Exclusive Conversation with Maaya Sakamoto and Shōko Suzuki: Music Guided by Necessity
Below we present a conversation between Maaya Sakamoto, who is releasing a best-hits album “everywhere” to mark 15 years since her debut, and Shōko Suzuki, who contributed such tracks as “NO FEAR / To Love” (from the album “Loop in the Evening Calm”) and “Universe” (from the album “30minutes night flight”). Ranging in topic from music and generational philosophies to their lifestyles as women, we invite you to enjoy this free-spirited and profound talk session.
Could you start by talking about the time you started working with each other?
Shōko Suzuki (below, Suzuki) “One day I got a call from my producer, saying, ‘Have you heard of Maaya Sakamoto? Want to try writing a song for her?’ At the time I had just moved to Kyōto. I was told she wanted me to write a ‘dark, beautiful song.’”
And the song you wrote then was “NO FEAR / To Love”?
Suzuki “Yes, that’s right.”
Maaya Sakamoto (below, Sakamoto) “That was when ‘Loop in the Evening Calm’ [Maaya’s 5th album, released in 2005] came out. Until then I had always worked with one person [Yōko Kanno], but that changed entirely, and I started singing songs from various other songwriters. When I listened to the demo tape for ‘NO FEAR’, I instantly fell in love with it. I turned right around and said, ‘I want to sing this song.’”
Suzuki “The first time we met was to decide on a key. That was August 2005, I think.”
Sakamoto “That day you were wearing a really cute hat, and you looked like a little girl. You had this sort of carefree, childish look (laugh). I was expecting someone more prim and proper, so you caught me by surprise.”
Suzuki “It was the opposite for me. I first heard your voice on NHK’s ‘Songs for Everyone’ when they aired ‘Astronaut’s Song’, and at the time I had a picture of a fairy-like girl in my mind. But when I actually met you, I found out you had an aura of absolute precision. I felt bad about judging someone by my impression of her songs and voice (laugh).”
Maaya, I hear you’re playing the piano accompaniment for “NO FEAR” in your concerts.
Sakamoto “Right. One day, I suddenly felt like playing the piano, and I went to Jinbō-chō to buy one. I thought I’d try to play ‘NO FEAR’—I imagined it would look pretty cool if I could play this song.”
Suzuki “You learned it by ear, without looking at the score, right? I’m amazed you’re able to play it that perfectly.”
Sakamoto “A lot of people ask me, ‘Why did you pick a song with so many key changes?’ but the key changes don’t mean anything, since I didn’t learn from the sheet music. I didn’t even notice that my debut song (‘I Don’t Need a Promise’/1996) was in 3/4 time until much later.”
Suzuki “It’s not something dictated by rules. It’s sort of like instinct.”
Sakamoto “But I think your music has those kinds of things in them, too. I’ve thought about why I like your songs. They have several tricky key and beat changes, but in my mind, that’s not a sort of artificial ‘let’s do something no one expects,’ but something that happens unconsciously when you’re pushed into a key change by some rush of emotion or other impulse.”
Suzuki “Yeah, that’s it exactly.”
Sakamoto “So there’s a genuine flow in your songs. When I sing them they sound natural, and I can finish them without getting worked up.”
Suzuki “I can’t think of any praise higher than that. I guess I’m always looking for a sense of necessity. I don’t know if that’s what guides me, but I think music is born from something inside. I think there has to be some sort of physical impetus, and I think you feel the same way. Standing next to you as you sing ‘NO FEAR’ feels overpowering. Here’s this song that came from that sense of necessity inside me, and you’re expressing it in such a tangible way.”
What was it like when you worked on “Universe”, also part of Maaya’s best-hits album [“everywhere”]? You wrote the music for this track, while Maaya wrote the lyrics.
Suzuki “Maaya also wrote the lyrics for ‘a happy ending’ in ‘Loop in the Evening Calm’. That song was about an elderly couple, and I thought it was fabulously perceptive. In ‘Universe’ as well, she sings about a huge theme with such ease that I was honestly impressed.”
Sakamoto “‘Universe’ is part of the ‘30minutes night flight’ album, which has themes like the night sky and night flights, so to a degree we were working with a limited concept. At the time it stood out to me that your music always has a melancholy tone……”
Suzuki “It’s dark, isn’t it?”
Sakamoto “No, not at all (laugh). That’s one of the things I like about it, that sort of hint of a European fragrance. There’s a line that goes, ‘The solitude of six billion’—‘solitude’ is a lonesome word, and it’s often used in a negative sense, don’t you think? But I think it’s an inescapable truth, that everyone is alone.”
Suzuki “I think so too.”
Sakamoto “I felt that this melody wasn’t darker than it needed to be, it wasn’t pretentious, and it was able to express my mental image of solitude.”
Suzuki “I felt the same. I just now remembered that I arranged the music with that exact aim in mind. Your songs have such a wide range, and you sound beautiful at any pitch. Normally a singer has quirks like, ‘I can’t sing in this octave without losing clarity,’ or, ‘I can’t sing falsetto without my voice cracking,’ but you don’t have any of those. My idea was to take advantage of all your strengths.”
You seem to match well with each other music-wise. How about your personal lives?
Sakamoto “There’s something I really want to ask you today. I’m going to turn 30 soon, and I often hear from people around me that your 30s are a lot of fun. Since I was 28 or so I couldn’t wait to turn 30, but I wonder what it’s actually like. I was surprised by your song, ‘Still a Girl in Her Thirties’. I was shocked to hear you say that you were still in your 30s.”
Suzuki “That’s because it’s a song about looking back (on my 30s) after I turned 40. My 30s were……ready for this? Really, really heavy.”
Sakamoto “Ehh? What do you mean by ‘heavy’?”
Suzuki “For me personally, 30, 31, and 32 were a continuation of my 20s, and nothing changed. But it was tough after that. When I was 35, 36, and 37 I really struggled with life. How should I put it? In your 20s, you can go on the things you have intrinsically, and I think everyone around you accepts that. But when you reach your 30s, you have to tear down your personal walls and create a new mentality.”
Sakamoto “I see what you mean.”
Suzuki “But strangely love tends to be fulfilling, and there are times when it’s fun. What are your thoughts? Is there anything you want to do once you turn 30?”
Sakamoto “More than trying something new, I want to enjoy myself. I spent the last half of my 20s with an unusually serious attitude, so I want to let myself go. I look at you and see someone who has an innate sense of rock, who doesn’t care at all how she looks to others and can act freely. But my nature is that of a star pupil. I care about how I appear to others, I have my own personal rules, and I’m not content unless I follow those rules.”
Suzuki “The word that first comes to mind when I describe my impression of you is ‘clarity’. Listening to you today makes me think that might just come from your serious nature. So that might be one area you’ll have to get rid of.”