“I stopped worrying about whether things should be like this or that, and the rest was easy.” At the 15th anniversary of her CD debut and with a Budōkan concert ahead of her, Maaya speaks of her feelings at this moment in sharp detail.
Interview by Gō Yoshida
I want to express myself in my own words
This year is the 15th anniversary of your CD debut, and it also brings the release of your 30-track best-hits album on your 30th birthday, which you’ll follow with a concert at the Budōkan. When you paired up with Yōko Kanno at a young age and were suddenly showered with praise, were you not bewildered by it all?
“Not at the time. I loved to sing, and I knew my way around the studio from singing commercial jingles, so I had enjoyed that sort of work for a long time. My feelings were mostly of enjoyment and happiness, and I made my debut with a neutral attitude.”
Did it stay neutral after that?
“I slowly started to get different opportunities. With my second album, ‘DIVE’, it felt like I was confronting my own words for the first time, and from the lyrics side of it, by using my words to put my feelings into a creative work, for the first time I started to examine who I am inside, and since then I’ve been able to see little by little the situation I’ve been placed in. The name of Maaya Sakamoto, which used to belong only to me, got put on CDs and made its way into the hands of more and more people I didn’t know at all. People I’d never met started to talk about who Maaya Sakamoto is, or what kind of girl she is, and sometimes I’d get letters that said ‘I love you’…. That’s why I started to feel more and more like I wanted to express something closer to my true self in my own words.”
When it came to that, did your emotions fall more on the side of bewilderment or joy?
“I was partly happy, but I still…I wondered if that was me. I had always intended for the packaged Maaya Sakamoto to be close to who I actually am, but in the end the one everyone sees is the packaged version. Hearing praise like ‘I love you’ or ‘This is a great song’ made me happy, but I also felt like I wasn’t the one who was being praised. During the first half of my 20s, especially, I never did feel comfortable with that.”
So what kind of praise, specifically, made you feel like you were the one being praised?
“Writing lyrics felt closest to that. Being praised for that, or to put it better, someone picking up on my feelings meant their thoughts were close to mine, and I felt happy to know that. Since I was young I had never found anything else I could lose myself in, and since I didn’t have any other talents my thoughts would get hung up on this or that, so seeing the things I had done take shape made me very happy. The idea that I have this, that I can do this, was back then, particularly in my teens, a huge support.”
Your thoughts were hung up on that, huh?
“Yes. Since I didn’t have anything else [spoken flatly]. I was a girl who wasn’t all that unique. I didn’t have anything that made me stand out, I wasn’t that good at sports, my grades weren’t all that great, and I had nothing I could boast about.”
And you were also shy and struggled to express yourself.
“I had never really felt like I wanted to take what was inside me and send it out to the world, but after I learned how to express myself in the form of music, it hit me that I actually did have that kind of longing.”
In your work in theater and voice acting, were you able to do that partly because you were pretending to be someone else?
“I think so. When you’re given a scene, the things you have to do are laid out clearly. But music doesn’t really have that idea, and everything comes back to who you are. That’s what makes it interesting, but after I had been in music for quite some time I learned that it can also be pretty stressful. That stress increases with the number people who listen to my music, and I still feel it even today.”
You also struggled with concerts, right?
“I used to. Although, they were fun to do. Of course it’s not as if I was thinking about how I hate concerts while I was in the middle of one. It’s just that I couldn’t really make that sort of switch to thinking about when I personally wanted to have the next concert. Kind of like I wondered if concerts were really that important to have.”
And now you’ve gone from that to the Budōkan.
“Yeah (laugh). Right now it’s a surprise just to hear myself say that I want to put on a concert, and I think it’s a positive thing. When and where were questions asked later, and the fact that I’m stepping out and saying I’m going to have a concert is what stands out to me this time around. Last year’s tour was something I said I wanted to do, and I went at it while thinking that if I was still left with that cloudy sort of feeling afterwards, I’d never do another concert. But at the wrap-up party after the last stop on the tour, I was already talking about what I wanted to do at the next concert. That was the formation of this upcoming Budōkan concert, and that sort of thing means a lot in my mind.”
