Some Small Hope

Contrasting voices and a ‘weird groove’

In an age when I can press ‘publish’ and this article will be instantly available to read in the farthest reaches of the globe, and where we can carry our laptops, tablets or smartphones with us wherever we go, it’s difficult to put yourself in the position of Masaki Sekijima back in 1986. I caught up with Masaki, who first shared some background: ‘I joined Ryuichi Sakamoto’s office in late 1984 and was assigned to be his instruments assistant in late 1985.’ The following year, a new project was on the horizon which would require Sakamoto to obtain a visa allowing him to work short-term in the UK. A young Masaki was invited to accompany him on the trip. ‘I was his only staff member who knew how to use or set up his regular instruments at the time.’

Ryuichi had discovered a song by the English singer Virginia Astley and ultimately this interest led to an assignment as producer for her second solo album – and to Masaki’s involvement for which he would receive an album credit for programming. A record company press release later gave more detail: ‘It was a single of ‘Darkness Has Reached Its End’ which initially caught Sakamoto’s attention. In Japan, he had treasured an import copy of that early and acclaimed work, and immediately counted himself an Astley admirer. Seeing a certain empathy of style and wanting the opportunity to shape her compositions into something more rigid, innovative and exciting, yet retaining her sentiment, Sakamoto happily agreed to the proposed teaming for the project.’ (Geffen Records, 1988)

Recording would be based in Bath at Tears for Fears’ Wool Hall Studios, commencing on 13 August 1986. To ensure productive use of the limited studio time available and given the days allowable under their work permits, it was important that all the equipment required by Ryuichi as principal musician and producer for the project would be available from day one. Masaki recalls, ‘There was no internet in 1986. It was hard to send an email. Just making a communication with England was not easy, so it was hard for me to confirm whether our wish list had been really understood by the English staff members.’

There was a long list of synthesisers that needed to be sourced in the UK for the sessions. ‘We used an Emulator 2, Fairlight 3 with Fairlight 1 sounds disc, Prophet 5 with MIDI, AKAI S-900 and Yamaha DX7-2.’ Critically important was the computer set-up to process the sounds with the latest sequencer software. The plan was to obtain this in England. ‘I had a telephone conversation with NEC the computer firm’s branch office in London to see if they had exactly the same PC machine that we were using in the studio in Tokyo, and whether there was a possibility of renting it from London. The answer was, “No!”’ So, an NEC desk-top PC was brought from Tokyo loaded with the ‘Come-on’ sequencer software and Ryuichi’s sound data. ‘I was so anxious whether I could air transport my regular PC sets from Tokyo to London safely. I was facing a lot of uncertainty! Anyway, I felt so relieved when I opened my luggage and confirmed my computer and instrument connections were ok on the first day of the session.’

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Equipment set-up and control room, Virginia Astley album sessions, Wool Hall Studios, 1986. Photographs copyright Masaki Sekijima.

This wasn’t just a challenging professional assignment for Masaki: ‘Actually it was my first trip to a foreign country. Everything that I could see, or eat, or do was new to me. It was such an exciting experience for me and I learned a lot of things. And I could enjoy every meal in the studio. I was told that English meals aren’t very good, but it was wrong! At least at Wool Hall!’

Virginia Astley studied at the Guildhall School of Music, her principal instruments being flute and piano. She became a member of The Ravishing Beauties with Nicky Holland (who later toured and recorded with Tears for Fears and appears on Ryuichi’s album Beauty) and Kate St. John (who went on to be a member of The Dream Academy). The band never made a release but supported The Teardrop Explodes for live dates in 1981 and 1982, when they also recorded a session in their own right for legendary BBC Radio One broadcaster John Peel. One of Virginia’s earliest recordings was released on Bill Nelson’s Cocteau records (instrumentation for Richard Jobson of The Skids), and the first album under her own name was From Gardens Where We Feel Secure (1983). This was a disc of acoustic instrumentals intermingled with field recordings of countryside ambience, some instrument tracks being reversed and treated to add some mystery to the mix. The effect was as dreamy and re-energising as a relaxing walk on a summer’s day. ‘Beautifully subtle’ was Sylvian’s description (1987).

