Fuji Rock 2014 had opened on Thursday night with its traditional pre-party, in which thousands gather in the Oasis of food and drink stalls to gear up for the 3-day festa – this year sans Kanye West, who mysteriously pulled out to leave the line-up looking a tad weak. Fortunately, Fuji Rock has never been just about the music. Warmth was the theme of this year’s event, with act after act sharing their appreciation for the Japanese crowd.
It should have happened by now. Optimists in South Korea had expected K-Pop to invade the US even before Psy went supernova in November 2012 with Gangnam Style. But tours by the likes of the Wonder Girls, sold out shows in New York by Girls Generation and a Will.i.am collaboration with 2NE1 have all as yet failed to place K-Pop at the top of the charts – or in the popular consciousness of the American public. But now Crayon Pop, a five-piece girl group only formed in 2012 by Chrome Entertainment have achieved quite a coup. Late last week Lady Gaga announced via Twitter that the quintet will open her summer concerts in North America.
Three hours north east of Bangkok, the traffic has ground to a halt. Surrounded by the evergreen forests and grasslands of Khao Yai National Park, the cars soon find themselves backtracking from an unexpected menace – wild elephants on the road. A few minutes away though, there is no stopping the momentum of Thailand’s biggest musical event, the Big Mountain Music Festival. Now in its fifth year, and held on Khao Yai’s Bonanza Racetrack in picturesque nature, it has grown into the largest festival in South East Asia, attracting 130,000 people over two days.
While the Japanese music charts are dominated by J-Pop, an alternative scene has been bubbling up in Kobe. Already spreading to Shibuya, Tokyo, the movement is best described as worldly indie-pop, and is led by artists shunning the local music and instead taking their cues from the likes of the xx, Cat Power and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. At the forefront of the movement is American-born artist BOMI, who in December 2013 took to the new artist stage at Thailand’s Big Mountain Music Festival. “People are free here, so they dance, scream and shout, with freedom,” the 26 year old told ARTINFO. “It’s not like this in Japan.”
Ayaka Nishiwaki, Ayano Omoto and Yuka Kashino, better known as “A-chan,” “Nocchi” and “Kashiyuka” to their fans, make up J-Pop dance unit Perfume. All in their mid-twenties, the usually technicolor-dressed trio formed some 13 years ago in Hiroshima, starting life as an Akihabara idol group, but quickly emerging as an electronic dance unit, thanks to the knob-twiddling wizardry of producer Yasutaka Nakata. BLOUIN ARTINFO Japan caught up with the group at NHK’s studios to discuss a burgeoning career that has seen them tour worldwide this year, encounter new fan bases, and release their first new studio album in two years through a recent worldwide deal on Universal Music.
Times gone by are often treasured in retrospect, but rarely as they were actually experienced. Tony Bennett grew up in the golden age of American popular music, listening to the standards as they were first being released, working with the icons of the early 20th century, and then joining their ranks during the 1950s pre-rock’n’roll era as he made his own name. Spending time with him now feels magical in the moment, partly due to the feeling of warmth, honesty, and star quality of a man who can tell tales of Billie Holiday first hand — but also because at the age of 87, it’s clear that his love for being onstage has not ebbed one bit.
This month, Blue Note unveiled a new voice in jazz, a man whose pedigree on two independent label albums earned him consecutive Grammy nominations. Dubbed a “Soul Poet” for his lyrical tenacity in terms of social commentary, Gregory Porter sings in a booming baritone from the heart — a heart that he has already interpreted to be his very own “bling.” In Tokyo for a series of dates on what has become a non-stop round of international shows for the in-demand singer, Porter’s reputation as a spiritual thinker – words flowing from his mouth like a sonneteer – proves precise even during a morning encounter in classy Aoyama.
Fuji Rock Festival has never been about just the music. For the army of campers who ascend the mountains to Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata, the songs are the soundtrack to days away from the claustrophobic city humidity, traded in for dips in rivers and waltzes through forests in the mists and rain around Yuzawa. Murmurs of discontent with the actual lineup seem to pervade the Thursday pre-party atmosphere each year, though if there’s anything that regular Fuji rockers know, it’s that the Monday morning descent back is always fuelled by tales of unexpected new musical discoveries, and stage sets that blew expectations away.
When the Summer Sonic music festival began in 2000 as promoter Creativeman’s flagship event, it stood in a field of just two international music events, alongside Fuji Rock. Despite the onslaught of domestic music festivals from Rock in Japan to the Rising Sun Rock Festival, Summer Sonic has since gone on to solidify its reputation thanks to headliners like Coldplay, Jay-Z, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and Rihanna, as well as its proximity to downtown Tokyo. BLOUIN ARTINFO Japan caught up with founder Naoki Shimizu at his Harajuku office to discuss how he is “donating” the Sonic brand for free, and why his competition isn’t coming from within Asia, but rather from Europe and America.
J-Pop singer Chara is really anything but. Originally the pioneer of high-pitched vocal gymnastics, the now 45-year-old songstress was a revelation when she debuted with her ultra-girly delivery, and within a year copycats acts were everywhere. She inspired a generation of imitators from Yuki all the way to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, but after just a few albums left pop behind and found her own voice, tackling soul, R&B and rock, reinventing her sound by listening and learning from everything around her. At this year’s Fuji Rock Festival, her latest unexpected unit came with the simple moniker Chara x Yusuke Kobayashi x KenKen, where ARTINFO sat down with the trio.
