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I'M ANJALI RAO IN TOKYO AS PART OF OUR SPECIAL JAPAN NOW SERIES. THIS IS TALK ASIA.
WE'RE WITH ONE OF JAPAN'S BEST KNOWN SINGERS, KEN HIRAI. AS THE UNDOUBTED KING OF JAPAN'S R & B SCENE, HE'S ONE OF ONLY A FEW TRULY SOULFUL VOICES IN A SEA OF J-POPSTERS.
KH: I consider myself a Japanese J-pop singer who happens to love soul music.
AND UNLIKE OTHER CHART-TOPPERS WHO CHURN OUT SINGLE AFTER SINGLE, WHEN IT COMES TO HIS WORK, KEN TAKES HIS OWN SWEET TIME!
HE IS RECORDING NOW, THOUGH, AND HE INVITED TALK ASIA INTO THE STUDIO.
AR: Ken, welcome to Talk Asia0You haven't released an album since 2004, though you are working on a new single now. What have you been up to in the interim?
KH: Back in 2005, I released a new single, and after that I produced my best-of disc for my 10th anniversary. As far as this year is concerned, I've been keeping busy. I released a new single back in the summer and I also went on a concert tour for my anniversary in between. I even did a full summer tour this year. Right now I'm in the studio recording my next single. So to sum it all up for you, I've been working very hard.
AR: As far as albums go, though, it is sort of your trademark, isn't it? You put one out and then you're the talk of town and suddenly you just go very, very quiet. What's that about?
KH: I really have no special reason for taking this approach. Recording an album is a very demanding process and it consumes a lot of time and energy. In recent years, my albums were usually released towards the end of year. Then the new year comes after that and it's time to take a break. It is not that I have been enjoying any vacations -- I am continuously making music. It's just that I am working more often on activities behind the scenes, and the public might think I haven't been working during that time.
AR: Everybody knows that you have done a lot so far. You've got countless thousands of fans, you've got plenty awards as well. Did the response to your music take you by surprise, though, given that when you think of R&B, Japan doesn't automatically spring to mind?
KH: I love the music of R&B -- everything from soul music in the 1970's like Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, to the so-called new classic soul you see with performers like D'Angelo. I managed to bring that style of music into J-POP and in doing so I presented it specifically to the Japanese market. However, I don't necessarily consider myself to be a pure R&B singer, especially when you consider some of my recent work.
KH: I consider myself a Japanese J-pop singer who happens to love soul music. That's today. But surely around the year 2000, I was a little more conscious of the styles you find in American R&B music.
AR: Still though with a voice like yours, I guess it would've been really easy to just slot into main stream J-Pop if you had wanted to. What was it specifically that struck you about R&B and made you think this is the direction I want my career to go on?
KH: These days I am making music now in a much broader genre and I don't consider myself a pure R&B performer. But the reason that I got into R&B in the first place was simply that I loved the music. And if I may say it in this way, I was able to take advantage of the R&B boom that was going on in Japan at that time. R&B was taking off. Back then, five years had passed since my debut on the music scene and I had not had an overly successful career up to that point. I was trying out many new things to see what kind of approach I should take to be accepted and embraced by the public.
AR: Aside from performing, you also compose your own work which is really pretty rare these days on the pop scene. Take us through the process of how you do that. Is it instantaneous, or is it something that you really have to work at?
KH: Well, I wasn't born to a musical family, and I'm not really good at playing musical instruments. So in that sense, I made my debut as an amateur -- a complete beginner in this industry. My overall musical knowledge is poor, so I would much rather create my own music from my humming or some inspiration that I find. I don't have much understanding of musical theory. I can't read or write musical notation either. So I make observations in life and what I usually do is write lyrics and compose music out of my own emotions.
AR: Yeah, that's right your parents are hardly what you call show-biz types aren't they. Your father's an architect; your mother's a housewife who hardly ever listened to music. How do you think it was that you came to be so tuneful?
KH: It's difficult to say how it happened. I'm not really sure. But I have always really loved to sing even when I was little. I watched all the music programs and I was completely glued to the TV when they came on. I still really don't know why I managed to become musical. I suppose I was just born like that. One thing is for sure -- I loved to sing more than anything in the world... even when I was a kid.
AR: Up next joining a global music legend on stage.
There is nobody other than him on this earth whom I feel more humble when I stand in front of.
AR: We're back on Talk Asia with Ken Hirai.
Ken, in 1992, you turned up at a Sony audition where you beat out 7500 other people for the sole contract which was on offer. Paint us the picture of what that day was like for you?
KH: That day? Well, I was just so purely happy. I don't think I will ever forget about that day for the rest of my life. I remember every single minute, every single second. I was 20 years old then and a 3rd year student in University. I had been dreaming about being a singer ever since I was a little kid. The audition didn't make me a professional singer right away. It is such a large scale audition; it took a whole year. Each finalist even had their own stylist and director. I enjoyed the whole process.
KH: Actually I still have some friends from the audition, my competitors at that time. I remember back then, when I won that first audition, I got out from the venue and called my friend in University using a public phone, since there were no cell phones at the time, and I cried over the phone.
AR: And you know, you certainly do come across as an incredibly sensitive guy. Has that not though been a bit of a drawback in the industry like this where you've got to be so thick-skinned if you are going to survive?
KH: It is true that I am very sensitive and timid. But there are many tough and aggressive people in the music industry, so I often feel isolated and out of place. Sometimes I think I shouldn't be there when I see other show biz people at the shooting of a music program for example. But if I were to put my love of singing and my timidity on a scale, my love of performing would always win. That's why I'm still doing it. But to be honest with you, I often get nervous.
And I don't have a lot of ambition either. With my character, I guess I would be perfect for being a civil servant or something like that.
