For a musician and entrepreneur with many professional faces, Australian Donna Burke is surprisingly wary of constantly taking work-related calls.
“I’m always disconnecting myself. I’ll go for days without looking at my mobile phone,” said the singer, narrator, songwriter, lyricist and talent agency head.
Oh, and she also runs a company that exports disposable chemical hand-warmers.
A resident in Tokyo for 14 years, Burke, 45, sings live and for soundtracks, her repertoire ranging from jazz to pop to Celtic.
You may have heard her voice giving the onboard announcements on the Tokaido Shinkansen. And starting in April she will be the voice for the mother of Little Charo, the dog in the popular NHK English conversation program. She also sings and writes lyrics for commercials.
Burke founded the Dagmusic talent agency for foreigners in 1999 with her British musician husband, whom she met in Japan. The agency now has 350 artists on its books and 1,000 people on its casting list. In recent years the company has expanded into sound production, creating music for Japanese game software aimed at an international audience.
Despite all the sounds she makes, Burke, a sunny blonde with a confessed love for the sound of her own voice, prefers to work in silence. She used to work in the office upstairs with her employees at her home in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, but now she works alone downstairs in an open-plan living room and study, where she also practices her singing to an audience of three cats.
“I like complete silence, I crave it. (If you’re constantly answering calls), it’s reacting rather than creating.”
Hailing from Perth in western Australia, Burke arrived in Japan in 1996 having heard there was singing work for foreigners. With a background in operatic voice, speech and drama, she had been performing part time at churches and parties in her hometown, but beyond that opportunities were sparse.
It was not all smooth sailing once she came to Tokyo. Burke landed a job as an English teacher, using her spare time to break into the music scene, but the school let her go when it ran into financial problems and she was left with little income.
Still, Burke persevered, following her instinct to stay in Japan.
“Even though I was so poor and moved seven times in one year, my intuition was saying ‘If you stay in Japan you’ll do really well here.’ “
Looking back, Burke says the keys to success were making contacts and asking people for help, as well as having confidence in her abilities and the flexibility to work as a singer and narrator.
“You need the ability to do different accents, and read without seeing things beforehand. I’m a good actress. If they ask, ‘Can you do a high-pitched voice, or sound younger or older?’ I say, ‘No problem.’ “
It is also important to be good live and in the studio, she said.
This is even more relevant now than when she arrived in Japan, when there was still great demand for foreign performers, according to Burke. In recent years, the increasing number of bilingual, less-expensive Japanese singers means there is less work for English natives.
In this ever-changing market, Burke is “always looking for the next new talent in Tokyo,” and recently specifically for a female Arabic singer who can also write lyrics. Her agency receives many applications, although a real gem emerges only rarely, as professional standards are high, she said.
“I think some people — and this is not a criticism — were a bit paralyzed in their own (home)towns because everyone was watching. But in Japan you’re anonymous so it doesn’t matter if you don’t succeed. No one has to know back home.”
Burke says the market for foreign talent in Tokyo is huge, if you can crack it.
“There must be a hundred male narrators working in Tokyo full time, and they’re earning ¥5 (million) to ¥10 million a year. If you can narrate and sing, you’re really lucky.”
To get work as a foreign performer and composer in Japan, it is important to listen to the client, Burke said.
“Japanese like (to work in) harmony. I’m very good at not holding onto my view. Even if I think the song won’t be as good, if that’s what the client wants, then I don’t get worried.”
Working together with a production team is much more efficient than throwing a tantrum over a lyric you can’t bear to change, she said, recalling a recent successful meeting.
“It was such a great creative meeting of minds, and in the end the song was much better for it, much better than what I would have done on my own.”
Another useful strategy that also shows in Burke’s work is listening to one’s intuition.
“I think I’m very good at relying on my subconscious. In a tense professional situation, the last thing I’d be doing is worrying that I can’t think of something, or I’ll hit a bum note. And I think my success as a businessperson is also that I’ve gone on gut feeling.”
Following her gut was what gave Burke the idea of exporting chemical hand warmers, which she dubbed Hotteeze.
“I kept taking (the product) back to Australia and realizing that every family member wants it; boys, girls, old people, young people. I couldn’t believe that some company hadn’t done it.”
Some exporters turned down her proposal, saying they had already tried that idea and failed, but Burke eventually launched the project five years ago in Australia.
Now also selling in the U.K. and U.S. with plans to expand into India, the company has seen sales rise by 25 percent a year, with 300,000 pads sold last year.
In whatever she does, Burke is determined to hold up under pressure. This applies to her efforts to study Japanese, which she admits have not been fruitful.
“I studied for eight years and then realized I’m rubbish at this, and there are other things I’m really good at. I can’t even say it’s a disappointment, it’s just a fact of life. Unless you need Japanese for work or love, there’s no motivation.”
Stress provides no inspiration for Burke, who avoids watching negative news on TV and often escapes to her forest cabin in Gunma Prefecture. She makes sure her employees can work in a similarly relaxed environment and says she can’t understand the work-centered mind-set of the Japanese.
“That work is everything — it’s sad. In Australia, leaving work at 5 (p.m.) means you have a life.”
Her employees — including Japanese and foreigners — work from 10 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m, Burke said.
“Japanese are more frightened of being seen as not necessary, so they don’t take their holidays. I find that the people who take their holidays are the most efficient.”
But Burke admits she finds it easier than others to balance work and play, since she loves her work, which she says is first and foremost singing.
“My work is my hobby; singing is fun. I’d do it even if I wasn’t getting paid, though don’t tell my clients that.”