Mark de Clive-Lowe’s ‘Heritage’ is the Celebration of an Ancestral Journey

Mark de Clive-Lowe has been exploring his musical identity for years. A New Zealander whose career started in London, he now calls Los Angeles home, but his new album Heritage is a deeply personal exploration of his Japanese selfhood and lineage. We spoke about the album, part one of which comes out Friday, 2/8, on Ropeadope, and the journey it commemorates.

Tell me about the idea for Heritage, how you conceptualized it. Last time we spoke, you alluded to the seeds of it being a natural, organic process, but what sparked it?

“I was commissioned to do an event in LA in summer 2017, and I’d been thinking about doing this but didn’t have the music yet. I had to write some music and assemble a band — actually a hybrid band of my group and guests paying traditional Japanese instruments — most of it was written around that.” 未来の歴史 Mirai No Rekishi / History of the Future was “the full embracing of Japan and the rich musical and cultural tradition that I was raised with… something that resonates in me with a natural depth that has taken even me by surprise.”

[O-Edo Nihonbashi] (traditional Japanese folk song) performed live @ James Irvine Japanese Garden, Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC), Los Angeles

After the show, “I kinda shelved the project and felt like it was something, I just wasn’t sure what. Over that time I had been going to Japan a lot more regularly than usual and feeling a much stronger personal pull to my roots there. Whenever I’m there it’s profoundly deep how it connects — it’s the first time I’ve felt the literality of a spiritual home, a homeland. So that got stronger and stronger. The concert was actually preceded by an ayahuasca ceremony, maybe seven months earlier. When I reflected on that, the plant medicine showed me so much amazing stuff and a large part of it had to do with Japan, showing me how I connect and what I need to do. Of course the medicine doesn’t hand you a set of written instructions, but I do see it as the catalyst.”

Heritage “is about how I grew up,” he says. “I grew up bicultural, bilingually, primarily in New Zealand but I’d go to Japan a lot and ended up finishing school there. Even in New Zealand, my parents created their own Japan in our house. Reflecting on it now I realize how weird it was at the time — none of my friends’ houses were like that.” My parents, stationed at Yokota Air Base in the mid-70s, also adorned my childhood home with Japanese relics; our kitchen often smelled of yakisoba.

“Japan is very much in every way — societally, culturally — about the balance; the beauty in the balance and the imperfection in the balance,” Mark says. Even the whole honor and respect undercurrent is about keeping things in balance. If I compare that to a more Eurocentric culture, those kinds of things are kept in play and in place by religion, and that’s not the case in Japan; it kind of transcends that. Japanese people are not religious in the same way a Catholic country might be — they’ll be born Shinto, get married Christian and die Buddhist — whatever works, you know? I feel like taking religion out of the picture makes the ideas more acceptable. They’re actually the same ideas presented in so many other cultures, but once you put religion on it it stigmatizes and colors them.”

“Ryūgū-jō” — Live at Grand Performances, Los Angeles August 26, 2017

Balance and imperfections are referenced in “Memories of Nanzenji,” a temple whose grounds house the Tenjuan Gardens, which you call “intentionally designed to be in harmony with its surroundings.” Do you feel like there’s a parallel with improvised music there?

“No matter what kind of music it is, it’s all about striking about a balance. Whatever balance the elements are in will dictate what the music is, how it feels and the energy it projects. Oftentimes it’s those imperfections that make it so dope.”

The following spring, de Clive-Lowe revised some of the material for a show at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Transform Fest, “And that’s when I realized I really do feel very connected to this and I want to explore it more,” he recalls. “It just felt like the right time to take it into its next stage of life, which is an album.”

And the recording process was a mix of live and studio sessions?

“It was three nights at the Blue Whale, playing the same repertoire each night, then I took the rhythm section to the studio and did the same thing so I had options to choose from — it might be the trio playing in the studio with the horns from the live gig. It chops and changes, but I wanted it to be as seamless as possible; every now and then you catch some of the audience. When you’re committing to the act of playing live and recording that, that’s when some magic can happen. That studio day was ostensibly another live day but without an audience and without the full band. It was a really fun way to make the record and explore the sonic space that each composition occupies when we all play it together — that’s something you don’t know when you compose. You have intentions, but when you perform it with musicians, especially with an audience, all that engagement manifests a physical space in the world. Knowing that one time is really informative, then the next time you get to really play with it.”

