The last thing Yukimi Nagano wants is to be understood. The seemingly random, stream-of-consciousness lyrics by the Little Dragon frontwoman often sound like gibberish. Consider “Pretty Girls” from the band’s fourth studio album Nabuma Rubberband:
“So Bubble Hills, don’t you ever burst / Never let her down /
Passing our time on the trailed out crumbs / The birds ate their round”
When sprawled on paper, the words seem to mirror the musings of hip-hop’s masters of non sequitur, cryptic slang, à la Ghostface Killah or Aesop Rock. Strange, considering their musical output is an amalgamation of electronic beats, trip-hop, new wave and dream pop—or simply “indietronica,” to use a much-maligned blanket term.
“I like to not make sense in my lyrics,” Nagano tells Cuepoint. “I’m very scatterbrained and not really the person who knows how to tell amazing stories that make sense and connect to people. I really admire people who can write like that. So, everything I write becomes imagery and random thoughts.”
From the way Nagano’s lyrics catalyze to the way she animatedly manipulates vocal spasms over the band’s lush production, Little Dragon embodies the art of unconventionalism. Together with drummer Erik Bodin, bass guitarist Fredrik Kallgren Wallin, keyboardist Hakan Wirenstrand, Nagano and company dwell in juxtaposition. Much like those aforementioned sparkling rap wordsmiths, she’s just as interesting to deconstruct as she is to listen to.
Nagano’s earlier work as a frequent collaborator with Swedish band Koop plays in stark contrast to the notes she is belting out now. Her idiosyncratic vocals for Little Dragon are the antithesis of what we find on songs such as Koop’s 2001 cut “Summer Sun,” which paints her as a remarkably polished jazz vocalist with an elegant voice. But that beauty was often found to be far too vapid for Nagano and led to her starting a band with her friends from high school, sharing similar ideas to challenge the status quo.
“With Koop I was just an instrument,” Nagano explains. “Part of your identity is what you are doing and I was just a voice through them. With Little Dragon it is my own words, voice and melodies.”
When the band started recording in 2006, Nagano admits that they knew that both their musical and visual aesthetic didn’t fit into any of the standard record industry boxes for churning out chart-topping hits. But their 2006 single “Twice” caught fire with its wintery keys and Nagano’s volatile vocals.
“We had no idea that song would become as big as it was,” the 32-year-old says of the track that has found its way onto Grey’s Anatomy, 90210, Revenge and Being Mary Jane. “[Band member] Erik Boldin had a friend who made children’s collage books and he was making music to accompany that. I walked in the studio and I heard the piano. I asked why use this for the kids book when we could make a song.”
Nagano says she immediately began jotting down words that came to her from that somber melody and shortly thereafter “Twice” was conceived.
“It was super-duper spontaneous,” she continues. “It’s one of those things you do without any idea where it will go. I don’t think I understood it was anything special until other people told us so.”
With “Twice” arguably being their most accessible song to date, the band was greeted by many silver-tongued suitors who did their best to shape their sound and persona to something more radio friendly.
“We were surprised when it was chosen as the first single because we didn’t think it was representative of what we were doing,” Bodin explains. “One of the first meetings we had with the owner of our previous label [Off The Wall] said he read about Amy Winehouse always being drunk and making a fuss. He joked that it was good and we should do the same. He thought we weren’t provocative enough.”
Instead of wrestling with the label to get their vision across, Little Dragon opted to prove that their brand of unorthodox audio connected with listeners by taking it on tour.
“Nobody from the label really paid attention or pushed our records so we had to go out and play live,” Bodin continues. Through Nagano’s eccentric live performances, appearing as if she is entranced by her own voice, the band gained notoriety that led to their first three albums becoming cult favorites. But without a song as big as “Twice,” the band might have been forced to allow outside collaborators to write or appear with them for the sake of marketability. Nagano was uninterested in anything that didn’t feel organic.
“These days everyone is so hungry for radio plays and hits that they don’t have enough confidence in the artist,” says Nagano. “There are so many writers and producers behind every song. That’s a lot of pressure for an artist to say ‘wait a minute, I have to work with all these people?’ But since we’re a group where everyone produces we’ve supported each other and never thought about working with another producer. And if we did, we want that to be our idea,” she continues.
Since debuting, Nagano has kept outside collaborations to a minimum. You may have caught her on Gorillaz’ 2010 album Plastic Beach, SBTRKT’s “Wildfire” or Raphael Saadiq’s song “Just Don’t.” But the band’s most prolific collaboration to date came courtesy of OutKast’s Big Boi, who featured the band on three songs off of his 2010 album Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors.
For a group of friends who spent their teenage years in Sweden listening to vinyl from De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, the idea of working with one-half of Outkast was simply too good to pass up.
“It started with our publicity girl in the U.K. who told us that Dre is a big fan and we thought she was talking about Dr. Dre,” drummer Erik Boldin says with a hearty laugh. When he realized she was talking about Andre 3000 and Big Boi, he felt silly, but was equally as excited to know that someone from the culture that he’s appreciated for years had taken a liking to the band’s music.
“We’re super big hip-hop heads, especially me,” Boldin explains about his long running affinity with rap. “I’ve been listening to American music forever. So when you finally get to turn that dream into a reality it is amazing.”
After connecting with Big Boi, the band immediately went to work on the song’s lead single “Mama Told Me.” After co-writing and debuting the song in August of 2012, some peculiar label politics took hold and led to Kelly Rowland replacing Nagano when the song was released in October that year. Nagano gives a dismissive shrug when asked about the controversy that led to the replacement but maintains that she is happy that she ended up appearing on three other songs on the album.
The collaborations helped push the band closer to the mainstream while helping establish a buzz for their fourth album Nabuma Rubberband. Perhaps their most commercially viable LP yet, the record was released in May and became their highest-peaking record to date. It also garnered the band their first Grammy nomination for “Best Dance/Electronica Album.”
But even with the Grammy nod, their lead single “Klapp Klapp” was just as abstract as their previous work, brandishing a maniacal bassline and skirting drums. And if that nets them their first golden phonograph statue, then it all happened just they way they hoped.
“My skill is to take the weirdest beats and those that are the most fun to figure out ways to sing on,” Nagano says. She accepts comparisons to her vocabulary-rich rap counterparts. “I think that those guys, like us, have the idea that anything that sounds typical is not exciting. We’re all allergic to being conventional.”