J-pop megastar Hikaru Utada on fame, discrimination and teenage grief

In a rare interview in English, the pop sensation reflects on her “traumatic” rise to fame, working on Hideaki Anno’s Evangelion franchise, and her crush on Megan Thee Stallion

When Hikaru Utada first released his debut album First love in 1999, the Japanese public had never heard anything like it. The 16-year-old Japanese-American artist has torn through the rulebook of J-pop with bouncy genre melodies, influenced by Western pop hits and flowing R&B grooves. Utada, who grew up in New York City, cites Aaliyah as a huge influence at the time. Unlike many pop stars of the late ’90s in Japan, she avoided the idol route, choosing instead to write and produce her own songs. Her voice soared above the usual chart hits, particularly deep and moving, while her image contrasted sharply with the hypersexualized aesthetic of her Western pop contemporaries. If the West had Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, Japan had Utada.

First love would sell two million copies in the first two weeks and remains the best-selling album of all time in the country. Its influence has been so colossal, in fact, that Netflix is ​​currently work on a drama of the same name, inspired by the music of Utada. She went on to release seven more albums, her sound blending R&B, dance-pop, rock and acoustic elements into a signature sound that has since become a blockbuster for J-pop artists to follow. Her soundtrack work propelled her further and broadened her fan demographics, including themed songs for the Kingdom Hearts video game series with “Face My Fears” produced by Skrillex and the cult anime franchise of Hideaki Anno evangelization. Over time, Utada has become the target of the paparazzi, as well as the subject of adoration and obsession with countless fan sites and early Twitter stans.

“23 years later, I still haven’t gotten used to being ‘famous’,” Utada tells me today. “Famous people are just people, no different from other people. It’s just the way other people see them that is different.

With over 37 million record sales to her credit, the 38-year-old – known lovingly as “Hikki” to her fans – speaks from her home in London, where she lives with her five-year-old son. London, unlike Japan, offers the megastar a semblance of normalcy – or, at least, as much as it can find as one of the biggest names in Japanese showbiz. She is notoriously private and rarely does interviews, let alone English speaking interviews. Its last appearance in the English-speaking press dates back to a little over a decade in 2009. radio interview on NPR.

We’re in conversation for her latest single, “Pink Blood,” which was released last week. The track is an intimate reflection on the search for independence and the residual feelings of melancholy that accompany it. It is based on minimalist rhythms and a rainbow spectrum of trance textures. It’s soft, multisensory music – music to soar over. Utada sings: “No use being valued / By someone who doesn’t know how much I’m worth”.

“It hasn’t been an easy time for a working single mom, artist or single adult, has it? ” she tells me. “There have been some tough times for me, but I know how lucky my situation is. I focused on being there for the things I could do something about. The singer is known to have a wide range of musical references, previously quoting everyone from Metallica to Lauryn Hill as influences. She says she spent confinement “dancing with Omar S, singing with SAULT and Amber Mark”.

“I might have a crush on Megan Thee Stallion,” she laughs.

His EP One last kiss was released this year and features the theme song for the finale evangelization movie, Evangelion: 3.0 + 1.0 Once upon a time three times, as well as variations of existing songs from the anime. The title track is a clean and vibrant pop ballad produced by PC Music founder AG Cook, whose glitchy sound can be felt in the song’s anthem chorus. “Working with him was great,” says Utada. “It was like having an amazing interior designer for a rudimentary house that I had built.”

The theme song, says Utada, is an exploration of loss and marks the end of a 14-year period of writing and performing songs for evangelization. The beloved anime launched its final installment earlier this year after a nine-year hiatus, and parallels Utada’s own trajectory. Against a backdrop of hopping bass and choppy voices, Utada explores “the bittersweetness of moving on, of growing up and of coming to terms with oneself”. She explains: “After this last film, I see evangelization like a long story of grieving, an exploration of the different stages of grief and how we deal with loss – which has also been an important theme in my work.

