Meiko, a one-quarter Japanese American, or “quapa,” from Georgia by way of Los Angeles, is at the vanguard of the new folk music. At least, that’s the category where you’ll find her on iTunes. She strums and picks an acoustic guitar, so she fits the folksinger/troubadour image.
But her music isn’t based on the traditional “folk” music of the 1960s folk boom. Meiko’s the latest in a long line of singer-songwriters who came out of that earlier folk boom. Starting with the likes of Bob Dylan, and peers and disciples from Tom Rush and Eric Andersen to Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, singer-songwriters have skirted the edges of the rock-pop mainstream, playing their own music instead of traditional songs, with acoustic instruments as their foundation.
Their subject matter is mostly introspective and personal (hence, anti-pop by design) but when it clicks commercially, singer-songwriter music, like alternative rock, can hit the sweet spot and rise up the pop charts.
It’s a style of music that in recent years has become quieter and quieter, almost a whisper instead of the declamatory protest music of, say, early Phil Ochs, or Peter, Paul and Mary, in the ’60s, or the folk and country-rock of the ’70s. The new folk music can be mopey (then again, weren’t Jackson Browne’s songs mopey too?).
And, it’s become a signature style of television soundtracks. Although many shows now, from “Bones” to the “CSI” franchise, feature this type of music, I think of “Gray’s Anatomy” first and foremost when I hear the new folk. The genre fits perfectly with the introspective spoken narration that closes each episode of “Gray’s.”
“Boys with Girlfriends,” one of the best songs from Meiko’s first full-length recording, “Meiko,” was featured on “Gray’s Anatomy on November 20. Once you know the song, you’ll chuckle at how perfect it is for the romantic tensions that are at the heart of the series: “I know better not to be friends with boys with girlfriends,” Meiko sings.
Meiko has a handful of equally terrific songs, the kind that get in your head and bounce around like a superball, keeping you humming for days. She’s perfected the new folk sound, a dreamy, world-weary singing style that’s colored with just a hint of a husky rasp. But it’s her way of fitting words and phrases into cadences that stretch and contract to conform to her lilting sense of melody that stay with you.
I first heard of Meiko last year when she hit #1 on the iTunes Folk charts, and #35 on the pop charts, with a five-song release, “Live Session-EP.” The sessions were live in a studio, not at the Hotel Cafe in LA where she first established her reputation. They’re essentially demos with Meiko solo on guitar and a bit of reverb, and she released it on her own, a true troubadour of the Internet era. I bought the EP and enjoyed the songs, but they got lost in the shuffle of the zillion other songs on my iPod.
All five songs are reprised on the new CD on the MySpace/Interscope label, with the addition of subtle production that includes backup vocals, chamber-music-like touches of cello and violin, drums, and occasional keyboard flourish and on the aptly-titled “Piano Song,” the plink-plink-plink of a toy piano. The songs in their raw state were good; the added finishing touches make them great.
“Meiko” hit #14 on iTunes Top 100 list in November, and topped the Folk charts again. It still ranks in the top-10 Folk albums — no small feat for an indie singer-songwriter with her first full-length recording.
Instead of the usual everything-set-to-shuffle, I’ve been listening exclusively to “Meiko” nonstop for days, and each time through, the songs seem richer. She writes smart, observant lyrics about relationships, like with “Under the Bed,” which includes the vivid image of photos she posed for during a relationship packed away in a box under her bed after the breakup.
And in “Boys with Girlfriends,” she perfectly captures the awkward dynamic of a relationship-in-yearning that gets trumped by a jealous girlfriend. Meiko doesn’t have to fill in the narrative details to give a cinematic sense of the story, like an aural version of some scene out of the movie “Juno.”
Her ability as a songwriter is matched by her talent as a singer. Though she hews to the new-folk whisper much of the time, on the full-length recording she unchains her voice on a couple of songs. Given the range and wealth of her ability, I bet she’s a solid performer, not just a folkie who needs an intimate venue and might get lost on a big open stage.
She’s a fascinating artist for me, not just because she’s a great singer-songwriter, but also because of her ethnicity. She chose the name “Meiko” because she wanted to connect with her Japanese heritage. Unfortunately, she pronounces the name “Mee-ko” instead of “May-ko,” and her sister, who calls herself “Keiko” pronounces her name “Kee-ko.” But who cares… as she says in an interview clip on her MySpace page, she considers her name an American version of a Japanese name.
It’s cool to see an Asian American performer hit the bigtime in mainstream American pop music. There are plenty of others out there who deserve some of the limelight too: Mia Doi Todd has released seven strong albums in relative obscurity; Phyllis Heitjan is still a student at Princeton, but she’s released two fine albums that showcase her catchy songs and unique vocal arrangements; Cynthia Lin brings a jazzy touch to her songs; Colorado’s own Wendy Woo writes funky folk-rock and performs with her band in the Denver scene; Denver multi-instrumentalist Dwight Mark writes evocative country-rock, blues and bluegrass songs. Here’s a pretty cool list of Asian American and Pacific Islander musicians, on AllAboutAsians.com.
But it would be unfair to file any AAPI musicians in an ethnic cultural ghetto. These artists may pay homage to their heritage in their music, or they may be all-American as the Grateful Dead. For me, it’s just nice to see people who look like me follow the often thankless path as artists, and compete for maintream attention.
In fact, Meiko’s music doesn’t appeal to me because of who she is. It’s because of the strength of her material.
Although Meiko is in many ways the latest incarnation of the folk music canon that goes back to Woody Guthrie, she reminds me most of two more recent singer-songwriters whose music clicked with me immediately when I heard their debut albums: Rickie Lee Jones and Suzanne Vega.
Thanks to iTunes, YouTube, MySpace, and “Gray’s Anatomy,” Meiko has the potential to match their success at a young age and with very little experience, and maybe even outshine them both. Let’s hope her songwriting muse continues to inspire her.
To paraphrase another of her songs, how lucky we’d be, if that were the case.