Interview: Julia Mascetti, a British Harpist in Tokyo

Have you ever dreamed of moving to Tokyo to live and work? Well British harpist Julia Mascetti has done just that and is now enjoying life in Japan's vibrant capital as a freelance musician.

With a new EP 'In Distance, Everything is Poetry' launching in November, we caught up with the lady herself to find out how she turned her musical dreams into reality.

julia mascetti harpist emily valentine photography

Hi Julia!  What prompted you to start learning to play the harp? How old were you when you first started learning and how did your love for playing the harp progress?

I’ve been playing since I was 11. I like to say that it was the rich Celtic culture I inherited from my Welsh Dad. That’s probably partly true but I also think it has a lot to do with that scene in the Aristocats where Duchess plays the harp.

You now live in Tokyo and freelance as a harpist. Tell us about why you moved to Japan and what your experience as a harpist there has been like so far.

I've been interested in Japan since a teenager and I always thought it would be nice to live here for a while. The plan was to teach English for a year, have as much fun as possible then head home. What actually happened is I taught English for 6 months and I'm still in Tokyo 2 years later! There are so many opportunities for foreigners who want to freelance in Tokyo and I'm really enjoying it so far. Aside from harp, I do various things to pay the bills including music teaching, writing, modelling and yes, the odd English lesson.

As a harpist, the main difficulty was that I couldn't bring my 6ft concert harp on the plane with me. I had to buy one in Tokyo and opted for a much smaller Celtic harp for cost and convenience reasons. But actually this setback has turned into opportunity because the downsizing has encouraged me to try new repertoire and think about my playing in a different way. There’s a niche interest in Celtic culture here and most Japanese audiences react to me with curiosity and positivity.

What have been the highlights of your career so far?

Performing with Die Milch was a huge deal for me as I was a big fan of their music before we met in person. I was on stage in a gorgeous Lolita dress next to these living gothic dolls and I thought, yes, this is the crazy Japan life I want. There was also the time I was in Megan Valentine's band for her Tokyo mini-tour and one of our performances ended up being filmed for national TV. I've had strangers ask me if I was the foreign harpist who played Moonlight Densetsu on Zip! TV's breakfast show... it feels very weird!

What advice can you give to other British musicians thinking about living and working in Tokyo?

Obviously it really depends on what you’re interested in but for those who want to make your own music...  Japan is a writer's dream. I was in a creative dry spell when I arrived but living here filled my imagination. Tokyo's music scene has problems, like any city, but there's a lot of great stuff going on.

Japanese audiences are usually respectful and the venue staff professional. Your foreign-ness will be a double edged sword: some things will be difficult to break into but you'll also stand out. Obviously Japanese language ability is an advantage but don’t wait until you’re fluent to get started with music. I've found musicians and audiences mostly forgiving of my Japanese mistakes and there's also a good expat music scene here. Interesting side note: despite tipping culture not being a thing for waiting staff in restaurants, I’ve found Japanese people to be generous when tipping musicians!

What are your favourite venues to play in Tokyo?

Weirdly, both are lunar related, Celtic Moon and Aoyama Moon Romantic! Celtic Moon is an Irish cafe and bar, the food is amazing and the atmosphere is so friendly. The owners are really passionate about Celtic culture so I play a combination of British folk music and my originals for my gigs there, which is a lot of fun. What makes Aoyama Moon Romantic so special is that there is literally a massive moon on the stage. You can tell that the owner ready had a vision for the venue, everything is so atmosphere and dreamy. Playing on that stage is like I'm a magical harp girl in some gothic anime (which of course I am). 

Tell us about your new EP! When's it out / what inspired it / does it differ in style to your last EP?

It's out on 10 November 2017 and I am so excited! It's called, 'In Distance, Everything is Poetry,' and Japan is a major influence. Lyrical themes include culture-shock and long distance relationships, but I also sing about how much I hate the Megabus so hopefully something for everyone.

The style is so different it feels like I'm debuting all over again. Even though my first EP was released in 2016, it contained old material including a song I had written when I was 14, whereas the majority of this one has been composed within the last year or so. I feel that my style has matured and my lyrics are more nuanced now. Musically, where my last EP was gothic this one tends towards romantic and lyric driven; plus there's a shamisen on one of the songs which I'm pretty psyched about. 

julia mascetti harpist emily valentine photography
julia mascetti harpist emily valentine photography

What are your plans for 2018 and beyond? Any personal musical (or other) goals you want to accomplish?

At the moment my twin passions are music and writing and I'm trying to come as close to doing these full time as I can. The EP is coming out at the end of 2017 and I want to spend the first few months of 2018 sharing it with as many people as possible by gigging across Tokyo and further afield. Tokyo life really inspires me so even if my second EP isn't out yet it's not too soon to starting writing for a third...


In the lead up to the release of Julia's new EP, why not head over to her blog Tokyo Harp or check out her debut EP 'Hell is Others'.