The guitarist Hiroya Tsukamoto tells a story. About four years ago, in Hamden, Conn., he made a friend, a professor at Quinnipiac University.
“He took me to this mountain,” says Tsukamoto, “called the Sleeping Giant.” The mountaintop, two miles long, looks like the silhouette of a figure lying down. “He asked me to compose a piece about it.”
The professor sent Tsukamoto books about the history of the mountains. The place was originally sacred to the Quinnipiac Indians. Tsukamoto wrote a song, “Hobbomock,” named for the evil spirit who, according to legend, became angry at the treatment of his people. Another spirit cast a spell on him, causing him to sleep forever.
“Hobbomock” is the first song on Tsukamoto’s newest album, Window to the World, released in 2021. It begins with intricate fingerstyle, a guitar technique that Tsukamoto is known for. Over a steady pulse on the guitar’s lower strings, Tsukamoto spins the quicker notes, delicate but insistent. A melody begins, clear, as if a second guitarist is playing. But Tsukamoto plays every part, layering the music with looping pedals.
In “Hobbomock,” Tsukamoto also sings. Halfway through the song, the guitar parallels his voice an octave above. It’s quiet, eerie, like a myth hovering behind something real. Near the end of the song, Tsukamoto breathes out. It sounds like wind, or a sleeping giant sighing.
Tsukamoto’s style is impressionist in its subtlety and range, moving deftly from precise staccato to warm, gentle strumming. His music takes on a life of its own; rising and falling, the looping pedals allowing dense harmonization. He plays into existence a landscape that feels tangible enough to step into.
In Kyoto, Japan, where he grew up, Tsukamoto took up the five-string banjo at age 13. His friends played the guitar, inspiring him to eventually pick it up, too.
“I started writing simple songs with lyrics when I was in high school,” he says. At 21, he began to study with a guitar teacher. Then, in 2000, at age 24, he moved to Boston with a scholarship to study at the Berklee College of Music.
“Berklee has lots of students, and some of them are very good,” he says with a laugh. “And I sucked.” But, he adds, he soon improved.
After releasing his third solo album, Places, in 2014, Tsukamoto began touring across the U.S., playing shows as far away as Port Townsend, Wash., where he could see the shores of Vancouver Island across the water. When he travels, Tsukamoto says, he soaks up the nature he sees and the people he meets, collecting experiences that make for good stories. These stories, in turn, make for good compositions.
Traveling has other advantages, too: “When I go to different places, somehow I can compose a little easier.” He laughs. “And maybe I have a little more free time.” With kids at home, he says, “It’s kind of hard to focus.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Tsukamoto had to curtail his travels. Living in Queens, in locked-down New York City, Tsukamoto says, “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have much energy to create new music. I thought there was no inspiration.” Somehow, he wrote songs anyway. Inspiration is a mystery, he says: “Sometimes music comes out easily and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Still, he didn’t do it alone. He received encouragement in the form of messages from people from his past. “They said ‘I want to hear your new music!’ ” Tsukamoto recalls.
Now, traveling and performing again, he says he wants to open windows for his audiences. At Wellfleet Preservation Hall on July 7 at 5 p.m., Tsukamoto will do just that, performing some old music and some new compositions, not yet on any album, written during the pandemic.
When Tsukamoto performs, before most songs, and sometimes even during a song, he pauses to speak, telling the story behind what listeners are hearing. “So, people can connect the stories and the music,” he says. As he tells stories of his family and the people he has met on his travels, he wants his audiences to think of their own families and friends, their own travels and their whole pasts.
He says he strives for something a little different in his performances: “I just try to be honest when I present my music,” he says. “I try to share everything about myself.” Honesty welcomes strangers, he says: “When they feel that kind of honesty and that approach, when they talk to me afterward, I feel like I was good.”
Window to the World
The Event: Summer Sounds Concert Series: Guitarist and singer Hiroya Tsukamoto
The Place: Wellfleet Preservation Hall, 335 Main St.
Time: Thursday, July 7, 5 to 7 p.m.
The Cost: $18 general admission; $19 at the door; $12 for kids 13 and under