When you hear the name Tokyo Rosenthal you initially might think it’s an opponent on Nintendo’s Punch Out! and it may strike fear into the heart. (Piston Honda was my initial thought- stay with me)
While I’m sure the actual Tokyo Rosenthal would make a mighty fine video game character, he’s actually a seasoned folk and roots guitar picker and songwriter East of The Great Smoky Mountains.
Tokyo has toured the world (yes Japan too) and he’s lived the life of a tenured folk singer. His single, “There Is No Perfect Love” is what caught our attention initially. The stamina and emotion Tokyo provides is reminiscent of that of a Townes Van Zandt meets Rusted Root mash-up. His vocals give haunting reminders of the traditional cowboy-folk songwriters before him, while his persistent and evocative energy demands your attention.
“Rosenthal can draw you into his lyrics much the same way that James Taylor and Don Henley can”. Having read that sentiment on Tokyo’s artist page, it’s not far-fetched once you give his songs a listen. He’s a songwriter’s songwriter, and his mid-oughts hit, “Edmonton,” saw him on a big Canadian tour that helped solidify him in the public eye of our northern neighbors and beyond.
We had the chance to pick Tokyo’s brain and see what’s going on in his world.
So who or what got you into playing and writing music?
I grew up in a musical family. My grandmother played piano and sang, worked in Woolworth’s selling sheet music even though she couldn’t read music. My mom, brother, and aunt all played piano, often from the same teachers. But none of them ever gigged or wanted to. My father was a fan but didn’t play. I started piano lessons when I was about six and knew I wanted to perform beginning then. Why not? Of course I have the same “Beatles on Sullivan” story as everyone else in my generation. They led me to playing my first gig at thirteen after switching over to drums. Percussion just came easy to me after playing on telephone books for a couple of years. I stayed on drums for five years after getting a proper kit, in various bands, while slowly transitioning to guitar.
Writing started when I became part of a group called Harpo & Slapshot that had a cult following in Rhode Island where I attended college. It was at this time that I was signed to a writer’s contract with MCA, but nothing really ever happened. It was many years before I wrote “Edmonton” and things started to happen. Wanna get on radio? Write a song about a city that never had a song written about it before. Next thing you know, the mayor is giving you the key to the city and you’re touring Canada!
What do you think makes Chapel Hill such a special place?
Well first off, it’s not really just Chapel Hill. It’s part of what we call “The Triangle”, including Durham and Raleigh. We’re also surrounded by Pittsboro, Carrboro, and Hillsborough. All of these places have great music venues that employ local musicians as well as touring acts. We’re also very close to a great airport and driving distance to the beach, The Outer Banks, and Charlotte.
Is there a prominent music scene in the area?
So, if you’re inclined, you can play somewhere every night and with different folks backing you up or you backing them up. Very eclectic too. Lots of rockabilly, bluegrass, blues, Americana, and a rap scene. For the more adventurous like myself with radio airplay, you can spread out to South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, hop up to DC, all within’ short distances. I keep going back to the same venues year after year besides touring up North and abroad.
What is your songwriting process like? Is it more regimented and structured, or more loose and sporadic?
I’m not a volume writer. If I’m recording an album with ten tracks on it, I might have only twelve to choose from. I’m more likely to perfect the tracks, fine tune the lyrics, create a signature “lick”, and play the tunes over and over again at home or at gigs, so by the time I get to the studio I know the songs inside out. That being said, I’m prone to being inspired depending on what’s happening politically, in a friendship, anniversaries, with my kids, economics, etc. These inspirations might lead to recording a single before a full album. I like this better in some ways, not the least is that I can spend a lot of time just perfecting one tune with no pressure to get on to the next track.
90% of the time I write lyrics first, but on occasion I write the music first if a “riff” comes to me that I love, so I cram the lyrics into the music. Somehow when I’m writing the lyrics a melody comes to mind. Maybe even a chorus. It gradually takes form. Sometimes it very obviously needs a bridge, or another verse, or some altogether different, but I’m very stubborn. If I like the lyrics I’ll keep moving them around until I find some sort of “groove”. Eventually a ballad may become a rocker, and a rocker may wind up in 5/4 time, or become a waltz. You never know. Sometimes I’ll shelve a song and it will appear on the next album after being re-worked. I also write in Spanish which comes in handy when I run out of lyric ideas. I might repeat the chorus in Spanish or write the bridge in Spanish. There’s usually one song per album that has Spanish lyrics. Please don’t check my Spanish grammar. I’m told it’s quite off, LOL!