At sweet sixteen, Japanese pop phenomenon Hatsune Miku has her whole life ahead of her. In fact, she may have an eternity, because unlike her rivals she hasn’t aged a bit since her 2007 debut. And there are no tantrums or tiaras either, despite a number-one album. This teen only needs electricity. With her trademark cyan pigtails, tomboy necktie and thigh-high boots, Miku’s faultless performances defy her youth. But then, as a hologram, it’s not her lack of faults that has garnered legions of glowstick-waving fans, it’s how very lifelike she, and the rise of digital pop stars, has become.
Catching up on the year’s music in two days is easy. Just ask the 210,000 who attended Summer Sonic in Tokyo and Osaka this past weekend, making it the largest music festival in Asia. The self-proclaimed “city festival,” designed for the convenience of the largest potential audience possible, closed with its annual fireworks above Marine Stadium in Chiba on Sunday, August 11, capping its most successful event ever.
Korean-American singer Priscilla Ahn may be an LA girl, but it’s in Japan that fans seemed to have warmed to her most. On her ninth visit to the country, she brought a band for the first time, presenting a new, fuller sound at Fuji Rock Festival that pits her crystalline voice against electronic beats and indie rock drums. Born in Georgia but raised in Pennsylvania, Ahn has spent the last ten years in Los Angeles. Yet despite her family on her mother’s side being Korean, she has been learning Japanese, even singing two songs in the language at Fuji Rock’s Red Marquee, where she presented her new sound to the Saturday morning crowd after just three rehearsals.
Tokyo celebrated “Festival Brazil” in July with thousands of revelers gathering in Yoyogi Park, many of whom were there to see headline performer Luan Santana perform his brand of sertanejo universitário – a genre new to many. Santana, who has become one of the most popular and successful performers in his homeland at the age of just 22, addressed the Brazilian and Japanese media before the show, expressing his admiration for the politeness of the Japanese on his first visit to the country.
Tokyo, a city of 35 million, boasts a wealth of performance venues of all kinds, offering a plethora of concerts and events every month across a range of arts. BLOUIN ARTINFO recently took a look at some of the best places to catch contemporary dance, and now presents the top six concert halls to catch opera, ballet, theater, and classical music.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most extraordinary songs to reach the top of the U.S. Billboard charts, a song named after a hot-pot dish that changed the perception of an entire nation for many, and set a bar that no other Asian act has yet been able to achieve. That song is Kyu Sakamoto’s 1963 classic “Sukiyaki.”
Japanese singer Bird prefers not to be stereotyped. Though her name recalls the legendary Charlie Parker, she says there is no specific link (in fact it came from the fuzzy hair she once sported that producer Shinichi Osawa dubbed a “bird’s nest”). Real name Yuki Kitayama, Bird has established herself as one of the most genuine voices of Japan in the last ten years, while fads have come and gone, her versatile voice has adapted and resonated with new generations of listeners, from pop to jazz to R&B.
Visual artist Remo Camerota has always had a knack for adapting to new technologies. A fine arts graduate from Melbourne, he has worked in animation, cutting edge TV editing and special effects, and most recently made his name with urban painting and photography. Now Camerota has joined forces with animator Kiyoshi Kohatsu and programmer Pietro Zuco for a unique collaboration with the US new wave group Devo, creating a new edition of his Kit Robots series entitled “DevoBots.”
When artist Storm Thorgerson, creator of iconic LP covers for Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, died earlier this year, it seemed like the age of art in rock had finally passed with him. While the need for cover art shrunk (quite literally) during the CD era, the digital age has created a musical landscape that does not require any cover art at all, arguably depriving a generation of listeners of the rich association that these visuals impart. Many of these are good enough to hang in galleries, and used to be as vital to a new release as the music itself. One artist though, Kii Arens, has found a niche in which he keeps this spirit alive.
Ten years ago, promising 16-year-old classical violinist Akiko Yamada, educated in France at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Paris, was collecting trophies at international competitions for her talent. But then, following a series of severe health issues that began with a trapped nerve in her arm, she disappeared from public view. For a long time, it seemed to both her and her fans that Yamada’s fledgling career was already over. Ten years later though, the youngest ever winner of the first Grand Prix at the Concours International Long-Thibaud (2002) returned after what she calls “a long pause of reflection.”
Japanese R&B singer Crystal Kay has been expanding her horizons of late. From performances at London’s Royal Albert Hall, to collaborating with Far East Movement in Orlando, Florida, the 27-year-old singer has been spreading her wings internationally – most recently via “Dance Earth,” in which she took to the stage for the first time as a character in a musical theater production. BLOUIN ARTINFO caught up with Kay to discuss her coming English-language album, and the decline of R&B in Japan.
It’s hard to judge if Hideo Nakata directing AKB48’s Atsuko Maeda is a match made in heaven or hell. Either way, admires of either are likely to be divided by horror film “The Complex,” set to open across Japan on May 18 2013. At its Asian premiere, Nakata, 51 – best known to western audiences for shock-horror movies “The Ring” (1998) and “Dark Water (2002) – exacerbated the multiple contradictions of the movie as he danced jovially besides Maeda and co-star Hiroki Narimiya.
