Jonah Yano Creates Portraits of Memories

"I would be pretty terrified if all these things just happened and no one ever knew"

Photo: Tianna Franks

BY Alisha MughalPublished Jan 24, 2023

What is a song? For Hiroshima-born, Montreal-based musician Jonah Yano, it's something tangible, to be thumbed through like a collection of postcards.

"I think what I want a song to do for me is make permanent ... thoughts and ideas of memories that just cross my mind or happen in conversation," Yano tells me over the phone, taking a careful pause after my questions, working out how best to phrase his thoughts. "Especially when it comes to family, I feel like so much of it is verbal and picture-based, or home video-based. I think that it feels very satisfying for me to make it permanent in music and in writing. So then I can look back on [the song] as a family, or even as friends, and remember so much more than is written in there. I think that what I want a song to do for me is be a mnemonic device for the time it's made in or the time it's about and the people."

For Yano, who counts Feist and Adrianne Lenker as his inspirations, reality doesn't need to be documented ad nauseam or in painstaking detail. Rather, it's enough to mark it down in snippets or slices — through songs, photographs, voice recordings or video — and turn it into a memento that serves as shorthand for the whole. And remembering, both the good and the bad, seems to be the goal. 

The guiding force behind his sophomore album, portrait of a dog (out this Friday, January 27, through Innovative Leisure), seems to be a kind of surety against forgetting, a bulwark against loss; more than the simple act of remembering, the album is a celebration or memorialization of life without qualification. It all started three years ago.

"I went to Vancouver, 'cause my grandpa started to lose his memory," Yano says, explaining that his family lives in the nearby suburb of Port Coquitlam. "And my family was really dramatic about it, as they should be, so it felt really urgent that I go home. And so as soon as everyone got vaccinated last year, I booked a flight and went and stayed with my grandparents for two weeks and archived their whole life, and collected all their stories and wrote everything down and recorded it on a camera and a field recorder — both for the music and for myself and my family."

He continues, "What I found is a lot of the stories that I had collected, and just the general feeling that created, needed to be translated into song for me. And I was also going through a breakup, and those two things kind of braided themselves together in my head and then came out as songs." 

Yano wrote the songs and headed to the studio last July. Over the course of eight days, the album coalesced. Produced by crossover jazz group BADBADNOTGOOD, portrait of a dog is overlaid with sometimes mournful, sometimes strident strings by Toronto-based instrumentalist and songwriter Eliza Niemi, and contains collaborations with Montreal musicians Sea Oleena and Slauson Malone.

Yano is upfront about the many creative minds that came together to create portrait of a dog, noting that it might perhaps be more of a collaborative effort than his debut, 2020's souvenir

"souvenir was so driven by my own searchlight," Yano says. "I felt like I was leading the search party for finding the album, as the lost traveler or whatever. I had different people helping me along the way, but, ultimately, I was the one involved in every single song. And most people had something to say in, like, one song or two songs. [But] this album, it was much more collaborative in the sense that every single song, save for the acoustic one ["song about the family house"], has the same people playing. And there's no taking over with your idea in that kind of space, I think. And you have to negotiate with everyone and decide what everyone collectively wants out of the music, as opposed to what you singularly want from the music."

There is another softer but unmistakable aspect in which the record is collaborative. Deep within the album is a track called "so sweet," which begins with Yano's grandfather saying, "Get your music out and say, 'This is for my uncle."' 

"And then my grandma corrects him 'cause he forgot the word for grandpa," Yano says. "And my grandma is like, 'No, grandma and grandpa,' and he is like, 'Grandma and grandpa, Albert and Ray Yano.'"

Yano's grandfather's voice trails throughout the album like a memory as vibrant and strong as a river. Both his maternal grandparents have played an integral role in shaping Yano: his journey as a musician began when his grandmother taught him how to play the piano as a child, teaching him how to read music. The two live in the home about which Yano wrote "song about the family house," which delicately speaks to the structure as though it were a dear friend, which indeed it might be. Yano's mother and uncle were raised in the house, and Yano himself spent much time there after returning from a stay in Japan, and he returned to it again three years ago to archive his grandfather's life. The house, in which his grandparents ferment their own wine, will soon be torn down and replaced by condos. 

I ask Yano if his impulse to archive and document stems from a fear of being forgotten, as opposed to a kind of soft and proud desire to remember. He grins: "No one's asked me that personally or professionally before."

