Maaya Sakamoto, who continues to put out tracks that shine like purified platinum, is celebrating the 15th anniversary of her debut, and for her 30th birthday on March 31st, she will release a two-disc best-hits album. With her first Budōkan concert planned for the same day, Maaya kindly sat down with us to reflect on the past 15 years.
Finding out about the “cliffs” she hadn’t yet seen in her teens
You were in high school when you made your debut, correct?
I was your average high schooler. No one around me paid attention to my work, and after classes we would sometimes hang out at a family restaurant close to school. But one day that restaurant started showing my “Feel Myself” music video on a big-screen display. At the time that was the last thing I wanted to see (laugh).
Your best-hits release includes songs from the 15 years since that time. Are there any tracks that strike you differently now versus when you first sang them?
“Yucca” makes me wonder what I was thinking about when I was in my teens—the lyrics are deep, with a universal theme. Also, I sang “Hemisphere” without really knowing what I was singing, just by reflex. It came across as a really unusual song—I wondered how exactly I should sing the lines that had that excessive boldness and really informal tone. I felt like there was some distance between me and the song.
Really? Lines like, “I want to know myself,” would seem to come across as resembling your own introspective lyrics.
It wasn’t as though I didn’t understand the meaning behind the lyrics, but at the time I didn’t know what it meant to be “pushed to the edge of the cliff,” so it wasn’t a song I felt I could deeply relate to. A lot of letters came in that said, “This song encouraged me when I heard it,” but it was a surprise to me that the people heard it that way. Although last year when I sang it for the first time in a while at a concert with Yōko Kanno, it felt like it fit perfectly with my current self.
Because you’ve experienced standing at the edge of the cliff?
Right……well, there are many reasons (laugh).
Parting ways with Ms. Kanno was “the biggest event of my life”
On your best-hits album, are there any songs that actually came from a time of stress?
The lyrics for “Let There Be Light” have what I suppose you could call a sense of isolation—I wrote them during a time when I was emotionally frayed. I was attempting a role in a musical [“Les Misérables”], and in confronting that unknown I was met with frustration. Even in my music, I felt like everything I thought I had built up had crumbled……like I was left with nothing.
But in “Let There Be Light”, you sing with enormous emotion.
At the time I had set up a fan club, and the number of people who signed up was far beyond what I expected. I was excited, but with that came a realization of how much people expected of me, regardless of my lack of confidence. But I felt I couldn’t shy away…this thought came through strongest, and aside from “Let There Be Light”, “A Boy Named Alice” has a lot of lyrics that sort of come across like a roar (laugh). From the album’s standpoint they sounded powerful and pushed it in a good direction, but even though I wanted to deliver a message at the time, the best I could say was “someday” I’ll show people……that’s all I could write. I was saying, “Let there be light,” but I was in total darkness (laugh).
But now you’ve reached a place full of light?
I think a lot of things are becoming clear. I had Yōko Kanno as my producer through “A Boy Named Alice”. After that I set out on my own two feet, I again started to run into many more unknowns, and while it was emotionally tough, it was inspiring in many ways. I feel like my trust in myself returned as I went through that.
Do you think it was a huge decision to part ways with Ms. Kanno?
It was the biggest event of my life. But both Ms. Kanno and I felt it had to be that way. Part of the sense of isolation I had back then came from the apathy I felt when I heard praise for my albums—I sensed I wasn’t the one being praised. There was also that escape route of relying on her to make things work out. I was on the verge of becoming an adult without doing a single thing on my own. I knew if I didn’t change that situation I wouldn’t have any hope for later. Of course I was scared. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry about being told, “You were better when you were working with Ms. Kanno.” But I want to try to reach a point where I can see the place where I personally belong. I braced myself to go as far as I could, even if I failed.
The realization that after 15 years, everything had meaning
Was this around the time of “Loop”, which you re-recorded for this release?
That song feels like my second debut song. During the best-hits recording , when I started to sing it I suddenly collapsed into tears. As I recalled the 15 years of creating so many things from scratch, I saw that the nine years I spent with Ms. Kanno and the six years after that were connected. It feels like there was meaning in everything. When “Loop” came out I could only look ahead, and I didn’t want to listen to my old songs, so I’m glad I’m able to feel this way now.
In the midst of all this, is there anything that has influenced your style of music?
I think every time I was influenced at least a little by the movies I saw then, but I normally don’t listen to much music (laugh). But I love the lyrics written by Spitz’s Masamune Kusano and The Blue Hearts’ Hiroto Kōmoto.
I hear you tried your hand at composition for the first time with your new song “everywhere”.
After last year’s tour, I was able to go by myself on a five-week trip across Europe. There happened to be a piano in a sort of guest house I was staying at in the outskirts of Rome, and as I played around the song just came to me out of nowhere. That trip was my first vacation in a while, and the things I had been thinking about flowed into the lyrics and the melody.
A singer, voice actress, stage actress…coming to think of everything as a place to belong
So it came out as, “My home is everywhere”?
Although I love my work and I love being busy, I’d recently been thinking about how I might not have that kind of “home” where I can find total relaxation. Even mentally, for instance when I’m working with music or on the stage I’m told, “That’s because you’re a voice actress,” and when I’m voice acting, “That’s because you’re a singer,” and I have this lingering feeling that I’m playing on the road everywhere I go. It’s not as though I was seriously worried about this, but part of me did wish for the sort of home that would accept me completely. But I think that rather than looking for one place, I should think of every place as my home. That’s what I was feeling when I wrote this song.
And the song title also became the album title.
The impression you get from one glance of the title conveys the feeling of the best-hits album, and since it seemed it could have multiple interpretations, I felt great about the decision.
On the release date, also your birthday, you have your first performance at the Budōkan. What kind of concert is it set to be?
Since it’s my 15th anniversary I’ll do a lot of old songs, and I expect my longtime fans will have something to cheer about right from the intro.
Looking toward the next part of your ongoing life as an artist, once the Budōkan is behind you, do you feel like sitting back for a bit to bask in the memories of these 15 years?
Not at all (laugh). When I listened to the best-hits album all the way through after mastering, my next thought after feeling a sense of accomplishment was, “I want to get started on an original album!” (laugh) Putting together the best-hits album was fun and gave me a lot to think about, but since there weren’t many new songs, I want to hurry up and challenge myself to write more. I’m hoping to start on the next project right away, before the things I’ve finally caught sight of disappear.