Chris Hart’s appearance on “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” NHK’s annual New Year’s Eve music extravaganza last December, “became one of the two most memorable stages (of his career) so far,” he said in a recent interview.
He appeared on the immensely popular program a few months after the release of his debut single, another event that helped accelerate his rise in the J-pop scene.
On “Kohaku,” Hart, together with singer Seiko Matsuda, dubbed the “Eternal idol” by the media, performed a new song and his first original major release: “Yume ga Samete,” which roughly means “waking up from a dream.”
“I had known it (Kohaku) since I was 12 and watched it every year,” the American said, adding that being on stage right there and singing with Matsuda “was nothing I had imagined.”
“It felt like there was a reason for years of working in an uncertainty, not knowing where I was going and if I would ever get to live in Japan again,” he said, recalling his journey with Japanese music that started during his teenage years.
Now 29, Hart, who came to Japan in 2009 from San Francisco, where he grew up, recalled another equally important performance with Matsuda at an event held in the fall that year.
“It was in September, exactly 10 years since I started my music projects in Japanese pop and rock,” he said.
Throughout all those years, he pursued his dream of returning to Japan, something he’d held since his visit in the summer of 1988.
That year, the then-13-year-old Hart participated in a cultural exchange program, offered by his school, where he began studying Japanese a year earlier. He lived for two weeks in Niihari, a village in southern Ibaraki Prefecture that later merged with Tsuchiura.
“It was all new — the scenery, the heat, as I wasn’t used to Japanese summers at that time,” he said, stressing that people’s kindness he experienced during that visit still lingers in his memory.
“It was very interesting and so much to know, but you couldn’t do all in two weeks,” he added.
After returning to the United States and feeling “homesick” for Japan, Hart went through a difficult time as he faced a family member’s illness and other hardships that made him give up on his dream.
Hart, who was born into a family of musicians — he had a classical pianist mother and a jazz bassist father — has played oboe, flute, clarinet and saxophone since childhood.
“When I was young I wanted to do music and go to Juilliard (the Juilliard School, a performing arts conservatory in New York City),” he said.
However, his dream could not be realized as at that time, when he was just 16, he was forced to finish his education and ended up working different jobs in a bid to support his family.
He also followed in his father’s and other family members’ footsteps and entered the local police force, working in one of the most dangerous parts of San Francisco.
“There were people with drug problems, there were shootings, people I knew and talked to one day would be gone two or three weeks later,” he said. “I wasn’t able to help people the way I wanted to. I wanted to make a bigger change.”
Throughout all those years, Hart studied Japanese independently using Japanese music to practice.
Since the time Hart, still a teen, encountered J-pop with “Mirai-e” — a song by the Japanese duo Kiroro — he “always wanted to be able to help people and use Japanese.”
In addition to various jobs that provided him with opportunities to use his Japanese language skills, for seven years Hart sang in rock bands, performing his own songs written in Japanese.
“My goal was just to come back and live in Japan,” he said.
The opportunity arose when, at age 24, while working at a vending machine company, he was sent to Japan to work as a technician.
After getting to Japan and working night and day, Hart continued to sing and uploaded videos on YouTube of himself singing.
Soon after the Great East Japan Earthquake hit in March 2011, when his family was urging him to return home, he received an email from Hitomi Fukunaga, a musician he subsequently married, containing an offer to work together.
Their performance on a TV program drew attention from the organizers of “Nodo Jiman Za! World,” NTV’s contest for foreign singers. Hart won prizes in that program in 2012.
Although Hart’s success on that show, together with the popularity of his first album, “Heart Song,” helped him along the path to stardom, “there was always a very sad or hard challenge in the way,” he said.
“As the TV show was doing so well, I got fired from my job,” he said, adding that as he and his wife planned to have wedding ceremonies both in the United States and Japan, he was forced to take random jobs — such as singing at weddings — to earn money.
As “Heart Song” flew into the top three last year, Hart said “it was telling my life.”
“These were songs that I grew up with,” he said adding that he understood their meaning with time, as an adult.
On “Song for You,” his second album and the first one containing original songs instead of covers, which was released in mid-March, Hart says he wanted “to make something that means something to people.”
“People (I’ve met since my debut) would send me letters often accompanied by family pictures or messages of encouragement,” Hart continued. “Since I can’t respond to everyone, I thought I didn’t want to make the next cool or hit song, but songs that would mean something and become a memory for them.”
Together with his team, Hart selected songs that conveyed the meaning of the messages in some of the letters he had received.
He said the many messages from his audience could represent similar experiences and emotions in many of them. “The best way to reply to everybody was to put the reply in the song. It’s a life story.”
With the release of his second album, which according to Hart fits Japanese people’s emotions perfectly, Hart wanted to make sure that the people living in Japan were hearing their stories, not his.
He said that expressing emotions in any language is difficult.
“But I learned that nothing matters more than the message,” he added.
He sings to encourage people to believe in themselves one more time, as “sometimes you’re going to lose confidence, but eventually you’ll find happiness” as the title of his album’s last song says.
Hart relates to emotions hidden in many of the lyrics that he knows from his own experience.
In the last song, “Shiawase wo mitsukerareru yo ni,” which means “hoping to find happiness,” Hart sings about overcoming hardships in life, he said, adding that “to know sadness is part of being happy.”
He said he hopes that in the lyrics, listeners will “find a place where you’ve been, a place where you are and a place where you want to go.”
“And I’m going to keep trying to make people love J-pop, enjoy it again,” he said. “Now that’s my main goal.”