Album Review: itta – Eyewalk

[Aural Canyon; 2022]

Music has always been an essential part of itta‘s existence. Sure, this is something that could be said about nearly any musician, but it takes on a graver meaning for her. Long before she began to be celebrated in certain circles for her work alongside her family (she records alongside her husband and young son) as TENGGER, her family’s very security depended upon her natural talents.

About to graduate high school, the world lay before itta’s feet. Then, suddenly, her father passed away from alcoholism. Her mother collapsed in shock. With her younger siblings in middle and elementary school, she suddenly found herself in a position of needing to care for her family. She began working at a record store, but following a horrible experience with the store’s owner, she began to focus on playing songs by request in a pub. At first, it wasn’t so bad, as she found work in an establishment owned by a friend’s mother, but a year later, the pub closed its doors. She found herself working in various pubs, hardly making ends meet.

This would turn out to be the most influential moment in her young life, at least when it comes to what would allow for the making of recordings such as her new album, Eyewalk: the pubs she was engaged by had no set up; no piano or organ as she was accustomed to. She found herself in need of a portable instrument. A local music shop owner offered her a used Yamaha SY35, to be paid for in instalments. At first, she reviled the instrument; the debt it forced her into in order to make a living at all, not to mention the unfamiliarity of it. At the time, she still vastly preferred what she saw as the “natural” sound of the piano, and viewed her synthesizer as simply – and poorly at that – “reproducing” sounds.

All that would quickly change. She fell in love with the instrument and its possibilities, feeling she was entering something of a dream as she turned the knob. As her mother’s health improved and her sisters grew up, she found herself with more freedom. She joined a band named “10” (TENGGER’s former name) with future husband Marqido, and she began using toy instruments as her primary means of expression (aside from her voice). She essentially said goodbye to her Yamaha.

This didn’t change when she released her last solo album, Enter, where she opted to create the album solely using her voice. The recording of Eyewalk began much the same, but she gradually grew to feel that an additional instrument would add something to the creation. In part, it was the pandemic that led her to miss her former instrumental companion, so when she discovered a Yamaha with essentially the same specifications as her old SY35 while browsing a used instrument store in Japan, she was quick to gleefully grab it up.

Thus, Eyewalk‘s genesis began in earnest. She found herself recording the opposite way from what she was used to: creating instrumentals before laying down vocals. The results are inarguably the most stunning collection of songs she’s released to date, calling to mind the beauty of Julianna Barwick’s Nepenthe.

Opener “Cosmic March” drifts between ethereal, wordless vocals and the cerebral, gentle strikes and warbles of her given instrument. It’s a gentle entrance into a delicate world, one so carefully poised so as to make the listener feel invasive.

Eyewalk is deeply personal yet also feels universal, laying bare emotions for the listener to absorb (and no doubt be deeply moved by). For the album’s lengthiest song, “Strata”, itta recorded the vocals via a loop pedal, emphasizing the process of building up sounds, becoming something of a musical stratum. The words themselves are striking: “긴 세월을 견딘 마음 (a heart that has endured a long time) / 얼마나 기다려 왔을까 (how long have you been waiting) / 그 마음을 나에게 보여주기까지 (Until you show me that heart.)”

At other times, the LP is based in pure improvisation. This is heard in “Empty is Not Empty”, where the sound of her son playing recorder in the adjoining room seeped into the recording. In these unplanned ways, Eyewalk developed additional layers unexpected by even its creator.

In short, Eyewalk is a paradox. Calculated yet free, boundless yet contained, it not only ranks as itta’s finest work to date, but slots right alongside the very best of TENGGER’s work. It’s a glimpse into a soul that has been wounded but has repeatedly refused to be put down too far. It’s the work of an individual that has found beauty in each waking moment of her life, even in this time of uncertainty. Its earliest inspirations tell a tale so as to make just about any of us feel privileged and saddened at once, yet it ultimately reaches far beyond those memories into some grand, unknowable tapestry of pure, hard-won serenity.