The fields around Khao Yai, 3 hours north of Bangkok, are for the most part of the year, the playground of cows. Human visitors usually come here to stroll in Thai wineries, ride TGVs around the hills and taste fresh steak. But in early December the landscape is transformed for three days into the only place to be for music fans in Thailand. Now in its fourth year, the Big Mountain Music Festival has already grown in to the largest music event in South East Asia, hosting 60,000 revellers from Friday night December 7th through to its finale on December 9th. ARTINFO caught up with rock band Potato right after their main stage performance.
UK boy band One Direction arrived in Japan to hoards of fans at Narita Airport, and then faced the press, taking the opportunity to announce that the group would return to perform two concerts later in the year to promote their second album, ‘Take Me Home’. The five were presented with flowers from one of Japan’s most popular young actresses, Maki Horikita, 24, before addressing the ensembled media.
Imagine a music landscape dominated by just one individual—an all-powerful Svengali who, for more than 45 years, has held a virtual monopoly on male pop groups, producing a world-record-holding 289 No. 1 hits, 35 chart-topping acts, and, in the past decade alone, 8,419 concerts. He rarely appears in media, and yet his power over the press has left them kowtowing to his demands for decades. His reclusive character is revered and feared in equal parts by an entire Japanese music industry. Welcome to the world of Johnny Kitagawa.
At Thailand’s Big Mountain Music Festival in Khao Yai, a few hours north of Bangkok, thousands of locals perch on a hillside at the foot of the enormous Cow Stage. Amongst a lineup of just about every cool rock band in the country, a smattering of international acts are now turning SouthEast Asia’s biggest festival into the Glastonbury of the region. But while Thailand’s music scene is as vibrant as ever, these music fans are here to witness two girls’ attempt to revolutionize a fading cultural phenomenon with a new injection of style, panache and Japanese smarts.
Amiaya, 22 year-old twin models from Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, prance on stage like they’ve beamed in from another dimension. They are hear to pronounce that J-Pop is dead – long live Tokyo Pop!
“Immortal,” the new Michael Jackson-themed Cirque du Soleil show touring North America may sound grandiose but the self-proclaimed “King of Pop” was undoubtedly a larger-than-life character. While immortality was out of Jackson’s reach, the singer’s family are doing their best to keep his memory alive with musical extravaganzas. Two “Michael Jackson Tribute Live” concerts will take place Dec. 13 and 14 at Yoyogi National Stadium in Tokyo.
It’s only fitting that Korea’s attitudinal pop princess was the subject of PSY’s seduction in “Gangham Style”. Rapper-dancer Kim Hyun-a stands out from the super-clean K-Pop crowd, having controversially left one group (Wonder Girls) and then joining another, electro-pop unit 4Minute, and setting the tone for the more edgy side of K-Pop with songs. Her solo singles have been even more incendiary—the music video for “Change” was flagged for 19+ viewers for her pelvic thrusting dance moves. “Bubble Pop!”, meanwhile, placed an impressive #9 on SPIN Magazine’s “Best 20 songs of 2011.”
Every so often, a vibrant new city emerges on the world scene, stepping out from its history to modernize with entrepreneurial optimism and financial clout. When that coincides with a cultural rebirth that sets it on the cutting-edge of the world’s trends, the city swirls in its own perfect storm. Think London’s Swinging Sixties, New York’s Yuppie Eighties or Bubble-era Tokyo. The rise of Seoul, capital of South Korea, has even led to a whole new flashy district south of Seoul’s Han River… Gangnam.
It’s a meeting of the memes. Inside one of Shibuya’s biggest clubs, Japan’s happy-go-luckiest talent perches eagerly and wide-eyed on her high stool awaiting the arrival of Canada’s most cheerful pop star. After bounding into the room gleefully, Carly Rae Jepsen doesn’t disappoint. A nonstop frenzy of interviews and appearances in Tokyo has only seemed to energize her — the perfect counterpart to omnipresent idol of the moment, the eminently chirpy Rola.
Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee celebrations are never complete without a rock star wielding an axe to inaugurate proceedings. For the Golden Jubilee in 2002 it was Queen’s Brian May atop Buckingham Palace. And for The British Embassy in Japan’s Diamond Jubilee party this month, the sword fell on the broad shoulders of Anglophile Tomoyasu Hotei. Not without good cause either. On his 50th birthday earlier this year, Hotei announced that he was about to embark on a challenge to start a new life in London.
Girls’ Generation is performing on CBS’s “The Late Show With David Letterman” tonight, the latest inroad by K-pop into the U.S. market.
The nine-piece pop act, which already plays to packed concert venues around Asia, will sing an English-language version of their male-baiting single “The Boys,” which was co-written by Teddy Riley, famed for his work with Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown and Usher.
Last October, the four-piece girl group 2NE1 debuted in Japan with six live shows in front of 70,000 fans—the latest product of a South Korean music machine that has already surged past the point of being just another East Asian fad. While “K-pop” has gained popularity as the catch-all term for a host of glossy boy and girl bands, 2NE1, with its signature tune, “Ugly,” represents K-hop, a budding movement that backs up its slick pop sheen with true R&B talent.
She only just left one of Japan’s most popular girl groups, but Ai Takahashi hasn’t wasted any time embarking on a solo venture.
