Born and raised in Manhattan and educated at Columbia University, Hikaru Utada grew up surrounded by music. Her father, Teruzane Utada, was an accomplished musician and producer, and her mother, Keiko Fuji, was a successful Japanese enka (ballad) singer. Utada spent her youth shuttling between New York City and Tokyo, but her most consistent home was the recording studio. By age 11, she had written and recorded her first song, and by the time she graduated from junior high school, she had been signed by EMI Records; her first album, Precious, was recorded in English, but didn’t come out in the US because of business problems at the label; it was subsequently released in Japan.
After moving to Tokyo full-time, she began recording in Japanese, and her debut album in that language, First Love, was an explosive, historic success. Since then, she has had five Number One albums in Japan—most recently, Heart Station in 2008, which was the year’s best-selling non-compilation album.
With that level of popularity, it’s easy to wonder why Utada is taking the difficult step of starting over as a new artist for a new audience. “It’s true that I could have stuck to my throne and taken the easy way,” she says, “but I felt that my creativity, my humanity would be endangered by staying in that position. I don’t want to just be this crazy artist who lives in la-la land, I want to be in touch with the real world and stay humble. And I like it when something feels scary—I see fear as a guiding light.”
My trip to Def Jam Records to interview Utada was a rewarding and intimate glance into the Asian American Pop star’s inner life and workings. I was led to an office area, up three flights of stairs, through back corridors, and then finally led into a large conference room where Utada herself sat with her manager and the Def Jam liaisons. I found out that unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. It was not a big a deal; even sitting down with the incredibly famed Utada would be a great treat and article.
Utada sat at the conference table and stood up to greet me as I entered. She was very polite in her demeanor. She was of course beautiful with a very casual look, and a bit more petite than I imagined. Her hair was tucked under a comfy dark cap and she wore a simple green long-sleeved shirt. Her skin was impeccable. In the beginning I was a bit intimidated by her obviously famed presence, a coolness about her that implied immediately that she was a superstar. She was so cordial and after my first few questions, it was obvious she is a kind-hearted and, at times, a regular young woman like the rest of us, trying and succeeding at her career.
Utada cares a lot about what her fans think of her music and this is what is so admirable about her. She reaches out to people and the “universe” through her songs. There were certain things I was not allowed to ask (like her past albums in Japan), because this was her day of answering questions about her new upcoming album, “This Is The One” (included the hit song, “Come Back To Me”) and her future. During the interview, excitement regarding American recognition was there. Her manager was as interested in her answers as I was. She gave a great chunk of time for the interview and she was very detailed with her answers- everything from her time at Columbia University, to singing Karaoke in Tokyo- I was asked to wrap it up a few times and did not realize we had been there for so long! What a treat she was!
On her new Island Def Jam album—ten self-penned songs produced by the powerhouse producers Stargate (Ne-Yo, Rihanna, Beyonce) and Tricky (Britney Spears, Madonna, Mariah Carey)—26-year-old Utada reveals the unique sense of songcraft that is poised to make her a force in the US and European music communities.
It’s been a long journey, full of many miles and many melodies, for Utada to get to this album. But the lessons she’s learned ultimately gave her a clear sense of what she was looking for. “I wanted to get back to basics,” she says. “Nothing gimmicky, just very straightforward and confident, with a sense of humor. I was so sure of what I was doing, and I just became more of an adult—finally.”
Well I was born in New York at Roosevelt Hospital. It’s hard because they’re all together in my head. I don’t know when I was in Japan, from what year or month.
ASIANCE: It’s so great to sit and talk with you. So with your new album coming out, what are the beginning stages you go through to create the songs?
Utada: Beginning stages. Well it begins with just sound. Melodies and sounds. Then after that the words come. Words are the last process I guess. Then at the end I sing. So the singing part is a small bit at the end. And a big part of my creating process is time spent on music, sounds, tracks, writing melodies and things like that.
ASIANCE: How did the hit single “Come Back to Me” begin?
Utada: For “Come Back To Me”…well, for this album, this new one I worked with two teams of track-makers. And that’s a big difference from my previous work including the 2008 album “Heart Station”. I went into the studios with two different teams (track-makers), went to the studio, picked out a bunch from their demo tracks roughly a few minute and a half loops they had made, took home the few I liked and I just started writing from there. That’s how the “Come Back to Me” started as well. So at the beginning it was a rough track the track-maker had made and then I went home and changed the tracks a bit, added sounds, shifted things around and wrote melodies to it-words. And that’s how all the songs began this time.
Watch the official video of “Come Back to Me”
ASIANCE: Were your lyrics inspired by your life recently?
