The COVID-19 pandemic doesn't mark the first time musician, composer and visual artist Lisa Kori has faced isolation and quarantine.
In 2017, following a trip to Mexico, Kori took ill. It took eight months of extreme sickness and fatigue before doctors diagnosed her with giardiasis; the CDC placed Kori in quarantine for weeks, her only company a busted-up acoustic guitar and a laptop.
"I was basically stuck in my room," she says, "and I was trying to create the biggest sound I could."
First, she attempted to download various audio plug-in programs to flesh out her songs, but when Kori couldn't get the sounds she wanted, she wrote her own remodulator code. Using that and working her way around the guitar's shortcomings, Kori birthed the songs for the three-track single, Unseen, which was finally released recently.
These songs are absolute stunners, like an imperfect yet beautiful marriage of noise and melody. Beginning with the unsettling multi-track harmonious chants on opener "Unseen," Kori sets the stage for a dreamlike foray into -foggy strangeness. Her voice, layered on itself, sounds inviting in the early moments, but as it builds on itself, a hidden pain is slowly unveiled.
"I can say I was definitely angry and frustrated with the health care system," Kori tells SFR. "I was so grateful to get on Medicare, but I was also acutely aware that many people in this country don't have health care."
Kori next phases into the song "Quarantine," perhaps the most -accessible and relatable of the three and a beautiful bit of acoustic guitar over creeping audio effects and a sort of stream-of-consciousness set of lyrics.
"Never said I feared this ailing feeling, but I've run out of time/Yet I'm the one who looks at the ceiling, to find the sublime," Kori sings, pointing to a year lost in bed and time spent utterly alone. You can feel this one deep in your gut, a sense of powerlessness, the strength needed to do the simplest things; a new take on the lyrical idea of listlessly staring at one's ceiling while in pain.
Unseen is rounded out with the song "Summon," a subtly dense combo of phasing vocals and minimalist guitar akin to Thom Yorke back when that meant something. Again, Kori harmonizes with herself to almost spiritual droning effect. Noise elements rise up in the peripheral, threatening to overtake the guitar and voice but backing off until the last minute or so when Kori reprises themes set during the opener. It's dark and cacophonous and completely unexpected, but someplace within its jarring transformation, Kori brings things full circle, signaling erratic thoughts and terrifying illness. It's like the soundtrack to forced isolation. Perhaps that sounds obvious, but as the entire world recently learned how to relate to Kori's 2017, it suddenly feels more universal than most noise music ever does.
"I will tell you this—I wrote the music with faith that writing about illness and profound challenge was deeply humanistic," she explains. "The rest is up to the weird entropy of this strange planet with all these wonderful beings on it."
Indeed, how Kori achieved Unseen's content could easily be labeled as one big coincidence—how could she have reasonably known in 2017 when she wrote these songs that they'd become so thematically universal by the spring of 2020? It's far more fun to think of the pieceas strangely prophetic fever dream, though. Like something plucked in waves from a mind thrust into absurd circumstances we're all now positioned to fully appreciate.
Futher, if Unseen is a glimpse into the directions Kori plans to take her solo work, I'm here for it in a very real way. Up next, she says, is a potential alternate history concept album based in her heritage. She's of Japanese and Chinese descent, but was born and grew up in Hawaii. Certain vocal techniques from that state's Indigenous peoples have already found their way into Kori's music, but delving more into her Asian identity, she started wondering why there's very -little evidence of its existence in American music.
"American music is a lot of West African music mixed with Spanish -guitars mixed with Scotch and Irish -ballads," she says. "I'm thinking about how my Japanese side and my Chinese side…they lived in the American west, but their -music never really made it into the mix. Where are their work songs? I'm trying to write an alternate history as if Asian music had [been in the mix]."
That might conjure up dreams of country music given Kori's pedigree—and to a certain extent, she says, that's not too far off. Nevertheless, it's OK to hope for stranger or more experimental elements, and Unseen is the must-listen proof that she knows just how to do it.