For the first song-based album a new approach was called for, a catalyst for a totally new sound. Hence the call to Ryuichi. Ultimately, he would produce six of the tracks on the album that would become Hope in a Darkened Heart. ‘I think that was just because there was only limited time that Ryuichi was free to work. He only had three weeks so we could only do what we could do in those three weeks. And it wasn’t really very long at all’ (Virginia Astley, 2003). Masaki recalls that ‘Ryuichi was the central decision maker on the sounds from track one to track six on the album. He was also leading every single member of staff in the studio work. I think that is what Virginia had wished for this session.. ..It seems to me that he had a vision of the outline of sounds for each song and gave life to each track during the sessions. Ryuichi has very good command of synths, especially Prophet 5.’

At the end of the second week recording switched for just one day to AIR studios overlooking Oxford Circus in London. Clarinet and violin were overdubbed onto the tracks ‘I’m Sorry’ and ‘A Father’ respectively, whilst Duran Duran were busy recording their Notorious album in the adjoining studio. With five instrumentals now complete, when the team assembled back in Bath on Monday 25 August the focus would be on recording Virginia’s vocals, and on laying down a new co-composition which had emerged sometime over the previous ten days – ‘Some Small Hope’. ‘Mr Sakamoto and Miss Astley wrote it,’ recalls Masaki, ‘but I had no idea when they did it.’

Tony Phillips was the engineer for the sessions and he remembers that recording the vocals was a particular challenge for Virginia. ‘All the instrumental tracks for the album (at least the Ryuichi ones) were recorded first, then Ginny overdubbed her vocal after they were completed. On occasion, some of Ryuichi’s parts were a little distracting for her to sing to, so I would secretly mute them in her headphone mix to give her a fighting chance of performing properly… she was used to laying down her vocals to a basic piano track, now she was suddenly confronted with ethnic bangs, crashes and synthesisers.’

And as for the new piece? “Some Small Hope’ was ultimately finished at the last minute.. ..I can’t recall how or when Virginia created the initial idea for the tune, but Ryuichi Sakamoto concocted that whole weird groove and atmospheric thing in the studio. As for the vocal, she was way too insecure of her singing ability to have wanted to perform it “live” in the studio with David Sylvian – therefore each of them recorded their vocal separately.’ (TP, 2018)

The electronics rely heavily on the sequencer to create a hypnotic undertone using a marimba sound generated from the Fairlight. There is an instrumental break just over two minutes into the track which sounds like it could be based on a heavily treated recording of live playing. Masaki clarifies, ‘it was a shakuhachi sound which was from the Emulator 2 sound disk. The shakuhachi is a vertical Japanese flute made of bamboo stem, generally with five finger holes. You can hear the same kind of sounds on Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’, although he used different sound sampling. The sample sound was a series of phrases played continuously which is why it sounds like a “real instrument” performance.’ The synth pad was mostly from the Prophet 5, and it seems that Sakamoto was experimenting with extended techniques from the piano even back then.. ‘You may hear sounds entangled with the shakuhachi – it was the sound of the scratching of piano strings by Ryuichi!

‘The first time I heard the melody was the day of Virginia’s and David’s vocal session. Ryuichi and Virginia’s rehearsal started around 10am or 11am. The reason why I remember is that we usually started our sessions in the afternoon. Sessions would then continue until about 1am or 2am with meal breaks in between. Ryuichi was playing the piano and Virginia was singing along with his playing. They were checking the matching of the melody and lyric, and Virginia’s harmony parts. I was watching their rehearsal through a studio TV monitor on the first floor.

‘And then David Sylvian came to the studio around noon and the session started right away. Ryuichi and David had a short conversation about the vocal session in the control room. David recorded first and Virginia second. The vocal session for the two singers didn’t take more than three hours. Right after the vocals were recorded, Ryuichi, Virginia, David and Tony started selecting vocal tracks for about an hour and a half. David left the studio for London at around 6 or 7pm.’

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More control room shots from Wool Hall with recording underway and captured on the monitors. Photographs copyright Masaki Sekijima.

Virginia Astley’s almost-choral delivery has led some to consider her songs a little sweet or sentimental. Read any of her lyrics and you’ll soon discover that nothing could be further from the truth. They actually betray a bitterness and cynicism most likely rooted in personal experience at the time. On the day Sylvian was due at the studio to record ‘Some Small Hope’, Tony Phillips remembers ‘Ginny scribbling final lyric changes over breakfast at the Wool Hall,’ The duet expresses darkness and fear, albeit offset by the faintest, farthest glimmer of hope:

‘All those dreams lie unfulfilled
All those lives that pass us by
Careless thoughts torment my lonely soul
But my trust is still pure

Why must all the days be dark
Can no one escape their fears
Could we ever fill such a sad despair
With just one small hope.’

