A prolific musician and guitar player, Rei first picked up a guitar at the tender age of four whilst living in New York. There she developed a love for classical guitar, which she says is still a huge influence on the way she performs and composes, from picking technique to posture. Returning to Tokyo for the best part of a decade, she has two versions of her self-titled debut album and was the first Japanese musicians to perform at TED NYC. Now, with a plethora of experience and talent she has released her most ambitious body of work yet, titled QUILT.
Working alongside both Haruomi Hasono – a true innovator of alternative music in Japan for decades – Cory Wong, and punk-pop outfit CHAI, Rei chose to lean into her Japanese heritage, composing music in both English and Japanese, plus releasing her first song with a Japanese title, Gyu.
Leaning into her love of blues rock to compensate for her classical upbringing, Rei has become what she describes as an “old soul” when it comes to guitars and equipment. Throughout Quilt you’ll hear her beloved Sunn Model T in conjunction with a Roland Space Echo, plus lashing of Fender twang thanks to her ’81 Strat in Monaco Yellow, which she bought to emulate Cory Wong’s rhythmic chops.
Your new single, Gyu, features the legendary Haruomi Hasono. What was it like working with him and how did he influence the writing?
“It was such an honor to work with Harry (Hosono’s nickname). He has been a pioneer of Japanese alternative music for over 50 years and also has been one of my favorite musicians of all time. It was hard to decide which style of Harry’s music I should write the song in. Yellow Magic Orchestra-influenced analog synthesizer techno or Happy End like japanese rock? I ended up making the song based on the music he was into in the Tropical Dandy through Paraiso era, which is based on tropical and ethnic instruments and New Orleans style arrangement.”
This is also the first time you’ve released a song with a Japanese title. Why have you not done that before and why was it right for this composition?
“Because I have been heavily influenced by Western culture and music, it has been quite natural for me to name my songs in English. Also, I wanted my international fans to relate to the song, so that was another reason I stuck to English titles. It felt right for this song in particular, because the line ‘GYU’ – which is an onomatopoeia for hugging someone – repeatedly appears in the lyrics and was the catchiest phrase of the tune.”
It’s part of your new QUILT project, which sees you working with numerous artists that have influenced your career…
“It has been ten years since I’ve moved to Tokyo to fulfil my dreams as an artist. Most of my life as a student, I was a loner and my musical activities took away a lot of my time. I was proud of believing in my art but on the other hand felt very empty, not being able to build a ‘real’ connection with my friends. This album is like a collection of the connections I have made with my fellow musicians throughout the ten years working as a professional musician.”
Elsewhere on the album you’ve worked with prolific guitarist Cory Wong. How has he influenced your guitar playing?
“He is a hero to me! I’ve been a big fan of Vulfpeck since day one. It was so exciting to make songs with Cory and I wish we can make some more, next time in person, since we couldn’t this time. His signature guitar playing and tone is outstanding, and I practiced his style before recording the song. I also bought an 81’ Fender Strat and played it clean with a heavy compressor to show respect and love to his play style.”
Your own guitar playing is heavily influenced by blues and bluegrass playing. What drew you to that style and how did it adapt with this album?
“Actually, I think if I had to choose several genres my music was influenced by it’d be blues and classical music. I started classical guitar when I was four years old in New York, and since then it has been my roots. This is including posture and exercises. The other is blues rock, and I think all these genres I’ve mentioned peek throughout the album. For example, ‘CRAZY! CRAZY!’ has a signature riff, which is kind of like the old days, in a Lenny Kravitz style. Where the guitar riff acts like the chorus, leaving a strong impact on the listener.”
We’ve seen you play a Jazzmaster live alongside your beloved Gibson acoustic, but what can you tell us about your guitar rig and setup for this album?
“I’m an old soul when it comes to equipment, so I don’t use anything special, but I am loving my recent amp set up which is a Sunn Model T head, a VOX speaker and a Roland Space Echo. I’ve used a Fender Hot Rod and a vintage Bassman as well. I’m a total vacuum tube lover and would prefer tube drive over a bunch of distortion pedals; this is just my taste, but I’d say that might be one hidden secret of the sound making in this album. Also, I used a lot of the new Stratocaster 81’ in Monaco Yellow that I mentioned earlier. It’s from the International Colour Series, the last years of CBS and has that signature three-bolt neck joints, and bullet truss rods, and a rosewood neck. It screams late 70’s Fender and I think it might be the star of the album!”
Following what is such a creative and inventive record, what’s next for you as a musician?
“I’d love to play overseas and bring my music over the outside world. Since the pandemic struck things have become hard but my dreams are big! Hope I get to see Guitar.com and guitar fans across the world and jam together soon.”
Rei’s new album, QUILT, is out now via Universal.