15 years of work in music, and now at 30, “everywhere”.
Interviewer: Miki Ueno
An average 16-year-old who liked to sing—the first single, “I Don’t Need a Promise”
For this interview, I’d like to hear your thoughts as we revisit your 15 years of work in music. To start, let’s go back to 1996, when you made your debut with your first single, “I Don’t Need a Promise”. I imagine you had sung various commercial jingles and the like before then, during your time in a youth theater group, but would I be right in assuming your perception of this song was entirely different?
“It was. I never considered those commercial jingles I sang as part of my career as an artist. Back in the theater group I recorded quite a few jingles, so I felt comfortable in the studio atmosphere—that part at least wasn’t any different. But putting out a CD with my own name on the cover had an entirely different feel. Plus, my debut back then came without warning (laugh). It was like the CD came out while I was still busy wondering to myself whether my debut would ever get here. And I was still a child…I kind of felt like I didn’t really know what was going on (laugh). I was nowhere close to being ready mentally.”
Have you always liked to sing?
“That’s definitely true. Being a child, I loved to hear praise. Kind of like, when I went in to do a commercial jingle or some other job, I’d go to the studio, meet the staff and composer for the first time, and they’d tell me, ‘We’re going to play the song now, so try to memorize it,’ and I’d learn and sing it right there, and I felt great and I could do my best when I heard things like, ‘You’re a quick learner,’ ‘You’re pretty good,’ or, ‘I didn’t know you could sing harmony.’ That sort of thing started when I was really young and happened time and again. It was a line of work I really enjoyed, but still, after my debut, the idea of having a whole song that was my own, original song left me with a strange feeling. It was then that I met my director and Yōko Kanno. The mood at work was really relaxed, so rather than feeling nervous I was having fun. The whole time, all through recording the B-track, I just soaked in the enjoyment of recording music.”
Meeting Yōko Kanno—the first album, “Grapefruit”
Can you describe what it was like when you first met Ms. Kanno?
“The ‘I Don’t Need a Promise’ single was the main theme for an animation I played in at the time, and when Ms. Kanno was put in charge of the the score [the production’s accompanying music] for that animation, they had yet to choose someone to sing the opening theme. She picked up on the rumor that the girl playing the lead role was practically new to voice acting, and what’s more, she was in high school, and Ms. Kanno said something along the lines of, ‘Let’s have her record a demo tape—I want to hear her sing,’ so I got her to hear my voice, and from there it was nothing more than, ‘Well, if you can sing, why not sing?’ (laugh) and that was that. But at that time we had yet to meet in person. For the actual recording session she brought a cake. So my impression of her became sort of, ‘the lady who brought cake for everyone’ (laugh). She didn’t have that aura of a composer—she was very up-front, and the feeling in the air when she was in the room was like, ‘That cheerful lady’s here again,’ and the only thing I can really recall about my first impression of her was that she brought cake for us. (laugh)”
What sorts of things did you talk about with Ms. Kanno as you worked on your first album, “Grapefruit” (April 1997)?
“When I sang ‘I Don’t Need a Promise’, I hadn’t considered the idea of something following it. But that song led to people showing interest in my voice and music, and I kept going from one song to the next. This was around the time kogyaru girls were showing up on TV (laugh) and there were reports on how high schoolers in those days were all like that, and there I was, not resembling those girls in the slightest (laugh). But I bet most normal high schoolers were kind of like me. When it came to those normal high school students, they were looked on with a sort of amusement…looking back now, it sometimes seems to me like they were treated kind of like the way you’d treat a pet (laugh). That’s where I found myself, with my personality that has always felt hesitant to draw attention to myself. I formed my own interpretations of what was asked of me, and I had a keen desire to fulfill those requests. So every time a different type of song came along, the hurdles would get raised a notch higher, and as I went I found enjoyment in clearing those challenges. It was interesting to see the range of songs I could sing and my range of expression expand with each song. After repeating this several times I was left with a collection of songs, and these were turned into an album.”
An “awakening” as an artist—the second album, “DIVE”
But I imagine putting out an album is what really sets your feet on the path of being a singer.
“I agree, it is. That was also when I wrote my first lyrics. Rather than just working with what I had been given, ‘Grapefruit’ was the first time my own thoughts came into the picture. When I was writing lyrics for that album, I was never told even once by anyone, ‘Maybe you should try this instead,’ or, ‘Rewrite this once more.’ But starting with my second album ‘DIVE’, my own preferences with regard to writing had changed, and I started to hear more and more opinions such as, ‘This part feels kind of such-and-such,’ from those around me. ‘Grapefruit’ was, for better or for worse, left exactly as it was. You could say that ‘DIVE’ was in a sense the start of an awakening. So ‘Grapefruit’ was a sort of…even to me, it sounds like a very irregular album. If you look at how things have flowed up to today.”
It sounds that way to me, too. Beginning with that second album, “DIVE”, I can already sense the nervousness of being on the brink of adulthood, and even an inner discord. Did you have a sense of what you wanted to create after ‘Grapefruit’?