Until Dec. 24, the 25-year-old plays the lead female in “Dance of the Vampires” at Tokyo’s Imperial Garden Theater. The play marks the 100th anniversary of the first Western-style theater in Japan and a return to the stage for the 1997 musical production of Roman Polanski’s original 1967 comedy-horror film. In the story, Professor Abronsius and his young sidekick Alfred set off to the Alps to try to prove that vampires exist, but find themselves in trouble when a local girl Alfred falls in love with is visited by a vampire.
Liam Gallagher and Beady Eye were self-effacing when describing their efforts to raise funds for the victims of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The group were in Japan during the six month anniversary of the disaster after the band’s original tour was postponed due to safety fears.
The band instigated a star studded benefit concert in London on April 3rd featuring Paul Weller, Primal Scream, Richard Ashcroft and Blur’s Graham Coxon to raise funds for the Japanese Red Cross. The earthquake and tsunami killed over 20,000 people after it struck at 2.46pm JST on March 11th, 2011.
It’s been two years since pop music guru Simon Cowell described her as “phenomenal” following her striking audition on “Britain’s Got Talent.” And for the most recognisable East-Asian to have appeared on the ratings juggernaut, it’s also been a long wait tinged with regret. But now Sue Son, back in Seoul and working on her own terms, is ready to step back into the limelight and prove that Korea isn’t only producing idol pop music, but that it’s a country offering genuine musical talent too.
Music-lovers attending Japan’s largest music festival, Summer Sonic, have become accustomed to catching sets by the world’s biggest musicians, from headliners Jay-Z and Beyoncé to Coldplay and My Chemical Romance. This year though, a special guest closed the show in Tokyo. Girls’ Generation is the first Korean act to close the Japanese festival, and follows in the footsteps of a previous late-night special guest, Lady Gaga.
Summersonic, held over two days in mid-August at Makuhari Messe in Chiba, attracts over 100,000 people each year and is usually headlined by major rock and R&B acts. Nine-piece group Girls Generation prepared to take to the stage as a late addition to the line-up, which ended up as one the most attended shows of the festival. The girls discussed their development and training over many years, and how it has helped them prepare for the big stage across Asia, with upcoming shows in the US ahead.
Heavy metal band X Japan were formed in 1982, and took seven years to make their breakthrough. But after second album “Blue Blood,” they group went on to become one of Japan’s most successful acts of all time, performing regular shows at the 55,000 seater Tokyo Dome. In August 2011 the group, led by Yoshiki, performed at Japan’s largest rock festival, Summersonic. Associated Press spoke with him backstage after his appearance at Summersonic, about his new life in the United States.
In the middle of her recent Japan tour, pop superstar Kylie Minogue surprised her fans by announcing a new song on YouTube. The song, written by Japanese rapper and producer Verbal, is called “We Are One” and is the pair’s effort to try to raise donations for Unicef following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Verbal opened for Minogue during the Tokyo leg of her tour and the Australian singer found time to squeeze in promotion for their collaboration backstage.
Canadian pop singer Justin Bieber met with student victims of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami in Tokyo on Wednesday. Bieber wished the nine students from the hardest hit areas of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima a brighter future and invited them to his upcoming shows in Japan. Bieber also met with Jonathan T.Fried, the Ambassador of Canada to Japan and John V.Roos, the Ambassador of the U.S. to Japan who thanked Bieber for visiting Japan during difficult times and sending out a message about how special the local people are. Bieber is the biggest pop star to visit Japan since the March 11th disasters as many other acts have cancelled tours due to radiation fears.
Japanese AV (adult video) actress Sola Aoi has made her debut as a singer — in China. The porn actress, who has built up a sizeable following in China in recent years, released “mai yu” (毛衣/ Sweater) yesterday via Chinese mobile phone networks and PC downloads sites.
Speaking to CNNGo, Aoi said, “I read language textbooks and listened to dialog CDs on my own. As for now, nothing new has been decided, but I’m willing to do something. I think I will visit China.” The song, sung in Mandarin, was recorded over two days with the help of an interpreter.
On February 5, viewers around Asia will get their first view of MTV’s first ever reality show developed in the region. “Shibuhara Girls,” produced in Tokyo, tells the tale of four aspiring young women aiming to make it in Japan’s entertainment industry. Here, two of the stars sit for their first ever interview about their, and the channel’s, tentative first steps into reality TV.
The Jacksons, brothers Jackie, Tito, Marlon and Jermaine, will perform on stage next October for a Michael Jackson tribute concert series that starts with two shows in Tokyo. The announcement of the shows was made via a produced video during a special 10th anniversary performance of Japanese R&B star A.I.
A.I. will emcee the shows and sing with the brothers, and spoke exclusively to CNN. She will also be recording new tracks with The Jacksons in early 2011.
25 years into their career, Norwegian pop trio a-ha recently brought their final tour through Tokyo, with a show at the city’s largest music festival, Summersonic. Speaking at their luxury Shinjuku hotel, the band reminisced at the special treatment and loyalty Western acts receive in Japan.
On March 1st 2010, Japanese R&B singer MISIA was appointed Honorary Ambassador for the 10th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity by the U.N. Secretary General. It was the result and recognition of years of work by the 32-year-old, who remains one the most successful pop singers across Asia in the last 10 years.
