Hiroki Tanaka celebrates the circle of life with Kaigo Kioku Kyoku

The former YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN guitarist shares his emotional solo debut

By Leslie Ken Chu | Photo by Maya Bankovic

I just really wanted to celebrate my grandmother and uncle’s lives and create something that would help people deal with the passing of their loved ones.”

The title of Hiroki Tanaka’s debut album Kaigo Kioku Kyoku translates to Caregiving Memory Songs. The phrase refers to the two years the former YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN guitarist spent as the live-in caregiver for his grandmother with Alzheimer’s and uncle with terminal cancer. More than just celebrating them, though, the album also celebrates his family’s cultural heritage and stands as a sonic archive of his family’s history. Whether still life still or processional, tenderly moved along by Hiroki’s soft tenor, each song on Kaigo Kioku Kyoku carries a sombre, reverent air.

On the most basic level, Kaigo Kioku Kyoku resonates with me because, like Hiroki, I am a first generation Asian Canadian. It also resonates with me because I have acted as a caregiver for my mother since my early teens. My responsibilities began primarily as a translator – with landlords, doctors, social workers – but as she grows older (she is now in her 70s), I know that a new set of more demanding responsibilities is right around the corner. This impending reality is complicated by the fact that we now live on opposite coasts, as I’m in Vancouver and she is in Halifax. Unlike Hiroki, however, most of my family history is shrouded in mystery to me; we rarely discuss it, so I find it difficult to ask.

With our similarities and differences in mind, I was grateful for the opportunity to share experiences with Hiroki about being a caregiver and a custodian of one’s family history and culture. Hiroki guides me through his lineage beginning with his great grandfather, who was an Anglican missionary in Japan. Hiroki’s grandmother Kathleen Goring was born and raised in Takada (which amalgamated with Naoetsu to form the city of Jōetsu in 1971), but her family moved back to Canada at the beginning of World War II. While studying at McGill University, she met Hiroki’s grandfather. She gave birth to Hiroki’s mother in Saskatoon, but the three quickly moved to Japan because his grandfather also became a missionary. There, Hiroki’s mother worked as a translator and met Hiroki’s father, who was born and raised in Sapporo.

Multiple generations of Hiroki’s family have passed through the house where he recorded much of Kaigo Kioku Kyoku. His uncle Bryan Goring purchased the home in 1980 but sold it to Hiroki’s grandfather in 1985. When Hiroki’s parents moved back to Canada in the late ’80s, they stayed in the house while they found their footing. During that year, in 1988, Hiroki was home-birthed, in the same room where his grandmother stayed when he moved in to care for her in 2016.

The following year, Bryan, who was living in Edmonton and undergoing chemotherapy, lost his home in a devastating fire. A year after that, just as Hiroki was preparing to leave for tour in support of YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN’s album Dirt, his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s had reached late stage. It became clear she required more assistance than anyone in the family could provide, and thus, she was moved into an eldercare facility in March. With all of Bryan’s assets destroyed and his health declining, he decided he wanted to spend the rest of his life with his family. He moved into the house in Toronto that same spring and lived with Hiroki until succumbing to his cancer months later in December.

It was in the middle of those two difficult years when Hiroki wrote the first song for Kaigo Kioku Kyoku. His sister Sonomi obtained voice recordings of their grandmother, including her singing the hymn “Jesus, Tender Shepherd, Hear Me.” Hiroki adapted the melody into the album’s opening track “Bare Hallways.”

“I wrote it in a period of quiet distress,” Hiroki says of the song. “There was a real struggle and frustration looking after gran and seeing the house fall apart and not having the capacity to maintain the constant upkeep. That chorus, that refrain of ‘In the end…’ is… you’re just feeling really despondent and acknowledging that everything falls apart at the end, and there isn’t anything you can do about it.” Encouraged by how the song turned out, though, he began gestating the idea for an entire album.

As the project blossomed, it became as much about learning as it was about celebrating and preserving. “When you’re young and ambitious, you don’t really have a strong interest in looking back in the family history.” But during those two years, he was surrounded by that history. His grandmother decorated her house with her life, told through books, photo albums, and even film reels containing footage from Takada. “It’s so easy, especially in the house when everything was just laid out, and I grew up around them, to take them for granted. That experience really forced me to take a serious look at that photo that’s been on the wall for 20 years, to really look at these books that are covered in dust, and to trawl through them for material I can contribute towards the album.”

Moreover, even as his grandmother’s short-term memory began fraying at its edges, her earlier memories remained strong. “A lot of the conversations, even though they were repetitive and cyclical, they were always about her experience growing up. I can hear in her voice she had so much pride about the family, and all the stuff around her was so comforting. We were never allowed to throw anything away during that late stage. I think a symptom of Alzheimer’s is wanting to hold onto everything because you’re feeling so out of control of your memory.”

Kaigo Kioku Kyoku is built around two main elements that hold onto the past: Japanese folk music and found sounds from the house. Some folk songs, like Genzo Miwa’s “Inori,” he came upon by perusing books of Japanese hymns. Others he grew up with. “Blue Eyed Doll,” for example, is based on the children’s song “Aoi Me No Ningyo.” This was associated with the Blue Eyed Dolls created by Christian missionary Sidney Gulick in 1927 as part of a cultural exchange program to promote goodwill between Japan and the U.S.