The words also divulge a life-long obsession: ‘I was always scared of dying. I was really morbid. When I was about seven at primary school, I was crying that I was going to die. The teacher said, “You’ve got seventy years to go,” and I cried, “I’m still going to die.” I had a real fascination for it I think.’ (VA, 1985)

The lyrics certainly carry a gothic tinge of morbidity:

‘Like a corpse deep in the earth
I’m so alone
Restless thoughts torment my soul
As fears they lay confirmed
But my life has always been this way.’

The most enjoyable part of the vocal for me is when Astley and Sylvian break from unison and take simple harmony parts, one voice rising as the other descends, providing a contrast to one another in both range and harmony. In those moments, as the voices intermingle and swell, you can almost believe that hope will triumph over those lurking fears.

‘I’d worked with David before on one of his solo projects,’ recalled Tony Phillips, ‘and as usual it was a joy to record him.’ The studio environment must have made a positive impression on the singer as within months he returned to Wool Hall for sessions for his next solo album, Secrets of the Beehive.

Whilst this collaboration was no more than an interesting side-project for Sylvian, it is nevertheless a delightful piece of pop music and notable in his catalogue as a rare occasion when he sings words written by a collaborator. It’s even rarer in being a duet; ‘Good Night’ with Akiko Yano (1982) and ‘Ballad of a Deadman’ with Joan Wasser (aka Joan as Police Woman) (2007) are probably the only other examples.

Time ran out in the UK, so on 31 August 1986 Ryuichi Sakamoto and Masaki Sekijima left the studio and were driven directly to their flight at Heathrow since their work permits expired that day. Ryuichi and Tony had worked through the night to complete as far as possible the six pieces they’d recorded. Masaki: ‘We couldn’t totally finish our mix session by the last day in the studio. A guy from WEA records and us had a meeting in the final day (it was dawn) and decided to send the master tapes to Japan and let us finish the final mix there.’ Once back in Tokyo, Ryuichi completed the mixing at Take One studio with Masaki in attendance, even re-recording some sounds that were found to be missing from the multi-track when it arrived.

Hope scan

On my playlist I pair ‘Some Small Hope’ with ‘A Summer Long Since Passed’ and ‘I’m Sorry’, both from the Hope in a Darkened Heart album. ‘A Summer..’ was one of the tracks recorded without Ryuichi’s involvement, a re-working of a track from Virginia’s debut album From Gardens Where We Feel Secure. ‘I’m Sorry’ on the other hand has all the hallmarks of the joint sessions at Wool Hall with sequenced keyboard and percussion sounds, and those ‘bangs and crashes’ that Tony Phillips had to mute for Astley’s vocal performances.

How did Masaki enjoy recording with Virginia Astley, Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Sylvian? ‘Very much! Those were my dreamy days. I would like to go back in time to late August 1986 if I could!’

‘Some Small Hope’

Virginia Astley – vocal; Ryuichi Sakamoto – keyboards; David Sylvian – vocal

Programming by Masaki Sekijima

Music by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Virginia Astley. Lyrics by Virginia Astley.

Produced and arranged by Ryuichi Sakamoto. From Hope in a Darkened Heart, WEA, 1986

Lyrics © copyright Warner Bros. Music Ltd

Download links: ‘Some Small Hope’ (iTunes), ‘A Summer Long Since Passed’ (iTunes), ‘I’m Sorry’ (iTunes)

Thank you to Masami Sekijima for sharing his recollections of the recording sessions. Thanks also to Paul Browne and Rob Brown of Virginia Astley’s official facebook and website for permission to use archive quotes and information gathered there. Masaki’s quotes are from our 2019 conversation and his 2018 input to Virginia Astley’s facebook.

davidsylvian.net has a gallery of additional studio photographs from 1986 here.

Sources and acknowledgements for artist quotes in this article can be found here.

‘I love ‘Some Small Hope’. It feels to me like those sounds are coming from somewhere in a church. It makes me feel so at ease.’ Masaki Sekijima, 2019

2 thoughts on “Some Small Hope”

  1. Funny how something released at the height of Sylvian’s career had such an impact on me at the time. Yet listening to Some Small Hope today, I just cannot see how one could think Astley’s and Sylvian’s voices were a match. It’s like chalk on blackboard and melting butter. The vocal melody is pleasant enough though but I think Sakamoto’s sequenced samples and keyboard parts are too confrontational, heavy and loud, and robotic. It completely distracts from the melody. The B side is a much more appealing proposition.

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