American singer-songwriter and music producer Josh Cumbee recently collaborated with J-pop artist Vicke Blanka on an acoustic rendition of the former’s debut single “Sound of Your Name.” Cumbee, a Los Angeles-based musician who has worked with numerous A-listers including Janet Jackson, Madonna, Chris Brown, Adam Lambert, Olivia Rodrigo and more, made his solo artist debut in February 2020.
The collaborative version of the track with Blanka pares down the original in a way that amplifies the heartbreaking moment depicted in Cumbee’s emotional ballad about being blindsided by memories of an ex. The two artists — both multi-instrumentalists who sing, write, arrange and produce music for themselves and other acts — touched base from LA and Tokyo in this remote interview with writer Minako Ikeshiro for Billboard Japan, which revealed that “great minds do think alike” despite differences in language and background.
Josh, “Sound of Your Name” is your debut single. Why did you choose this one?
Josh Cumbee: It’s a song I wrote with Jay Denton about a year ago and I kept remembering it and singing it a lot every time I took a shower or something. I figured the only way to get it out of my head was to release it, so that’s why I went ahead with it.
It’s a beautiful song that captures a moment that everyone is probably familiar with, about being caught off-guard by a phone call from an ex. Is it based on a real experience?
Vicke Blanka: What, really?
Cumbee: I fell hard for someone after graduating university and intended to marry her, but we ended up going our separate ways. Just when I thought I was over her, I experienced this heart-stopping moment when I heard the same name as hers being called in a coffee shop. I felt confused because I was sure I was over her, but our breakup sort of washed over me in that moment, and that’s what I based the song on.
What did you think about the song when you first heard it, Vicke?
Vicke: First of all, I was struck by his great voice. I heard it in my car on the way to a favorite ramen place, and reflexively thought that I wanted to sing with him, so I contacted the person in charge [of Cumbee’s material] right away.
Vicke doesn’t appear until the chorus halfway into the song, and then he closes the number. Whose idea was this arrangement?
Vicke: Me. I knew right away how to do the chorus part. I could tell immediately how I should join in so that nothing would be wasted and so that the result would become a moving duet. I join in halfway through the song, Josh and I chase one another, and in the end I mute him and leave my vocals in. He said it was great and just rolled with it, which was gratifying.
Cumbee: When I’m finishing up a track, there are cases when multiple exchanges are needed to feel out the other person’s intent, and then there are cases when the other person understands perfectly, and Vicke was the latter. It was really great, so I polished up my vocals during the mix to make them both stand out. I like the duet so much, I don’t want to listen to my solo version anymore.
Something you both have in common is that you play multiple instruments. What can you play?
Cumbee: I’m not super good at them, but I can play most instruments. Piano, guitar, bass, drums and the trumpet too.
Vicke: I mainly play the piano, and can also play guitar, bass and drums. I recently got myself a KORG MS-20 and intend to start using it. I use a computer to arrange music and to do rough mixes. I can also play left-handed guitars.
Do you play those instruments when you actually record music? Or do you ask session musicians to come in when you need those sounds?
Cumbee: When I’m making my own music, I play those instruments for the most part. I mess up a lot, so only use the parts that I’m happy with. When I recently worked with a Dominican artist, we used congas and upright bass, so we asked pros to play those, of course.
Vicke: I can play basic instruments, but I’m lazy so I’d rather play video games than practice to become professional-level at them. There are many excellent pianists in Japan, so I compose on my piano but trust others to play for the actual recording.
Cumbee: Hey, I like games too! I was just talking to someone earlier about how most famous producers play video games. I was saying how it’s probably because you’re immersed in the game when you’re playing it and it lets the music-making part of your brain rest, so it actually might improve productivity.
Vicke: I should emphasize that theory to my manager! [Laughs]
If you were to work on each other’s projects again, what would be the ideal way?
Cumbee: When this current social situation settles down, I’d like to write songs with him by communicating in the same studio. Bring ideas to the table and jam and make music that way.
Vicke: Since I was able to sing with him on one of his songs, I’d like to perform together onstage as a producer/DJ. My next goal is to work abroad as a producer/DJ, actually, because Japan lacks the environment to do that kind of work. Do you do any DJing at music festivals, Josh?
Cumbee: I’ve performed at a festival in Europe as the vocalist for a DJ set before. I don’t have DJing skills, so if we were to perform together, I’d probably sing or play while you handle that part.
Vicke: Sounds great. I don’t intend to sing when I perform abroad.
That’s a bit of a shame.
Vicke: I kind of think that unless you sound like a native speaker, the audience wouldn’t be able to relate to your music. Instead of investing time into that aspect, I figure it’d be better to ask a local singer to sing for me. Singing in Japanese is fine, I suppose, but in that case I think rock or anime songs would be better. Japanese doesn’t sit well with EDM.
Cumbee: You might not want to draw conclusions like that. A friend of mine, an English singer named Nick Howard, felt he had too much competition in the U.K. so he studied German for six months and is enjoying huge success in Germany now.
You probably both felt the effects of the pandemic during this past year and few months in terms of work. Could you share how you spent that time, and how you might be able to turn that experience into something positive in the future?
Cumbee: It was definitely really hard to do any kind of musical activity last year. Music is something that unites people, so it’d be great if we could all gather together to enjoy music again.
Vicke: Although I couldn’t go anywhere or do tours, I personally didn’t intentionally use energy to solve those problems. I figured it would end eventually, so I decided to just exist like water. After spending so much time focusing on myself, though, I started thinking about why I wanted to do music in the first place. And I remembered that it was because I wanted to be on TV at school during lunch and that singing made me feel good. [Note: Many Japanese schools use in-school PA/broadcasting systems to play music during lunch break, curated by students.]
Anything else you’d like to add?
Cumbee: I think I’ll be able to drop an album this year. And I’d love to sing in one of Vicke’s concerts.
Vicke: I’ve been making lots of music since 2020 and still have some that I haven’t released yet, so please look forward to those.