I feel happy just seeing books lined up on the shelves
By the way, I’m a huge fan of Round Table, so I was really happy to see that you worked with them on your recent singles and albums.
“Is that so? (laugh) Round Table and I have known each other for a long time, and I have to admit that [Katsutoshi] Kitagawa’s picture of Maaya Sakamoto is really well defined, and I see a lot in it I like. When I pick my own songs I always tend to go for the medium-tempo, ballad types, and when I put together a collection of my music and ask someone to write a song for me, it’s always mostly medium-tempo tracks, but all of Kitagawa’s songs are up-tempo.”
I’m told that you’ve listened to Owen and Fugu.
“Right, I like them. It’s just that at first I had no idea what kind of bands they were. That’s not how I listened to them.”
So you’re not interested in those connections like between Joan of Arc.
“Not in the slightest. I was really just a girl who grew up on radio, and it was hard enough for me to figure out which was the artist name and which was the song title, so back when I was still in school I’d sometimes go to the CD store and search around there for music to buy, and if they had a special collection of bands with similar sounds on the same shelf, I wouldn’t really know which one to get, so I’d just buy them all, and things like that.”
I tend to think of putting a lot of thought into one’s collection as a trait belonging to guys, though.
“Right, I see it the same way. It’s like I enjoy the collecting part of it. I enjoy music, and listening to music makes me feel better, but I really don’t listen to music all that often. Pretty much only when I’m out for a jog.”
And from what I hear the music you listen to while jogging is your own. (laugh)
“Right. If you want to know why, it’s because it makes running easier. So there’s not much to talk about there.”
You said earlier that books are the only things that are fun to line up. You’re well known for being an avid reader, but I realized you’ve never talked about manga.”
“I feel happy just seeing books lined up on the shelves, but manga…I can’t read manga.”
Even though you’re a voice actress (laugh).
“It’s really embarrassing to admit…. I read the books from the productions I work in, and there are some manga I enjoy, but I never read manga when I was young, so it’s not something I’m used to reading. So I don’t really know which order to read the lines in, and it takes a long time to finish.”
Every now and then you hear the same thing from elderly people (laugh).
“You do (laugh). So it takes me just about as long to read as a normal book, and it’s a struggle. It is entertaining to read, though.”
Do you enjoy anime?
“I watch the series I have a role in (laugh).”
Hahahaha! I would’ve guessed as much (laugh).
“But it’s more than just anime—I don’t usually have the TV on, and I have no idea what I’m supposed to do while I’m watching TV.”
Which is why you turn to the radio instead?
“Lately I haven’t been listening to that either…. Recently radio has started to sound a little different, too.”
Since you said you grew up on radio, I thought you might listen to people like Bakushō Mondai, which did have me hopeful that we shared a connection there.
“That’s AM, right? I’m an FM kind of girl (laugh). FM has started to sound like AM lately, which is hard for me to get used to.”
Do you like talking on the radio?
“That’s been one of my weak points for forever. My first time on the air was for a five-minute show. Even that was extremely tough. Today I have a show that I know inside and out and that’s been going for nine years, so I’m used to it, but when I show up as a guest somewhere I still feel really nervous.”
You’ve always been uncomfortable with speaking, so much so that there’s a legend about how you wanted to subtitle all of your talking between songs at concerts.
“I felt it would make things so much easier if someone would just write a script for me. But then I realized I still wouldn’t be able to see it (laugh).”
It’d be awful if you forgot your lines there!
“A long time ago I had my own preconceived idea that I had to go out there and do something like shout ‘Hey everyone!’ to keep the energy level up, and a big part of my discomfort came from that being hard to picture. At my last concert, it’s not as if there wasn’t excitement in the building, but I felt it’d work if I went about it like normal, in the way I thought. When it came to a lot of things, I stopped worrying about whether things should be like this or that, and the rest was easy.”
Senses activated on an overseas trip alone
Were you also uncomfortable being interviewed?
