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Utada on being an international human being, pitching new album and mad tetris skills

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Hikaru Utada, or Utada as known in the West, is coming out with a new CD, This Is the One, to be released in the US. Jtor scored an in-person interview with this international pop star to get down to what her thinks about stuffed animals, youtube videos, and what it means to be both Japanese and American at the same time.

If you didn't know, Utada, or Hikki as called affectionately by her fans, made history when her Japanese debut album outsold every other Japanese CD and is the current #1 best selling CD by a Japanese artist, ever. Since that feat about 10 years ago, she has gone on and produce music both in Japan and her native US of A, with Exodus back in 2004 being her first major US release. However most of us this side of the Pacific know her the best through the theme song of Kingdom Hearts, "Simple and Clean." Recently she also did the theme song for the new Evangelion movie, "Beautiful World."

Over the holidays, Utada has released a streaming copy of her new single, "Come Back to Me." You can listen to it on her home page on Island Records. The new album is schedule to be released in March, both in the US and in Japan.

Japanator: Is there an overall goal you want to achieve with your new CD?

Utada: With this album, from the beginning, I just want to make something that can connect with a wide audience, and make something mainstream, some good pop.

Japanator: You are already very mainstream in Japan, so what does being mainstream mean for the American audience?

Utada: If you look at the top 40 charts in Japan [Oricon weekly top 10] compare that to the top 40 charts in America [Billboard Magazine album charts], they're very different.

Japanator: Do you want to bridge this gap with this CD?

Utada: Not bridge the gap, but make something that will connect with the American audience.

Japanator: Are you planning any tours in America?

Utada: Not yet. Maybe. [Chuckle.] I guess we haven't gotten to that point in the process, right now we're just busy working on the album and do these interviews, shooting the music video and running around, so we're not thinking about that. It would be nice if I could. We should, I guess. I ought to, but I don't know if I can get around to it.

Japanator: So you are going to start a MySpace page?

Utada: My MySpace page has started already. [Here.]

Japanator: How about your personal blog? Will that be connected to your MySpace page?

Utada: Actually I wrote an English message there already. The blog is with my management's website. I designed it so I can write English and Japanese messages, so you can look at it with just the English posts or the Japanese posts [right here]. In the last English entry I wrote, I mentioned it. [Since this interview Utada has updated with more English posts.] Just to clarify, I will start posting messages at the MySpace page, and Facebook and other things like that, and respond to those who post there. But at my long-term blog, it will be my most personal, chatty outlet.

Japanator: Do you know about your fans who translated your personal blog entries from Japanese to English?

Utada: Yeah I do know, and kudos to that because I know I couldn't do it. I just don't have the energy and time to do that. I feel kind of relieved that there's someone out there doing it. And he does it remarkably well, yeah. I'm always impressed.

Japanator: I'm impressed too! [All laugh.] Ok, one more question about the new CD. How do you think your Japanese fans will react to your CD?

Utada: I have no idea! I just hope they'll like it. They'll probably be like, "What is she saying? I don't know the words, but I like her lyrics, so I need to know what is she saying!" Well, that's too bad. I will be writing Japanese songs in the future again, and there'll be a translation to the lyrics in the Japanese version of the CD booklet. Not by me, but by professional translators. Beyond that, they just have to learn some English, unfortunately.

Japanator: A bit about marketing. There are already a lot of English-speaking fans of your Japanese music already. How do you think your new CD will connect with your non-Japanese fans already?

Utada: By mainstream and wider audience, I include everyone. I want to accomplish the goal that I set at the start of making this album, to make really good pop. Like good old pop, like TLC good, y'know what I mean? When it was just really good pop. It's not cheap, it has integrity, catchy, but special and unique. If I can accomplish that, I think then I can connect with my long-time fans and new fans as well. There is a consistency in what I'm doing as an artist. Everything I've done, each album over time period, sounds a bit different. I am either trying something different, or a different aspect of me is featured more in an album. But always, it's just me at the heart. And I've kept that with this one.

Japanator: Does that reflect your own transformation from one phase of your life to another?

Utada: It does, I think it does show a bit of my recent growth. In the past couple of years, I think I've grown a lot as a woman. I finally feel like a woman, like I'm finally getting it. I used to be like, why do I have boobs? Why can't I be like the boys? I used to have the notion that I could be like a man, and I was uncomfortable with the notion of being a girl. I've been embracing my femininity recently, and the new album has more of that mature, natural sexiness in my singing and writing. We just finished shooting of the video of Come Back to Me, and everyone who saw it said that I had a new, mature sexiness in the video.

