To mark the 15th year since her debut single “I Don’t Need a Promise” went on sale in April 1996, on March 31st of this year Maaya Sakamoto released a best-hits album “everywhere”. In tandem with her work in music, she has undertaken a plethora of voice acting roles, to include the voice of Makinami Mari Illustrious in last year’s “Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance” and Lightning in “Final Fantasy XIII”, on her pursuit of her own identity as an “expressionist” during these 15 years. We asked her to describe the place to which her journey has brought her.
Beyond music, your career covers a wide span of work, such as voice acting. When I see you in a variety of roles in such places as the theater, I can’t help but wonder, “What kind of person is the actress?” Are there any areas in your own character where there seems to be a gap between your awareness and the actual impressions of others?
Maaya Sakamoto (below, Sakamoto): I don’t know what kind of mental image people have of me, but I’m often told I “look like I have it together” or I “seem like a meticulous person,” and I appear to have a gentle personality (laugh). People with that impression have told me, “I’m surprised you’re so casual,” more times than I can count. One of the areas I’m personally quite conscious of is that when I’m in a place with a lot of people I’ve never met, since I’m the type that has trouble breaking the ice, I feel nervous and hesitant, and I tend to stay in the shadows. But when people see that they seem to wonder, “Is she angry about something?” and occasionally find me hard to approach. Although it would seem that “once you start talking to her, she’s actually normal” is the impression they get (laugh).
You’ve released a 15th anniversary best-hits album, but as I understand it your career didn’t begin with your entry into the music field. Considering the age at which you started working it might have felt similar to an after-school program, but when you were young did you have an idea of what kind of person you wanted to be in the future?
Sakamoto: I’ve been in acting since I was eight, so it’s not as if I didn’t have a general idea of going into that line of work. Actually, I wasn’t focused just on that, but it was more like I had a lot of ideas, like, “I want to be a stewardess,” or, “I want to be a florist,” or, “I want to be the wife of a sushi chef,” and one of those ideas was being an actress. But thoughts like, “I want to get married early,” weren’t nearly as strong as the image I had of working on my own.
When you started to work in music, did you have a picture of what kind of artist you wanted to be, or what kind of songs you wanted to sing?
Sakamoto: At that time I had my hands full just putting whatever I had into the work in front of me. In my case it wasn’t as though I thought, “I want to be a singer!” and took steps to make it happen. It came in a really unusual form, and I was caught by surprise when the path to becoming a singer suddenly opened up. I didn’t really have time to think about those things when I was 16—thinking about it now, it feels like I was really just a kid (laugh). I started out as a singer at that childish age, and I couldn’t imagine what would happen in the years to come.
I simply liked to sing, and I loved the staff around me. I thought of myself as a featureless, plain person, but I was so happy just being in that environment with people who accepted me as I was, and beyond that I had no aspirations (laugh). I really feel that during those first years—especially that time in my teens—that environment was everything to me.
In just the three years separating your fifth album “Loop in the Evening Calm” and sixth album “Windreader” it feels like something really changed. In the last 15 years have there been any turning points or deeply memorable events?
Sakamoto: As I listened through my music to select 30 songs [for the best-hits album], it struck me that I haven’t changed at all deep inside. But it may be that my fans pick up on all sorts of changes more objectively than I can. For me, since I’m seeing events from within the flow of time, I don’t feel like I’ve changed a lot, but beyond the natural changes a person sees growing up from 15 to 30, the most obvious change was in how I produced music—after nine years of working alongside the same person ever since my debut, my approach took a sharp turn, and I paired up with entirely different people for “Loop in the Evening Calm”. That period of time was an enormous change.
At that time, when your music production changed from a joint operation produced by someone else to self-expression, did you reconsider what it was you wanted to do?
Sakamoto: Back then that was practically all I could do, after those nine years of doing all sorts of things, and while I won’t say I was at a dead end, I did feel like, “How am I supposed to go on from here?” So that change in approach and jumping out into the unknown let me confirm once more what my music is and what fits me, and taking that step was a pretty gutsy move.
