Music News & Reviews

Arroyo Grande woman’s music explores American, Japanese roots

When Elizabeth Etta’s family moved to Japan, Etta, whose mother is Japanese, finally looked like the other kids in her school.

But the 10-year-old girl only spoke English, so she couldn’t relate to her new classmates like she had in Hot Springs, Ark. “I hated it,” she recalled.

Roughly 20 years later, that dual identity helped Etta when she was invited to join a Japanese band that performs rootsy Americana music.

“Everyone else was already very good at playing music, and I was surprised and flattered that they wanted me to sing for them,” she said. “I think it’s because I can sing in English, and I have an authentic Arkansas voice, which you don’t often find in Japan.”

Etta, 35, moved back to the United States a year ago, settling in Arroyo Grande. In addition to playing locally as a solo performer — she will perform Monday at Otter Rock Café in Morro Bay as part of the Songwriters at Play concert series — she’s also a member of Pirates Canoe, which tours in Japan and America.

Etta performs under a stage name, but she was born Reika Hunt. Her father, an artist, met her mother, a painter, in Japan, where Etta was born. A friend of her mother’s chose her first name.

“In Japan, there are some people who come up with names,” Etta said. “And there’s a really elaborate system with the number of strokes in the kanji characters of the name that should be lucky for a certain baby born on a certain day of a certain year. Out of the different names this friend thought of, my mom chose Reika, which means, ‘to add bells.’ ”

In 1981, while Etta was still a baby, the family moved to Hot Springs, where her father had attended high school with former President Bill Clinton.

“I think my mom didn’t want (her) kids to grow up in the Japanese educational system,” Etta said, describing school in the Asian country as “a lot of cram testing and not much nature and running around in overalls.”

Eventually, her hippie father moved the family, including Etta’s sister, west.

“He came to California first. He got into creative writing and playing guitar,” Etta said. “And then he got interested in the sumi-e painting, which is the Japanese black ink watercolor, and he thought, ‘I should go study that,’ and just kept moving west. I don’t think he meant to stay this long.”

Kyoto, Etta’s new home in Japan had 1.5 million residents — compared to around 35,000 in Hot Springs. Although her new classmates befriended her, adapting to the different lifestyle was difficult.

“Maybe after 15 years, I kind of grudgingly admitted that, okay, I kind of like Japan,” she said. “It just kind of grew on me. But I was not prepared to like it at 10 — sushi and all that.”

She grew up listening to the Beatles —though there was a phase where she pretended to like J-Pop, a blend of traditional Japanese music and pop.

In high school, Etta noodled around on cover songs, playing her guitar as a hobby. But she followed her parents’ footsteps and studied art at the University of San Francisco, the California College of Arts and Kyoto Seika University in Japan.

After her studies, Etta continued to live in Japan, where she encountered a four-piece Japanese band performing with American instruments, including a banjo, mandolin and dobro.

“I really fell in love with them, and I really wanted to play music with them,” she said. “At this point, I wasn’t thinking, ‘I want to sing.’ ”

The guys in the band introduced Etta to Sara Kohno, who plays mandolin, and the two of them eventually joined the men to form Pirates Canoe, which describes itself as “a roots music-loving band hopelessly stuck somewhere between America and Japan.”

Through the Pirates Canoe lineup varies at times, the core group consists of three men and three women. Other than Etta, only Kohno can speak a little English.

Led by Etta’s gentle voice, the band’s songs feature easy-going female-driven harmonies, banjo, fiddle and resonator guitar. With English lyrics, the songs seem far more at home in the American South than Kyoto. Yet, the band has found audiences in Japan.

“There is a small but tight bluegrass community so we have ties with them,” Etta said. “And then there’s also an older generation that grew up during the folk revival so they know about folk and country and what we call Americana right now.”

In 2013, Pirates Canoe was invited to perform at Japan Nite during the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, leading to the band’s first exposure in the States. They were also featured on MTV Iggy, a multi-platform show online and TV created to introduce American audiences to international acts.

“I think we found that whatever we’re trying to create will deliver to the audience in either country,” said Etta, who also writes songs for the group and plays acoustic guitar.

A year ago, Etta decided to move back to America, first staying with her sister, who lives in Las Vegas. After traveling around for four months, scouting possible hometowns, she and her sister visited California.

“My sister told me about this place called San Luis Obispo that’s supposed to be the friendliest city,” Etta said. “And we made a trip down here, and I fell in love with it.”

The other members of Pirates Canoe still live in Japan. But a manager scheduled tour stops in several American cities in September, including Asheville, North Carolina, Nashville, Baltimore and Kansas City.

Etta, who works locally as a translator, occasionally returns to Japan, where she stays with her parents and performs with Pirates Canoe.

“The audiences are different,” Etta said. “In Japan, they’re very polite, and they’re quiet, and they sit and stare at you playing on stage. It’s kind of scary. But you can tell most of the time if they’re enjoying it a lot.

“And here a lot of times (audience members are) noisy and they’re loud.…When it’s really loud and energetic, you can get into that atmosphere, and you don’t have to worry about missing a chord because nobody’s going to hear it.”

Elizabeth Etta

6:30 p.m. Monday

Otter Rock Cafe,

885 Embarcadero,

Morro Bay


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