This past March 31st, on her 30th birthday, Maaya Sakamoto released a two-disc best-hits album that captures her 15-year career as a singer, and also took on her first performance at the Budōkan. An article detailing this spectacular album appeared in a previous issue of CUT, and for this issue Sakamoto spoke with me on the topic of the Budōkan concert that paralleled her best-hits album.
She is presently in the middle of the 15th anniversay of her singer debut, and as anyone can see, her career has certainly not been a brief one. With music from highly talented producers and artists such as Yōko Kanno and Shōko Suzuki, Sakamoto has sung numerous songs with numerous styles, and has brought forth several hit tracks and made them her own, leaving no room for doubt that she indeed has uncommon talent as a singer. However, despite this, there was always one tall hurdle before her: that of concerts. In fact, in her 15-year career, last year’s “Windreader” tour was her only large-format all-Japan tour. As a solo act, it was actually her first after a blank of five years. So then, granting the “just cause” that is her 15th anniversary, how was she now able to tackle the huge challenge of a Budōkan concert? This is what I wished to ask in this interview. The concert that day—and I am sure those who were there at the Budōkan will agree—could only be called a palpable expression of Sakamoto’s current phase, and above all, the fact that she herself clearly enjoyed every moment of the concert she feared would be a tribulation was the highlight of the three hours. It will be packaged as a DVD and Blu-ray release in August, but I have the privilege of presenting a rather advance interview in today’s CUT.
Two months have passed since the Budōkan concert. What sorts of memories do you still have from that day?
“Well, since I was able to have it in a special place like the Budōkan, when I think back on it now, those days I spent with my sights focused on that place felt long. I spent months and months with the arrival of March 31st constantly on my mind, and when it was over I felt partly relieved. But still, I think it was a really irregular concert. It was something I could do precisely because it was my 15th anniversary year, and since I didn’t follow the standard pattern for a concert, it felt like it was in a category by itself. Actually, for the things I wanted to do next, and all the way to what I wanted to do after finishing at the Budōkan, I had a plan mapped out in my mind for some time. The switch from finishing one thing, and with that done moving on to the next, was really quick.”
Personally, I actually felt a huge inconsistency at that concert. I thought to myself, “Was she always this smooth on stage?” (laugh). Like, “Huh? Concerts are her weak point, right?”
“Hahaha, I see what you mean. (laugh)”
By the way, it would seem as though you were enjoying 100 percent of it, and in that sense, I wondered if you approached it with a completely different mindset than your previous tours and concerts.
“Ahh, but I think I had found what I guess you could call a sense of trust in myself that the time was right for me to do this, but on the other hand it felt like a taller hurdle than my earlier ‘Windreader’ tour, so I was able to feel that good sort of nervousness. Of course it was also frightening, but apart from that, part of me felt like expressing my sincere thanks for being able to sing for 16 years. Also, it was my 30th birthday, and for the people who have supported me to this day, and for the fans who have supported me, you know, rather than doing something special because it’s the Budōkan, I felt like if I could take the very atmosphere that’s always at my concerts to the Budōkan, that would be the best way to repay those favors. Of course I had guests join in, and it was something special, but at its heart, taking the exact style that I always have and expressing it there was the strongest theme in my mind.”
Normally, a Budōkan concert to cap 15 years is relegated to being a platform to show everything accomplished in that time. Well, I think it naturally had that sense, but rather than singing every last hit song from 15 years, it felt like you put together the whole concert entirely from what you wanted to sing at that moment. Instead of the last 15 years, if you had to say, it sort of felt as if it was made with an eye toward the possibilities of the future.
“It did, and actually quite some time ago, about five or six years earlier, there was a time when someone mentioned the word ‘Budōkan’. But back then, I didn’t have a clear picture in my mind of how I would look on stage at the Budōkan, or how I should set foot on that stage.”
Really, why is that?
“From the point of view of someone who sings, somewhere there’s a kind of desire to perform ‘at the Budōkan someday!’ and you’d expect it would be a word that would create a stir in your heart, right? But for me, the feeling that no matter what I did I couldn’t actively pursue that goal was stronger, and at the time I couldn’t go along with that discussion and it ended up getting pushed off the table at some point. Then there was a long period when I didn’t do any concerts, and last year I had my first tour in a while. When that tour ended, for no reason in particular I started to feel like I had reached the point where I could do something at the Budōkan, which I wasn’t able to form a picture of back then. And just happening to get a reservation for the Budōkan on my birthday felt like a good omen. So because I can now take in the joy of being able to stand with pride in the Budōkan, it seemed like it had meaning in it. So I gave it a shot.”