“Since before we started work on the album, I had been keeping the things I had recently had on my mind and little snippets of lyrics in a notebook, and ‘DIVE’ had its start in a sort of discussion I had where I showed that notebook to Ms. Kanno, Yūho Iwasato, and my director. So I certainly did have a desire to take the things in my mind and somehow fit them into lyrics and the framework of an album. I was 17 or 18 then, but my name started popping up in the media before I knew it…I don’t know if I felt uncomfortable with my own self, but even though Maaya Sakamoto was someone who used to belong only to me, people I had never heard of found out about me, and I heard things like, ‘I love you,’ from people I had never even met (laugh). That felt weird at first. I had worries I couldn’t get even my parents to understand, and my worries were so totally different from what my friends were worried about that I couldn’t bring them up in conversation. The adults and staff around me were really kind, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was still constantly being treated like a kid. I assumed the Maaya Sakamoto I had in my mind was closest to the truth, but I felt this huge gap between the Maaya Sakamoto people saw and the Maaya Sakamoto I imagined. I was trapped in that sort of mental unrest. It feels like that tied into the song ‘I.D.’ and various other things, and formed the concept for ‘DIVE’.”
So you felt somewhat out of place both at school and at the studio? A feeling of questioning your identity?
“You could say that. At school I had the privilege of a fun, average high school life, and my work was also going wonderfully. So I had zero complaints in those areas. I think that’s because from the beginning, probably, like I said earlier, deep down I have a strong desire to be praised by others (laugh). That’s why at school I behaved like a student, and I wanted to have fun with my friends on the same level, be the kind of daughter that would make my parents proud, sing the songs or play the roles everyone asked me to at work, and be liked by my fans. Those sorts of desires were there before I asked myself what I personally wanted to do. That’s why at each place, in response to questions like, ‘Maaya, you’re like this, right?’ or, ‘Don’t you think this goes well with you?’ every time I’d answer, ‘Really? I’m not sure about that.’ It was like I wondered if it was really OK for me to take one side or the other. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do, so I matched with the particular shade of things wherever I was, and I started to feel like I had a different side of me for every place. I started to think about what exactly I wanted to do, and I started to despise the idea of being a person lacking originality. That occupied a huge portion of my thoughts. The question of, ‘What do I want to do?’ became a theme that never once left my side after that. Back then I didn’t know the answer, so I hated being asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ (laugh) I was full of uncertainty, and every single thing felt like it was cloudy and vague.”
But when you write lyrics, I imagine expressing your ideas without running from your own self or that sort of conflict is the beginning of something.
“It is. So if, beyond singing, I didn’t have writing, I really do wonder how I would have made it through my teens and 20s (laugh). I really think I was saved by having a kind of place unlike school where I could take a long look at and question myself, and what’s more, I was able elevate that to the level of expression.”
This album’s sound is leisurely acoustic in places, and sometimes leans toward bossa nova. How involved were you in this area?
“Back then I didn’t say a word about the sound. But I got asked about it at every turn—‘Between this and this, which do you think is best?’ and so on. But there were a lot of times when I couldn’t tell the difference (laugh). I started listening in on the mixing from that time, and it was Ms. Kanno’s and later the staff’s policy that if you don’t follow what’s going on, it’s important to go at it the best way you know how. Getting asked about everything that early on was tough for me, but I feel like it really linked to today. ‘Which sound do you like, this one or this one?’ or, ‘Between this guitar and this guitar, which do you think is better?’—they asked about every last detail. At the time it took all I had to keep up, but it definitely turned out to my benefit in the future.”
Your “Single Collection+ HACHIPOCHI” (December 1999) came out after that, right?
“Yes. ‘HACHIPOCHI’ took all sorts of songs recorded for animations that didn’t fit into an original album. It was the same for songs that were part of soundtracks and single releases—I had built up a huge collection of songs that had been released alone but couldn’t go into an album. Plus, the small-format eight-centimeter CD was on the way out, so part of the idea was to just throw everything onto one disc.”
A chance to take a fresh look at the road ahead—the third album, “Lucy”
That makes sense. Incidentally, between “DIVE” (December 1998) and the release of your third album “Lucy” (January 2001) there’s quite a gap. What was that period of time like for you personally?
“I thought back on this when someone mentioned it to me the other day. When I was taking the entrance exams for college, for a brief time I put everything at work into a save state. At the time I was still a member of a youth theatrical group, so for the moment I put my education at the top of the list. Then there was a short time…when my brother was severely injured in a traffic accident, and I seriously worried once about whether it was really OK for me to stay at this job. I think that’s another cause for the break in time.”
Did it give you a chance to rethink once more the road ahead of you?