That’s why the things I’ve gained in these past five or six years have been so huge. The time until then was like being in a greenhouse where I was treated with care and spent my days with a kind of family (laugh). The time after that was six years of independence, meeting various people, and having my identity questioned at every turn. Over that time the standards for deciding what belongs and what doesn’t in Maaya Sakamoto’s music naturally became very well defined, and I stopped wandering.
So now, while I make music or some other work, I of course have a vision of what I want to do, but for me the things I like, the things I prefer, what fits me, what doesn’t—those kinds of things I don’t have to think about. I suppose this could count as a big change, but I think it’s because I’ve grown.
I imagine choosing 30 tracks from your 15 years of work in music was quite a task. What criteria did you use in your selection?
Sakamoto: Since I was choosing from well over a hundred songs, if I went for the ones I feel strongly about, I wouldn’t know where to draw the line and the list would go on forever. So right up front I decided to keep it to 30 tracks. The release happened to be on my 30th birthday, and the number 30 felt like it had a nice ring to it, so I picked out songs to fit into that. It was my first best-hits release in my 15 years of work, so I focused first on making it easy to follow. I wanted to put in the kind of line up of songs I could hand out in place of a business card when I introduce myself and the songs I’ve sung these 15 years to people who don’t yet know about Maaya Sakamoto. I don’t know if they’re 30 songs that others think of when they imagine Maaya Sakamoto, but I put in the 30 songs I think of. Beyond this, I made sure to put in songs that came at turning points in my career, and tracks that were closest to being my theme song for that time in my life or that album.
Your work is not only that of a singer, but also a voice actress. In your eyes, what kind of special qualities does your voice have?
Sakamoto: I think everyone feels a sense of strangeness in their own voice. The difference in how their voice sounds to them and how it sounds recorded probably surprises everyone. I felt that way for years, and I was often told, “I like your voice,” but I didn’t get it—I didn’t really know what it was in my voice that people liked. But having become older and having done collaborations with various musicians, with the different encounters I’ve had with each song, I’ve had many chances to participate in a ton of discussions and try out different ways to bring out the best parts of my voice. When I first started to listen to myself with a real awareness of my voice, even I found things I liked in it, and now I can listen to myself without feeling weird. When I’m asked to describe my voice, I say it sort of has a well-ventilated feeling—not really a thickly compressed feeling, but rather airy, I think. But that’s what I like about it (laugh).
Just recently the CS Anime Channel broadcasted “The Vision of Escaflowne” followed by “Linebarrels of Iron”, during which I heard “I Don’t Need a Promise” and “Remedy”, which are included in your best-hits album, and it’s hard to believe more than ten years passed between these two songs. As you look back on 15 years, do you personally feel a change in your voice or the way you sing?
Sakamoto: No one’s voice stays the same as it was at 15 or 16, so I can’t deny that my voice has changed, but when I listen to songs from 15 years ago even I don’t feel any sort of nostalgia. I don’t because those songs feel like they’ve been with me all this time, and they haven’t really aged. So when I laid out the best-hits track order I mixed old and new, instead of going in chronological order, and right after my debut song there’s a new song, and things like that. Yet despite putting the tracks in an order unrelated to their release dates, I think it’s amazing it doesn’t have a strange, uneven sound. I never consciously tried to change my voice or style of singing, but supposing those things naturally changed with time, since it would have been a part of that unbroken stretch of time, I’m pretty sure nothing feels out of place.
For all this time you’ve written your own lyrics, and while I imagine in those instances when you write for an animation or similar production there are parts that incorporate that story’s viewpoints, have your personal touches, such as favorite words and writing techniques, remained the same, or do you feel they’ve changed?