“Becoming really famous at 15, 16 was traumatic. It was exciting when people started reacting to my songs, but the attention spread beyond my music. “- Hikaru Utada

Utada compares the period of mourning with the death of her mother, the famous enka singer (Japanese ballad) Keiko Fuji. “All my life I have mourned my mother, slowly losing her to mental illness, and since her death eight years ago, it has become a conscious grief, a loss I didn’t know how to mourn. ‘move away,’ she explains. “When I started working on ‘One Last Kiss’, I finally understood that it wasn’t about trying to leave that behind, but accepting that I would always take it with me. always hurts, and that’s good What was a loss has become a gift.

Utada grew up in the music industry – her respected singer mother, her father Teruzane Utada an accomplished record producer. He would have appeared to be the ultimate incubator. “I thought I would be better prepared because my mom was so famous in Japan, but getting really famous at 15, 16 was traumatic. It was exciting when people started reacting to my songs, but the attention spread beyond my music.

“Losing your privacy and becoming a permanent target for public opinion was terrifying. I did my best to be worthy even when I felt crushed or violated.

Despite this, she says she is “grateful” for these formative experiences. “I learned not to take anything personally, from anyone. It’s a really valuable skill, ”she adds. “Plus, whether it’s praise or criticism, I try not to take it too seriously. At most, these are things that I’ve posted before, and I’m more interested in what I’m doing now or what I haven’t done yet.

Utada announced its foray into the US market with its electronically-fed 2004 album Exodus. Co-produced by Timbaland, the English-language record marked a departure from the heart-wrenching and ambiguous melodies that cemented its status as a teenage sensation. The album was fiercely original, daring and daring, incorporating avant-garde dance elements and melodies into moody club beats. But it didn’t catch Utada’s attention outside of Japan. With little support from radio or video, he never made it to the Billboard Top 100.

At the time, Utada spoke of his reluctance to enter the Western market. Talk to MTV in 2004, she reflected on the feeling of discrimination as an Asian artist: “I don’t think it’s the music that worries me. Obviously, I looked really different and there really aren’t any completely Asian people (who are popular singers in the US) right now.

“It doesn’t really matter to me now, but back then I remember being very embarrassed to be seen as an Asian woman,” she recalls. “The problem was, I didn’t really identify as ‘an Asian woman’. I had grown up in such an international school environment that my ethnicity or my appearance had not been part of my identity, and I think I was afraid of being misunderstood.

Critical reception at Exodus, however, was largely positive. All the music described him as “the American arrival of an unusual and stimulating artist”, while USA today proposed that Utada was “more than a ghost in its own machine”. The album also sparked a small but passionate Internet cult. Although she describes the project as “confusing” in terms of marketing and promotion, Utada maintains that she is proud of the work she has done. “I love what I did musically and lyrically in Exodus and I almost feel jealous of the feeling of liberation and creativity of it! ” she says.

“All my life I have mourned my mother, slowly losing her to mental illness, and since her death eight years ago, it has become a conscious grief, a loss I didn’t know how to mourn. ‘move away’ – Hikaru Utada

“Pink Blood” has already racked up 3.6 million views on YouTube since its release last week and continues to climb the US and Canadian charts. With a new album on the way, the ever-evolving sound of Utada is pushing the boundaries of the pop landscape. Its wider influence is also undeniable – the frenetic and brilliant music scene of AG Cook or Charli XCX, which has now achieved mainstream success, was unmistakably bolstered by Utada, while future pop star Rina Sawayama cited Exodus as a major influence on its debut in 2020, SAWAYAMA, story NYLON, “she’s really the reason I started making music.” The synthetic AI-powered melodies of Hatsune Miku or K-pop stars Aespa and other artists at the forefront of J-pop today owe him too. “I think my music can only evolve as I evolve as a human being,” she says. “I hope my songs reflect my inner growth and my personal journey.”

I ask Utada what she thinks is the biggest misconception people have about her. “The most common reaction I get from people who see me in person is, ‘Wow, she really exists,'” she pauses. “It’s hard to think of a misconception that could surpass that.”

Pink Blood is now available via Sony


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About Dawn Valle

Dawn Valle

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