“Yeah, when my brother was in that accident…he came out OK in the end, but whenever I went with him to rehab every day, every time I saw other patients with every kind of serious injury struggling through rehab as the physical therapists supported them at every step, and it struck me how the therapists’ job was so meaningful, how their hands were there to directly help others—there was a definitiveness to it. But the thought crept into my mind that my work isn’t like that. I’d never thought I was singing for someone else, and even if someone happened to tell me my music cheered them up, it wasn’t as if I sang that song with that in mind. I wondered if I was happy with singing for no one other than myself, and having those kinds of things happen just by chance. Weren’t there other careers where I could have a definite impact on people? I had a moment when this started to bother me. Even things like acting are undefined and formless, there are no correct answers, and I wasn’t sure what goal I should work toward. But as I expected, I enjoyed going back to work, and the other side of things was that I knew I wasn’t capable of anything else (laugh). Outside of my work, I can’t point to a single thing that makes me stand out. Right around that time, I set foot in the studio after that long time away to record ‘Mameshiba’, and it was just as fun as ever, and it reminded me of how much I loved my job. That was also my first time to think about tying the song into another production, and I wrote it in response to a request for a certain flavor of lyrics. That idea of filling an order was a really good experience, and I found it to be fascinating.”
So as far as your third album goes, your work on it was after you had entered college?
Visually it has a feminine atmosphere, and the sound has a sharp dramatic flair. What sort of concept did you have in mind for this album?
“The title of ‘Lucy’ came from my idea of the proper name of that universal girlish side of everyone. I wasn’t that conscious of it at the time, but after meeting with Ms. Kanno and the rest of the recording team after that break, from their point of view it probably looked like I had suddenly taken an interest in upping my sex appeal.”
Is that so? (laugh)
“If you take a girl who’s never really paid attention to makeup and send her to college, she’s going to come back different, wouldn’t you agree? I couldn’t tell, since I saw myself in the mirror every day, but I think that change to being more womanly took a bigger part of the stage. In my mind, my slightly fuzzy, somewhat depressed teenage years had opened up a little into a more enjoyable time when I was looser about a lot of things, and I was more content with letting things go as they were. I feel like that side of me came through even in my music.”
I’m told you spent as much time as you could in the studio for this album.
“I loved being in the studio so much that I didn’t care about going home anymore. I brought in my own pair of slippers and a blanket, and kind of set myself up to live there (laugh). Despite going to school every day, spending my free time there until late at night wasn’t the least bit tiring, and it increased the extent to which I was involved in recording. Since I had been in a youth theatrical group forever, there used to be limits on my time—I had to leave the studio when it got late, and things like that. But turning 20 meant I could stay as long as I liked, and I had all the time in the world. In that sense, it felt like I was even more immersed in the work. I was also getting a clearer awareness of what it was I wanted to do. That, and I gained the ability to control and separate out on my own my playful side that sort of came up with lyrics out of the blue, and my serious side that composed lyrics straight from my emotions. I tried things like writing in a little pretending in places, or going from an idea of a quality I didn’t personally have. I guess I felt more free in that sense.”
What sort of feel did “Lucy” have to it at the time you created it?
“It definitely had one. Back then I was working every day at a studio nearby Tōkyō Tower, and the last day of mixing lasted until the next morning. At the time I had to be careful with my money, so rather than a taxi I took the prudent option of going home on the first train of the day (laugh). I had them put the just-finished song onto an MD, and as I listened to it along the way to the station, while I walked on the empty street past Tōkyō Tower under the dim sky, I was overcome with emotion. Kind of like, ‘I made it!’ The sense of the coming day mixed in and left me with a sort of refreshed feeling. It was so fulfilling to create that album.”
Another side of Maaya Sakamoto—“Easy Listening”
And less than a year later you were working on “Easy Listening” (August 2001).
“I think ‘Lucy’ was a snapshot of who I was at the time. But having done that, I decided up front to use a slightly different version of me for ‘Easy Listening’, and I released it with Ms. Kanno under a title borrowed from English. I wanted to show a side of Maaya Sakamoto that had never been done, and that led to creating my first conceptual album.”
You tried your hand a lot of different things, from songs with an ethnic mood, to new sorts of rhythms, to sounds that were full of an airy feeling.
“Right. If you had to describe my sound until then, it was primarily acoustic, so I mostly stayed away from that and went for a beat-driven…I had that sort of sound in mind, and I tried to do something I had never done before.”
The credits list “hog” as the producer…
“That’s actually Ms. Kanno. Yōko Kanno handled the composition, but when it came to the arrangement, in order to create an atmosphere we had never had before, we had it set up so that we got this unheard-of group called ‘hog’ to handle the arrangement (laugh). That’s how different a perspective this album had compared to ‘Lucy’. Also, I had a huge number of conditions in my mind, for instance, I didn’t want to sound immature, or I wouldn’t allow this or that. It was a lot of fun to work on it while objecting that I couldn’t possibly come up with much with what limited materials I had to work with. I learned how to work freely inside the rules I myself had set up. That’s why there’s a cage on the CD cover, and the theme was that of a bird told she can fly only inside those bounds.”
Your “Single Collection+ NIKOPACHI” (July 2003) that came out later was truly an album filled with variety. It felt to me like your work on “Easy Listening”, which was in a sense a spartan album, had let you push out in various directions again.