Utada: Well that’s the thing about lyrics. It’s hard to say how much is from life. Lyrics aren’t an Anne Frank Diary. There are lyrics and they are not poems but they are not literal. It’s like if I woke up and had a cold last week it’s not like I’m going to write about having a cold. It’s not just life experiences but it might be something I saw on TV or things I saw driving around in a car. Or maybe my friend had a breakup. So all these things come together and they are the ideas for the lyrics.
ASIANCE: The songs are beautiful!
Utada: Thank you!
ASIANCE: You were born in New York but spent a lot of your childhood and still go back and forth between here and Japan. Do you remember much of when you were younger?
Utada: Well I was born in New York at Roosevelt Hospital. It’s hard because they’re all together in my head. I don’t know when I was in Japan, from what year or month.
ASIANCE: Or, to rephrase, can you talk a little more about the Japan side of things, where do you go in Tokyo?
Utada: I don’t have things like that! People living in Japan will ask me about New York and what they recommend but I only know a couple of coffee shops around my house. I’m not the person to go to for recommended restaurants. I’m a very indoor person and I go wherever my friends take me. But the convenient stores in Tokyo are very convenient I’d say. And pharmacies are nice (Laughter)
ASIANCE: How often are you stopped on the streets in Tokyo?
Utada: I barely ever get recognized. I think it’s a skill. At this point it’s a skill I’ve acquired (Laughter) People don’t expect me to be waling around. I guess I don’t have that image of a real, real person. If I speak with someone like the waitress or server or person helping me out with clothes in a store then they recognize my voice! But unless I speak with someone, then they don’t recognize me really. Sometimes they will take a second look or a double-look. Like, “Huh?” Then it’s like, “No it can’t be her, she won’t be walking around in this dirty little neighborhood” and turn away.
ASIANCE: What do you say to amateur performers who admire you and your work?
Utada: Ah! Only because I don’t really know much about undiscovered people… I don’t look for people or am trying to become a producer at all. I just go to concerts of people I like, whether they are unknown or famous. I don’t go look for people that are unknown. Or if there are people playing on the street, I stop and listen, tip them well.
ASIANCE: What do you feel the big difference is between your fans from different countries, Japan and soon more of the US and elsewhere?
Utada: Musically, that’s what I’m just starting to do for America. It’s not about New York but just America in general. The way people will react to that I don’t know, but the fans I have from my previous work are everywhere in the world, so I don’t think it matters where they live. I have a lot of people in New York who know my work like Japanese boys or girls or just anyone. I get emails from people in Iceland, or working in odd places in America saying, listening to my songs give them that nostalgic feeling and gives them the motivation to work harder when they feel lonely. So I don’t think it is different where the person is.
ASIANCE: Do you sing Karaoke in Japan?
Utada: Yeah! No, the funny thing is they really don’t recognize me! They will just be like, “Wow, she’s good!” And my friends are like cracking up because people don’t recognize me. Once I got noticed. But most of the time it’s like these middle aged men who brought their dates with them and they are like “Oh, you’re good.” And I think it was like a bunch of Asian American kids who were hanging out in a foreigners spot in Tokyo and they noticed and we started to do sort of a duet (Laughter) and at the end they were like, “OH can we take a picture” and said thank you. I think we sang Metallica songs or something like that.
ASIANCE: When you are performing what is going through your mind?
Utada: It’s a process of losing yourself. You concentrate so much on what you’re doing, where the concentration is maximized beyond max. There’s a point where I’m on auto drive and no longer thinking about it. I feel like I’m being guided through and I’m not myself anymore really. It’s sort of an escape. I’m very there, concentrated but not longer conscious of the things I’m daily conscious of.
ASIANCE: So do you mean for your songs to reach out to individuals you have thought about, your fans, or just..the Universe?
Utada: The Universe. I would go with Universe on that one. More like just nature and everything in the world. It might be a person sitting in the front row in front of me, a person in the very back looking with binoculars or someone on the other side of the world. Or a person living, not living, trees.
ASIANCE: Speaking of nature, where do you go to get away from the city?
Utada: I don’t get to go on vacation! (laughs towards manager). But when I do, recently I’ve been big on going to Nagano. The mountains, way deep in the mountains, no cell phone reception, no electricity. Water brought up to the house. That kind of thing. I almost get the same feeling from being on an amazing rooftop, looking down on the buildings because I’m a city girl. When I do go into nature I prefer to go into the mountains over beaches.
ASIANCE: Can we talk about your time at Columbia University?
Utada: Yeah. Of course!
ASIANCE: Well what was it like to know you already had this set career in the industry when you entered school and to be surrounded by students on such different paths?
