Maaya Sakamoto: There's nothing wrong with continuing to say the same thing forever
On March 31st, Maaya Sakamoto will celebrate her 30th birthday. On the same day, she will take the bold step of a career-first Budōkan concert. Along with this she will release a two-disc, 30-track best-hits album entitled “everywhere”—an album that can only be described as spectacular.
Except it’s perfectly natural for a best-hits album to be spectacular. But this release far exceeds that expectation and arrives as a composition full of meaning. Although woven from songs from every part of her career, which this year totals 15 years since her debut, quite curiously, the song order is a wonderful jumble of new and old. And even more curiously, one finds nothing at all unusual in such an ordering. Shifts in musical trends are of course audible, but the moment her straightforward singing pairs with the music, any notions of “age”, “time”, or “breaks” instantly vanish. This is what’s amazing. Some may even see it as a brand-new two-disc Maaya Sakamoto release. Such is how she has sung with her voice that knows no bounds these past 15 years. A best-hits album that highlights a singer’s “Now” as much as this one does is a rare thing.
“everywhere”, a never-before-heard track that is the first to credit her as its composer, is also brilliant. I spoke with her at length about these fulfilling 15 years.
Today I’d like to talk about your best-hits album. To start, what standard did you use when you decided which tracks to include?
“I’ve sung a hundred and some-odd songs at this point, and my feelings about each one make it impossible for me to say which are the best. So first of all, I knew I had to set up a guide from the start, so I decided at the beginning on 30 tracks. Besides, the album was going to be released on my 30th birthday, so after I set a foundation of 30 songs, I went with the song that was my theme when I was 16, or the song that represented me when I was 18—I picked out tracks with the idea of including each of those songs that would express that sort of personal history.”
The unusual thing about it is that the songs aren’t arranged by time. Were it intended to be a documentary of your singing career, you’d think that would be the way it would go.
“You would, wouldn’t you—I wonder why it’s like that (laugh). But from the very beginning the thought of putting them in chronological order never entered my mind. Right after my debut song there’s a song from my newest album, but when you actually hear them lined up that way, it doesn’t sound out of place. After 15 years it’s natural for things like the musical style and my voice to change, but beyond those things, it made me really happy to see that the ordering doesn’t feel all that irregular. I feel like since every song connected to the same thing, shuffling them around today doesn’t change anything. So I never had any second thoughts.”
Despite the jumbled ordering, the way the songs all feel like part of the same whole leaves me curious. How do you interpret this?
“Hmm, it is curious…they’re the music, the words, and the songs I had in me at the time I sang them—it’s a compilation of nothing but those sorts of songs. And the reason I was, at each particular moment, able to get by without lying to myself was really because I had the understanding and support of those around me. Especially in my teens, I bet it would have been easy for the adults around me to say, ‘Let’s take it in this direction,’ or add in their own styles. But they never once did that, and it was always whoever I was at the moment that was paired with the music. That style has never changed in all this time, and in that sense, if you look at this as a documentary, then sure, it certainly sounds like one. It really feels like nothing more than an excerpt of time, of one woman’s growth from 16 to 30.”
What I also find interesting in that very line of thought is that everything from your debut song to an original, new song appear in the same release, yet the things you sing about in each are surprisingly similar. Lines that read, “Though so far apart, we share a trust in a single feeling” [“Feel Myself”] and, “I found my place to return right where I am” [“everywhere”]—you’re singing about things that aren’t all that distant from each other, wouldn’t you agree?
“Yes, I definitely think so too.”
So you’re conscious of it.
“I am. I have just as many songs with lyrics written by people other than me, but they all have a kind of thesis running through them. I never consciously intended to maintain that thesis, but I also never thought of trying to change myself. The fundamental things I want to say don’t really change all that often, and so stepping out and changing those things is going about it in the wrong way, and there was a time when I realized there’s nothing wrong with continuing to say the same thing forever. But depending on my perspective at each point in time, I can sometimes find a new point of view, or reach an answer of sorts at the level where I’m standing, and so as the years go by I am changing my colors little by little.”
Musically speaking, you’re really involved in a variety of different things.
I imagine each time, you’ve thought about how you should go about it, how you should sing, and that’s how you’ve thought as you’ve sung and written lyrics all this time. Yet now, when you look back, everything’s the same. Though I’m sure you couldn’t have sung those songs if that wasn’t the case. I imagine it turned out this way because that was the most sincere method for you to confront your music.