“I think so too. Like before, ‘NIKOPACHI’ came out with a lot of singles I had worked on in tandem with all sorts of things, as well as songs for animations. When I’m working on an album like ‘Lucy’ or ‘Easy Listening’, I can’t put in those sorts of songs, regardless of how well they sold as singles. The tone is just too different. Take ‘Tail Song’ for example—I’ve done a huge number of songs that sound like they belong to other projects, so this was an album where I focused on taking a step back and showing other sides of me. It sounds strange for me to say this, but I think the weirdest thing about me (laugh) is that while I have a certain color as an artist, I feel like I’ve sung a lot of songs that other people would never think of singing. There have been songs with a musical flair, songs with a kind of cutesy touch, English tunes, and songs I did for animations and dramas—I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to encounter these songs that never would have been created had I stayed as merely the artist Maaya Sakamoto. ‘NIKOPACHI’ has a different feeling than ‘Lucy’ and ‘Easy Listening’, and I guess it’s the album that says, ‘This is me, too.’ (laugh)”
Yet from the beginning had you struck a balance between the two? Between having that single path of expression you wanted to follow, while also working in other directions.
“With songs such as ‘Tail Song’ and ‘Hemisphere’, songs like that are mine, but somewhere in there is a strong sensation that I’m acting out a role. That kind of feeling of separation can actually be a good thing. The more your own feelings find their way into the music, the stronger they become, and that can make it difficult to release them to the outside world, wouldn’t you agree? But since I’m dealing with the music from a very objective stance, it may not be quite the same as my personal expression, but there’s a fascination in being able to borrow from that strength and take flight in an entirely different direction. It’s just…right around the time of ‘NIKOPACHI’, I do admit that while I wanted people to listen to ‘NIKOPACHI’, I didn’t want them to forget about ‘Lucy’ (laugh). It was the two of them put together that showed who I was.”
The first act of her life in music reaches a climax—“A Boy Named Alice”
I see. And after this you came out with “A Boy Named Alice”, an intense album…
(laugh) Yes, well, that’s what I think.
“In what way?”
The words and songs are powerful, and also the sound of the band. I think it captured quite well the concept of Maaya Sakamoto the artist. Also, in the music scene, it seemed like a kind of album that would appeal even to those who listen to rock.
“But when I think about this album, there was something in it…it feels like the climax of the first act of my life in music. I remember after I finished it, for a short time I felt an emotional burnout (laugh). There was a moment when I felt I didn’t have anything left, and I was totally satisfied. That’s how passionate, I guess you could say, my feelings for it were from the time I was working on it.”
It’s indeed passionate. What went into it—into this album?
“Probably it was that as I got older, I had picked up more experience in areas outside my music. At the time I was no longer a student, but until then I’d balanced my job with schoolwork and worn two hats in my life like it was perfectly normal. When my life went back to being just work, I heard from everyone, ‘It must have been tough to work two jobs,’ but more often than that it felt like things were out of balance (laugh). I did worry a just a bit about how I was supposed to go on with just one thing on my plate. That’s when I got a fresh realization that this was work, not an activity for a school club. The idea of Maaya Sakamoto had taken on a larger and larger importance in my mind, and I…first of all, I had a bigger sense of responsibility to stay focused than before. Around the same time, I took a role in the musical ‘Les Misérables’ for the first time, and taking on a job in an entirely different field gave me all sorts of experiences that weren’t possible before. I also found frustration, and there were things I gained from that. My perspective changed quite a bit at that point, and I think it was a huge influence.”
The influence from the musical “Les Misérables”
Specifically, what kind of influence did it have?
“I think girls in their 20s have this sort of side to their personality—girls especially act like they’re mature, and starting in their early 20s it’s like they tend to feel they’ve figured out of all kinds of things. They feel like they’ve gotten the hang of everything, and even though all this time they’ve never seen the outside of their warm little greenhouse (laugh), the first time they go into a different field, it’s like, of course they’re a novice…. Whether it’s good or bad, no one has any preconceptions when they interact with them, so when I was in that situation it gave me a chance to rethink my idea of Maaya Sakamoto. Even though it’s still singing, a musical calls for a different set of skills, and as far as technique goes, for example, it’s the same with range, and I’d hear, ‘Make sure to sing this key from your chest,’ and I’d realize I’d never even thought about singing from my chest or head. And when I tried to sing from my chest, the instant I thought about it I lost it. So even though I hadn’t been thinking about my singing, I started to see more emphasis on the technical side of my music, and when that happened, it really showed me my own immaturity, and I often felt a terrible frustration at not being able to sing the way I thought I could. Also, there were tons of people who came not to see me, but to see the musical, or they were fans of other actors, and that makes it kind of like you’re sharing the stage with another band all the time. Doing that every day in theaters that held 2,000 people for three or four months straight really sharpened me both musically and mentally. To be honest, it was trying, and running away would have been easy enough, but if I ran away at that point I imagined I’d probably carry that stamp of failure for the rest of my life, and that gave me a will to press on. So ‘Look at the Sky’ partially came from that never-say-die attitude (laugh).”
It certainly comes across that way. And in “Let There Be Light”, it feels like you took the ideas of life, love, and singing and put them directly into words. What were your feelings with respect to this song?
