A year ago, Sen Morimoto was on the cusp of quitting music altogether. Instead, the Chicago-based, Japan-born multi-instrumentalist and producer channeled his disillusionment with the music industry and society at large into a new album, Diagnosis. He released it this fall on the quietly influential indie label he co-owns, Sooper Records, using his own blend of jazz, rap, neo-soul, and indie rock to rail against the rat race. “A lot of my music in the past is really peaceful, chill beats and thoughts about people and friendships,” Morimoto, 30, says. “And then this record was so much more outward-facing and it just felt like it had some urgency to it, which was new for me.”
Diagnosis is full of songs that address society’s systemic issues, as spelled out on a manifesto printed on physical copies of the album. (“Amidst the climate crisis, an unending pandemic, potent misinformation, growing political unrest, and other existential crises — society remains bound to the internal ‘logic’ of capitalism, broadly sacrificing human needs in exchange for profit and growth at all costs,” it begins.) But Morimoto handles these crises in often nuanced ways. On the title track, he talks about acquiescing to the game that you’re raging against; on “Forsythia,” which he sings partly in Japanese, he’s self-reflective and searching for peace amid the chaos.
These are subjects he’s been thinking about for a long time. In July 2020, Morimoto was booked to play Chicago’s Millennium Park for a live show that turned into a virtual performance due to Covid restrictions. Around the same time, protests against systemic racism and police brutality were taking place throughout Chicago following George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer in May. Chicago’s then-mayor, Lori Lightfoot, began raising the bridges to downtown during the demonstrations, a practice that continued throughout that summer, which would “trap everyone down there,” Morimoto says. Reports emerged of police brutality against protesters.
When Morimoto was told his virtual performance would be “presented by Lori Lightfoot,” he added a message to the beginning of his taping. “It was really what I thought was a pretty palatable message,” he says, quoting it from memory: “As an artist and a citizen of Chicago I’m really disappointed in the way Lori Lightfoot has handled the protests going on.” Organizers said the performance was great, but they wanted to cut his intro. He bowed out. Tasha, another Chicago-based musician who was also booked to virtually perform, left the bill in solidarity. The event was canceled.
“Transparency is part of what encourages all of us to be able to speak up about these things,” Morimoto says now. “That’s part of what went into how I’ve been feeling about the systems of every single unit that we live in — it’s not just the music industry. It’s parts of government or even grant foundations or things that invest in the arts. They all are trapped by these rules, because they need funding to exist and that funding always comes at the expense of someone else.”
As he continued more acutely examining society, these themes began to enter his music in a new way. “[That] made me feel like if I was going to keep making art, that I had to focus on that topic — otherwise, I couldn’t really just, I don’t know, write a love song or something,” he says. “And so I’m glad I gave it a shot, because it did feel a lot better to sort of lay it all down in the art. Because I think if I didn’t, I couldn’t keep doing it.”
Morimoto has been a full-time musician since he quit his day job bussing and waiting tables in late 2018. Back then, he was touring his debut album, Cannonball; his partner, Kaina, had also dropped her first LP, and momentum was building. Four years of a pandemic and a world on fire later, his resolve was shook. He and Kaina did what many in music did, finding side hustles, and then they hit the road again once they could — but it wasn’t enough.
“We put everything we had into the touring we were doing last year, and came home totally broke, depleted, just drained, discouraged, and so lost, honestly,” he says. “We spent the winter going into debt, still recovering from that and just feeling like, I don’t know, there’s not a viable way out, really.”
He considered his options. Then he continued to write. “I didn’t go to college or anything,” he says. “I don’t have a backup, really. I mean, I would work in restaurants. But it’s hard to make ends meet there, too. And that’s part of what I ended up feeling as I was writing the record. I think every field feels the same way. I don’t think people with a steady job somewhere are any less scared of what’s going to happen.”
Unlike his first two albums, which were more introspective projects where he played all the instruments and produced solo, this time he recruited members of his musical community to mirror the songs he was writing. While his lyrics addressing capitalism, climate disaster, and never-ending war can feel weighty, the music is wrapped in flourishes of saxophone (Morimoto’s first instrument) that give it a certain warmth, as do his sometimes softly sung and rapped vocals. It’s a smoldering rage. “Kaina and I say this a lot about the record,” he says. “We call it a loud record for quiet people.”
Meeting at Sooper Records’ new Chicago office — a modest studio loft where they relocated in October — Morimoto talked about the impetus behind the music, his feelings on touring, and how, despite the cynicism that life brings, love is still the guide.
