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Sen Morimoto's music blends genres and defies labels. How does he define it?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Sen Morimoto washed dishes for a living before he decided to make music full time. Since then, the Chicago artist has learned how emotionally draining it can be to sell yourself as an artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD STATE")

SEN MORIMOTO: (Singing) You're gonna start losing your mind if you keep thinking about it.

MARTÍNEZ: His lyrics on the record are searing and to the point. But musically? On that, he says, don't even try to pin him down.

MORIMOTO: Yeah. I have a hard time describing my music, and I think other people do, too. Maybe it starts with me. If I get it together, then everybody will have the right words for it. But it comes from a lot of genres. I grew up studying jazz and playing punk music and hip-hop and all this stuff, so that all naturally floods into my work. And then someone will pick up on one aspect of it. And now every time I put out a song, it's called jazz, even though maybe it's not.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTÍNEZ: So right there, based on what you said, for someone that doesn't want to think about it one second further, they would say, oh, indie artist.

MORIMOTO: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. That's kind of a broad umbrella term.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

MORIMOTO: We've just been seeing art pop as, like, a way to just...

MARTÍNEZ: Art pop. That's not bad.

MORIMOTO: ...Not commit to one thing. Yeah. It has a ring to it. And no one knows what it actually means, so...

MARTÍNEZ: It's mysterious enough for people to actually research it, I think.

MORIMOTO: Now it's stamped on NPR officially.

MARTÍNEZ: There you go.

MORIMOTO: Sen Morimoto - art pop.

MARTÍNEZ: There you go. Now, the title track of the album is called "Diagnosis." What are you, or who are you, diagnosing here?

MORIMOTO: I kind of leave it open because I feel like it's something we all feel, and it's kind of this despair of recognizing the rat race you live in. You know, the album is sort of overarchingly about capitalism and how that affects every aspect of our lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIAGNOSIS")

MORIMOTO: (Singing) Oh, it's a 22. You live a long life feeling bad for being you. You run away from love. You don't even mean to. You ask the stranger in the mirror what they see in you.

That verse specifically is about how it affects your view of yourself and your self-esteem, and the sort of constant growth and pressure of capitalism in every industry has everyone in this endless cycle where they have to focus so much on progressing and stabilizing. You know, me and everyone I know is living month to month and trying to sort this out at all times, and it leaves so little room for compassion for yourself. Over time, it starts to feel so isolating. And that verse is just sort of about looking in the mirror and trying to find yourself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

MORIMOTO: (Singing) People just believe in what's convenient. What's the meaning? What you need is something to worry about, someone else but you. Truth is simple. That's the truth. No such thing as wasting (ph). I can't keep this pressure rate up. Everything's made up. What do I do?

MARTÍNEZ: Is it almost like in this day, we have to almost constantly sell pieces of ourselves all the time and find something new about ourselves to sell. I mean, look, I'll be honest here. I'm in public radio, I think, for a very specific reason. I'd be naive not to believe that it's because, you know, I'm bilingual; I speak Spanish; and I'm the son of an immigrant. So, I mean, I'll be honest, that's probably why I'm here, because I have that experience. And I'm making money off of that in some ways in the work that I do. So when it comes to you, I mean, you sound like you would be a radio executive's dream - born in Japan, raised on the East Coast. I mean, right? I mean, that sounds like...

MORIMOTO: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...They would say, come on, Sen, sell yourself.

MORIMOTO: Yeah. No, you've hit it exactly on the head. I mean, the place I was in when I started writing this album was I had been - you know, I'd put out a couple of albums before. I'd been touring. I'd been doing the press and all the social media and everything to sort of get this thing off the ground and just kind of struggling to legitimize to myself that process of sharing, of sort of oversharing and giving up everything about yourself for the sake of progress in your career or something, you know? It's kind of been a difficult thing because on the one hand, you appreciate and want that kind of support for people like you. And then once you see that light being shown on it, sometimes it can start to feel like it's being used to sell a product. And that feeling is really complicated inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRESSURE ON THE PULSE")

MORIMOTO: (Singing) Keep pressure on the pulse. Keep pressure on the pulse.

MARTÍNEZ: It's almost like you're raging against all this stuff.

MORIMOTO: Oh, absolutely. It's an angry album. I mean, my partner, Kaina, she's an artist as well. And she told me that she felt like this album was loud music for quiet people. And, I mean, just compared to my past records, I definitely feel that way. It's not really my comfort zone to be sort of looking outward and, you know, flipping the lens on society and the systems we live under.

MARTÍNEZ: Let me go back to jazz for a moment. So your love of jazz, you know, is also - even though this is - you mentioned maybe a rock album, but I hear jazz throughout this whole album. So let's hear a little from the song "Reality."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REALITY")

MORIMOTO: (Singing) I've been judging myself more than anyone else. I know the world's so cruel, and it don't need my help. I'm a fool. I played along. Though you know how it felt. Is it heaven? Is it hell? Getting harder to tell. I'm in a room full of souls, and we're all so alone.

MARTÍNEZ: So tell us about "Reality," how that song came together.

MORIMOTO: This is funny because I'm - I've been so sort of, like, deep in my theory about the concept of this album, but sometimes it really just is about sound. I was listening back to this track, and I was like, is this too Steely Dan?

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

MORIMOTO: I mean - and I love Steely Dan, but it's a rock...

MARTÍNEZ: They're great.

MORIMOTO: You know, it's great. Who doesn't love the - a lot of people don't love the Dan. But personally, I love the Dan. That's why it's at the end, sort of as a wink. And it sort of summarizes a lot of what the album's about. The choruses are these big group-vocal sections about feeling lonely in a crowd, feeling lonely with all of the information of the internet and everything you could possibly be connected to at your fingertips and still feeling so alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REALITY")

MORIMOTO: (Singing) Open up your phone, and tell me what you see. It's your own reality. Everybody there agrees. See the value in a person who you know is currency. You can learn to be the version of yourself they want to see.

MARTÍNEZ: By the way, Sen, you're the fourth person from Massachusetts that I've spoken to in my life who mentioned Steely Dan somehow. So is it a Massachusetts thing?

MORIMOTO: (Laughter) It could be. I mean, like I said, who doesn't love the Dan?

MARTÍNEZ: That is Sen Morimoto. His new album, "Diagnosis," is out on November 3.

MORIMOTO: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REALITY")

MORIMOTO: (Singing) Oh, I hurt myself. Know you know how it felt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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