“At this particular time I was sort of feeling like I wasn’t going anywhere. It was like no matter what I did, things were a little off. In ‘Let There Be Light’, the line that goes, ‘If my voice still reaches anyone,’ was the most important in my mind…. Back then I was really under tremendous pressure, from many directions. I had started a fan club for the first time, and practically overnight it grew to more than 10,000 members. That was a number far beyond what I had imagined, and along with feeling grateful, I felt an indescribable pressure. Sort of like, ‘What is it these people know about me and see in me that they like?’ I’d never composed any songs, my music was a product of Yōko Kanno’s interpretations, and even the photos of me were nothing more than the few good ones released from the hundreds taken, so I worried that I was being put on a pedestal. I had a vague sense that perhaps I was too artificial. My desire to sing that I’d always had, the things I wanted to say, and my love of music still hadn’t changed, so none of that was made up, but I wondered if the ‘real me’ was making it through to people. The setbacks I experienced in the musical did become a source of strength later on, but after getting thoroughly beaten down I had lost all confidence in myself, and I had a hard time taking what others said with anything other than a negative perspective. I think that’s the reason I was crying out like that. Like in ‘Look at the Sky’ and ‘Let There Be Light’. Whenever I listen to ‘A Boy Named Alice’ I’m struck by how forcefully the flip side of that lack of confidence shows through. I was terrified of being perceived as timid at that point, and I felt as though I had to show everyone I had neither uncertainty nor worry.”
But for that very reason, it became a spectacular album that truly empowered many.
“I still think that way even today. A lot of forces worked toward a good direction. ‘Let There Be Light’, perhaps because it really does in that sense convey a sort of determination (laugh), is still a very popular song today. Everyone goes through those feelings of frustration and isolation, and you get up to that point without experiencing those things, and the idea of knowing strength through knowing your weakness is something I learned during that time. Since it’s playing out in my expressions today, quite strangely, as time passes I can really see that everything was there for a reason, and I can be thankful.”
Yōko Kanno’s attitude
Earlier, you spoke of your album “A Boy Named Alice” as one of the climaxes of your music career. Your work with Ms. Kanno reached an end at this point. Was this the result of some determination in your mind?
“It was, though it seemed to happen suddenly. It was really like I said earlier, with that strange sense of isolation…I think in the flow of things it had to turn out that way. I was 24 at the time…it was something I decided after spending a long time talking with Ms. Kanno about all sorts of things.”
You mentioned feeling a sense of perhaps being too artificial as you worked on “A Boy Named Alice”. Did you feel as though you wanted to shed that layer of armor at least once?
“I did, and yet I didn’t—something like that (laugh). But I couldn’t just stand and hesitate there any longer. It was…this doesn’t have anything to do with this, but the other day I watched an interview of a crocodile farmer (laugh). He talked about how crocodile meat is high in nutrition and low in calories, and how he expects it should become more popular. He’s followed that idea and spent tens of years raising crocodiles, but his idea hasn’t gained any market share—though some have invented various things like crocodile sushi. When he was asked, ‘Why do you keep working at something that doesn’t sell?’ he replied, ‘If you quit in the middle of something, it counts as a failure, but as long as you keep at it, it’s still a work in progress, so it’s not a failure,’ and I thought, ‘That’s it exactly!’ If you quit, you end up with some result or another, right? But I personally felt like it was too early for that, and there was no doubt in my mind that I should do anything other than keep going. Yet…all the character I’ve built up in my own way over time, to say nothing of being able to think that I’d finally established one sort of idea of what fits me with ‘A Boy Named Alice’—shedding those things for once calls for a lot of courage, and I worried about whether I’d be OK, whether it’d be OK to drop them. There was of course that sort of fear.”
Looking back on that now, what do you feel are the things you gained or established from your time working with Ms. Kanno up to “A Boy Named Alice”?
“I’d say that over the many years we were together, more than just being a producer for a singer, she really felt like a big sister, like my mentor when it came to my life as a woman. Even outside of music I feel I’ve been influenced by her perspective, and I learned various sorts of approaches to things—she never told me exactly what to do, but I was always watching the way she lived, and her attitude when she approached music, on my own from right by her side (laugh)—that sort of time spent around her was like studying how to be a person. It wasn’t just me taking the philosophy in Ms. Kanno’s mind and expressing it with the instrument that is my voice, but I suppose because she was constantly asking what I personally wanted to do, that time was incredibly important. Since I had that time of growing up under her wings, everything from ‘Loop’ onward felt like it was a place where I could at last really define myself even further, on a new level.”
Setting out on a new journey with a renewed sense of self—“Loop” and “Loop in the Evening Calm”
So then, what led up to the fresh start that was “Loop”?
“Since this was set to be the ending theme for an animation, it had that world’s perspective in it, and I gathered and listened to tracks from several composers before selecting one. h-wonder, the composer for this song, was Hiroki Wada, who sang the ending theme for the animation that used ‘I Don’t Need a Promise’ as the opening theme, and was working as a singer/songwriter at the time. These days his work mainly consists of composition and the occasional arrangement, and so about ten years after ‘I Don’t Need a Promise’, chance brought us together and I ended up singing to his music. He was very kind toward me, just like when we first met, and as I was still a high school girl back then, he felt like a really nice older brother (laugh). Out of all the songs I listened to, the one I really loved was Mr. Wada’s. Apparently over those ten years he had been personally following my music as well. So he knew down to the smallest detail the best parts of my voice, what kind of music I’ve sung, the picture my fans had of me, and what fit with Maaya Sakamoto. What’s more, when he told me he’d write a song, he did a lot of research and came up with all sorts of ideas. So the fact that we weren’t starting from square one was comforting. Right when I was thinking I had nothing left to give after ‘A Boy Named Alice’, my environment changed and I had found a new gear, I guess you could say (laugh). It was really presumptuous of me to think I’d put everything on the table, when I hadn’t yet come close to pushing the limits of what I could do. It totally switched me into a new mode, like I felt like I hadn’t done anything worth being satisfied with.”