Sakamoto: 15 years ago, although it was a joint effort, my first experience with writing lyrics was with a song called “Feel Myself”, which is also included in the best-hits album. When I took some time to read over the lyrics again, they tied in with the present. The way I express myself is different, but I again felt that in my heart, the things I want to say haven’t changed. But if I go all the way back, my choice of words in my childhood or my teens was much more indirect. That’s one of their defining marks, and it was a good thing, but I was still pretending to look good. Now I’ve sort of reworked myself, and I can choose simple words without blushing, but it feels like a long time ago I was really embarrassed to speak from my heart. But as I’ve gotten older my words have become more and more simple, and I think my choice of words has also become very direct.
Looking at the cover art for “Loop in the Evening Calm” and everything following, it gives an impression that your visual image, such as your hairstyle and fashion, has changed. Do you feel like your taste in fashion is different now?
Sakamoto: I imagine it’s changed to the extent that the average person’s preferences change, but I’m essentially not the type to spend a lot of thought on fashion (laugh). I absolutely despise having my picture taken, and I can’t stand that moment when the photographer announces he’s taking a picture. But for the cover art, we choose a setting that goes with the album or songs, and that makes me feel like I’m acting, so I can get through it in actress mode. So more than changes in fashion, I think my visual image has changed to match each concept.
So even fifteen years hasn’t changed your dislike of photos?
Sakamoto: No, it hasn’t. But I think these days I’m handling it a lot better than I used to. Besides, I’ve recently started making music videos (laugh). For many years now I’ve had more and more people on my staff who I can trust and feel comfortable around, and I work with them for every video. I actually used to dislike music videos, and until recently it felt like I did one every five years or so, something like three in all.
This may relate in a way with your work as a voice actress, but it would seem you’re not the type that wants to stand out.
Sakamoto: Definitely. In this line of work it’s hard to get people to believe me when I say that, but I think people like me surprisingly aren’t all that unusual. It’s the same with an actress who can do anything when she’s playing a role, but after going back to being herself, to her own person, she becomes bashful. Working as an actress has that excitement of being able to become someone who isn’t you. But as a musician, when my real name appears on a poster or the side of a truck on the highway, I feel so embarrassed I have no idea what to do (laugh).
As the artist Maaya Sakamoto, to what do you attribute being able to make it to 15 years into your music career?
Sakamoto: I suppose to put it simply, because I love it. I feel like that enjoyment I get as an actress from becoming someone I’m not may stem from some kind of complex. I’ve always thought I’m an uninteresting person without originality. So for me, being able to become a different person made it a place where I could have freedom.
But since finding music, I have to return once again to myself. It’s a place where everything comes back to my individuality, although that’s sometimes demanding. With all the roles I play, when I’m unsure of what my own color is, it’s a place where I can be Maaya Sakamoto and proclaim the things I can express or the things I want to say.
Having both of these side-by-side is a really good balance, and it’s not a question of which is more important—I’ve made it this far because I have both music and acting. Things I’ve gained from music sometimes contribute to my writing, my acting, and various other areas, and vice versa. I imagine in my case, having this wide variety of forms of self-expression might be the reason I’ve been able to keep going for this long.
From where do you normally get your information? Internet, television, radio, magazines, newspapers…?
Sakamoto: First off, I hardly ever turn on the TV, since I grew up on radio. But I’ve been spending more time at work away from home, and for those times when I get to the studio and I’m curious about something I can look it up right away, so these days it feels inconvenient to not have an internet connection. There are many days when I’m in the studio the whole time and I don’t watch any TV or news. I’ve started watching the news online, although I got into this habit only recently. Until then I’d ask something like, “What was that restaurant again?” and someone would say, “Just a minute,” and open up a laptop right away to look it up. I used to be really annoyed by those kinds of people, but recently I’ve become that way myself, and I’ve started to think of myself as a modern, sophisticated person (laugh).
Outside of fashion, do you lean toward certain colors or themes in your room?
