“I realized again, ‘I want to go back to that place; I still want to sing.’” Marking the 15th anniversary of her debut as a singer next year, Maaya Sakamoto tells the beginning of a new story, and speaks of the winding road leading up to her new, energetic single “Magic Number”!
It could very well be said that 2009 will go down as a truly impressive year in Maaya Sakamoto’s career. Following the January release of her “Windreader” album, a self-proclaimed “compilation of who I am as a singer”, she charged straight into her first hall tour. Summer found her lending her voice acting skills to “Evangelion: 2.0”, a record-breaking hit that filled theaters across Japan. And now we have the first recording since her album in January, a new single entitled “Magic Number”—a significant track that imparts a sense of grand destiny in the timing of its release.
Of those things I should specially mention, first is the fact that this song is unusual for her in that its pop melodies practically sparkle with energy. And the fact that its release comes just before next year, the 15th anniversary of her artist debut. In the pure and positive tone of “Magic Number”, she reexamines from a wide angle her lengthy career as a singer, and as though preparing to take her next step from there, this song promises to give the listener a picture of where she now stands.
One wonders how Maaya Sakamoto is now able to take such an honest look at both music and what it means to sing. The answer, it would seem, lies in her memories from her experience of clearing the hurdle that was her first hall tour, and of the important momentum gained from a fleeting “five weeks of rest”.
To start, this is your first new single in a while, and I’d like to start by asking about what led you to write this extremely energetic, carefree song.
“Well, let’s see, for a while I had been coming out with rather mellow singles, so I did have a general idea of making the next song a cheerful one. To add to that, the series [the TV anime “Kobato.”] that this song was requested as a theme for came with the understanding that the title song should be a cheerful, happy, cute number, so in the sense of making it match that atmosphere, I had that concept in my mind from the start. If we were to talk about my personal feelings, in January I had put out an album that gave me a sense of accomplishment, like I could see that I had at last reached my destination; my concerts and tour ended well; and after that, I actually took five weeks off and did some traveling (laugh), so part of it was that my frame of mind had shifted a bit. I had a renewed urge to create something, so I also felt like starting out with a song that had a punch to it.”
Listening to it, the first thing I think is, “Where did this come from?”—the energy in it surprised me. “Sparkling” really seems to be the closest description I can give to this song.
“It does sound that way (laugh). I think a big part of that was probably the tour. Until then I hadn’t been eager to put on concerts, but that tour gave me a kind of space where I could face both the audience and myself in a sincere way. Having that helped me feel like I’m now able to step up to all sorts of things without being afraid. Also, I felt like there must be some turn of fate behind me coming across this song—perhaps I shouldn’t sing it like an adult just because I am one, but I thought maybe the time was right to sing it in a really innocent way, where I ask what it is I really want to do and take a new look at the sort of energy that’s pushing me forward. That’s why I wanted to sing about those kinds of things in this song. Also, it was partially a challenge not to get bogged down in so many other concepts and just try to write a bright, happy, pop sort of track (laugh). The task of taking that to a point where it fit with me had the feeling of trying something new, and I had a lot of fun with it.”
You have to admit, releasing this sort of guileless song at this time comes across as very symbolic. It gives you a strong sense that perhaps the singer Maaya Sakamoto has stepped up to a new level.
“I see what you mean. I think what stood out in this release was that both the main track and the B-track—everything was recorded with the idea of a live performance. After the tour ended, I did think about how my concerts would be more lively if I had more of those sorts of songs, but until now I haven’t really created music in that fashion. I felt I was really able to wipe away those feelings of discomfort, so much so that during the party after the tour ended I was already thinking about my next concert. I found a different desire, a desire to hurry and move to the next thing before I forgot that sensation. So when you look at it that way, the fact that I had started to be able to consider various things from the basis of how they would sound in a concert was a huge change for me, I think.”
I feel like whenever we meet for an interview, you tell me about how you and concerts don’t get along, and to me it seems like the very idea of you starting to think about concerts in a positive way has been rather hard to imagine for the past several years.
“It has—I completely agree.”
If you look back a little into the past, it sounds like you feel a sense of surprise at how far you’ve come.
“(laugh) Doesn’t it? It took quite a while, but I really think these sorts of things happen in their own time. You recognize the really important things on your own. If someone else shows you, you say, ‘I guess that’s the way it is,’ and think you’ve understood, but that’s not the same as having a deep sense of satisfaction where you realize, ‘So this is what it’s like!’ and so you haven’t really understood. Looking back now, when I was younger, I think the people around me were trying to tell me about the kinds of things I’ve realized now. At the time I didn’t yet have the ability to comprehend those things. But today there are all sorts of things I understand. So ever since then those around me have been keeping watch over me and trying to teach me important things, and although it took time for me to realize that, I still think it’s very significant that I did realize it. I feel really glad that I’ve kept at this until today.”
You’ve spoken about how you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about concerts, and I think that essentially is a sign that you’re finding more reasons to sing in your mind.
And 15 years isn’t a short time in my mind. I imagine after 15 years, you can’t avoid growing accustomed to your role as a singer. So to find new reasons to sing in your 15th year strikes me as having the mark of fate, I suppose you could say, and I wonder if perhaps it led to being able to reconfirm that your life is one of singing.
