Her 1970s Japanese Folk Masterpiece Was Almost Lost to History

Sachiko Kanenobu in her Glen Ellen home, playing the same guitar she used during the recording of her landmark 1972 Japanese folk album, 'Misora.'  (Gabe Meline/KQED)

In 1972, Sachiko Kanenobu had barely finished recording her first album when suddenly, she left Japan and moved to America.

The album, Misora, was released in Japan with no concerts to promote it. It slipped into obscurity almost immediately. Kanenobu likens it a child that was abandoned.

"But later, the child wants to find out who its mother is," Kanenobu says today, sitting in the kitchen of her small Sonoma County home. "Misora keeps finding me, and comes to me."

That reconnection may be due to the passionate following Misora has obtained in the 47 years since its release. Original copies of the record regularly sell for $300–$400. She's been asked to perform its blissful, yearning folk songs at sold-out concerts from California to New York. And last month, the tastemaking Seattle label Light in the Attic reissued Misora, earning praise it in the New York Times and bringing Kanenobu's folk masterpiece to a new generation of fans.

For Kanenobu, now 71, the sudden attention is welcome, if a bit disorienting.

Sachiko Kanenobu in her Glen Ellen backyard.
Sachiko Kanenobu in her Glen Ellen backyard. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

On the East Coast, she performed at Central Park Summerstage with post-punk band Parquet Courts, and at the Brooklyn hipster bar Union Pool. On the West Coast, she's set to play at the Calico festival in Point Reyes on Aug. 3, and open for indie veterans Yo La Tengo in Big Sur. And while Japanese folk music from the 1970s is in the zeitgeist, thanks to various reissue compilations and the new frontier of streaming, Misora has an emotional impact that sets it apart.

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After a recent show in Los Angeles, she had an interaction typical of the sorts of fans who thought she'd disappeared.

"One of the DJs there," she says, "he saw me, and he said, 'I never thought I was going to meet you, and you're still alive, and you're able to play Misora. That's fantastic.' And he started crying. Both of us cried!"

Kanenobu has lived in this same small house since 1976, a modest cottage on a main street in Glen Ellen, with wood paneling in the kitchen and wicker furniture in the living room. On a nearby shelf, The International Bill of Human Rights sits next to a photo of Ghandi. It's a quiet place that she came upon circuitously: after flying from Japan to San Francisco, she and her fiancée, the late Crawdaddy magazine editor Paul Williams, often hitchhiked together while Kanenobu was pregnant. They moved to Seattle, then married in Boston before living in New York City.

Williams had befriended the science-fiction author Philip K. Dick, who suggested he and his wife move to Sonoma. On a visit, Williams' car broke down in Glen Ellen in front of a real estate office.

"So he ran into that real estate office," Kanenobu says, "and asked, 'Are there any houses selling in this area?' And they said, 'That house across the street is for sale.'"

Sachiko Kanenobu with husband Paul Williams and her first child (L); Kanenobu performing in the 1970s (R).
Sachiko Kanenobu with husband Paul Williams and her first child (L); Kanenobu performing in the 1970s (R). (Courtesy Sachiko Kanenobu)

Kanenobu has been here ever since. She and Williams divorced, and she raised her two kids. Dick remained a close friend, and when he first heard Misora, he told her she needed to return to music.

"He told me, 'You shouldn't stop writing. You should go back to writing, because you have a gift,'" Kanenobu says. "He became my guiding angel. He produced a single with me, and then he wanted to produce an album."

It hadn't been easy for Kanenobu. She'd established herself in bands in Japan, but her Japanese label initially dismissed her solo material until Harumi Hosono, who later founded Yellow Magic Orchestra, came on as a producer for Misora. Joni Mitchell had been an influence, as had British artists like Donovan and Pentangle, but Misora's songs were singular, capturing Kanenobu's distinct youthful innocence, her fascination with nature, and a longing for inner peace.

Dick died suddenly, before that second album was made, in 1982. Kanenobu followed the author's advice, though, and eventually joined a modern rock band, Culture Shock, which recorded and toured in the late 1980s and early nineties. But Misora kept calling.

"Misora to me is my first child, and I worked so hard struggling in the men's world, and finally got a chance, and I delivered the child," she says. "But I had a real child in my body, and that's the reason I decided to leave Misora in Japan. So this child is really missing me. That's what I feel."

Sachiko Kanenobu in her Glen Ellen home, where she's lived since 1976.
Sachiko Kanenobu in her Glen Ellen home, where she's lived since 1976. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

For Kanenobu, the timing couldn't be better. For years, she worked as a caretaker for IHSS, helping clients with dementia, diabetes or multiple sclerosis. She retired last month, the very day that Misora was reissued. It was a coincidence, she says. Honest.

"I didn't decide for it to be the same day, it just somehow became the same day," she says. "See? Misora is still controlling me!"

In retirement, Kanenobu hopes to concentrate on writing songs and performing as long as her voice and fingers can keep up. When I mention the complex fingerpicking on the album, and sing a portion of "Anata Kara Toku E," she lights up with recognition.

"You want to hear that one?" she asks, and then without waiting for an answer, begins strumming her 1964 Martin guitar—the same one she used in the recording of Misora—and sings the song in its entirety for an audience of one. It's just as spellbinding as it is on the album, and I begin to think that Kanenobu is right when she says that Misora has a life of its own.

"She's come back several times," she says, as our visit winds down. "And I'm not doing anything, but Misora is calling me, saying, 'Come on Sachiko, wake up. Why don't you play me? Play me.'"

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Sachiko Kanenobu performs as part of the Calico 2019 Festival in Point Reyes Station on Saturday, Aug. 3. Details here.

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