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Folk Radio review of Sakura by Thomas Blake 

Sakura is an album recorded in the Welsh hills but rooted in Japanese and East Asian culture. This isn’t as contradictory as it sounds: the Japanese religious experience emphasises the primacy of nature. Shinto beliefs, in particular, are based on a subtle animism. In Shinto, everything is alive; everything has its own inscrutable spirit or essence. These spirits – kami – exist everywhere and are potentially infinite in number, and this presupposes the interconnectedness of everything. Every landscape, be it in Japan, Wales or anywhere else, is inhabited by its own array of miniature gods, existing in a kind of mirror world and generally invisible to the human eye, yet imbuing the place in question with its own unique feel, what western commentators might call it genius loci.

This feels relevant to Jonathan Day’s music in a couple of ways: firstly, his songs have always been rooted in place and in nature. He is constantly aware of that interconnectedness. His previous album, 2019’s A Spirit Library, was full of intensely raw and personal songs that nevertheless acknowledged the changing world, its threatened landscapes and the far-reaching consequences of its human inhabitants. Secondly, Day’s new album seems directly influenced not only by the customs and religions of Japan (and East Asia in a wider geographical sense) but by its music too. The music of its people, and the music of its hills, and stones and rivers and rain: these things pervade the very structure of Sakura, albeit sometimes in the subtlest of ways.

This is most evident in the introductory opening track, A Garden Among The Stones, which forms a beautiful and meditative piece that begins with field recordings before Jon Kypros’ shakuhachi takes centre stage. The effect is one of instant stillness, of contemplation. Beginning the album like this is a brilliant way of centering the listener, of coaxing them away from daily life and rooting them not just in the act of listening but of being. It seems to be pitched somewhere between the classical Japanese music of Kohachiro Miyata and the great ambient works of Hiroshi Yoshimura. 

From here on in, Day focuses on more traditional songwriting. On Isolde, he conflates Arthurian myth with his own memories and, in doing so, creates a song that flirts poignantly with the bittersweet nature of the past. The influence of eastern religion is still there in the background – he imagines himself as a spirit, a thing of fire and air – but his voice, with its resonant, woody timbre and the deftly minimal acoustic guitar, ground the song in the here and now. Despite Day’s light touch, these songs are far from ephemeral.

Throughout the album, there is the sense of humans being anchored to nature and subject to its whims. In the winding, loose-limbed ballad Thrift Store Dress, the song’s narrator and his companion dance in the wind, though we get the impression that it is the weather that is controlling them and that the best thing sometimes is to abandon yourself to experience. On Karasu, Day repeatedly describes a single scene – a crow, clouds leaves – in a style that resembles a haiku but which attains a kind of mantric power, while Dressed In Orange, as I Remember It describes a memory fragmented and made dreamlike by time. It has a low-key poetry that is perfectly reflected in an impressionistic, untethered guitar which at times sounds like a slower, sweeter John Martyn but without Martyn’s overt blues influences.

Day has spoken about how the focus of Sakura shifted even as he was recording it: it became less outwardly experimental than he was expecting, the songs are closer to home and perhaps more traditional than what he initially had in mind. But in spite or maybe because of this, there is a quiet tension throughout the album between rootedness and travel. In places, it sounds like a songwriter coming to terms with the fact that spiritual freedom and enlightenment come in many different forms, some of which are internal and personal, while others are linked to the physical world. Mu Tu, which on first listen sounds like one of the simpler, more unobtrusive songs on the album, approaches and embodies this dichotomy most eloquently: its very simplicity speaks of its own kind of freedom. A Magician’s Blade represents the other side of the coin. Its arrangement is fuller, slightly more baroque, and its themes are more outwardly philosophical. It is a kind of self-examination that also asks questions of the world around us. Musically, it billows out with saxes and strings, a sound that recalls Bryter Layter-era Nick Drake.

Shrine Ghosts is another song that, in one way or another, unifies apparent dichotomies, in this case, eastern religion and the Welsh landscape. Day, recalling a walk in the hills with his son, reflects upon the inherent power that certain places can possess, a power that is recognised by religion but also transcends it. The song is one of the album’s prettiest moments, full of vibraphone notes like softly falling rain. The final track, Wind Flower, is a kind of distorted mirror image of the opener, a wilder, windier affair in which the traditional instrumentation veers closer to free jazz before settling itself in the natural hum of the landscape.

Sakura is a beautiful album in terms of its musical content, but also as an object. Each Limited Edition CD is exquisitely hand-drawn and block printed on the gatefold case; my copy featured the cherry blossoms of its title and a blue river, serene and perhaps symbolic. The attention to detail and level of care that Day has shown in its creation is admirable and is reflected in the depth of feeling in these songs, which, although at first appearing effortless, are characterised by a profound philosophical insight and a rich understanding of the importance of music and nature. But most of all, it is surprisingly but deeply an album about love, about the small but important connections between humans in a world that can feel overwhelmingly big.