“It has. I just feel really grateful. I recently went on a concert tour for my fan club, and when we surveyed the audience there, we found that a huge number of people had been listening to my music since my debut song came out. Of course there were people who had started listening only just recently, but not as many as those who had spent these last 15 years growing older with me—for instance, someone who was in grade school or junior high when she first heard my music is now grown up and has a job, and spending that time as we grew into adulthood in sight of each other is something most people don’t get a chance to do, I think. Those kinds of struggles I deal with in my heart, or perhaps the love songs with a lighthearted flavor—out of all the different kinds of lyrics I’ve written, I feel as if they share in those emotions, or that they see them from a frame of mind very similar to my own. But at the same time, I’ve sung these years for no one but myself, and I feel that in all that time, I’ve hardly ever thought that I’m singing for someone else. I know that’s extremely self-centered, but I still think this is the only—how should I put it…the one thing, for better or for worse, that I can consider as my own responsibility, without being distracted by anything. Even looking back, I feel that the idea that I’m doing this because I want to sing, because I want to write, because I want to know more about myself, has never once left my focus.”
I see. In this last year, including the tour, perhaps you feel as though you’ve been able to draw a clear line connecting where you’ve come from with where you hope to go from here.
“Yes, but this past year, I took five weeks off work—it was my first time to take such a long vacation since I had started working, and when I left I was a little unsure of where I would end up.”
Oh, by which you mean…?
“I was just kind of worried about things like whether I had burned myself out. (laugh)”
(laugh) I see.
“But in the midst of keeping myself busy, I guess you could say it felt like the line between what I wanted to do and what I had to do had started to blur—I had learned how to juggle different things in my mind, like what I should prioritize, or how I should think of a situation as an adult, and I found myself over and over pushing aside the things I really wanted to do. With things like that, I felt like once more spending five weeks concentrating only on the things I really wanted to do. I wouldn’t so much as touch an instrument until I felt like it, I wouldn’t listen to music, and I didn’t even sing during that time. But some weeks in, I came across a piano in an inn where I happened to be staying. They let me play it a bit, and I realized, ‘I guess I do like this after all,’ and when I casually decided to go see an opera, while the seats filled and the orchestra began tuning a chill ran down my spine as I recalled what it was like to stand up on stage, and I was close to tears (laugh). That’s where I realized again, ‘I want to go back to that place; I still want to sing,’ and in the end, that’s the sort of trip it was. Going on that trip made me feel like I had shifted into a new gear.”
Did those five weeks feel like something you absolutely had to have?
“In a way. Although it felt deeply fulfilling to put together that album and concert tour, I still felt something like, ‘I want to be more like this!’ or, ‘It has to be this way!’—that kind of thought, that ideal, was always in my mind. There’s nothing wrong with working toward that ideal, but there were times when I think I might have pushed myself too hard. When that happens I sometimes just press on until I get past it, but the gap between the picture in my mind of how I wanted to be and how my body actually responded became wider and wider, and there were moments when I wanted to press on but my body couldn’t keep up. In any case, I had poured out so much, so I felt like taking in something new. I had nothing left in me, so at that point I craved some new, fresh inspiration. So I used my vacation to travel, but I ended up coming back home after spending my time kind of researching myself (laugh)—I saw and heard a lot of different things, but in the end it all tied into my thoughts about what kind of album I should make next. It felt like I had returned after taking in all sorts of things from that change of environment.”
Hearing that, it makes me even more curious about the meaning behind your latest single. You have an album and a concert tour that seems to summarize these 15 years and leave you wondering if you’ve burned yourself out, and then there’s an interlude. Then after taking a rest the next thing we see is this single. The fact that in your entire career, it’s the most energetic, sparkling song you’ve ever done is, I think, quite symbolic.
“I think so too. The request for the lyrics’ perspective this time around had keywords like spirited, positive, bright, and cute. I wanted to take the things I had been thinking about during that interlude and throw them into a new single, but first I stumbled over the question of, ‘What does it mean to be positive?’ (laugh). But when I have those thoughts, you know, you have to have a process for thinking about things, and I’ve learned from personal experience that when that process brings me to some kind of accomplishment, I can see that it really wasn’t all a mistake, and there was purpose in everything. I’m not excluding the time spent depressed, but wrapping up even that with everything else—in the end I have to keep moving forward, and if I think about it, I realize time and again that I’ve gotten this far through repeating that same process. With this last tour and album I definitely feel in my mind like I’ve accomplished something. But just clearing one stage doesn’t mean the rest will be OK, and there might just be things in my life and career after this that are so trying I’ll forget everything I’ve gained in the time until now. That’s why, for those times when I run into some kind of wall, I wanted to write in a kind of hint or signal that would help me remember that ‘there must be something left in me.’ I don’t have to be happy all 365 days of the year, I don’t have to work as hard as I can every day, but when I want to work hard, there was a time in the past when I could, so I guess you could call this song a key for me to memorize so I can bring back that side of myself at any time. I feel like that’s the kind of song it turned out to be.”