After getting that new start with “Loop”, you went on to make the album “Loop in the Evening Calm” (May 2005), where you once again attached a definition to Maaya Sakamoto as you met with a variety of musicians and producers to work on your music. What, in your mind, was the toughest part of this?
“My shyness, and as there wasn’t time to hold anything in reserve, it really became a matter of how much I could open up to everyone from the beginning. To start with, that sort of thing isn’t one of my strengths, so for me that was a struggle. But thankfully I was blessed with meeting some truly wonderful and spectacular people, and I feel like each song was formed very carefully by each musician and author. I was wrapped up in the work, so I didn’t have the time to feel like anything was tough. There was nothing I was aiming for with this album, no flag to mark the the finish line—I really worked song-by-song, checking everything against whether it fit with a side of me or didn’t, and the album came from the accumulation of those tracks. It had a different feel than ‘A Boy Named Alice’, which was like digging all the way down until it was painful, even though I didn’t have to go that far—I was able to sing a ton of songs that let me explore different sides of myself.”
An unmistakable feeling of solidity—“30minutes night flight”
And after this you made the concept album “30minutes night flight” (March 2007), correct?
“Yes. The songs on ‘Loop in the Evening Calm’ came from a variety of artists, sound engineers, and arrangers. So for this album, I worked with several authors, but I teamed up with one arranger and one sound engineer and set out to make a solid album. Plus, I’ve always liked that idea of something conceptual, or working within some sort of setting. The way I work on it starts early on, when I’ll create the kind of story that could go in the album’s booklet, script scenarios like a movie director, and then later piece together songs that fit with the story, and this method fits me very well, I think. In my eyes this album has a really solid feel to it. Kind of like I took the things I gained from ‘Loop in the Evening Calm’ and arrived at yet another perspective. It’s a 30-minute album, but to me its songs and sensations take up much more space than that.”
With tracks like “The Reason We’re In Love” and “Universe”, it’s full of songs that have a definite atmosphere to them that even comes through at concerts. When you reached this point, was it the start of a time when you could convey a more accurate picture of yourself?
“It was. Already…probably to the point that I started to get fed up with the things around me… (laugh). I had stopped wavering in all sorts of areas. In the end, though my starting point was a desire to hear the praise of others, while talking with Ms. Kanno around the time of ‘A Boy Named Alice’, my thought process changed away from that quite a bit. In the midst of constantly being asked what I personally wanted to do, I myself had changed, and ‘Loop in the Evening Calm’ came as I walked along that line. I was in a situation where I really couldn’t allow myself to leave everything up to other people, and I think ‘Loop in the Evening Calm’ taught me how to step up to the plate and be the person who makes the final decision. After all, I couldn’t be wishy-washy anymore and ask Ms. Kanno to make decisions for me (laugh). I wasn’t working for someone else or matching someone else’s preferences—my own judgment, for better or for worse, always had the final say, so starting with ‘Loop in the Evening Calm’ I feel like my approach changed by a fair amount.”
Everything united into one—“Windreader”
Along the way, you’re able to come out with this solid-sounding “30minutes night flight”, you gain a clear direction, you become able to communicate to the people around you what it is you want to do, and all of this connects to your sixth album, “Windreader” (January 2009).
“The ‘30minutes’ mini album didn’t include any singles, so it was often interpreted as a conceptual, artistic sort of release, but for ‘Windreader’ my focus was on making more of a pop style of album that was easy to pick up off the shelf. In my mind, I’d set general ideas of ‘something you’d hear on a Monday night drama’ or ‘something that sounds like the ending theme of a movie’ before I commissioned the music. I went through a ton of demo tapes that lined up with those ideas. I think that’s why every song on the album is catchy and gives it that sort of ‘bread and butter’ feel. ‘Windreader’ included my single ‘Triangler’, which was selling well at the time, and while I kept that pop feel in mind, I had the goal of making it what I wanted to make—I wanted to achieve a balance between the two. For instance, albums like ‘NIKOPACHI’ happened because I had released artistic songs and tie-in songs entirely separately. But I had grown tired of keeping that separation. I felt that everything I had within me had to become one. But right when I was thinking I had found a stable definition of myself when I put my personal style into ‘The Final Fruits’ single, I came across ‘Triangler’ and paired up with Ms. Kanno again. It was such a radically different song that after a short time when ‘Triangler’ really took off, I wondered if I’d end up having to leave it out of the album. Everyone listened to it and the sales were through the roof, so I assumed there was something in it that people wanted to hear. Mentally I accepted that, but the idea of coming out and saying that was another side of me was disheartening. So I decided that everything would be OK if I could make an album where I could say, ‘That’s part of me, but I also have this side, and when you put everything on the same album, it all clicks, don’t you think?’ So with ‘Triangler’ in that album, it does make the song stand out quite a bit, but I’m still glad I put it in, and it means a lot to me to have it there.”
