Learn all about a joyful song that was born during sleep and became a celebration of motherhood and family history
As a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music, Calista Kazuko has taken her classical training and used it to forge a bold and immersive sound of her own – debut album Empress from 2019 remains an intriguing and absorbing listen. Kazuko is also an artist that is prepared to make the most of her platform, using her music to raise awareness for Refugee Week, frontline NHS workers, the prescription drug epidemic and other important causes close to her heart.
Her recent release, Panda, is theatrical in the very best sense. Never afraid to show its emotions, the song is a joyful celebration of motherhood and family, as Kazuko explains…
So I’m sure a lot of you songwriters can relate to the middle of the night voice memos?! I’ll come up with a song in my sleep and make the call whether it’s worth waking up to record. Often I’ll say, ‘Yes,’ cause in my dream I’ve written a world-changing symphony so I force myself out of bed, creep out the room so as not to wake my hubby, and croak out the genius. Unfortunately, when I listen back to the song in the morning it’s usually total garbage or I’ve ripped an Aretha Franklin song. Annoying yes but makes for a good laugh! Anyway, on this occasion the idea I had turned out to be a great start with the little “panda, panda” hook that builds the foundation of this song.
When I found out I was pregnant with our beautiful baby girl I knew I wanted to make a song for her. Becoming a mama really got me thinking about my own mum and just how incredible she is (also lots of thank yous along the way… thank you for enduring the swollen ankles and childbirth and the never-ending sleepless nights…).
Pandas are deeply loved by my Japanese family, in fact, my granny Kazuko (who I’m named after) had a whole room called The Panda Room (for any Animal Crossing fans, I’m obsessed with Pekoe as she’s basically our Gramma Kaz). We named our baby girl Minoë after her great-great-granny if you go directly up the female line – so calling the song Panda only felt right.
The lyrics are a love letter of thanks to my incredible, inspirational, FABULOUS mother, “Mama grace you’re fearless with your love…” “…Always connected yin to yang/Always protected in your hands, Sakura Queen…” (Sakura is a Japanese lullaby and my mum’s favourite).
I wanted to tell my mama if I can be half the mum she was to me to my own daughter then she’d be a very lucky girl, “…And as I grow, I hope that I can growl just like you…” Whilst googling adorable panda facts I found that they learn to climb on their mother’s backs. I loved this and so the first line is, “Learning to climb was easy cause I learnt to climb on you”.
Previously I would always write at the piano, but for this song, I started at the computer by recording the little “panda, panda” hook vocals and layering them up with harmonies. I had them playing on a loop and started messing around with some chord and melody ideas and the song was built from there.
Then I sat at the piano to see what happened. Below is the voice memo I made when first coming up with ideas for Panda where you can hear the chorus being created. I stop and start recording with new ideas so as not to forget anything.
Choruses usually come together organically as a whole for me with the melody and certain words or even lines coming in one go. I quickly record the idea when it comes, then take time to perfect and figure out the chords I like most with the idea. Verses I tend to be much more thoughtful with, taking time to craft the lyrics and melody more purposefully.
From there, I finalised the song’s form. It’s quite traditional with a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, instrumental, chorus structure. Although I like to think of myself as a rule-breaker, I often stick to this song structure – why fix what ain’t broke, right? I like to experiment within this structure though. For example, the first and second verse melodies are different until the pre-chorus. I was listening to Tori Amos’ (one of my absolute favs) album Native Invader and was inspired by her lovely instrumental in Up the Creek for the song’s bridge. I knew I wanted to do a fun piano breakdown so sat at the piano with the beat playing and came up with it.
IN THE STUDIO
We were very much still in Covid, so it seemed the perfect time to put together some tracks. A few songs came to life including Uchi, the lead track of the overall project, of which Panda belongs. I had a load of fun putting down production ideas and got to a place where I felt the song’s arrangement was in place. (Also many frustrated phone calls to my dear friend and mentor Guy Dagul with a, ‘Help me I’m in a weird loophole in Logic’ – thanks Guy!)
Lockdown lifted and we were finally able to go into the studio. I was lucky enough to record with the genius that is Ru Lemer at Temple Music Studio. We started by going through all the stems from my song and figuring out what to keep, what to re-record, and what to scrap. My long-suffering amazeballs band (drummer extraordinaire Fred Claridge and legend of the bass Sam Weston) came in for a few days and we lay a load of stuff down.
I was pretty preggie by this point and was getting very tired. The wonderful singer Ana Gracey who runs Temple set me up a little camp bed to nap in but, due to a Covid scare, I couldn’t go into the house so ended up snoozing in my car. It was such a beautiful time and SUCH a treat to make music IRL again after months of lockdown.
In classic Calista fashion, everything was done a little last minute so after we recorded I mooched off to have a baby. I then took four months of dedicated maternity to immerse myself in the milk-stained blissful mayhem that is motherhood. During this time Ru and I worked on the song over Zoom and voila, Panda was born (in more ways than one!)
We also filmed a super-fun music video starring my beautiful mama and our little bean. The incredible filmmakers Philip Reinking and Thomas Linton did such an awesome job making this very magical video. I laughed more filming this vid than I think I’ve ever laughed in my life and now I’m so excited to share this very special, personal song and film.