Do you mostly write alone, or do you take part in co-writes?
I rarely co-write. The several times that I have co-wrote I’ve been approached by poets who want their poems put to music. Two such songs are “Random Noises” and “Wiregrass”. They were both written by some pretty good poets. In each case I filed the poems and waited for some music that they might work for. I’ve got to say that in both cases I was very happy with the results and I think the poets were too. Also, I pilfered some lyrics from my award winning poet daughter for a tune called “Too Late For Me Carolina”. This came out fairly well too. Back in the early days of Harpo & Slapshot I did some co-writing but I never really liked it. So for the moment, I continue to solo for the most part.
So it was your song, “There Is No Perfect Love” that caught our ear. Can you talk about the influence and inspiration behind this track?
The lyrics to “There Is No Perfect Love” came together in pieces and was the hardest to play because of the fast, minor key, sorta blue grass feel. I had the line, “Just like I need fresh air to breathe” bouncing around from a guy I used to work for that often said that. Initially I thought that would be the chorus line but it became the bridge. The song doesn’t really have a chorus just the repeating at the end of the verse of the line, “There is No Perfect Love”. This was unusual for my writing style as I’m usually very traditional with verse, chorus, bridge, etc. As for where the title line came from, my wife and I had a small fight and I exaggerated it in the lyrics into me begging her for forgiveness and my saying there’s no perfect love so how about excusing me? It turned out to be a pretty good theme to go with my ex-bosses’ fresh air adage. And she forgave me too!
The music was far more difficult. I gave the initial demo to my fiddler, the great Bobby Britt. When he started playing in the studio he played this blistering fiddle part, kinda like “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”. It was killer! But we had to re-record the rhythm guitar which was way too passive for the fiddle. I double timed it and it was perfect. Chris Stamey nailed the bass, far better than the typical blue grass “thump”. Then as things sometimes turn out, an old friend of ours who played claw hammer banjo, Jim Eisenberg, was in town. Regular Scruggs banjo wouldn’t have worked but Jim’s claw hammer was just what the doctor ordered as it didn’t over power the rhythm. Finally, I knew I had to play a solo on acoustic guitar to break the monotony of the fiddle and banjo. I also knew it had to be one take, not just edited together. I must admit that I came through with one of the best solos I ever recorded. Stamey mixed it perfectly as he was also the engineer for the album as I always record at his studio in Chapel Hill. He’s my Guru!!
Looking back on it now, there was an album by an Australian couple, Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, that had just released one of my favorite albums of all time, “Rattlin Bones”. When I heard that album again about six months later I realized just how much they influenced that track. Thanks Kasey and Shane!
Is it a part of or going to be a part of an EP or LP?
The studio version was on my album, Ghosts, track #3. The live version is a whole other story. My touring partner, Charlie Chamberlain, is a world class mandolin player. We worked up an arrangement for live performances and did it live at SXSW back in 2012 that was live on Music Fog at Threadgill’s. Charlie played unreal on that version. The video of it went mini-viral and ultimately we took that live performance and put it on my most recent album, “This Minstrel Life”, that featured four live tracks from various tours.
It has a very Townes Van Zandt essence to it to me. Is that kind of dark cowboy country sound something you often try to emulate in your music?
I don’t write love songs per se. If I do they are typically minor key tragedies. Even when I pay homage to my wife, the tunes are usually dark. Looking back on my catalog, there’s a lot of death and sad songs. On “Afterlife” I was probably at my darkest, writing about a stillbirth on “What Would Have Happened”, cremation on “Bury My Ashes”, “Back Stage Hotel” about a troubled venue, and the title track, “Afterlife”, about, well, after life. I hadn’t thought about Townes influence until recently. When I returned from the Canadian tour back in 2007 my local musicians said I had to write a song about The Carolinas as everyone was thinking I was from Canada. My homeboy James Taylor had already done his Carolina tune and “Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina” was taken. So I borrowed some words from my daughter and came up with “It’s Too Late for Me Carolina”. It was a cool “little ditty”. About 10 years went by and then “Pancho & Lefty came on my car radio. Suddenly I realized I had ripped off Townes on my “Carolina” song. Well there wasn’t much I could do about it now. I couldn’t even apologize to the now deceased Townes. So I shelved my song and now play Towne’s tune at most of my shows along with this story.