Cheerful and playful at their Shibuya studio, the four women of Speed have the energy and excitement of a debutant J-pop girl group. Yet their joviality masks the fact that they’re veterans of the most successful female Japanese group of all time. Between forming in 1996 and splitting up in 2000, Takako Uehara, Eriko Imai, Hitoe Arakaki and Hiroko Shimabukuro sold over 20 million records. Ten years later, as they prepare for a reunion tour, the women of Speed are all still in their 20s.
“We were talking with each other like ordinary 20-something girls over dinner,” says Uehara. “It had been about seven years since we’d stood on stage together, and I knew I needed to remember I was ‘Takako Uehara of Speed.’”
This year from July 1 to 4, an estimated 180,000 people visited the Paris Nord Villepinte in Paris, a near 60-fold increase on the 3,200 who came to see the first Paris Japan EXPO in 1999. As the scale of the event has increased, showcasing anime, fashion, cosplay, traditional Japanese ikebana and minyo and live music, so has the level of the guests of honor, this year attracting all-girl pop group Morning Musume.
Tibetan singer Alan Dawa Dolma will fulfill a dream when she steps onto the stage on July 23 at Shibuya Bunkamura Orchard Hall. Having studied the traditional erhu at both the Sichuan Conservatory of Music and the Art Academy in Beijing, the fast-rising singer will this time be backed with a symphonic band as she shows off her distinctive Tibetan wail amongst her repertoire of J-Pop, ballads and traditional songs.
Halfway through the first-ever Girls Award fashion show at Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Stadium last month, 22-year-old Meisa Kuroki strides down the catwalk, glistening in a sleeveless gold dress and black stockings while delivering her pulsing dance tune ‘‘Shock.’’ The face of a hundred magazine covers and countless TV dramas then blasts the 10,000-strong audience with her new single, ‘‘5-Five-,’’ her confidence belying that fact that this is her live debut.
“I’ve always been a fan of MTV,” says 25-year-old ICONIQ. “Living in Korea I watched it every day, and in America I was addicted to ‘America’s Best Dance Crew.’” With her trademark baby-short hair and bold lyrical statements about women going through dramatic changes, ICONIQ leaped into the public’s consciousness in January this year when she became the face of cosmetic giant Shiseido’s Maquillage range of cosmetics only a month after making her professional debut in Japan. After that, her strikingly androgynous appearance soon became ubiquitous on both TV and billboards.
Dressed in a light floral ensemble at her record label’s office in the upscale Aoyama district, J-pop starlet May J has a look that can only be described as “free-spirit chic.” Yet she seems more concerned with a side of herself that fans can’t see.
“I have to go to Iran and find my other roots,” she declares. “I want to debut in Iran, if it’s possible. I hope I can be a positive image for Iranians.”
The five young members of 4Minute sit dressed in tight, black leather outfits at a luxury hotel in Ebisu, Tokyo. It’s one day before their Japanese debut, but they show no signs of nerves. The group’s first concert here, at the 1,500-capacity Shibuya AX, turned out to be impressively packed to the rafters with screaming teenage girls. More notably, though, was the large number of music industry representatives also in attendance. This comes despite the fact the girls have not yet released any music in Japan.
“There’s a whole bigger world out there than what we are doing,” says jazz pianist and vocalist Emi Meyer. “Studying roots music and ethnomusicology always kept me open-minded.” Born in Kyoto, but raised in Seattle, 23-year-old Meyer is exploring new musical genres for her sophomore album, “Passport.” She has teamed up with Japanese rapper and producer Shingo Annen, known to his fans as Shing02, for a journey that encompasses bossa nova, reggae and hip-hop. Annen describes the amalgamation as “an organic fusion of culture and styles.”
“We want to establish our reputation as a rock band rather than a ‘female’ rock band. But I’ve noticed there are big differences in feeling between men and women and it seems to be easier to convey how we feel and get into the rhythm as girls.” So says Eriko Hashimoto, 26, vocalist of melodic-rock trio Chatmonchy, who since 2005 have reached the upper-echelons of the Japan charts with three gritty, emotional, yet vivacious albums.
“Songs these days have become a lot shorter because people don’t seem to have time to listen to whole songs anymore,” laments Takanori Nishikawa, vocalist of Abingdon Boys School. “They just (listen to) their favorite part and then skip to another song.” Nishikawa is hoping the public can get over their collective attention-deficit disorder and give Abingdon Boys School’s newest album, “Abingdon Road,” a proper start-to-finish listen.
“I’m obsessed by soul,” says Emi Tawata. “It’s the sound of a band with human emotions on their sleeves.” And if it’s soul you’re after, the 25-year-old Okinawan singer has got plenty to go around—along with blues, jazz, R&B, and a seriously funky hairstyle. All are very much in evidence on her recently released debut album, Sings, which marks the end of a long ride that started with a street jazz band in Vancouver.
“First of all, I am a Tibetan, 100 percent,” says singer Alan Dawa Zhuoma, more commonly known by her stage name alan. “I’ll never forget the many Chinese teachers and friends who gave me knowledge and encouraged me while I studied in Chengdu and Beijing, but wherever I go, I am Tibetan and I always remember it.” Preparing for this month’s release of her sophomore album, “my life,” the 22-year-old alan says she has discovered herself after living in Tokyo for two years.
