On October 20th, as the fourth installment in her 15th Anniversary Commemorative Project, Maaya Sakamoto will release a new single, “DOWN TOWN / If I’m Surrounded by Kindness”. “DOWN TOWN” is the opening theme to the TV animation “And Life Still Goes On”. This animation’s downtown setting led to the idea of covering “DOWN TOWN”, and from there turned into a three-track cover single release.
“DOWN TOWN” was released by Sugar Babe in 1975. Many artists have covered it, but for this version Takayuki Hattori’s arrangement with a 35-member big band performance and Maaya’s glistening voice add a vibrant touch.
“I wanted to give ‘DOWN TOWN’ that sunny sort of feeling you’d find in a musical. The original is upbeat and refreshing, but for this version I was aiming for a little more of an assertive approach. When you’re covering a song it’s hard to break free from the ideas in the original, so for that reason I thought it would be best to change it up completely, and it turned out to have a more energetic, more lively feeling to it.”
She spoke of the difficulties and enjoyment of working on a cover version, experienced simultaneously during the making of this single.
“Primarily, the songs I sing are mostly songs that were written for me to sing or songs that I myself wrote, and so I approach the singing part of it with a complete awareness of everything, from when the song was created to when I sing it. This song was born a long time ago, a lot of other artists have covered it, and it certainly wasn’t written for me, but if I’m going to sing it, I want it to be one of my songs. When I thought about it like that, at first I did feel a sense of distance. And because I love the original, I felt challenged to use my version to sing from a different angle and create something wonderful. Tatsutarō Yamashita’s defined, cheerful vocals in ‘DOWN TOWN’ really leave an impression, and when I first tried singing this song, my voice felt a little out of place. But for the final recording, I think it had a sincere cheerfulness that came from not thinking too much about what this song is calling for. So ultimately, I felt as though I was playing the role of a singer who was performing in front of a 35-member big band. It felt like I was both Maaya Sakamoto and not Maaya Sakamoto.”
A songstress who basks in the spotlight on a stage with a somewhat retro, lively feel—an aura of womanly allure shows through in the music video for “DOWN TOWN”, which I encourage you to watch. Through this first attempt at a cover version, she appears to have discovered the way to approach such tracks.
“My covering this song means that for the people who hear this version first, that’s going to be their first encounter with the song. The important thing is whether I can get them to think it’s a great song. I was able to have fun singing this song because I saw my feelings of wanting to make this song mine as not being all that important.”
Also recorded is the opening theme to the animation “Tamayura”: a cover of Yumi Arai’s famous 1974 release, “If I’m Surrounded by Kindness”. With arrangement from the acoustic guitar duo DEPAPEPE, the relaxing tone and Maaya’s passionate, straightforward singing join to create another stirring track.
“I’ve loved this song since I first heard it in grade school when I saw the movie ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’, but the older I get, the more the lyrics resonate in my heart. The melody, tone, lyrics—everything overflows with happiness, and it’s a song that really cheers me up and means a lot to me. I’ve listened to DEPAPEPE’s work for some time now, but the expressions built up in the layers of guitar tracks and the recording process were fascinating, and collaborating with them was extremely inspirational. They’ve put out several cover albums in their career, so because they have a lot of experience with how to approach a cover song, production went smoothly, and they were a big help.”
A bridge that sounds as if they are singing through their guitars is another of the track’s highlights, and above all, one can sense that Maaya Sakamoto truly enjoyed this head-to-head contest of a collaboration with them.
In contrast, the third track, with its gently tinged emotions from J.A.M’s (piano trio from SOIL&“PIMP’SESSIONS) elegant jazz approach to “Too Sad to Go On”, is a cover of a 1968 song from The Folk Crusaders. Its aura of a live session together with Maaya’s bold projection of sorrow into song practically conveys the resolve of a person who strives to draw in the next day, come what may. Apparently she first heard this song from her father, who sang it while in the bath, but in the time since then, her thoughts after rereading the lyrics formed her feelings for this track.
“Normally, when I write lyrics, I feel pressed to put in a point of solace somewhere. But when I read the lyrics for ‘Too Sad to Go On’, I thought, ‘Wow, what a depressing, hopeless way to end a song. But I wonder why it sounds so beautiful?’ I didn’t start to think this way until I reached adulthood, but I’m sure everyone has those nights when they look up at the stars and wonder if they’ll have to continue suffering tomorrow just like today. Rather than finding an answer in this song, it takes just that slice of time when you’re totally at a loss as you stare up at the night sky. But I think this song rests on that unshakable premise that everyone is living opposite those feelings. That’s probably why it’s such a beautiful and somehow comforting song. In the cover for this song I kept it from becoming too depressing, the arrangement is somewhat mature, and I’m glad the finished version has a feeling of innocence in it.”
This single gives a sense of Maaya Sakamoto’s bearing as she endeavors to make each song, though a cover, her own. “The difficulty was what made it fun,” she says emphatically.
“I’ve had the pleasure of singing all kinds of great songs up to now, and I’ve met all kinds of people, but this after all is my 15th anniversary year, and I’ve been relentlessly seeking out those meetings with others, making it that sort of time, and setting out to enjoy that. This release has a playful side that I’m capable of precisely because I’ve come all this way after doing so many things. It ended up as an unconventional single that shows a lot of influence from other productions. There’s about half a year left until my 15th anniversary year ends on March 31st next year, but I hope you’re still looking forward to what’s coming up.”
[Japanese] Text: Miki Ueno