He goes on, "I think it would just be a shame if I didn't take the opportunity that I have and the sort of situation I've been put in in life to remember things in the way that I'm able to through song. I'd regret not taking this opportunity that I have in life to make these things memories because, you know, I might be the only one that has the time and willingness in my family to make these things into more than the moments they are. And I think I really enjoy it. I guess I would be pretty terrified if all these things just happened and no one ever knew. But also, that's just sort of a condition of existing, I guess. The tide will continue and no one will remember the sixth song on my second album. You know, it doesn't matter that much, but it's nice to try. It feels like rebelling against that condition of existing."

Throughout the record, Yano's voice is a kind of whispering that is not surreptitious (because as easy and inevitably as a wave, his voice crests and crescendos), but rather comforting — because he's close, he seems close, rest assured he is close, he is here. The sixth track is called "the speed of sound!" and on it, Yano wonders, "Do I have to let you go?" in a voice that aches like a bruise, backed by lazily marching drums and a piano like a drunkenly twirling ballerina. "Let me go," he finally croons. On title track "portrait of a dog," Yano's voice notes, "The tide doesn't change the sea, it sure sinks its teeth in me," and when the electric guitar turns frenetic, the track seems anchored only in Yano's silken voice and the certainty of the existence of another.

When I ask Yano what the process of sifting through his archival accumulation was like, and how he determined what to include and what to exclude, he tells me that he looked for images or sounds that functioned as amulets for a person. "I kind of just chose what I chose because I felt like it summed up the character of my grandparents the best," he says. "And when I hear it, and when my family hears them talk that way, it doesn't even matter what they're talking about, it's just the way they're talking. You can hear their sense of humour, you can hear their generosity and kindness, you can hear their stubbornness."

There is one thing Yano kept on his record intentionally, though. "My grandpa, on audio, forgot my name, which fits the tone of the record in a way," he says. "And I put a recording of him forgetting my name into the song called 'haven't haven't,' and it's right before the saxophone solo. He's asking me if I think he had a good life. And I'm like, 'I don't know.' And he's like, 'What do you think I'd say?' And I'm like, 'I don't know.' And then he just forgets my name and my grandma's like, 'What's his name?' [After a pause] he's like, 'Jonah!' And then we all laugh and then the saxophone happens."

Running through portrait of a dog is the impulse to archive a family, to bear witness to it, and, by extension, express his Japanese-Canadian cultural identity. "That one's a little more embedded and not as explicit, I think," he says. "But it's in there implicitly just because, you know, I am that." Another theme connecting the album concerns "a breakup and that becoming a friendship, and little stories about that as it relates to that time in my life," says Yano.

I tell Yano about how listening to his grandfather's voice reminded me of my own unresolved grief over the passing of my grandmother nine years ago, how she couldn't remember her daughter, my mother, but called out for me and I wasn't there; how now I only have the stories she told me, images of her, her bravery, her meanness, her braided hair and the warm, safe camphor smell of her. 

"As personal as this [album] feels and [as] specific to me as it is, I think the idea of archiving my family in this way is not just for me, you know," he responds. "I think that it is for me, but it is also a reflection of the sentiment that you were just speaking to — the idea of wanting, wishing that you could have a memory of somebody closer to the last time they were here, you know? And, I think that because I had the opportunity to, I had to, because a lot of people don't get the chance to. Had it not been in the middle of COVID or whatever, I may have not had the chance to, or the time or even the thought to go spend that much time with my grandparents with that specific goal in mind, you know? And because it crossed my mind, I felt like I had to do it because sometimes it doesn't cross people's minds all the time."

He adds, "I appreciate it so much when someone else in any context shows me a memory of theirs in some way. Bringing the past into right now with material objects or actual visual representations of it is so nice, because you can make up so much less about it and you can really be in that moment, in that feeling, without having to replicate it in your mind."

Yano's words, since his debut and into portrait of a dog, speak memories to full voluptuous form, as they pull them from the liminal plane of his consciousness into the stark physical realm. Through his words, he exposes his innermost self to us as much as he invites us to do the same, to partake of the memory-making and sharing work he demonstrates so beautifully and so carefully, like a Proustian explorer, an architect of recollection. 

"That is something that's like my favourite part about art and movies and songs — being able to be somewhere and experience someone else's experience with them," he says. "Not that I could ever understand what it means a lot of the time, but it's just nice that we do that for each other, we share these markers of our lives. 'Cause what else is there?"

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