“It’s like a meteorite flow” says Verbal of his group’s name. “I spelled it ‘mediarite’ because I thought we would hit with a big impact in the media and surprise the unsuspecting masses with some good music. I think it worked better than I anticipated.” m-flo, the combination of DJ Taku Takahashi and rapper Young-Kee Yu, better known as Verbal, have become one of Japan’s premier hip-hop production teams over the past 10 years. They’re also the go-to collaborators for a string of the nation’s leading pop vocalists.
“There is still some racial thing going on,” claims a mild-mannered Crystal Kay. “Some people can’t accept there are a lot of foreigners out there, even in the industry.” The 23-year-old is the original pioneer for interracial artists in Japan, and with eight top-10 albums under her belt, she is currently celebrating 10 years in the business with her first ‘‘Best of’’ collection and a tour. Effortlessly glamorous in the office of her record company in Nogizaka in the Minato district of Tokyo, she is charming and modest about her impact on a J-pop scene that is increasingly discovering mixed-race acts.
“I find beauty in the dark side or in people’s anger!’” confesses a boisterous Anna Tsuchiya. Surprisingly, Japan’s choice wild-child actress, model and singer did not talk about herself egotistically, but merely justified her love of Chopin over Mozart: ‘‘When I (first) listened to Chopin’s ‘The Revolution’, I thought classical music is rock music’’ she says. ‘‘It was beautiful and I wanted to go into rock!’’ Tsuchiya, 25, is gearing up for her performance at the New Classic Gig, a unique live event that sees unlikely musicians paired with a full orchestra, all as part of a fashion show directed by creator Hideki Matsui.
Since 1999, Wyolica has been hailed by critics for its melancholic “folky soul,” crafting a hitherto unknown sound summed up in the title to second album Almost Blues. After a greatest hits compilation in 2004, though, they slipped off the radar, working on various solo projects and collaborations. But 2009 began with a new mini-album, Balcony, and soon the idea of letting the decade pass unnoticed began to prey on vocalist Azumi’s mind.
Opinions on Yoko Ono usually fall into two categories: antipathy or aggressive defense. What many music critics miss is the fact that, unlike most musicians who use songs to convey their emotions, Ono is a conceptual artist who began using the medium as a mere canvas for her imagination. Her music, then, simply doesn’t make sense to those listening for emotive melodies or an angelic voice.
Michael Jackson’s musical influence reached all corners of the globe — and Japan too. Artists across genres and generations have all spoken about the loss of one of the music industry’s all-time greats.
“I think that you can convey a fact by words, but you can not convey the truth only with those words,” says Misia, taking a break from recording sessions in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. “And I believe music is what can fill it out.” The dreadlocked soul-singer has recently embarked on two trips that have affected her outlook on life, as well as the message of her songs. A live tour last year saw her perform around some of Asia’s other metropolises: Taipei, Shanghai, Singapore, Seoul and Hong Kong. But it was her trips to some of Africa’s most deprived hot spots that left a lasting impression.
“I believe in my voice as a singer,” declares Mika Nakashima, alluding to the three words tattooed in English around her right wrist. ‘Trust your voice,’ in a broad sense, means we should accept everything and believe in many things. I learned this in New York and developed myself in many ways that I don’t want to ever forget.” Her management looks on a little displeased. “I knew I’d be reprimanded for getting tattoes if I told them I was going to do it! But that’s why the tour is called ‘Trust Our Voice.’ “
Is the digital age the end of an era for popular music and entertainment? Or just another step in its natural evolution as it tries to keep pace with technological development. There seems to be a consensus amongst copyright owners and creators that at no previous time has anyone been so unsure of where we will be ten years from now. But when the history of cinema, music and animation is just a matter of decades old, stability has always been out of reach, no matter how desired.
2009 is seemingly shaping up to be the year when the internet’s threat to sound the death knell for the traditional entertainment industry is finally about to ring true. With each passing month, systems like Veoh, Vuse, Bittorrent and Crunchy Roll have made TV and film available to the masses, while iTunes domination of downloads is now facing the threat of Spotify, which offers streaming that requires no ownership of music at all, just an unlimited jukebox.
In the past couple of months I’ve been fortunate to see entertainment in its many guises, from Christmas TV in the UK, to New Year nightlife in Thailand, J-Pop concerts and gypsy theatre in Tokyo, Broadway shows in New York, film studios and the Grammys in LA, and some of the world’s best magic and circus shows in Las Vegas. Entertainment, more than any other time in human history, seems to be everywhere, accessible all the time.
Lush, extravagant and star-studded. From a home sofa, the music industry’s biggest back-slapping event, The Grammy Awards, seems like a glorious red-carpeted affair, a paean to the most talented artists of the year in a reverential atmosphere. In reality though, The Staples Center in Los Angeles, more renowned as a sports arena, is as intimate as an Olympic opening ceremony, and the eulogies to god & inspiration echo fall mostly on deaf ears. The problem with music’s most prestigious event, is that like too much of today’s music product, it’s lost its soul.
‘Half of my quarter of a century belongs to music, so I never belonged to anything else,’’ says Welsh songstress Duffy. ‘‘I feel very able and ready!’’ The blonde bombshell was in Tokyo for her first full-length live show in Japan — at Shibuya AX on March 17 — and is still basking in the success of her debut album, ‘‘Rockferry,’’ released in March 2008. Three BRIT awards and one Grammy later, the old-school soul singer is the lady of the moment, with 5.5 million album sales to her name.