Utada: Well I never went to music school. At Columbia, I hadn’t picked a major yet. I only went for one semester and was like, “I don’t need this!” I was at the point of doing foundation stuff. There was no change at all from going from high school to university since I became famous in Japan from high school. But the funny thing was when I graduated high school everyone was asking me why I would want to go to college since I had a job already. But I didn’t want to go to university to get a job. I just wanted to go for the experience of it. All my other friends were going and I like studying.
I feel lucky to be witnessing this historic event. It’s interesting to have the ethnic change in the environment. And hey our names sound similar as well, Obama, Utada!
There was a part of me that was like “maybe I do want to quit music and maybe I just do want to do the usual University thing” and I was interested in majoring in biology and biochemistry and things like that. So I just wanted to go and see. I didn’t want to close out my options and say “I’m a musician for life, I don’t need University.” I couldn’t think that way at all. I guess it was interesting to be around everyone because I had a different mindset. They were all trying to figure out what to do in the future, if they wanted to become a doctor, do this or that. But I just went there to study and not think about future planning or anything.
ASIANCE: Can you tell us a little about how you have such beautiful skin, your routines?
Utada: Thanks! I think Asian girls have an advantage about skin. Scientifically they say we have more collagen so I feel lucky to be Asian in that sense (laughter) But working in dry environments all the time and traveling, being on airplanes…everything is soo dry! I’m not big on cosmetics. I’m not a makeup buff. I recently started to teach myself to put on my own makeup but I do care a lot about skincare, hydrating, moisturizing. There is a line from Shiseido. They have a line the QI series. It’s what I use for cleaning and moisturizing my face. It’s a bit expensive but it’s good. And then for body I have been in love with Fresh. They have this rice sake formula thing that I really love, the smell, formula…everything. I keep humidifiers in my house everywhere. When I’m living in my house in Tokyo I constantly keep my house at 55% humidity and 21 degrees Celsius. Keeping the house at a high level of humidity is important. One night of sleeping in a highly humidified room, you wake up and your skin is so much better. Humidity. That’s key word. Humidity (loves it!)
ASIANCE: Do you like the cold winters of New York such as today?
Utada: I love cold winters in New York. I was born around this time in New York, so in my subconscious I know my first memories are from being taken outside in a little stroller. My parents used to take me out every day, or so I’ve heard. I still feel very safe at home. And in Tokyo, the winters don’t get as cold and it doesn’t do it for me I’m like, “You call this winter!?” And when I come to New York, in the winter, I feel at home. It’s dry, it’s true, it’s dry but I like it. And my house I have to keep humidified…
ASIANCE: So what do you love most about New York?
Utada: Just walking around. I love, love walking, or stopping by a little store if I feel like it. Just walking through the park, stopping at the bookstore, looking through books. I have a Borders reward card that I’m just loving right now….Having some tea, rolling around with my big teddy bear.
ASIANCE: How do you feel about the new President?
Utada: I feel lucky to be witnessing this historic event. It’s interesting to have the ethnic change in the environment. And hey our names sound similar as well, Obama, Utada!
ASIANCE: Do you think he would be a fan of your music?
Utada: Can someone go ask him please?? I would doubt it. Maybe my goal for this promotion is to make Obama my fan or text message friend. (Laughter all around)
ASIANCE: How do you feel about protecting the environment?
Utada: I’m not actively protecting the environment but I’m very interested in the future of clean-tech. I was flying from L.A. yesterday looking over the vast regions, it is just land, barren land, and I kept thinking, “Why can’t they do solar paneling?” I know that will take money to start doing that and invest into but… I think about that a lot recently. Clean energy.
I’m a New York girl, a Manhattan girl. I feel like a foreigner when I’m in L.A. I’ll be standing out in a black jacket, black hat and I look like a New Yorker.
ASIANCE: What is the relationship between personal relationships and career for you?
Utada: Some people ask what I prioritize, my career or relationship. But for me it’s about sleeping or eating- you have to sleep and eat to survive. You can’t pick one over the other. Love, a boyfriend, or family, I just feel like if they are good relationships if you are doing your job then they both are going to be good for each other. The work will help your job and they intertwine like a DNA model.
ASIANCE: What is your overall feeling of the new release in America, is it exciting that it can change your reputation, career into something even more?
Utada: I’m just looking forward to it. I just want to see people’s reactions. Getting reaction is the most rewarding part of this job. Having some reaction from one person let alone the wide audience, it is just very rewarding. No matter how talented people are or how amazing their work is, they don’t get the chance to showcase or get that reaction from so many people. I feel lucky in my position whether ‘it sucks’ or ‘it’s great’. I wonder how this will be received, haha. I’m just waiting for the moment.
Visit Utada’s Official www.myspace.com/thisisutada
Utada’s Official Sitewww.utada.com
Photo credit: Y. Kikuma