Orono Noguchi, chief songwriter and vocalist of the pop group Superorganism, thinks she’s an asshole. “I’m such an asshole,” she says. Noguchi is calling from the bed of a Chicago hotel room — the umpteenth hotel she’s been living out of since beginning the band’s first major tour this year — and we’re discussing what’s it like for her, a woman of only eighteen years old, to be on the road. She’s accountable to fans, responsible for delivering a powerful show each and every night no matter how she feels, and, on top of it all, she has a day-to-day need to be pleasant to her seven bandmates throughout the chaos of touring even when she’s feeling like, as she put it, an asshole. Her lyrics are often wry and self-deprecating — “I know you think I’m a psychopath” are the opening words to the band’s breakout 2017 single, “Something for Your M.I.N.D.” — so it’s not a total shock that it isn’t always easy for Noguchi to deal. “I can be selfish and self-absorbed and…what else?…the mood killer! I’m very moody,” she says. “I can’t help it. I’m like, ‘Well fuck you. I feel like shit right now and I have no choice but to project it on you.’ I’m sorry but, like, it’s my nature.’ ”
For the record, at least on this phone call, Noguchi is decidedly not an asshole: She’s curious and reflective and honest and a downright pleasure to speak with. And I don’t even think she thinks she’s especially an asshole. It’s more that she knows we’re all kind of assholes in our own way, and she’s just willing to admit it and explore it in her art, which is precisely why her band’s debut self-titled album — with songs about how she’d rather be a prawn than a conscious human sometimes and one called, aptly, “Nobody Cares” — has become such a sensation since its release last month. Noguchi’s social outcast status frames her as an observant truth-teller in the mold of the witty Stephen Malkmus, and in a world of phonies, it’s refreshing. “I’ve always been a lone wolf in some sort of way. I like just looking at people, and I like observing what kind of clothes they’re wearing or if their face looks weird. I’ve always made little mental notes, and I think that’s where a lot of the seed of the songs come from,” she says. “Everyone in this band is an outsider.”
That’s true: Only real weirdos could have made Superorganism, the band’s debut, and already one of the year’s best albums. Live, they look something like acid-tinged Hare Krishnas, or at least like the cool cast of an old iPod ad, wearing brightly colored shrouds and banging on tambourines. It is internet maximalism at its most fun, a collection of ten warped synth-and-rock-pop songs that bend and break and explode with glittering joy, Noguchi’s deadpan voice floating on top to ground it all in a little irony and nonchalance. It is a sound that’s, to put it succinctly, all over the place. “I think our sound is the result of streaming becoming so relevant, because with streaming you get instant access to all music,” she says. “And I think that kind of fucks with your perspective. Growing up in the Eighties or whatever, you’d be with a specific group of people listening to a specific type of music. But people now are more open-minded and not leaning towards one specific thing.”
Even the band’s origin story is a winding and odd one, only possible because of life online: guitarists and synth players and saxophonists and backup singers from England, Australia, South Korea, and New Zealand (they, including Noguchi, live together in a house in East London now.) Noguchi was late to the party: Most of the other members had been in a band called the Eversons previously, but writer and producer Mark Turner (who goes by the name Emily — everyone in the group has special names for the band except Noguchi) was internet friends with Noguchi (who had been posting “really shitty garage band cover songs” online), had a hunch she’d be a perfect addition, and invited her into the fray in early 2017.
“It started off with Emily messaging me the day after my seventeenth birthday: ‘We’re starting a new project and we don’t really know what it’s going to be, but do you want to be part of it?’ ” Noguchi remembers. “I was like, ‘Sure.’ ” Emily sent her a demo, and Noguchi wrote and sang “Something for Your M.I.N.D.” over it on her laptop. “The song came naturally. It was Sunday morning and I was bored in bed and I had a vague song idea: I was thinking about a friend who I used to be close with but was not anymore. He was an asshole and I think I was an asshole and so I blocked him. And there you go.” Once the song was completed, they were a band. “There wasn’t, like, a formal initiation,” she says. They posted the track to Soundcloud with only this text as a bio: “We are Superorganism. We are in Maine/London. We are DIY. We are eight and multiplying. We have become sentient.” The song gained momentum, and they were quickly signed to Domino Records.
Though Noguchi was born in a suburb of Tokyo, she was attending boarding school in Maine at the time, so she had to record in her dorm while her roommate was using the bathroom. She had wanted to go to boarding school in the U.S. herself, raised in Japan in a culture of high scholastic expectations. “A big part of me going to the States when I was fourteen was that I just really wanted to eventually go to college in the States, doing the SATs” — she says she scored around 1400 — “and AP classes,” she says. She was an only child raised by a mom and dad working in managerial roles at big companies. “When I was a toddler my grandpa took care of me. But I really missed my mom. One night when she came back at 10 p.m. [from work], I was crying and begging her to stay with me,” she says. “And so she like quit her job and became a mom 24-7.”
Noguchi grew up with music: Her mom loved saccharine J-pop, while her dad was an indie rock fanatic and “music nerd” who took her to see Weezer when she was five. “That’s why indie is my sweet spot,” she says. She developed her own tastes, too, right in line with the Y2K era. “Primarily Disney Channel, like Hannah Montana and Demi Lovato. And then I kind of had a phase where I was obsessed with the TV show Glee,” she says, not entirely proud. She cycled through playing a number of instruments. “My mom made me take piano lessons when I was in first grade, and I did it for maybe a year or two, but I had to quit because my teacher was a bitch and I wasn’t having fun,” she says. “Then I played the recorder and then the saxophone and then the guitar. And I’ve pretty much been writing songs ever since. Even when I was starting out and only knew how to play basic chords like C and G, I just used those two chords and wrote songs.”
Her songwriting now bears all these disparate influences gracefully, with pop hooks that would make Hannah Montana proud and wry lyrics that could put her head-to-head with Liz Phair. The album has been a marked critical success, as well as a fan favorite, and at eighteen, Noguchi is displaying the kind of talent that could carry a career, something even her parents have come to accept as they’ve watched her spread her wings. (For the record, she did, indeed, graduate from high school.) “They were a bit shocked when I was like, ‘Hey, I’m in a band now and I’m moving to London,’ ” she says. “But their whole vibe is, as long as you’re safe and you don’t ask us for money and don’t fuck with us, we don’t care what you do. And so I say OK.”
So what’s next? Superorganism will spend the year touring the world, and when they settle down, Noguchi will plan her next steps: a solo project, maybe, if she feels like it. “Why not?” she says. More realistically though, she’ll stop being a rock star and go back to school. “College,” she says of her plans. She likes London with her bandmates, but she doesn’t have a ton of friends, and life on the road is more chaotic than she even imagined. “It’s a risky job. There’s no stability whatsoever involved,” she says. More than anything, at this moment, it sounds like the only thing on her mind is finding the time and space to be a regular old asshole and still get along in the world, just like the rest of us. “When I feel like shit, I’m like, Well, I have to play a show in like two minutes. I decided to do this. I have to suck it up,” she says. “Got to stop fucking crying.”
The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.