“Blue Eyed Doll” recalls the incredibly underslept morning Hiroki learned his grandmother died. Upon landing in the Northwest Territories while on tour with YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN in 2019, he received a message from his mother informing him of the news. “The last time I saw [my grandmother], she was so frail and sick that she couldn’t even open her eyes. I just said, ‘Hang in there, gran,’ and that I’d be back in a month and a half, and if she could hang on till then, that would be nice. But she passed away before then.” With references to grief coming in waves and seeing his grandmother’s face in the obituary, “Blue Eyed Doll” is “all about the feelings of not having been able to spend a lot of the last moments with her because I was constantly on the road.”

Hiroki and his cast of contributors – Tara Kannangara (french horn), Brendan Swanson (piano), Zaynab Wilson (drums), Michael Eckert (pedal steel), and Matthew Bailey (production, bass) – recorded the album’s more conventional parts at the Immergluck Studio. Back at his family house, though, Hiroki combed his surroundings for as many sounds as he could record. Those included all the percussion on “Blue Eyed Doll,” which resulted from experimenting with anything that made a clicking sound.

Elsewhere on the album, like the song “Inori Intro,” found sounds hold much greater significance. Over rings of the family gong, running water, and clattering dishes, Hiroki recites excerpts from “Inori,” a hymn about feeling lost, despondent, and clinging onto prayer as a desperate act. “When I started this project, I really wanted to capture the menialness of caregiving, the routine you have to get into in order to be an effective caregiver. You’re constantly cleaning and opening and closing cupboards and washing dishes, so all these clinks and clacks were made out of the objects in the house because they were the actions I was taking day to day.” Furthermore, Hiroki explains that “Inori Intro” represents the conflict between wanting to disassociate from his depression and anxieties that had bubbled up during that period, and the process of going through menial actions and moving around the house in a slow, meditative way.

“Snowdrops” incorporates the family cuckoo clock, which he played with his entire life. He also grew up playing on his grandmother’s piano, which appears throughout the album, including on “Bare Hallways.” The album’s gongs were recorded at both the house and the studio. At nine minutes in length, “Snowdrops” is the centrepiece of Kaigo Kioku Kyoku. The first half of the song features Sonomi, a psychotherapist, asking their grandmother a series of questions, possibly for an assignment involving Alzheimer’s patients or geriatrics. “If you listen closely, there are questions Sonomi asks that gran answers in a roundabout way. She doesn’t quite fill in the details,” Hiroki points out. Regardless, “Snowdrops” is a touching document of his grandmother as she delightedly talks about the things that bring her joy, such as Christmas, her favourite holiday.

On the back half of “Snowdrops,” Hiroki recites Tony Hoagland’s poem “I Have Good News.” “You need not fear the indignities of death and growing old,” a line goes, summarizing one of the album’s main messages. Although Hiroki omits the last line, “The honeysuckle vine braids in and out the spokes of the abandoned bicycle,” serendipitously, after his spoken passage, the song loops back to his grandmother describing the “many little small flowers” growing in her garden, including the snowdrops that appeared early that year.

Although “Snowdrops” is the album’s emotional heart, Hiroki’s ultimate send-off for his grandmother and uncle is the closing track, “Utopia.” With lyrics like “Do that thing that I adore / It’s so familiar” and “Being held and fed / Thinking there has been no better time,” this mournful song ” yearns for the comforts of the past. “What I hoped for for my grandmother and my uncle in those last stages of their passing was that their body rewarded them with the memories that made them feel pure joy even momentarily: the infantile memory of being held and fed, that feeling of serenity and all your needs being met, and a boundless love.”

Looking back on the entire process, Hiroki notes that as much as archiving is about preservation, it is also an act of creation. Making Kaigo Kioku Kyoku “brought a lot of kindness and generosity and love and support from the people around me,” he says. “The act of trying to forge this connection has fundamentally shifted my relationship with everyone around me and has created something I hope my family will really be able to treasure.”

No doubt, his aunt Jacqueline Goring will treasure the album. Kaigo Kioku Kyoku gave them the opportunity to work together for the first time. A classically trained harpist, she performs on “Utopia” and the hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” She also arranged the latter. “When I was young, I loved hearing [“Let All Mortal Flesh”] performed on the giant organ built into the church. Learning that that was also one of my grandmother’s favourite hymns was really satisfying.” So of course, he had to include it on the album.

Kaigo Kioku Kyoku came from a need to hold onto something, when decay was all around Hiroki. “There was definitely this feeling of things falling apart. The music industry is brutal. Touring is brutal.” But he came out of the experience with new priorities. “I shed a lot of old ideas about what I wanted and how I wanted to live. I found a rebirth that has made my life so much richer. I’m really thankful for those incredibly difficult years because they taught me some serious values I am continuing to practice.”

As Hiroki’s thoughts and emotions swirl around life and death, beginnings and endings, and family history and legacy, it seems too perfect that the announcement of Kaigo Kioku Kyoku‘s release on October 16th via Coax Records came a mere two weeks before he and his wife welcomed their first child. The circle begins again.