What are you working on currently?
I will likely put out an EP once the pandemic is over and I can get in the studio. There’s one tune in particular that I debuted last October on my Scotland tour called “Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church”. It’s about a church that my friends and I always passed on our way into Manhattan, NY. We always acknowledged it but never made a big deal about it. For some reason the memory stuck with me and came out in a song. It was one of those deals where you have the title first and then write the rest of the tune. I’ll likely put my last single, a popular cover of “Come A Little Bit Closer”, on the EP as well. I have a few other songs in the “hopper” to add the the release. This will be my first EP. There isn’t much need anymore, in my opinion, to put out a full CD with ten or more tracks, fancy packaging, etc. But you never know. If the “suits” at Rock & Sock Records want to do it differently then who am I to argue?
How have you been keeping busy and trying to maintain momentum for your music during the pandemic?
I don’t want to complain about the pandemic as many have it much worse than me, but it’s been a drag. I was booked into November and as you know, all the venues are closed, so I’m relegated to playing at home in the attic with my cat, and the cat has died, so it’s really bad. I find myself obsessed with keeping my “chops” together. In other words, making sure my callouses stay strong, my finger speed for lead guitar stays fast and smooth, and my fast strumming maintains its stamina. When I’m not on tour I play a lot with a gifted singer and rhythm guitarist named Peggy Harris. This allows me to play lead guitar. We also have a bass player named Kenny Knox. I enjoy this tremendously.
Do you feel the pandemic has helped or hurt your creative process? (or perhaps neither)
Oddly I don’t think the pandemic has helped my creativity, at least not as a writer. It has helped my guitar and piano playing though. As I said, I’m obsessed with my stamina and have found my playing, which always took a back seat to writing and vocals, has flourished, at least that’s how I feel. My writing, which has had a lot of social protest in it, has covered most of the subjects that I want to speak about. At the moment any tunes about the pandemic I feel would be contrived and the few that others have released are parodies, and while they’re funny, it’s not something that I’m interested in doing.
What’s one of your proudest/accomplished moments as a musical artist in your career thus far?
Believe it or not, I’m proudest of my international touring. It began in 2006 in Edmonton, Alberta, and then covered Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Quebec. As my records broke into the Euro Americana Chart, I found myself in England, Scotland and Ireland many times over. I found my way to Germany, Holland, and then to Japan, (Tokyo must play Japan”). I’d like to make my way to Scandinavia where I’ve had some decent airplay and reviews. I’ve had offers to go to France and Italy but things are on hold now. I like spreading the “Americana Gospel” I can never get enough of these great places. Of course I love domestic touring as well, where I can just hop into my car and criss-cross the country, be it solo, duo, or trio.
What can fans expect from Tokyo Rosenthal in the latter half of the year?
In a perfect world, the virus will go away and my postponed tour dates will be rescheduled, I’ll get back into the studio and put out the EP, and I will be motivated to write- though who knows what it will be about.
What advice might you give to young songwriters looking to carve a musical path such as yours and wondering where to start?
The first thing I would tell anyone asking how to do something similar to what I’ve done, is to make a plan. Literally sit down and figure out what your goals are, when you want to reach them, the initial costs of doing such until someone else is ready to front you. Then I’d find someone like myself and pick his or her brain to death! There’s so much to learn and finding someone who has done it will save you an incredible amount of time, money, and anguish. And after doing that, I’d strongly consider what they tell you as they’ve been to the “show” and know what it takes and where the curves in the road are. Planning is so important. Patience follows planning. Passion is somewhere in there too.
I might also say to a singer-songwriter not to be in a band. Try and make it solo as bands break up, but you won’t break up with yourself. And try to surround yourself with supportive folks, be it family, other musicians, venue owners, etc. Most importantly, believe in yourself.