The work is meditative yet propulsive.

“I wanted to be not overthought and not academic. “The Offering” is a great case in point — the melody is so simple when you put it down on paper, but it’s about taking that and creating a space with it and allowing the music to become what it wants to become.”

You reference the warrior in “Bushidō” and “Niten-Ichi,” which was inspired by a great samurai. How did you find the writing process to play out with these specific themes?

“Writing wasn’t difficult at all. It was consciously reaching into my childhood and how I feel about Japan — reaching out and touching that feeling. It was an interesting process where I had a very specific inspiration and personal experience, so then when I’d write this music I could tell straight away if what I had written resonated with the experience. There was no need to second guess anything. There was a lot more nuance with this music that I’ve never had before, and performing it, too, it feels like most genuine and honest music I’ve ever performed. I’m not trying to make some dope dancefloor stuff or some hip jazz thing — it’s just some music, and I know it’s heartfelt because of how I feel when I play it.”

It showcases an awareness of self, a mindfulness.

“The whole project at the core is an identity search. It’s a journey to understand myself, and you can’t be throwing the ego around with that, and you can’t force it to be something it’s not. There’s a lot of acceptance, and there’s a lot of vulnerability in that. Recording-career-wise, I haven’t been too big on letting my vulnerability show, so this feels like a very different thing and a turning point for me. When you’re a recording artist, your job, if nothing else, is to document stages in your life — that’s your art.”

How does your own notion of fatherhood play a role in this music specifically?

“I didn’t create this music leaning into that energy, but having committed it to album, over the last three weeks or so I’ve had some interesting reflections. The whole ancestry piece is really locking in for me. There’s a piece called “Mizugaki,” which is actually my mom’s family name. I spent three hours on the phone with her hearing stories from when she grew up, and I’m really understanding that my ancestors have got my back — they support what I do, they’re watching over me. In regards to parenthood, I’ve got my son — that’s my boy, of course I’ve got him — but all his ancestors have him. Understanding that family is a lineage and the importance of that is huge.”

That’s a big statement and sentiment to communicate.

“With instrumental music that’s sometimes a challenge. I’ve had people ask me in the past, ‘How do you know what to call something that has no lyrics?’ There’s a lot of intention on my part, and a security in that honesty — I know what it means to me; if you dig it, I appreciate that, if not, that’s cool too.”

Live at the Blue Whale

The last record was very referential to the past, to past masters. Now you’re referencing your own people.

“There’s a conversation right now about cultural appropriation. Those masters… I love Sun Ra and Ahmad Jamal and Yusef [Lateef], but ultimately they all told their own stories. All of those Jedi-level masters were doing themselves, reflecting their own lives — that’s the role.”

Mark has always been a fiercely independent artist whose polymathy has led him into an array of musical circumstances, and his view on the future of music consumerism feels just as well-informed. As Spotify and Apple gobble up market share, “[an indie artist] is working for this faceless, evil, corporate multinational,” he says matter-of-factly, while in the same breath offering, “The potential for art and culture to change humanity is immense.” After a positive meeting with an Apple Music exec, de Clive-Lowe saw that humanity at work, saying, “This guy on the inside is doing his best to keep it real, keep some purity, integrity and cohesion, and to really do what he can to improve the user’s experience in consuming music. That kind of thing does give me hope. Behind these big gates there are people in positions of responsibility and power in there who care.”

As we wrap up our conversation, Mark looks from his ancestral past to the future, adding, “There’s no shortage of artists who are ready to make a statement and I think there’s enough industry support and interest for those statements to be heard.”

Mark’s statement can be experienced live in the very place it was recorded, the Blue Whale, at the Heritage release shows, February 8th and 9th. Part II will be released in April.

rock ‘n’/lobster roll enthusiast.