Japanator: Looking forward to that... [Everyone Laughed]

Utada: Yes, I guess whatever I make, a song or an album, it reflects where I am as a human being. And as a musician, of course. Whether I'm in high school or when I'm 26, so I'm enjoying this new level of maturing now. For my previous album, that was released in Japan in 2008 [Heart Station], that was beginning to show a bit. But with this album, I think it really shows.

Japanator: How does growing up having both Japanese and American influences impact your career and making of music?

Utada: It gives me more than one view point. I think there's a huge difference between growing up in one country and growing up in multiple countries, going to see other places in the world. I have an equal amount of "foreign-ness" in Japan and in the US. But I also feel at home in Japan and in the US. In both countries, I have homes, I have citizenships, they're my home. But people always look at me a bit as if I am a foreigner. In Japan, they'd say "but you're born in New York and you speak English and you have an American side unlike a normal Japanese." Ok, alright, I am a bit of a foreigner, an outsider.

In the States, no matter how much I say I'm from here and am I'm born in New York and raised half my life here, some people will still say "oh your English is so good" that kind of thing. Also, I don't look like a typical American-born Asian. I look more like a Japanese girl than an Asian-American girl, I don't know what it is. It's a subtle thing, maybe it's the way they dress or get their hair done, but when people look at me, they guess I'm from Japan. So I get that "Your English is so good? Where do you study?" thing. "Actually I'm from here." Yeah, I feel a bit like an outsider wherever I go.

Japanator: Does this come out through your music? This feeling?

Utada: I think it is an important part of my music. Maybe a reason a lot of people like or connect with my stuff is because, on a basic level as human beings, everyone feels that loneliness as an outsider. May it be at school, at home or the society, you feel lonely sometimes, or you are not the same as everyone else or you don't belong. That sort of feeling comes out strongly in my music, no matter what language. Maybe that's one way people can connect with my music.

Japanator: Okay, let's talk about anime and stuff like that. As you may know anime is popular here, especially with the older teens and college crowd.

Utada: Yeah, like Naruto and stuff, right?

Japanator: Yes. Do you watch any?

Utada: Right now, I do watch anime. The one I'm always keeping up with is the Ghost in the Shell series. After the movies they did the TV series, and I loved those. From the first movie, I was already in love. When the first TV series came out, I was "Yes!" and I got the box set. I also got the one for the second season. And then also when Solid State Society came out. I went "Yes! Keep on coming out with more!"

I think that's the only one that I watched a lot of. You know when Dragon Ball Z, Naruto and that stuff first became popular in America, some years ago? I would watch Dragon Ball Z, because I watch Cartoon Network a lot as I like South Park, Family Guy, Simpsons, et cetera. Also there was Cowboy Bebop, that's a good one.

I remember seeing Dragon Ball Z on TV in the US. That was a culture shock, in a complicated way. I remember growing up watching that on TV in Japan, that was a big thing for me when I was about seven. When I was in New York, I would have my grandmother (in Japan) video tape Dragon Ball Z and send it to me in New York. But now, all the kids can just watch that on normal TV, and they don't need to have their grandparents in Japan to send it over to New York! [Laughter.] What a great time it is to be a kid in America! What's funny is that they don't air that in Japan now even because it's old. It's just so surreal. Also, the voice-over done (the US version) sounds so weird! "Goku!" All the names are pronounced in the American way, it's just so funny for me.

I think it's great.

Japanator: Ever heard about or went to an anime convention?

Utada: Anime convention? I have heard about it but I have never went to any anime convention, America or anywhere.

Japanator: Ever think about doing any marketing or promotion at an anime convention?

Utada: It doesn't seem to match the music I'm doing right now, but yeah, it might be included, it's an option, but if I do an anime kind of thing, it's too straight forward. No twist. [Laughter.]

It might be interesting to include that with a bunch of other things, for example, if I'm going to go to a magazine interview, going to a radio convention, a party for a custom brand, that kind of thing, why not also an anime convention? I wouldn't have thought to just "go do an anime convention."

Japanator: I brought this up also, because you've had a song associated with an anime...