I still think even today that I’m singing for myself.
Did that concert also give you a sense of confirmation that the things you’ve done during these 15 years weren’t mistaken?
“Yeah, being able to really feel good about the things I’ve done so far is really fulfilling, I think. For my future self, having this sincere feeling of gladness for these 15 years will be, what should I call it…I suppose it’ll be a foundation. That’s how it’s been so far, and in the future it’ll be that sort of—well, it may be an accumulation of plain things, but it still confirmed that I should just focus on putting out things I can honestly say are good. I guess when I think about it from the perspective of a normal artist, there are breaks between my albums, some albums don’t have any tracks from singles (laugh), and I think my way of going about things has been at my own pace. It’s just that at the time, that was the only way I could work. Even including that sort of clumsiness, it led to a conviction that what I had done so far had actually brought a proper reward, so different things would come through every year without me having to force myself to throw weird change-ups, and I started to feel like all I had to do was just be faithful in facing those things.”
When I listen to the recorded tracks, the sound itself betrays its age, but hearing them live, I frankly couldn’t tell one time frame from another.
“Right, I know what you mean.”
I got a fresh sense of how amazing that is. For instance, “I.D.”, a song from very early on, and your newest song “everywhere” are essentially saying the same thing in places. Wouldn’t you agree this is incredible?
“Hmm, but for me, having gone through 15 years, when I lined everything up, I realized after that time had passed and I looked back on it that the things at my core hadn’t changed. During that time, it’s not as if I swore I wouldn’t change and held tight to something, and to the contrary, I was constantly thinking about how I wanted to do something different than last time. So in my mind I think I found a different side of myself each time. But that aroma of the things deep inside, when you take in everything together, that didn’t change. It’s just not something that I set up to turn out that way. But you know, I really don’t think a person is capable of changing all that easily—mood is the only thing that changes, and character is a difficult thing to change.”
I see. That’s certainly true.
“It’s just that I think there are both times when you have a favorable awareness of that lack of change, and times when you get hung up on it mentally. I know, because when it comes to my lyrics, I think, ‘Here I am in this spot again,’ and, ‘I hate that part of me that always tries to look perfect to everyone—next time I wish I could drop that perfectionism’ (laugh). But no matter how hard I try, my personal flavor won’t change. I have a feeling I’ve spent my time doing nothing but repeating this. It’s like an endless loop of thinking, ‘Well, no helping that,’ and in the end I can do nothing but accept that ‘this is just the way I am.’ So I suppose I felt that it’d be better for me to gradually shift over to thinking about how to make the best use of that sort of nature I had, or how I should come to terms with myself and get along with this. Although I really didn’t start thinking in this sort of concrete sense until just recently.”
Given that your debut as an artist was at 15 or 16, I’m sure at that time, you sang for the innocent reason that you loved it. 15 years into it, the number of things you can achieve with music has increased, hasn’t it?
“Yes, it has.”
If that’s the case, then you feel an increasing desire to convey things in a certain way, so that’s why your worries sometimes come up when you perform at concerts and in your lyrics, right? Looking back at these 15 years, what’s your opinion? Do you have a sense that the things you look for in music have changed?
“Hmm, I really don’t think that’s changed below the surface, either. When I first started, I really wish I had come to my own conclusions. But at some point I started thinking about how things should appear to the listener. Also, I think that something where I personally injure others doesn’t qualify as art, so in that sense too, I felt that the things that came from within me that I thought were good wouldn’t suffice. But by thinking that, I’m not sure how to put it, but it was like this is what I think, this is what I think is good, these are the sorts of things I want to say, and while I kept hold of these things, OK, how could I convey that to people in as neutral a way as possible? I was always thinking about those kinds of things. Even today, I don’t feel like I’m singing for someone else, and it’s still something I’m doing for myself. For me, things like writing lyrics and singing are sort of like actions that [illegible] me infinitely, and they’re there so I can have discussions with myself. But with a third party there, someone feels even a tiny sense of emotion or a shared feeling, and that’s when it first gets that sense of production and becomes a meaningful activity, and I’ve started to think that this is what’s been given to me, that this is probably my role in the grand scheme of things. I’ve started to think even more highly of the fact that it’s not merely for my personal entertainment, but a tool for the purpose of connecting with someone somewhere. I think this is my only way to connect with things outside of me.”