AR: It's amazing to hear you said that because you know, there are absolutely no shortage of fans out there who love what you do still, you know, you say "Look, I'm not a star, in fact I'm actually quite worried about failure." Is it something in you that sort of looks around and says what if all this is too good to be true?
KH: Well, I have made many small mistakes and not everything I have done has worked out brilliantly. So I don't think of my career as too good to be true. My career has not always been smooth sailing. But I do agree that I have been rather privileged.
AR: You were also chosen by Stevie Wonder to join him on stage and sing one of his most famous songs with him as well. What was it like to stand up there in front of all those people and sing "You are the sunshine of my life" with a celebrity like him?
KH: There is nobody other than him on this earth whom I feel more humble when I stand in front of. He is such a great person and such an inspiration for me. I would be more nervous to meet him than if I was to meet President Bush. Stevie Wonder is that huge to me. I was beyond being nervous and to be honest I really don't remember much about it today. But what I remember was that he was very gentle when I met him.
I was suddenly called backstage while other people were praying in a circle hand in hand before the concert. I was pushed right into the circle right next to Stevie Wonder and I took his hand. He didn't know that it was me next to him. So his manager told him that the person next to him was me. After that he personally asked me to sing "You are the sunshine of my life" together with him.
AR: One of the scariest sounding things that you've done is to sing at the Apollo Theatre in NY's Harlem. That's a right passage for anyone who's anyone in R&B but it's a frightening thing; getting booed off stage there is not unusual. What was your Apollo experience like?
KH: You're right -- it was really frightening. There was a stump of wood at the Apollo, and it's been said that everyone including Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, has touched this wood before performing at amateur night. If you touch it before you sing, you will succeed. I was told this hundreds of times during rehearsals. But I was so panicked, I forgot to touch the stump before I got to the stage. And of course, there were some people who were booing me. I still remember the faces of those people because it was really nasty. But in the end, I managed to finish singing and I received a big round of applause. I sang "Lately" by Stevie Wonder and "Amazing Grace." I was relieved that at least I could finish singing both songs to the end!
AR: One of America's most influential R&B artists, Baby Face said that you could be an international hit if only you'd sing in English.
From MTV Unplugged -- Ken Hirai on stage : "The next song is called 'Missing you' -- the song was produced by Babyface"
AR: So is world domination on your to do list?
KH: I took his words as the greatest compliment, but it sounds a bit like a flattery. I feel like he is overestimating me somewhat. World wide popularity would be a great thing to achieve. But I have a real attachment to the idea of singing Japanese songs in my first language. That doesn't mean I don't want to be internationally recognized or that I am giving up on the idea of being world famous. But I truly enjoy singing Japanese songs in Japanese.
Coming up, his unique looks set housewives hearts aflutter, but what does he think?
KH: Well it was not only when I was a teenager. Even now, I don't really like my face.
From MTV Unplugged: "Hi I'm Ken Hirai, I'm from Tokyo. And maybe I know what you're thinking. Are you really Japanese? But, I'm pure Japanese"
Welcome back. We're with the Japanese R&B star, Ken Hirai.
Ken, your looks have always been a major topic of public fascination, but when you were a teenager, you said that you really wanted to change your face. You weren't happy with it at all because you don't necessarily have the sort of typical Japanese look. What necessarily was it that you wanted to change. What were you after?
KH: Well, it was not only when I was a teenager. Even now I don't really like my face. It's uncomfortable for me when I'm not regarded as Japanese even though I was born in Japan and speak Japanese as my mother tongue. Of course, now people know my face so I don't encounter that perception often anymore. But before quite often Japanese people would speak to me in English, or Japanese kids would surround me, saying "he's a foreigner!". I'm tall as well, so I had a complex about myself. I guess my appearance stands out both in a positive and a negative way. But I still am uncomfortable with my visual features.
AR: Still earlier this year, a poll awarded you an exalted position on the Asia's 100 sexiest men list. Congratulations! How does it feel to you to get that sort of adulation for the way that you look given how insecure you were and how insecure you say you still are?
KH: It doesn't seem to be real to me because my life is so ordinary. I have my private life apart from my career. In my daily life, I'm not really told that I'm sexy by anyone, and I'm not approached by all that many people. I live quite a normal simple life, so this poll sounds like its based on false data.
AR: So, you're different in looks around these parts and you're different in your music certainly, and underscoring those differences, you've recently released a music video to "bye my melody" which involves you singing and 2 people dancing around the background wearing swimsuits and enormous puppet heads. Not exactly a concept you would expect to see for a music video. Tell us about making that clip.
KH: Well, when it comes to making music videos, there are many differences between the US and Japan with regards to budget and culture. It's fun to make videos in the Japanese way and I always enjoy the process very much. That song called "By My Melody" and a previous song called "Pop Star" were both cheery pop songs, That's why I decided to completely get rid of the typical, serious approach to music videos. What I was aiming for was something weird or abnormal, and I thought this would be funny. The credit really has to go to the director. I just acted on his idea. Together we made this concept work. Simply put, I like weird things like this.
AR: When you look into the future of R&B, Ken, how do you see your place in it?
KH: My answer now would be similar to what I have already said about my music. I always enjoy listening to the trends in Japanese or American music, and I am constantly inspired by them. But I would prefer to be a timeless musician who simply loves singing and music. I'm hoping to put more persuasion into my songs, to develop different styles of singing. I also need to build up my musical knowledge, which I really should have done before. I want to write a wider range of music, and build my skills as a performer. I don't really have a specific vision of where I would like to be in the future. All I can do is follow my own artistic senses in the hope that I can develop my musical talent. I only have one simple desire -- to create cool music.
AR: Thanks in Japanese