Sakura Katsuura is a Creative Londoner whose music is crafted with an enlightening spiritual sensitivity.
Our meeting is prefaced with a reminder of the non-negotiable terms and conditions of inhabiting planet earth. Somewhere far from London, a raging Atlantic storm has whipped up a blend of Saharan sand and Iberian forest fire dust into the atmosphere. The streets are full of Londoners perplexed by a devilish red sun and a pale orange sky.
Entering Sakura’s house, we are suddenly in a markedly different environment to the one outside. In a room with walls decorated with mandala tapestries, an incense stick burns away and our interview begins.
Sakura’s creative passion is music. The most closely related genre to which one could assign her work as a singer-songwriter is folk. But, in the case of Sakura, clear-cut definitions only take us so far as her creativity escapes the boundaries of genre.
As a child in Hong Kong, Sakura loved reading so much that she spent almost all her free time with her eyes on the page. For her, books were the most useful tool for understanding herself and the world around her. She became especially enamoured with self-help books — the perfect fit for her creative imagination as she dreamt of finding her place in the world.
She found music, too. Some of the soundtracks to her childhood include Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and “Grace”, as well as songs by Fleetwood Mac and Joni Mitchel.
Sakura soon found her passions for reading books and listening to music joined by a curiosity for creative experimentation. She sought to articulate her inner-drive to create things by any means possible. She made art, she drew and she sang. An old classical guitar became an object of particular fascination.
But as she entered into her final years of high school, something changed her life. Whilst taking a philosophy class, Sakura read the Tao Te Ching — an ancient Chinese text centred around the defining principles of Confucianism and Buddhism. It influenced her so profoundly that she had the words “The further one goes the less one knows” tattooed onto her arm. Life, for Sakura, would now be embodied in a continuous process of evolving and growing.
The book aided her with a series of decisions. At 17, Sakura resisted all forces of opposition to pursue a career in music that would begin at the London-based music university, British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM). But she left after the first year feeling that the university learning environment was not right for her, and returned to London as a self-employed musician the following year.
She met her partner, Joe Traxler. The two became connected through their passion for music and began to help each other launch their own solo music projects.
Creative Londoners: What was the first song you wrote?
Sakura Katsuura: It was called “Fall”. It’s alright, but I definitely feel like I changed my vibe with my music. I realised a year ago that I wanted to create music with the propensity to withstand time rather than just music that’s “current” or “popular”. I wanted to make music that’s authentic and true to myself, and that I could enjoy listening to in thirty years’ time — a guitar, a band, something that can always be around.
Sakura’s creative efforts culminated in the release of her first studio-recorded single as a music video this year. Her song “Evolve” is a heartfelt message of solidarity for anyone with the inclination to want to better themselves and the world around them.
Creative Londoners: How do you go about writing music that’s true to yourself?
Sakura: I try to do what I feel like is right for me. Aside from my influences from the 1970s, I want to incorporate sounds I would hear during my upbringing in Asia. So for “Evolve”, we have a lot of South Asian rhythms, and we have a Sitar programmed in there as well. I want to make that kind of sound more accessible to pop music – sounds that kind of define my heritage as well.
I love folky singer-songwriter music but I wanted to do something that was more myself as well. In Hong Kong you grow up in this big melting pot of a society with friends from all over the world. I took part in things like Diwali ball and all kinds of cultural exchanges, so I feel like that’s a big part of my upbringing. I’m not from one specific place, I have family all over the world and I want my music to be a showcase of my roots as well.
Creative Londoners: What specific influences from other countries have been important to you?
Sakura: I’m really interested in spirituality. I went to Nepal for a couple of weeks last month and it really inspired me. You see people of all different kinds of faiths and they live harmoniously together. It’s really cool how they can share a small living space and be friendly with each other. They have a lot less than us, but they seem a lot happier. We met people who have had their homes destroyed in the earthquake and it kind of puts your whole life into perspective.
I love stuff where you can feel the combination of religiosity or spirituality in everyday life – I incorporate that into my music aspect as well. “Evolve” is about moving forward in your life, trying to become a better person and realising that you can’t always say that one person isn’t going to change the world because that’s the only thing you can really do.
There are a lot of things happening in the world right now where you feel quite helpless because you can’t really do anything. It’s about how you just have to be open to evolving and be open to growing. I feel like we’re kind of seeing things happening that have happened before – a lot of hateful things. We as humans should grow from the experiences we’ve had and keep moving forwards, but a lot of the time it feels like we’re still in the same place.
There’s a big movement now of “immigrants get out… foreigners get out”, and I’ve experienced that a bit. And it’s hard when you’re self-employed – you can’t really get a working visa because you can’t get sponsorship from a company. And with Brexit and everything… and Trump and his wall… I feel like it’s only going to get more difficult. The current climate is very much like “this is our country” etc. But I feel like, you know, we’re all citizens of the earth. It shouldn’t be so strict. We all came from the same place; we’re all members of the earth.
Creative Londoners: If someone goes to your concert, what do you want them to say they’ve seen after the performance?
Sakura: Hopefully something that moved them. I tend to get really emotional onstage and keep my eyes closed for a good part of it. It’s not really about perfect vocals or perfect guitar playing, for me. It’s more about getting my audience to hear what I’m saying in my songs, to feel something and be touched.
Creative Londoners: What do you think music’s function is today?
Sakura: I think music in its essence is there to heal the population and give people an outlet to express themselves. That’s a huge part of it for me. If you’ve got things that you need to sort through in your own head, you need to put it to pen and paper and make something out of it because then it makes more sense to yourself. I feel like song-writing is great for learning about yourself because you realise things you’ve always felt but never really thought about.
It’s almost like giving birth. You get an idea that stays in your mind for weeks, months, years, and then the more that idea develops, the more you see things through its perspective and it helps you gain more parts to the story until one day you just sit down and write the whole lyric down. It’s a really cathartic process, and I’m sure it is for all kinds of creatives in their mediums of art, but I feel like it’s good to just let everything out. And if people enjoy listening to it or reading it that’s great, too.
When listening to other people’s music or seeing other people’s art, I think it’s important to see that other people are going through similar things to you. It relaxes you. I think that’s what is cool about art – you can touch people in a way that you can’t with anything else.
Creative Londoners: If you had just one message, what would it be?
Sakura: Be mindful about your everyday life and reduce the negativity that you’re outputting into the world.
You can follow Sakura Katsuura’s work via her Instagram (www.instagram.com/sakurakatsuura/) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/SAKURAKATSUURA/).
All photographs by Michael Wayne Plant, London-based portrait and social documentary photographer (www.michaelwayneplant.com | www.instagram.com/michaelwplant).