You were thinking of quitting, but then at the end of 2022 you started writing for this album. How did that happen?
Music will always be a part of my life. I just don’t know if it’ll be something I pursue as my livelihood forever, because it does sort of, for lack of a better word, poison the special quality about that thing in my life. So I was just writing music, and I was realizing they were sort of all, maybe, angry. I don’t know. It was really different for me.
You discuss anti-capitalism on the record, but we all very much have to hawk our wares, and in your case, your art. How do you square that when your success depends on it?
I think there’s not an answer right now, which is depressing. But you have to have hope that collectively, we can come up with one. That’s sort of where I came to with the record. Like, if I had an answer, and I was able to put it on an album — I mean, it would become the most historically-important album of all time. [Laughs.] It probably would actually be ignored if it was like that. Nobody has an answer. And that was another big part that really shook me and had me in this place of exploring these thoughts when I was writing the songs, is realizing that I don’t have a person I can look up to. I think a lot of people feel that way too, now, where you realize not that your heroes are bad people or something like that, but that your heroes are stuck in the same system. And ultimately, there’s not one person who has the answer.
You also open the album with love (“If the Answer Isn’t Love”) and end it with love (“Reality”). They bookend everything else. Is it fair to say there’s some hope in this album, too?
“Reality,” I almost didn’t put it on the album, but that the note you had about it sort of bookending the album was the reason I ended up including it. I felt like it needed to be clear. Because this album, to me, is the first time that I feel like I really have a message that I would like to convey, and I really don’t want to be misunderstood. Or I hope it finds people where they’re at. So I wanted it to be really clear by bookending it with love, that it’s not a cynical record. I think cynicism is the devil. It’s the thing that will corrupt and corrode all of our movements for change that we’re looking to build. And it’s hard not to feel that way. There is totally a cynical voice within the record. But it has to be balanced with the reminder that there’s love and that love is the one thing you can rely on. I guess I was worried that if I didn’t make that really clear that the record would sort of lose its meaning. Like with “If the Answer Isn’t Love,” if it was just rage, then I don’t think it would mean anything. So to bring this sort of tender song at the end, that ties in the context of love in my own life and reminding me that those things are still beautiful and precious, even if everything around us is falling apart.
You’re being real but also humorous here, too.
That’s a part of my writing. It’s a little smirky throughout, and I do think you have to find humor in the parts that you can, otherwise it becomes cold cynicism… The first verse of “Reality” is pretty cynical — the commodification of art and sort of poking fun at that — because I was going to then in the second verse balance out with this part about love. The first verse of “Reality” is all about these hyper-minute details about the music industry, which is so small in the context of everything we’re dealing with in the world and even everything that I’m writing about on the album, but it sort of lays out a typical thought process in a day. For me, as a musician, it’s like, you know, opening up my phone and thinking about my engagement for my album release.
You’ve made the Diagnosis. Was the nonexistent track 14 going to be the cure?
I was going to go to the White House and play my album, and they were going to end war…. [Laughs.] There’s not an artist I can look to who created a life in art, and was by definition, successful without doing the thing we’re doing right now… That was saddening to me at first, but it’s also exciting to be part of a generation of people that are considering it. Ultimately, the reason love is sort of at the core of this record, and why it bookends the album, and is a topic that comes back through all the rage and sparse cynicism, is because that’s the only answer we have. It’s more of a precursor to an answer, that you cannot do it alone. There’s not one person who has that answer, right? And ultimately, the only way to find an answer is collectively. So the album is a lot more about connecting with folks who feel similarly. That’s what I hope the record does.
That’s sort of how I’m able to justify it to myself. Although I’ll be honest, not every day. Most days I wake up on tour, and I’m exhausted. It’s hard to feel like I’m doing the right thing. Kind of at all times, that voice is sort of in the back of my head, like “This isn’t different than what you’re complaining about. This is part of the same thing.” But I think that voice is sort of my cynicism, and this sort of shadow self that maybe has some good points to make, but it’s kind of actively sabotaging my ability to connect with people and actually have the conversations that I need to have to change these things. I mean, even putting these thoughts onto a record and then meeting up with you and discussing this today is like something that wouldn’t have happened to me. And it’s so beautiful. And I get to know that somebody else in the world in a totally different field with a totally different life is experiencing the same thing, and that we want the same thing. That’s the only answer I could come to for now.