I see. So you had that sort of challenge, too. And for “Remedy” and “Weathervane”, also included in your best-hits album, you talked about them having “a special feel that made me think my path thus far may have been there to lead me to these songs.” How did you actually go about creating these tracks?
“I was on a really tight schedule, and before then I was the type who took a relatively long time to write lyrics, but for ‘Windreader’, I had a clear picture of the message I wanted to send, so I was done with the lyrics in no time. But not a single one flowed out smoothly, and in my mind I was pouring everything I had into each track. It was the same sort of method as ‘Loop in the Evening Calm’ in the sense that I had various other authors participating, but rather than creating it with a lot of people, it felt more like we were a single team creating the album. I had a huge vision in my mind, and everyone involved, they were all like a team (laugh). With that sort of idea I didn’t feel at all hesitant, nor did I feel forced from the start to put myself under a spotlight. From the beginning to the end, everything, probably in that energy that gushed out of me in waves, it kind of felt like it caught up everyone in a rush. For the best-hits album, ‘The Final Fruits’ and ‘The Rain Falls’ aren’t in there, but I really wanted to include them. That’s how much those songs mean to me, but since it already had four songs from my latest album, I thought people wouldn’t want to see more, so with much reluctance I gave up on those two tracks (laugh).”
A sort of substitute for a business card—the best-hits album “everywhere”
This best-hits release is full of songs that became important, key songs in your career. How did you choose them?
“Well, I knew I couldn’t leave out the songs that have been the heart of the most crucial songs in my career, so ‘Let There Be Light’ is there, as is ‘I.D.’, ‘Platinum’, and various other songs. I also put in songs that are popular at concerts. I guess you could say it’s the kind of album that could be a sort of substitute for a business card for those who are meeting Maaya Sakamoto for the first time. I wanted to make it a lineup of tracks so I could say these are the songs I’ve sung, and if you listen to these two discs you’ll understand me, and along with that, they’re songs that I myself am particularly fond of. ‘The Rain Falls’ and ‘The Final Fruits’ aren’t there, but I hope you’ll imagine they are!”
You’re really emphasizing that point (laugh).
“That’s because I really can’t help but regret it! But I settled on 30 tracks for my 30th birthday at the very start, so I couldn’t put in more than 30.”
When it came to “Loop”, you re-recorded it and came up with a reborn version.
“Right. I think it has quite a different impression. This is a very important song that feels like my second debut song, and also there are many who first discovered me through it or told me they love this song. So while I knew I might hear people say they wanted me to include the original version, I prepared myself for that and still went through with the new recording. The reason being that I felt like as the lyrics go, ‘Beyond that string of miracles, we’ll see each other again,’ although five years had passed since that day I made my second debut, having made ‘Windreader’ and crossed a sort of milestone, I wanted to take that time when I had found confidence in my heart and sing it once more as I reflected on the meaning in the lyrics. To be honest, for a short time after I made that second debut, I didn’t listen to a single one of my earlier releases. That’s how strongly I felt I had to set off in a new direction and move forward. I sort of wondered if a day would come when I could turn and look back—that’s how I felt (laugh). So today, I wanted to put in the message to who I was when I first sang ‘Loop’ that I was able to turn and face myself, and sing it again with a gentle touch.”
So this song too had a profound meaning behind its creation.
“It did. During recording, I was caught off guard by a rush of emotion and started to cry (laugh). As I look back on 15 years, of course I feel I’ve been through a lot, but looking at these last five years and confronting ‘Loop’ again was what really hit me. When I think about the road here, those five years went by in a flash, but I was so thankful for them and happy that tears came to my eyes.”
And then there’s “everywhere”, a new track that’s also the first song you’ve both written the lyrics for and composed. What sort of thoughts went into this song?
“I wrote this song while traveling through Europe last year. While I was traveling I hardly listened to any music, and I didn’t have a chance to play the piano. But around halfway through that five-week trip, I found a piano in a bed-and-breakfast I was staying at in the outskirts of Rome. It just so happened that the couple who owned the place had someplace to go that day, and they told me, ‘We’re going to be gone for a few hours tonight—is that OK?’ and when I said that was fine, they replied ‘Feel free to play the piano while we’re gone.’ While I was watching the house that night, the song came to me by chance as I was playing the piano.”
So I’ve heard. That line that reads, “My home is everywhere,” felt to me as though they have that answer you’ve been searching for through your music and lyrics.