Utada: And also a game, yeah. Kingdom Hearts. Actually I think most of my fans in America, those who know me here, know me from the song Simple and Clean. So yeah, that is a big option for promotion. It's possible [laugh].

Japanator: Any favorite games?

Utada: I'm insanely good at Tetris. I actually beat one of the people who made the game [Tetris DS]. I played two of the developers who made the Nintendo DS Tetris game. I lost to one two games to one, and I beat one two to one. And I still play Tetris DS on wifi often. I've played a lot of people over the internet.

Other than that, for a while I was really into the Fushigi no Dungeon series, I don't know what it is called in English, but it is a RPG where you can do it over and over again, like a puzzle. They put out one for Pokemon recently. I guess it's called "Mystery Dungeon" series. I was really into the Torneko ones, and there's one called The Traveling Shiran. Those are a bit for game maniacs and not as mainstream like Pokemon. I still stick with Tetris as my game of choice though.

Japanator: Ever heard of fansubs? Like, fans that take video from Japan and translate and subtitle them?

Utada: Oooh, like the stuff they put on Youtube right?

Japanator: Exactly.

Utada: Yeah, okay. And they do that for my songs too. And some of them are like my song reversed. I was ego-surfing on Youtube one day and checked it out because it was mentioned in one of my fan sites. I was curious what they have of me on there and I found that Kingdom Heart song in reverse. And there are some other songs reversed. I thought "That actually sounds good! Maybe I can use that somehow." [Laughter.]

I feel very touched when a fan has taken an English or Japanese song and they subtitled the song and translated the lyrics into a different language. A French fan would put it into French and a Japanese fan for Japanese, etc. And it's so well-made, you can tell how much time and effort they put into making it. I'm just touched, and a little honored. I really appreciate it too, because that language thing, the translation issue is ongoing. I would like to say that for music, it doesn't matter, if you like it, you can listen to it as a foreign language song. I can also understand the feeling that if you're a fan of an artist or a song, you want to know what the song is talking about if it's in a language you don't know. Since I can't do that myself, it's great to have fans who seem to know what I'm talking about translate the song into their own language. It's something I can't do. Thank you!

Japanator: Random question: you have a teddy bear that you bring around when you travel, is that right?

Utada: Yeah, I can't sleep without it.

Japanator: What's his name?

Utada: Kuma Chang. Chang is like the common Chinese last name. The tag on the bear says "hand made in China" and "chan" is the common Japanese word to address someone in a cute or affectionate way with their name. I began calling it "Kuma" which is Japanese for bear, and then Kuma-chan. Then I saw the tag, and thought he's from China. So now he's Kuma Chang with a G.

Japanator: Last question, what is the best way for your fans to find out more about you?

Utada: I guess the Internet is the best way. We're still loading up the new Island/Universal website, that is currently under construction. There's my own message website. If you want to see my personal side, I hardly speak about music or my job on that site. I just post pictures of my bear or book there. It's really silly, and it's as personal as you can get kind of thing. For releases and info, MySpace is probably the best.

Japanator: Thank you very much!

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And that's it! Do you have any questions? The below is the official bio for Utada from Island Records, if all of the above still doesn't click with ya. Let us know what else way down below in the comments!

When I start making a song, for one second I see an amazing view—and in that instant, it cracks and falls to pieces. Then the rest of the process is trying to put the pieces back together. So when it feels familiar, when I see what I saw in that moment the song was conceived, then I know it’s done.—Utada

Hikaru Utada is one of the biggest pop stars in the universe. Over the last ten years, her accomplishments in Japan are simply staggering. Her 1999 debut First Love is the country's biggest-selling album of all time, and three of her albums rank among the Top Ten best-sellers. She has had 12 Number One hits, including four songs in Japan's all-time Top 100. 2001's Distance had the largest first-week sales for any album in Japanese music history, selling an astonishing three million copies. In total, the young singer has sold more than 52 million albums.

But unlike most pop starlets around the world, Utada is also a songwriter and producer; indeed, she says that she thinks of herself as a composer more than as a performer. And on her new Island Def Jam album—ten self-penned songs produced by the powerhouse producers Stargate (Ne-Yo, Rihanna, Beyonce) and Tricky (Britney Spears, Madonna, Mariah Carey)—26-year-old Utada reveals the unique sense of songcraft that is poised to make her a force in the US and European music communities.