Sakamoto: My room is so devoid of cute things you’d think it’s a guy’s room. Whenever I see a girl’s room, they all have dolls and such, and that cutesy girlishness makes me feel really nervous. Compared to the people who live in rooms that look like they came from the set of a TV drama, my room isn’t particularly decorated, and there are a lot of things with a natural, unfinished wood kind of feel. But I have a ton of books, so the inside of the house looks like a bookstore (laugh).
Is there anything you do to disconnect from work and unwind? How do you personally recharge?
Sakamoto: That’s what I want to know (laugh). I don’t really know what it means to rest, and I don’t know how to completely shut myself off when I’m on vacation. I enjoy reading books, and since that’s a stress reliever, while I’m reading I can of course immerse myself in the book’s world. Somewhere in that I pick up inspiration from what I’m reading, I think about how to put that to creative use, and from there I get a lot to mull over, so it always connects back to some part of my job. But last year I decided I had to get away from work for a bit, so I went on a five-week trip alone across Europe. I especially like traveling by myself, and when I have a chance to travel, even to somewhere inside Japan, I’ll often go for it without much debate.
Last year you went on tour in Tōkyō, Nagoya, and Ōsaka. Until now, perhaps because your personality tends to avoid the spotlight, so chances to see you live have been few and far between. With you in concert at the Budōkan on the same day as the release of your best-hits album, how are you thinking of approaching concerts from now on?
Sakamoto: I guess you could say that I went through a huge shift with last year’s tour—it gave me a chance to open up something new. There used to be a side of me that could never take the initiative to put on a concert, and I had a hard time coming up with a picture of how I should approach concerts as a form of expression. But last year, I had a sudden feeling as if, though I didn’t have anything to prove it, I felt like I could finally make it work. I used to have a expectations that when you do a concert, you have to prepare and present something really polished and perfect, and of course everyone agrees that a perfect concert is best, but a concert is something born in that moment and shared, and beyond whether my individual performance is perfect, it’s the audience’s contribution that first makes it perfect.
When I switched over to thinking of it as a form of communication, I started to be able to look forward to what would come from that concert atmosphere, and it became a lot easier. Of course I still have to constantly think about how to put on something entertaining, as it should be. Now, concerts have opened up a new area of expression in my mind, and I’ve come to really enjoy them. I’m starting with the Budōkan, but after that I have a whole list of things I want to try at concerts, and I feel like I’m really pursuing those ideas now.
This is listed as “round one” of the 15th anniversary since your debut. Do you have any plans for round two?
Sakamoto: Yes, since there’s a round one, I suppose there’s a round two (laugh). But first, I have my hands full with the first round….
Is there anything you would like to do after this?
Sakamoto: I’ve turned 30 now, and I’m really excited about my 30s. I feel like my 20s were a time when I experienced and took in all sorts of things, and made mistakes on occasion. Now in my 30s, I have a feeling I’ve entered a time when I can at last take that experience I gained and turn it to my advantage. I’m really looking forward to what’s going to happen from now on. From the point of view of my work, it’s quite—with the theater, singing, and also with writing, and acting and radio, it might seem like I’m doing a lot of different things, but in my mind they’re all connected. I feel like I can see them as various sides of the same huge idea of “expression”.
Rather than setting out to branch into more and more new things, right now I suppose I want to take the things in myself that I’ve built up over the years and develop them even further. Instead of spreading out, the picture I have is one of digging down, pushing my roots deeper. Having spent so many years doing this, I’ve learned a lot, and right now I think it’s crucial for me to soak in the things I’ve gained from continuing. I really want to know what’ll happen if I put in even more time, or what I’ll learn about myself later on. I’m hoping I can pursue what I have now even further.
Having your picture taken may not be your favorite thing to do, but I would hope you’ll spend more time in the spotlight.
Sakamoto: Ahh, well, we’ll see what happens (laugh).
I’m excited to see what you have in store for us.
Sakamoto: Yes, thank you.