“It depends on the time and situation. It’s just that sometimes I’d talk for an hour straight, only to be disappointed to see that the finished article had things I never said, and to be perfectly honest there are times when I wonder what was the point in putting so much effort into that hour. Especially early on, just because I was a high school girl, the ends of my sentences would get changed in weird ways even though I never spoke that way, and there were quite a few times when I couldn’t figure out why it turned out like that. When I was having my picture taken, too, I’d hear things like, ‘Try jumping a little bit.’ ”
Ah, to play up your youthful, energetic side (laugh).
“I’d think, Are you serious? (laugh) With things like that, being interviewed wasn’t something I looked forward to. But at a certain point, while I was talking in an interview, I started to discover feelings that I was putting into words for the first time. There are times when the interview makes me aware of how I’d thought about things, so these days I’ve come to see them as enjoyable.”
If you were asked to try jumping a little bit today, would you do it?
“I’d probably get by with, ‘Hahahaha! You must be kidding!’ (laugh) Besides, I don’t feel like having my picture taken is part of my job.”
Do you not like being photographed?
“I hate it [spoken flatly]. Now I can mostly deal with it as part of my work, but it’s still not as though I made it to here through photos, so I feel like I’m playing on the road. I think there are some people who can’t understand why I like singing but not singing in front of people, but that’s a different issue.”
When you get hung up over things, it tends to go that way. So concerts were another problem.
“Right. Early on, for cover art pictures, I was sort of wondering, ‘What am I supposed to do? Should I smile?’ Particularly up until my first album, I was still very much a high school girl, and it ended up going like, ‘The album’s called “Grapefruit”, so should I be holding a grapefruit?’…. But ever since I started to see the pictures as one part of the release, I’ve been able to enjoy them. With photos for an album, It becomes a matter of just matching the album’s perspective as it is. Even for me, since that sort of scenario is laid out clearly, rather than being Maaya Sakamoto, I add my own filter to my point of view, and that keeps it from feeling so awkward.”
For things like “TV Bros.”, where you recently appeared on the cover, does it feel really embarrassing when you see those magazines in a convenience store?
“It’s an extremely weird feeling. I’ll finish paying at my usual convenience store and turn around, and it’s a shock to see myself there. And all the while I’m wondering what the people working there think (laugh). I realized that people who get put on covers a lot must have a hard time. Everywhere they go, there they are.”
Rumor has it there are some gravure idols who walk up to people in stores who are reading the issues they’re in and say, “That’s me, right there!”
“Ehh?! Seriously?! They actually like that…? When the issue I’m in is on sale, I stay away from the bookstore (laugh). Even though it’s one of my favorite places. Probably no one would notice, but it’s still oddly embarrassing, you know? I also can’t walk into a music store when my releases are on sale.”
Oh, is that so? (laugh)
“I end up buying things over the internet because of that. I’ve never seen my own CDs on a music store shelf. So I get someone to take a picture for me (laugh). It makes me happy to see that, but going in person feels a little embarrassing.”
So the times when you really publicize a release and have your poster put up on the sides of buildings must be the worst, then.
“Yeah. I’m sure no one’ll notice, but I can’t help but feel embarrassed. If I wasn’t doing this under my real name, I think that would change somewhat.”
Ahh, that’s got to be a huge part of it. If you weren’t using your real name, you could probably act your way through everything.
“That’s what I think. I think I’d be able to put some measure of distance between my work and myself, and I really think that would make it easier in a lot of ways. But I guess, in a certain sense, in the sense that it lets me build up my resolve, I really feel as though going by my real name fits with me. Although there was a time in the middle of my career when I longed to have the freedom of a stage name, and mentally I felt as though since I had a kind of uncommon name, I didn’t have anywhere I could escape to. Even today I can’t completely shake those thoughts.”
That makes me wonder if perhaps the reason you enjoy traveling overseas by yourself is in some way related.
“Ahh, that’s part of it. It’s never been my intent to be some hugely famous person, but when I’m truly alone I feel survival senses in me get activated. It’s such a refreshing feeling, so in my mind it feels like I’m going on a training mission.”
Going overseas in search of that state would seem to mean you want to know yourself, no?
“I suppose that’s what it ends up being. That’s how I felt when I was looking back over the lineup for this best-hits album and reading the lyrics.”
(From February 26 at the Flying Dog offices in Jingūmae)