“On that trip, I was constantly on the move—after staying somewhere for three days or so, I’d move on to the next city. Since I was seeing every country for the first time, for instance in Paris, I’d heard the people can be scary and at first I worried about that and the fact that I couldn’t use English to get around, yet over time saying ‘merci’ at restaurants became natural. But the next day I left, and found myself in a country with an entirely different language. I also really felt at first like I was the outsider, I guess you could say, and every place I went was like that. Every time I went to a different country, the language, the land, and the atmosphere all changed, and what made me feel separated was that around the time I had to leave, I had found things I liked, such as a park or an elderly lady I had often crossed paths with. I had found a place to be, a place where I felt comfortable. But it was always, tomorrow I have to leave; I’ve already bought tomorrow’s ticket. It really struck me that that’s how I’ve lived until now. Staying there forever in the security of that place would be wonderful, but I keep thinking there might be something else waiting for me after this, so I’m constantly tearing myself away and always thinking there has to be some place that’s closer to where I really belong. Yet since every place I visit has those places where I feel at home, it occurred to me that perhaps I can call any of those places my home. At some point along the trip my way of thinking suddenly changed from the idea of a single place I could call home, to the idea that my place to return to could be anywhere, at any time.”
30 years of Maaya Sakamoto, and 15 years of Maaya Sakamoto
I see. By closing out the best-hits album with this track, it adds a finishing touch that hints at what’s to come in the future. From here on out, what goals are you going to work toward in your career?
“My goals include singing, and I want to pursue my idea of happiness (laugh). It’s the same with acting, and though it’s sometimes stressful to produce something, I feel like ultimately I’m doing this so I can find happiness. I imagine it’s the same with everyone else, no matter what kind of life they lead. I’m married to my work, so until now my job has been the most important thing, but when that takes a toll on my health I tend to think that first of all I have to consider my personal happiness. So I don’t ever want to forget about that. Not to sing because it’s my job, but to sing because it’ll make me happy, and also go on vacation or travel for example—my first goal is to keep myself fit and sound.”
Up to this point we’ve looked back at the last 15 years. Compared to when you were 15, has the significance of music changed at all in your eyes?
“I wasn’t the type of person who started out wanting to be a singer and training to be one—the way things went, my debut really happened before I knew what was going on. In my teens, I still sort of felt it would be presumptuous to introduce myself as a singer, and I wasn’t capable of just saying up front that that’s what I was. I hadn’t studied anything, and I couldn’t even read music or play an instrument, so it was like saying I was a musician or an artist made me blush. But to me today, music is extremely…important, and it’s the field that has the largest share of my self-expression. It’s not a matter of whether I’m good at singing or whether I can play an instrument. Of the various ways I have to express myself, music is the one that brings me into the most direct contact with myself and my thoughts, so even today I feel proud to say that I’m a singer.”
And what are your thoughts as you look back on the path you’ve taken for the entire 30 years of your life?
“They went by so fast. I looked at a lot of the old photos for this concert pamphlet, and it occurred to me that a whole lot has happened since then, and there were also many things I worried about when I was young, and now I can’t remember exactly what was so worrying to me. But…I think the current version of me is probably the best. Of course there are different things that I feel I was only able to do when I was young. For instance, I can’t sing the same way I did when I was 15 anymore, so when I do ‘I Don’t Need a Promise’ at a concert you can imagine it sounds like a totally different song. But it’s perfectly natural for humans to change as they age, and stopping time would be like going against nature. The moment I think I was better in the past and try to go back to that time, I’d be denying my current self, right? I’ve really gone through all sorts of times to get to now, and I believe that taking everything together and loving the person I am at this moment is the happiest way to live. With a concert on my 30th birthday I’ve had a lot to think about, and I feel like nothing that has happened so far has been useless, and whatever happens in the future, I really have a desire to try not to deny who I am at that time, at that moment.”
Hearing you talk about continuing your work for 15 years, I can’t help but think that it certainly hasn’t been easy. What have you personally gained from your time thus far?
“Probably that if you dedicate your life to seeing one thing through to the end, all the time in the world won’t be enough. But for the things I understand more now in my 15th year than in my first year, it’s a lot of fun. So while a lot has happened along the way, I still think staying the course is very important. There are really a lot of things I won’t know unless I stick with this for a long time. So although I can’t say this applies to everything, I sometimes wish we would place a higher value on this idea of ‘continuing’. I hear this when I’m talking with friends—it seems like once you’re about three years into anything, there’s always a moment when you think you’ve got it all figured out (laugh). With me too, I think this’ll keep happening over and over, but the moment I think I might have mastered something, something always happens that turns everything I knew upside down. It’s the same with theater. You reach your 30th performance, or around number 20 it occurs to you that you’ve got everything down pat, and the very next day you crash and burn (laugh). I’m convinced that at the end of these sorts of repeating ups and downs, like ascending a staircase little by little, there has to be a destination I can at last reach. I really feel there’s truth in the saying, ‘Practice makes perfect.’”
What are your feelings with respect to your commemorative 15th anniversary concert at the Nippon Budōkan?
“There’s a touch of sadness, since it’s only going to be one day, but I’m really looking forward to it. The band for ‘everywhere’ is the same as last year’s ‘Windreader’ tour. That makes me feel incredibly happy. As I was working on the ‘everywhere’ album, I realized how I now have so many more friends and companions who walk alongside me, and how comforting that is. So it feels like I’m taking a voyage on a huge ship, with everyone supporting me.”
It sounds like your 30th birthday will be one to remember.
“Yes. I’ll do my best to make it that way!”