“DOWN TOWN” Interview
“I thought maybe I’ve reached the point where I could enjoy something like another side of myself. Part of this release came from that sort of feeling.” In the very middle of her 15th year since her singer debut, Maaya Sakamoto releases her first cover single! She speaks of now being able to face “who she was 15 years ago” and “who she is now”, plus, in this unmatched voice actress/singer’s eyes, what is the meaning of “originality”?!
Maaya Sakamoto is right in the middle of her 15th year since her singer debut. After this past March 31st, when she ascended for the first time the stage in the Budōkan on her 30th birthday and delivered a performance that stands out as a landmark in her career, her latest move arrives as yet another first in the form of a cover single, “DOWN TOWN / If I’m Surrounded by Kindness” (on sale October 20). This is an amazing release. First is the fact that it brims with the aura of a live performance, as if she captured the very atmosphere of her Budōkan concert in the recording. At the same time one can tell that her own feelings of enjoyment toward singing are 100% pure. Furthermore, by addressing her music from a certain fixed sense of distance that comes from covering a song, one should also focus on the point that perhaps she was able to take an honest look at the character, charm, and essence of her own voice. She herself speaks here once more of her feelings surrounding “the person who encouraged me 15 years ago to sing” (Yōko Kanno), but it might just be that one could say that after releasing this single, it may go down as a significant work that brought Maaya Sakamoto herself to a realization of that “reason from 15 years ago”. I expect from the words here, the reader can sense that sort of solid feel which was written into this cover single.
I have whole list of things I want to ask. First of all, why a cover single? (laugh)
“Ahahahaha. Well, up until now I’ve thought things like, ‘I wonder if I should try a cover,’ or, ‘Why not?’ and I’ve had several chances like that. But for some reason, I didn’t have enough energy to actually carry through on any of them. I imagined covering a song would call on all sorts of things, like my own feelings attached to the song, or my own personal interpretations or touches. I had this idea that there had to be some meaning in it.”
Yeah, that’s probably true.
“I also wondered if it was OK to cover a song simply because I liked it. But when I thought about it, in these 15 years it’s one of those things I haven’t tried yet. Also, in a strange twist of fate, I was approached about singing the theme song for an animation called ‘Soremachi (And Life Goes On)’—which is also directed by [Akiyuki] Shinbō. Director Shinbō also told me something about wanting to find an unusual, catchy idea. From that the suggestion of doing a cover came up. As for why it was ‘DOWN TOWN’, ‘Soremachi’ is set in the downtown district, it has elements of comedy to it, and its story is lighthearted and carefree. I pictured it as the kind of show that you couldn’t wait to sit down in front of the TV and watch at the same time every week, like the time when ‘DOWN TOWN’ was used as the theme for ‘Oretachi Hyōkinzoku’ a long time ago. Since it connected on so many levels, I took the proposal of covering ‘DOWN TOWN’ to Director Shinbō, and he was all for it.”
It’s a really great single.
(laugh) “Thank you.”
First, it has a full dose of the atmosphere from your Budōkan concert in March, where you pulled out all the stops.
“It does. I took a simple approach to making it, kind of just thinking about how fun singing is. Also, lately the number of songs I’ve written the lyrics for has especially gone up, and the idea of approaching music as nothing more than a singer—it feels like the time when I made my debut, when everything I had went into focusing only on singing, and it brought back memories of those days. It does feel like I was face-to-face again with who I am as a singer.”
As a singer, singing unarmed, as it were, seems to me that it would lead to to several realizations. What are your thoughts on that?
“Hmm, I wonder…I have to say, the reason I thought it was so hard at first was because I spent a lot of time searching for an answer to the question of how I should take a song that wasn’t written with me in mind and make it one of my own. I tried several times on my own to put down a test vocal track, but at that stage I still couldn’t help but feel a mismatch between the two. As if I was chasing after the shadow of the ‘DOWN TOWN’ in my mind, or the ‘If I’m Surrounded by Kindness’ in my mind.”
Ahh, I see.
“No matter how many times I tried, I never felt comfortable with the result. It was as though I wanted to imitate someone exactly, and as though I wanted to be myself, and I couldn’t do either. But after I thought about it some more, I realized my personal feelings of wanting to make it my song, of wanting to be acknowledged by everyone, don’t matter in the least to the people listening to the music. Especially with this release—it has a lot of old songs, and there are a lot of young people who’ve never heard ‘DOWN TOWN’.”
Ahh, you’re probably right.
“So for those people, there’s a chance their first time to hear ‘DOWN TOWN’ will be my song. Thinking about it that way, I realized that probably the most important thing is that the ‘DOWN TOWN’ I’m singing is a fun song. When I considered the possibility that my own enjoyment from singing, that that pleasant feeling will exist forever in their hearts, I saw that I probably didn’t need to put in that extra effort to ‘make it my own song’. So, during recording my aim was to resolve the problem by not thinking about anything. When you’ve been singing for this long, it gets harder to sing from a neutral stance. I have a feeling that this was the challenge given to me for this release.”
