As a young woman, Yukimi Nagano suffered from mood swings. And when she was angry, her friends would call her "little dragon," in honor of her flared nostrils.
"It's not that they felt threatened or anything like that," she explained, "they were just laughing at me." She and the same friends put together a band, and her nostrils would do their flaring trick in the studio whenever her frustration grew. When the time came to name the band, there was no question, and Nagano's nostrils became internationally known.
Little Dragon, who will be performing in Tel AvivToday , was born during high school music lessons in the 90s (imagine "Glee" only cool and Swedish). Nagano, the offspring of a Japanese father and an American mother who moved to Sweden in the 1970s, was 14 when she met 16-year-olds Erik Bodin and Frederik Wallin. "I thought that Erik was a powerful drummer and Fred was a fantastic bassist, and they loved my voice and it just came together," she said in a phone call from Copenhagen. "We would jam together and listen to music. It was totally for fun, there was no clear objective."
Upon graduating from high school the group went their separate ways: Nagano joined with other local musicians such as the electronic-jazz combo KOOP and Bodin and Wallin played with reggae groups. It was there that the two men met Håkan Wirenstrand, the keyboardist who would make up the fourth member of the group. The foursome tried unsuccessfully to get into music school and Nagano began to feel that her collaboration with KOOP was not what she was looking for. "I really developed from playing with them, but I felt as though I was someone else's instrument," she says. "I realized that this wasnt the music that I truly wanted to make."
The foursome rented a studio/living space in the city center, which was turned into a combination of a recording studio and commune. They spent the next seven years mainly playing music and working casual, even exotic, jobs, like selling strawberries and waitressing. It was only in 2007 that the group's first single, "Twice" was released (it also featured later on in an episode of "Grey's Anatomy"), and even that happened by chance. "A friend of ours insisted on releasing it as a single. We made music because it was something we loved doing. We didn't think of getting famous or building a career out of the band. Apparently we didn't have enough confidence and we couldn't even imagine our music getting out in an album or anything like that."
The prominent London music store "Rough Trade" made the song their single of the week, which caught the attention of the electronic independent label, Peacefrog Records, who signed the Little Dragon to a three-album contract.
Despite that Goteborg is known mainly for its two bustling music scenes – jazz and death metal – the Little Dragon sound deviates from them and defies classification. Nagano says the geographic isolation and creative climate of their hometown contributed to the evolution of Little Dragon. "I think we felt as though we were in a bubble. We are still very influenced by the Swedish music scene, but we are trying to create something we haven't heard before, so that it won't end up sounding like something they're working on in the studio next door."
What dreams are made of
Little Dragon are in Israel as part of celebrations for the 10th anniversary of the Tel Aviv bar, Shesek, just as the band is ready to release its third album, "Ritual Union." Off the album, the beautiful single "Nightlife" has already been released.
Since releasing their eponymous debut album in 2007, featuring mostly pop-soul ballads, the next one, "Machine Dreams" (2009), had more of an electro twist, overlaid with a thick groove, and an emphasis on a frantic synthesizer section. What the two have in common is Nagano's hypnotic voice that easily moves between airy and deep, and between the R&B sound of Erykah Badu to nuances of dub - she likes to coat her delivery with delays - and pop articulation.
"Every one of us has different musical influences that we bring to the table, and I think that's what makes our sound special and maybe also makes it hard to categorize us," she explained. "Håkan listens to jazz and synthesizer music like Kraftwerk, John Michelle Jarre and even Swedish folk because his parents listened to it. Erik listens more to hip hop and reggae and I've been into R&B for a long time. Because we all love music we shared our music with each other, and the moment we started writing music in the studio those influences came out, even if it wasn't conscious.
Another thing that drives the eclecticism of Little Dragon is Nagano's travels around the world. At age 10, she moved to Japan for two years. Then she continued with her family to the United States and only at age 14 did she return to Sweden. "I was born in Goteberg and I feel very Swedish," she explained. "But moving around during my childhood gave me the chance to experience many cultural contrasts. I think my past experiences contribute to the images I use when writing lyrics. I love using images in songs, some from the present, some from the past, and some maybe from dreams."
"We're closer live to how we sound on the second album, so you should be more prepared for that," said Nagano, who visited Israel in 2008 with her partner, folk singer José González. "The first album was more like a scene from our past. It's like looking at a picture of yourself when you dressed in some weird style in your youth, but it's still you. When you have a little distance, you realize that's who you were. When we started to perform those songs, we felt like writing more songs you could dance to, because that's more fun. Then it turned out that we changed some of the songs from the first album so that they would be better for concerts. We didnt have a clear plan for the second album, but perhaps subconsciously we wanted to kick up the tempo and do more dance music than slow soul songs. The new one mixes all of these elements."
How much did the success of the live performances influence the recordings?
"A great deal, but it works in both directions. I think that a lot of groups get lazy. They have a laptop, they press some buttons, and they decorate the edges. There's a lot of easy solutions that make live music a bit less live. I'm sure that this is unavoidable for groups without the support of a label, where live performance is the way they get music out into the world. So it's unavoidable. It's going to influence their song-writing. The traveling you do through the world and the people you meet is going to influence your music to the same degree. In our case, there was a unconscious thought to speed up the tempo, but the second that we enter the studio there's no thinking about "what works live and what doesn't." More, what do we feel like doing at that moment. Later you try to figure out how to do the song live."
With the energetic performances and careful aesthetic in Nagano's wardrobe and in creative videos, Little Dragon has built up a loyal but not large following. The person who did a great deal to increase their popularity was Damon Albarn, or really the wife of this musical genius. She was a fan of the group already with the first album, and pushed her husband to invite Nagano to work on the penultimate Gorillaz album. Albarn collaborated with Nagano and the rest of the band on "Empire Ants" and "To Binge," which are the two best tracks on "Plastic Beach" that came out last year. (Since then, Albarn has managed to release an album that was entirely produced on an Ipad.) Afterwards, the Dragons were asked to warm up for the Gorillas on their world tour. "That was great. Damon is a very casual person."
Really? In interviews, he doesn't give off that impression.
"Yes, I know," she laughs. "I don't think that he is casual in his creativity, because he does a lot. But as a person, he is very relaxed and cool. The collaboration definitely contributed to our popularity. The tour itself was incredible. Those are memories for the rest of your life. We met a lot of artists, and connected with them, and we played in huge places every day. It was an amazing experience for us."
You worked with David Sitek from "TV on the Radio" on his solo album "Maximum Ballon." How did that happen?
"We're old friends. We met David when we warmed up for "TV on the Radio," and kept in touch. Every time we went to Los Angeles he asked us to stay with him and we always tried to meet up."
How do you explain the increasing collaborations you are doing?
"It's never planned, but just happens and if it's an artist that we like and inspires us, then we're open to it. We're always open to it. We're not looking for collaborations but if something happens and it feels right and the vibe is there, and we have time, then why not?"
If your band had to choose a name while you are recording the new album, how would you call yourselves?
"Hmm," she paused for a moment. "We'd be quiet dragon, relaxed and harmonious."
Little Dragon, Barby Club Tel Aviv, May 23, 10 P.M.
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