"I wanted to make something that’s accessible but not cheap—not low-class or stupid, but still appealing to a wide audience," says Utada. "I like to make music that’s multi-layered. You might like a song and want to dance, but not really dive into the lyrics and analyze them. And then if you’re more bookish and you like words, you might notice the references I make, to Captain Picard or Freddie Mercury or Winona Ryder.

"Both things are just as important to me—to be catchy, so when you hear a song on the radio it sticks out, and also to have that depth."

In conversation, Utada is endlessly surprising, instantly shattering any expectations or stereotypes. The list of heroes and influences that she cites—from the Cocteau Twins to Conan O'Brien, from author Roald Dahl to the Notorious B.I.G.—is unpredictable but extremely telling. "I like smart people," she says. "Not whether you're educated or not, just whether you have that spark, that light in your attic."

Born and raised in Manhattan and educated at Columbia University, Hikaru Utada grew up surrounded by music. Her father, Teruzane Utada, was an accomplished musician and producer, and her mother, Keiko Fuji, was a successful Japanese enka (ballad) singer. Utada spent her youth shuttling between New York City and Tokyo, but her most consistent home was the recording studio. By age 11, she had written and recorded her first song, and by the time she graduated from junior high school, she had been signed by EMI Records; her first album, Precious, was recorded in English, but didn't come out in the US because of business problems at the label; it was subsequently released in Japan.

After moving to Tokyo full-time, she began recording in Japanese, and her debut album in that language, First Love, was an explosive, historic success. Since then, she has had five Number One albums in Japan—most recently, Heart Station in 2008, which was the year's best-selling non-compilation album.

With that level of popularity, it's easy to wonder why Utada is taking the difficult step of starting over as a new artist for a new audience. "It's true that I could have stuck to my throne and taken the easy way," she says, "but I felt that my creativity, my humanity would be endangered by staying in that position. I don’t want to just be this crazy artist who lives in la-la land, I want to be in touch with the real world and stay humble. And I like it when something feels scary—I see fear as a guiding light."

Utada did make one earlier foray into the English-language marketplace with the Exodus album n 2004. But even though the singles "Easy Breezy" and "Devil Inside" were hits on the club charts, she views the new album as her true debut. "On that album, I was so insecure," she says. "I was trying too hard, it wasn’t natural. But on this album, there’s a maturity, a more free-flowing and natural confidence."

In approaching the new album, Utada was very careful about choosing her collaborators and setting their expectations. "With both teams, I wanted them to lay out the basic tracks," she says, "but I told them that I have to write my own songs, with complete control over melody and lyrics."

The producers also turned out to have very different processes. "With Stargate, it was all data transfer," she says. "I recorded most of the vocals in Tokyo and sent them to Norway or New York. They loved it—they were like ‘This is the future!” But with Tricky, we actually spent time in the studio together, and that was nice and warm. I’m not much of an extrovert, so it was a good experience to have to communicate and get to know a new person."

Utada singles out the track "F.Y.I." (which includes samples from experimental pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto and references to the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) as a central moment in determining her final vision of the album. "I recorded the demo in December of 2007," she says, "but it was a difficult song, and I wasn’t satisfied with it—I had to try to get to the bottom of it. And then just a few months ago, I suddenly came up with the right lyrics, changed the melody in places, and it made sense.

"When that song crystallized," she continues, "the message of it was very strong and confident, and I felt like it was a good introduction to me, that it fits in with my current story."

In contrast, the breezy "Apples and Cinnamon" came "almost too easily" to Utada. The vocals on the final version are mostly what she recorded as the demo. "I almost don't even feel like I made it," she says. "I didn’t get to savor the experience of it." But her own favorite song on the album is the flirty, sophisticated "Me Muero"—"no other song makes me feel the way that one does."

It's been a long journey, full of many miles and many melodies, for Utada to get to this album. But the lessons she's learned ultimately gave her a clear sense of what she was looking for. "I wanted to get back to basics," she says. "Nothing gimmicky, just very straightforward and confident, with a sense of humor. I was so sure of what I was doing, and I just became more of an adult—finally."
[Many huge thank you's to Utada, her management and those @ Island Records/Universal for making this interview possible. Photo: Y. Kikuma.]


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Jeff Chuang
Jeff ChuangAssociate Editor   gamer profile

Yet to be the oldest kid on the block, this East Coast implant writes cryptic things about JP folklore, the industry or dirty moe. Attend cons and lives the "I can buy Aniplex releases" life. ... more + disclosures


 



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