“It has always been my dream to debut in America!” BoA announces gleefully. “Every Asian artist has that dream of Hollywood or the Billboard chart, and this is the perfect time to go to America.” This week, South Korean singer BoA becomes the latest Asian star to attempt to make it in the West with the release of her self-titled all-English language album. Having debuted in her homeland aged just 13, the 22-year-old has already come far, becoming the first Korean to hit No. 1 in Japan, where her first six albums reached the top spot, as well as recording in Mandarin Chinese.
Most artists dream of longevity, but few are afforded significant time in the limelight. The paradox of all-girl group Morning Musume, 12 years since they began, is the enforced time-limit its members face in order for the group to remain forever young. Generation eight of the group, with nine members, is the longest-running incarnation so far, celebrating its two-year anniversary this month. Yet under the tutelage of producer Tsunku, “graduation” is likely never far away.
Media and its reporters these days are often regarded suspiciously at best, and as vermin at worst. The term ‘paparazzi’ actually comes from the name of a news photographer in Federico Fellini’s classic 1960 film, La Dolce Vita. The character Paparazzo had been supposedly so-named by the director from an Italian dialect meaning ‘mosquito’, describing an annoying noise.
Originally we’d be celebrating the end of the year at this time, as the tacked-on month of February, with its odd number of days, filled up the end of the previously monthless winter in the Roman calendar. Indeed, we’d probably be asking forgiveness for our sins so we could start the new year in March, fully purified – februum in Latin. In the entertainment world, the old model still fits rather nicely, as award ceremonies like The Grammies and The Oscars all bookend the year of entertainment that was 2008 during this very month. That means it’s almost time to look fully forward to the pleasures ahead in 2009.
Even the most optimistic critic could be excused for approaching with trepidation the major-label debut for one of only a handful of domestic female rappers. But fears that 24-year-old Coma-Chi is about to deliver a pale imitation of a genre exhausted in the early 2000s by the likes of Missy Elliott and Eve are nixed within the explosive first two tracks of “Red Naked.”
“I search for answers a lot in life when I feel like I don’t know which way to go or what’s right or wrong,” says singer-songwriter Angela Aki. “So I turn to the piano and search for the answers through songs, and I figured in the end that the searching process has all the answers you are truly looking for.” Born in Itano, a town of 14,600 in rural Tokushima Prefecture, Shikoku Island, to a Japanese father, Kiyoshi Aki, cofounder of the AEON English-school chain, and an Italian-American mother, 31-year-old Aki’s turbulent life story, which took her to the United States and back again, has handed her more questions than most.
“In Tokyo, there is too much information,” says famed Japanese producer and DJ Towa Tei. “Even if you don’t want to listen to music, you are raped into listening to something you don’t like at the convenience store. So I try to go somewhere quiet and listen whenever I want to!” Announcing the release of “Big Fun,” his first album in four years, former New York resident and Deee-Lite member Tei, 44, has maintained a mystique and allure thanks to his creative sound collages that defy genre, fashion or fad, mixing modes as he creates almost entirely electronically.
Aristotle wasn’t right about everything. The beauty of modern entertainment is its power to delight our senses with ravenous intention. And much more than a mere five of them. Our eyes alone give us the dual senses of light and colour to enjoy visual feasts day and night, while the sense of heat can send shivers running up and down our spines in fear or sentimentality. This month’s recommendations abound with sensory delights.
Back when I was an 80’s rock kid, minus the perm hair-do, the New Year’s would begin with the returning of duplicate gifts, unendearing hunks of plastic in the form of tape or video cassette, to the music store in exchange for something else. When I happened to venture into the store’s encroaching aisles of shiny round discs called CDs, I played safe with an album I already had on trusty tape. But it didn’t take long to get hooked on the technology of the future.
January has always been a quiet month for entertainment. Wallets have been decimated by the holiday season and the cold darkness of the northern hemisphere doesn’t encourage trips out to the shops, let alone cinemas, theatres or gigs. The beauty of this time of year is the unexpected.
“I don’t want to look back,” Shizuka Kudo says as we chat in a secluded area of an Ebisu café. “The past is the past and I don’t want to hang around!” One of the most popular idols of the ’80s and ’90s, Kudo has enjoyed a phenomenally successful career, with eleven No. 1 hits, including eight in a row from 1988-1990. Where other idols simply drift into obscurity, she’s maintained a high profile, and today, at 38, she’s as high-spirited and talkative as ever.
“I got my heart broken for the first time,” laments Yuna Ito, ‘‘at the unbelievable age of 24!” Hearing her vibrant new single, “Koi wa Groovy2”, it would be hard to guess that such an experience would be the inspiration. “It’s about getting ready to love again,” she remarks warmly. Ito moved to Japan five years ago from Hawaii, where she was brought up by her Japanese father and Korean-American mother. Now 25, she has always worn her heart on her sleeve.
When singer and actress Ami Suzuki appears in the TBS drama “Love Letter” this month, she’ll finally realize the end of a remarkable comeback. The toast of 1999, when she sold 3.2 million CDs as a 16-year-old electro-pop princess, her fall from grace was infamous. As she attempted to distance herself from her management company, which had been implicated in a fraud scandal, the music business responded by blacklisting her. After years fighting against the very industry that made her a star, she now celebrates her re-emergence as a singer with a 10th-anniversary album, “Supreme Show,” while maintaining an acting career that she sees as crucial to her future.
