In a New York recording studio, Miho Hatori is in the thick of recording her new band's first full-length album. But modern studio technology can't always be counted on to operate smoothly.
"You know, computers," Hatori frustratedly laughs in her sparkling Japanese accent.
Despite the technical difficulties, the vocalist's smile is audible through the fiber optics as she and her band, Smokey and Miho, make the best of an otherwise stressful situation.
Hatori and bandmate Smokey Hormel met where so many musicians do-on the road. Hormel was playing guitar with Beck in support of 1996's Odelay. Hatori's band-Japanese avant-pop duo Cibo Matto-was the opening act. Hormel is a guitar virtuoso who has collaborated with the likes of Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Beth Orton and Marianne Faithful. In Hatori, he found a friendship based on a common love of Brazilian music.
After the tour ran its course, the two parted ways. They reunited years later in New York to form what is now Smokey and Miho-a distinct and faithful homage to the sounds of 1960s Brazil. Along with other like-minded musicians-trumpeter Jon Birdsong (Beck, Victoria Williams), percussionist/composer Mauro Refosco (a former member of David Byrne's band), jazz vocalist Ganda-the group honed a sound in the vein of one particularly influential artist from that era.
"We were both really into Baden Powell's music," Hatori says.
Powell, who died in 2000 at the age of 63, was a key player in the bossa nova movement. Along with the music of Vinicius De Moraes, Jorge Ben, and Tom Jobim, Powell's music was not only the inspiration behind Smokey and Miho's original compositions, but the building blocks that make up the bulk of the group's EPs and live shows.
"I've never heard these songs-somebody playing them-in New York. So that's something I really felt like, "We've got to do it,'" Hatori says.
Since few Americans have ever heard a 1960s Brazilian song, it would seem nearly impossible to market oneself as a throwback to the sweet sounds of South America.
"It should be popular," Hatori says with more than a little affection. "That's how I feel, because this music from Brazil is so beautiful and very mythological and we can learn so many things from it.
"I feel that Brazilian music has very sophisticated chords and melodies and at the same time ... it has a very tribal feel to it. That combination to me is very elegant, in a way. Very futuristic, somehow, to me."
Though some may argue how futuristic anything from the '60s still is (save for the ever-futuristic lava lamp) Hatori herself holds a unique place in the vast realm that is modern music. She was the voice behind the ultra-catchy chorus in the 2001 Gorillaz hit, "19-2000" ("Get the cool/Get the cool shoeshine...").
Gorillaz, the virtual cartoon band formed by Blur frontman/ Oasis archrival Damon Albarn, Tank Girl animator Jaime Hewlett and Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, snagged Hatori as one of the many collaborators on the group's eclectic debut album.
"The Gorillaz thing is more of a dare project, you know," Hatori says. "I got a call from Damon Albarn and they needed a woman's voice to put the flavor in. So I just went there and figured out the harmony from what they had."
Though the success of the Gorillaz partnership was something Hatori enjoyed very much ("I really like the sound, you know. Very pop, but at the same time a very interesting crossover"), Smokey and Miho has managed to put its own stamp on modern music's ever-evolving environs.
Liza Richardson, music supervisor for Alphonso Cuaron's critically acclaimed Mexican film, Y Tu Mama Tambien, is an old friend of Hormel's. Richardson felt that the band's music would fit well with the tone and flow of the film, and asked permission to use one of Smokey and Miho's original songs.
The group lent its first original song, "Ocean In Your Eyes," to the soundtrack. To the delight of Hatori, the album has been nominated for a Grammy.
"I like the soundtrack a lot," Hatori says. "There is a lot of different kinds of music. It's amazing."
The way Hatori describes Cuaron's film could also be used to describe the distinctive and vibrant mood of Smokey and Miho's musical venture.
"It's very sensual and has beautiful colors and very visual," she muses.
So as the group wrestles with the modern gizmology that transposes music onto CDs, Smokey and Miho do what they can to remind us that sometimes the best way to move forward is to look back. ©