“From the perspective of the sound, there are songs by [Yōko] Kanno, and theme songs for animations, and to go along with those productions there are songs that have rather unique viewpoints. In a way, rather than something that originated from within me, there are songs I sang with the sort of feeling that I was acting out a role. So I feel a slight separation from them, but at times that was actually a good thing. There was always this sense that singing lyrics written by other authors and putting in songs with a completely unexpected tone would open up a passageway for a wind that would carry me to places I had never imagined I could reach on my own. At the same time, while I still had that sense of separation as though acting out a role, in all this time I never once contradicted my own feelings or my own perspective of who Maaya Sakamoto is. How should I put it…it kind of felt like I was always inside this big circle. That might be why my music fits together so well. I also think that every song I sang, because it was one of mine, came out in the form that it was destined to be in.”
To me it seems that from the beginning you were probably always conscious of how your making it this far was for the purpose of singing about these sorts of things. Yet at the same time, that’s incredibly stoic of you, and so I can’t help but think the road to this point was a perilous one. As you look back now, how do you see it?
“When I first started, at 16 or 17 I was still a child, and I had my hands full with just focusing everything I had on dealing with the things directly in front of me, so much that I didn’t have time to think about the future, or what was going on around me, or even to feel any pressure. There was a time when it was simply fun, when I was going on nothing more than my love for music. But it suddenly occurred to me one day that the Maaya Sakamoto I had known since I was born and the Maaya Sakamoto that was being put into a package were at times two entirely different things. In my teens, there were times when I really worried about that. I was just a normal high schooler, but I kept getting more and more fans, I would feel that so much was expected of me, and I wondered if perhaps the me that was wrapped up in that package was being embellished—there was also the fact that I was doing this under my real name, and sometimes I felt that the idea of Maaya Sakamoto was gradually slipping out of my reach.”
Ah, I see what you mean.
“So what I think is interesting is that most people usually put out this kind of commemorative album at their 10-year anniversary, but at that time in my career I was still worried about those sorts of things, and my situation was such that I couldn’t possibly turn and look back on those years. At that time—I think of this as my second debut song, by the way—I sang a song called ‘Loop’. For this album I’ve recorded a new version of ‘Loop’. There’s a line in it that goes, ‘I’m sure we’ll see each other again one day,’ but at the time I sang at I was actually wondering, ‘Is that day ever going to get here?’ (laugh) Until I made the ‘Windreader’ album last year, I had always separated my career into two periods: the nine years after my debut, and the six years after that. But after finishing ‘Windreader’, for the first time I felt like everything was connected. I had the distinct sensation that the time had come for me to be able to reflect on the past, and it felt so refreshing to be able to look out across everything. Now I think I’m able to come face-to-face with ‘Loop’, and part of why I wanted to sing it again was for who I was back when I first sang it.”
I’d like to ask about this original, new song called “everywhere”—I’m told you wrote both the lyrics and the music. What led up to the creation of this song?
“I wrote it last year, while I was traveling through Europe. I was staying at a small bed and breakfast in the mountains outside Rome, and there was a piano. Since I left on that trip I hadn’t touched a piano at all, and I had been spending my time without really listening to any music, so it was my first time in a while to feel the keys under my fingers. After that time away from the piano, I realized I still loved to play, and as I was thinking this and playing random melodies, the song sort of appeared out of nowhere. I got out my voice recorder as fast as I could and made a recording right there.”
You must have been really happy at the time you wrote this song.
“I was. It felt like all the different things I had been thinking about on that trip had suddenly been given a form. There’s nothing in this song that reaches out and grabs your attention, but I had to admit that that’s the kind of person I am now (laugh). There’s a part that reads, ‘I was born to be loved,’ and being in this unique line of work, at times I get to be an encouragement to people in places I’ve never imagined, but I too go through life relying on help from many different people, and I’ve been loved by so many. Yet I still felt strongly that I have to reach the point where I can love myself even more. I can’t help but feel that if I go further, if I go someplace I’ve never been there’ll be something there for me, and I end up focusing only on the things I don’t have. But this wish to put more emphasis on first loving the things where I’m standing, the things I hold in my hands, and to be grateful for those things before looking at things far away is one of the lessons I took from the 15 years leading up to ‘Windreader’ (laugh). I spent a lot of thought on how, after returning from my trip, I would first of all acknowledge the things close to me, the things I have within me, and start from there. That’s the idea I wanted to write into the song.”
I see. Hearing your story, it makes the song sound even better.
“Thank you (laugh). But if you were to ask if this is an answer to everything that leaves me completely satisfied, that’s not the case—well, I’ll probably end up repeating a lot of things again. I have a feeling that when that happens, listening to this song will give me strength, and having made it to here, I’m really looking forward to seeing what I can kinds of things I can perceive and produce on my own after this. After putting out a best-hits album it feels tempting to sit back and take a breather, but since I’ve been able to make a clean summary of everything until now, I also feel like hurrying on to the next thing. Right now I have an intense desire to get started right away on creating my next release.”