Legendary English rock band Def Leppard brought the circus back to town last week. Paired up with fellow hair-metal survivors Whitesnake, the group began a four-date Japan tour with two nights at the prestigious Nippon Budokan in central Tokyo on Oct. 23 and 24. The two behemoths of 1980s pop metal have each weathered rather differently with age, and it showed on the opening night. While Whitesnake dragged themselves around the stage and lumbered through an uninspiring set, Def Leppard, buoyed by their latest album hitting the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic, captivated the audience as if time hadn’t passed at all.
With her sights set on achieving her long-held ambition of winning a Grammy award, Los Angeles-born and
Tokyo-based vocalist AI is adamant that dreams only come true with hard graft. “The reason I want to get a Grammy is because everyone knows them,” AI tells The Japan Times. ‘‘And when you get something that everyone knows, your words get powerful. Then I can say, ‘Stop the War!’ “
“When I’m walking beside her, people tell me I’m a lucky guy,” sang John Lennon on the 1964 Beatles track “Every Little Thing.” Sitting comfortably next to iconic lead singer Kaori Mochida of the band of the same name, guitarist Ichiro Ito has had 12 years to get used to such a feeling. However, he admits that though the older one of the duo, he was the more intimidated when they first met back in 1996. “She was wearing a pair of thick platform boots in the “gal” fashion of Shibuya and was much younger than I,” he tells The Japan Times, in the duo’s first ever interview for an English-language publication. “I didn’t know what to say to her!”
It wouldn’t be the obvious place to look. And yet Okinawan singer Hajime Chitose was seeking a new peace of mind when, 1.3 billion km away, she found what she was looking for. “When I saw a picture of Saturn, I thought the relationship between the planet and its many rings represented the good balance that is so important in life,” the bohemian singer proclaims. Known as Cassini rings, they lend their name to Hajime’s latest release. Hajime, a singer from Amami Oshima island who is dubbed by the media as “The voice of 100 years,” rose to attention in 2002 with her remarkable vibrato vocal delivery and her take on the traditional island folk songs known as shima-uta, and took the music to the mainstream.
“When it has to happen, it will happen,” declares a bullish Judy Ongg, a Taiwan-born actress, singer and novelist based in Japan. “When you think it has to be done, you have to do it yourself.” Speaking to The Japan Times shortly after a press conference on June 26 announcing the Heart Aid Shisen Charity Event, which takes place July 14 in Tokyo to raise funds for survivors of the recent Sichuan earthquake in China, she is clearly proud to be leading the call for help in Japan. And that call hasn’t gone unheeded. “The first thing I did was pick up the phone and call my best friend Jackie Chan,” says Ongg.
Staying at the top of the game after 10 years is no mean feat in Japan’s fickle music business. As one of the first artists to bring American-style R&B to these shores, Double’s achievements are doubly impressive. And now she’s celebrating her first decade with an album of collaborations with Japanese and American artists such as De La Soul, Ak’sent, AI and Kreva. To top it off comes “Black Diamond,” a pulsating duet with self-styled “Queen of hip-pop” Namie Amuro.
“Putting the heart of the world into music” is the theme of Osaka-based quintet Bahashishi, who graduate to a major label with this, their second album. Taking their name from the Swahili for “heart,” the band, led by effervescent vocalist Yurari, have a clear J-pop-with-a-conscience mission, which results in highly-polished pleasantness that matches the compelling and potent vocal delivery of UA with the melodic craft of contemporaries Singer Songer.
Serenely and alluringly, the lotus flower opens. Unabashed, the temptress strides out, brimming with sexual beauty and proclaiming that the age of the Japanese lolita has passed. She has blossomed instead into a modern Aphrodite, a woman whose physical beauty exudes power, confidence and charisma. The kawaii generation watches in awe as she transforms into something startlingly sexy yet still adorable. She is erotic yet cool—ero-kakkoii.
Yuna Ito strides into the room, brimming with confidence. And she has every reason to. Not only has she recorded a No. 1 album a mere two years since moving to Japan, but she’s now living the life she’s fought years to achieve. “It’s just the beginning,” she proclaims.
Ito is at ease with herself and her newfound celebrity status, and she has the acumen to realize where to draw the line between the two. “The entertainment world is a fantasy world, and it should be—people don’t need to see the normal parts, otherwise it wouldn’t be entertainment.”
Guitarist, songwriter and key founding member of the former Sadistic Mika Band, Kazuhiko Kato has the air of an English aristocrat about him. Polite and soft-spoken, he looks the part of a true gent, surrounded by an array of antiques and artifacts that adorn his apartment like a treasure trove. Now settling back in Japan after years of living abroad, he is only too keen to extol the virtues of the band’s British heritage.
Back in 2002, one of the biggest J-pop singers embarked on an ambitious solo project, riding a surging wave of interest in R&B. Namie Amuro was taking a risk few well-molded idoru would dare, and though seen as a little eccentric at the time, the resulting album, Suitechic, now seems like a smart business move.
With the likes of New York-born Hikaru Utada and Misia as role models, an abundance of mostly female singers indebted to American R&B have charged up the charts, many of whom also have significant backgrounds in the States. From Crystal Kay to Bennie K, AI to Double, and new acts Soulhead and Yoshika, R&B divas are giving J-Pop some attitude.