The finished song turned out as a truly unobtrusive, very neutral song. But because of that, it’s the sort of release where the essence of your voice stands out, a very meaningful Maaya Sakamoto single. What I see in that is the charm of your voice—its translucency, or the many other ways to describe it—perhaps you reached a new level of trust in that.
“I wonder about that. I did ask myself all the time about things like what my voice is and what the appeal of my songs is. But if you were to ask me if I was able to find a sense of trust there, I can’t say for sure.”
When you look back on these last 15 years, the fact that the songs you wrote have a consistency to them stands out above anything else. Which goes to show just how much the things you’re saying in songs today haven’t changed from what you were saying 15 years ago.
“Right, I think so too (laugh).”
It shows that you’re someone whose essence isn’t the slightest bit blurred. For someone like that, I have a feeling that putting out a cover might have felt something close to, “I couldn’t do it until now”, or better put, “I didn’t want to,” “I didn’t see the need to.”
“That might have been it (laugh). I’m happy just listening to the songs I like, so in the sense that there’s already a good version out there without me having to sing it, I also felt that I probably didn’t have to go out of my way to sing those songs. Plus, I have to say, yeah…I was also kind of worried if it was OK for me to push myself into someone else’s feelings for a song.”
“When it came to covering a song, I also have a feeling that maybe I wasn’t sure of what it was I could do. But I guess…for this release, in that sense, I was able to choose music that I could relate to in some kind of personal way. So in my mind, ultimately I was able to sing without feeling like I didn’t belong there.”
That’s it there. Like you’ve now come to see a cover as something you honestly want to try. This is what’s amazing. 15 years ago you couldn’t have done it as a matter of course, but even a year ago you still probably couldn’t have.
“Right. I certainly couldn’t have done this a year ago, and I doubt I said I would. Of course I think part of it was the push I got from this being my 15th anniversary year. Still, all this time I’ve used my own words at each moment to pour out my thoughts. It was because it came after I had felt my own sense of accomplishment in that. Relistening to the songs in my best-hits album ‘everywhere’ once more, getting to put on a concert in the Budōkan—part of this past year has been finding a satisfaction with the things I’ve done. Which also means that I’ve finally found a satisfaction after putting 15 years into this. Thinking about it, maybe part of it is that because of these things I was able to make this release.”
Yeah, I think that’s what it is.
“As you get older, you find more things you can do from a somewhat relaxed stance. Essentially, I thought maybe I’ve reached the point where I could enjoy something like another side of myself. Part of this release came from that sort of feeling. Although when I actually tried it, it instead turned into a chance to be forced to reflect on my roots.”
Looking at it anew, what did you think of your voice?
“(laugh) What indeed…even after coming all this way I don’t know. That’s why, people often describe it as translucent and such (laugh), and in my mind I sometimes wonder what they mean by translucency. It’s just that at first, 15 years ago, Yōko Kanno, who discovered me and said my singing was good—I’m sure the part of my singing she praised me for when I was 15 was that it was neutral. I didn’t have any habits, in a good way. Especially at the time, when 90s music was popular, I was on a completely different side of the scale.”
“Now I look back and see that she took the fact that I didn’t have any color to start with and worked with it in an original way. When you think about it, that’s probably my individuality. I don’t have any color, which is exactly why with a small change I can become any color—although, there was a time when I agonized over that in the sense of wondering where my originality was in that. But now I see that that right there is my originality. I don’t have any color to start with, and since being able to line myself up with the music and the lyrics as I sing them brings me joy, I’d like to hold onto that side of myself. Though after doing this for so many years, it’s really hard to keep that neutral feeling.”
I can imagine.
“Things like ‘This is how I am’ or ‘This is obviously the best way to sing this kind of song’—more and more notions like that get cemented in your mind. So this time I tried channeling just my singer side, and it sounds as though I was told by someone to go back and concentrate on that (laugh). I’ve been doing this for 15 years, but it gave me a new realization that I never want to lose sight of that. You know, a long time ago, I often heard from friends who listened to my music, ‘Your songs are hard to do impressions of.’ (laugh)”
“It might be that I don’t have any obvious traits, but I think that’s where my individuality is (laugh).”
Just now you mentioned that you agonized over that, so does that mean there was a period when you thought that perhaps you were a person without any individuality?
“There was. I guess it’s like, for myself…not only in music, but also with respect to things beyond that—I started to think that being someone who didn’t lean to any one side might be a good thing. I suppose there’s a side to me that you can’t describe in a simple way, like ‘That girl is such-and-such a girl.’ So…is this making any sense?”
“Even in class, the really average kids are in the very middle, where they don’t particularly stand out or hear even once from someone that they’re like this or that. In their mind, everyone thinks that’s boring. But I guess you could say that I found contentment in the idea that being in a neutral place is one kind of individuality. It’s the same with singing as it is with everything else: you don’t have to try to become someone else; being where you are with the talents you were given is something you should value—15 years ago, this is what I heard from all kinds of adults (laugh). Although I didn’t get it at the time. But after actually growing up, I could see that ‘Yeah, that might be true.’ (laugh)”