RADAR Sessions: Shinobi Ghost is contemporizing neo-soul in exciting ways

Though there is a dearth of Shinobi Ghost’s smooth-sounding blend of neo-soul and alternative R&B on the internet, they’re an active group and driving force in the Inland Empire’s burgeoning independent music scene. The band of six is composed of lead singer Marlena Martinez, bassist Anthony Singh, keyboardist Jonah Huang, drummer Michael Barrera, Bijan Tabrizi on guitar and on the violin is their newest member, Jordan Hang; each member hails from different areas in the Inland Empire, “everywhere in between Rialto to Claremont,” according to vocalist Martinez.

Like fellow I.E. musicians Dreamlover whom we featured in our July RADAR Session — a band whom they’ve shared a lineup with on more than one occasion — Shinobi Ghost frequents local venues like Back to the Grind and Mission Tobacco Lounge, as well as spots in LA county like dba256 and Three Clubs. A good portion of breakthrough artists rely heavily on plays through platforms such as Soundcloud or Bandcamp to establish their legitimacy, but homegrown acts like Shinobi Ghost have built their reputation through a steady stream of live shows and word of mouth.

Shinobi Ghost properly formed over a year ago as a trio, but their current incarnation is a considerably different iteration of the band than it was this time last year. Huang, one of the original members, says the band began as “a hip-hop production slash rap group” rather than the genre-bending outfit they are currently. Bits and pieces of this sound are evident on two of the three recorded tracks up on their Soundcloud, “Cloud” and “Your Way.” Both call to mind the uber mellow variety of production found on independent hip-hop artists reaching back in time, channeling a jazzy lounge aesthetic to complement Martinez’s soulful crooning. Yet in their time since recording, the band has nonetheless found ways to distance themselves from that direction.

Their sharp songwriting and contemporary take on neo-soul appeals to pop sensibilities, all without having proper hooks to latch onto. Instead, the most memorable portions of their songs are the moments that explode with an unpredictable vigor. As a frontwoman, Martinez has commendable control of her voice, gliding over even the band’s more unpredictable moments like on the unreleased track “Factory Hearts.” During performances, she’s in tune with her bandmates, dancing and singing with a confidence that will inevitably move a crowd to dance. It’s not often that a single violin plays such a key role in this flavor of alternative R&B, either, yet one of the more surprising features this band boasts is how smoothly incorporated Hang is on the strings. It’s not an instrument as omnipresent as the keys or bass, but its presence is hard to ignore with how wonderful it can be. “Three,” another song yet to be released, makes generous use of this violin, weaving it in delicately before giving way to a restrained solo from Tabrizi. Add a funky bass lick to the tail end of that solo and the result is a hell of a synthesis of all the parts that make Shinobi Ghost so exciting. If “Three” is reason alone to predict or judge the future of their music catalogue, it’s looking bright from here on out.

As far as influences are concerned, a unanimous Erykah Badu response emerged from the group when asked, followed by jazz composer Wayne Shorter; Badu’s influence can be felt in Martinez’s singing, whereas the more playful instrumentals owe a great deal of their intricacies to jazz musicians like Shorter. In the spirit of the jazz music that inspires all six of them, improv is fundamental to the way they write and perform their music. To them, improv represents “freedom, taking risks … it’s interactive, it’s alive.”

In between the back-and-forth chatter about why improv is important, Singh chimes in, saying “sometimes we’ll just be playing something then feed off what each other’s playing and that’s often how a song will develop.” Seeing them perform live, it’s easy to see what they mean as they constantly seem to be reinventing themselves as if pulling the job off as they’re going along.

When they think about their past, their answers are honest and refreshing. As far as missteps in the past, Huang responds by noting “there aren’t really any mistakes. We practice and if something doesn’t go the way we want it to, we’re still practicing and getting better.” Looking forward, they hope to expand their undeveloped online music catalogue to reflect what they’ve currently got cooking and work on an album. Their ideas are vivid, from emotional scenes of herculean proportion to complement their music in the form of visual media to playing shows beyond the reaches of LA and the I.E. These ideas are just within reach, so before their inevitable blow up, support them the next time they drop by your local venue.