it gives me so much inspiration. This so much inspiration is like, I can’t describe it, there is just so much energy and power.

But at the same time, there is a time I wasn’t motivated, but continuity is very important so even though I’m not that motivated, let’s say I’m really tired, physically and mentally after my day job, and then but still like… ok let’s try, let’s play one song, let’s sing one song. Five minutes, done. It’s better than… and same thing the paintings. Just do, create one painting. Done. So this way I can carry on doing it.

Because just five minutes, but it’s just the five minutes, if you do it every day, it added up to one hour, two hours. And sometimes this five minutes is crucial. Maybe in five minutes I can develop the song so much, or I can discover some new way of painting.

Vanessa: Right. If you keep it going on the back burner. If you do keep coming back to it, then it’s kind of bubbling away, isn’t it, on the back burner in your mind, then the next time you look at it… yeah that’s great, I love that… just five minutes…

So do you have any kind of ritual to get, to start painting, you know sometimes a piece of blank paper can be quite intimidating. How do you get yourself started for those five minutes, if they are… only five.

Masa: If only five minutes you just need a little bit of will power. If five minutes is too much, thirty seconds. Ok, let’s do… play the guitar for thirty seconds. Done. Then I though, uh, it’s not enough, I wanna play more, then go to five minutes.  Yeah, I think willpower. Willpower for ten seconds, even.

Vanessa: Brilliant. Just starting. So I asked you about the Japanese word or phrase that you really like. You chose one word…Could you tell us about ‘Hikizanno bi’?

Masa: Hikizanno bi is basically the beauty of subtraction. So, you are not…you just try to take out unimportant things. That’s an activity. Then what’s left is Hikizanno bi: beauty of subtraction. So that’s the simple explanation.

Vanessa: Right. I love that. I am just constantly trying to think: what can I get rid of? What can I exclude? Everything feels quite cluttered and I love the simplicity of that so I’m gonna try it. And another phrase that you mentioned, what was that, about the snow falling?

Masa: Ah yes, Yukiga shin shin to futteiru. It’s just the snowflakes falling. That’s it. Without distraction. I remember when I went to onsen, like hot spring, or hot bath, you know, Japanese kind of spa thing, in the countryside. I saw the snow falling. And it’s just snow falling without distraction. It’s just snow fall, it was falling into almost like, in the perfect manner. It’s just falling, but falling into the perfect place; they fall into the right place. And I thought: ‘wow, that’s very tranquil’. And there’s no distraction. No fear. No worries. It’s just: snow is falling. And I just love it.

Vanessa: Yes, that’s wonderful. It reminds me of Virginia Woolf: capturing the atoms as they fall. So, I could talk to you for hours, I think our last coffee date was about three and a half hours! So I’m gonna start to come to the end of our chat and I was wondering if you could tell us a Japanese thing that you couldn’t do without on a daily basis?

Masa: I just need a brush, you know. A brush to create. I need to grab it. Yep. Every day.

Vanessa: You get those in Japan?

Masa: Yes, I bought them in a Japanese calligraphy shop. Which is, quite cheap ones, not the expensive ones because I don’t need expensive ones – because the way I use the brush is very… quite violent to the brush… it’s not good for… I don’t need the good ones because if I use the good ones, you know, I just damage it. And then, as you can see, sometimes I pout the fossil of the brush, it’s battered sometimes.

Vanessa: You destroy your brush!

So I’ve been enjoying your O-ARC album on Soundcloud, so I will put the link to that in the notes, and where else can we find you Masa?

Masa: I think Instagram is the best place to find me, and O-ARC as well, because we… especially the painting I’m constantly updating, putting new paintings. And O-ARC Instagram is the same thing. Whenever we rehearse, we put it on. We notify everything on Instagram. And also Facebook is fine. Facebook & Instagram are the same thing for me. More than the website, basically.

Vanessa: Cool. I’ll put the links to that in the shownotes as well. So if people want to take one small action to make a difference, what is something that you suggest as something people could do to capture a little bit of MA in their lives?

Masa: I think for me, it’s like thinking about MA, for me MA is a relation, so if you can put the relation as the highest point of the communication I think that becomes better because not you, not I, relation is most crucial things between people, among human beings, for world peace, I think.

Vanessa: Yes! I love that – it’s more about the relationship between people – rather than you being a separate being trying to assert yourself or prove your point. Just to allow that spaciousness to be in the conversation.

Masa: It’s like: let’s dive into MA! It makes you happy!

Vanessa: Brilliant. Thank you so much, Masa, I’ve had a really good time talking to you. Have a great weekend.

Masa: And the same to you. Thank you so much for having me. Bye!

Masa’s Social:

Thank you so much for listening!

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