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Message in a pop song

by Steve McClure

You’ve probably noticed a big mascara-lined eye staring out at you from billboards all over town lately. The eye in question belongs to Lisa, former vocalist with hip-hop/R&B trio m-flo, and the billboard is plugging her new single, “Babylon no Kiseki (Miracle of Babylon),” which was released on May 29.

Lately Lisa’s eye has been on the current grim state of Japanese society, which she uses the metaphor of “Babylon” to describe. The first few lines of “Babylon no Kiseki” set the scene, as she declares: “It’s an emergency for the soul/No answer wherever I call.”

“You look at the world right now and there’s war and recession and risutora [restructuring] and suicide and homeless people,” Lisa explains during a recent interview.

“This is just how I felt when I wrote the song — a lot of frustration. From that frustration, I was able to create this message,” she says. “I didn’t want to make a love song — everybody’s doing that.”

The video for “Babylon no Kiseki” reinforces the song’s wake-up call, with Lisa playing a political candidate shouting the lyrics through a megaphone from the back of a car while being driven around the streets of downtown Makuhari, Chiba. That district’s uniquely soulless ambience gives the video a chillingly apocalyptic atmosphere.

But the song, which unlike m-flo’s music is done in a straight rock style, has a positive message: “If you give up one morning, you can always look for an answer again/Even hearts torn in love can be stepping stones/Forgive everything/You’ll be able to hear the refrains of a miracle.”

In conversation, Lisa emphasizes that upbeat way of looking at things.

“Remember that you are here for a reason,” is how she sums up her world view. “You are alive at this stage for a reason. You yourself are a miracle — don’t wait for no miracle. Even if we are living in a stage of Babylon, or your situation is Babylon, only you can save yourself.”

Lisa says this with such passion and sincerity that even a cynical hack like me starts nodding in agreement.

“Babylon no Kiseki” is Lisa’s second single (the first was “Move On,” which came out Jan. 9) and her first release since leaving m-flo just over a month ago.

“I’ve always wanted to do something like this, with a rock taste,” she says. “I couldn’t really do it while I was in m-flo, of course. But I’ve been listening to rock music and all kinds of music all through my life, so it’s just a part of me.”

Lisa, whose mother is Colombian and whose father is Japanese, attended Seisen International School and the American School in Japan, and so is fluent in English. Which perhaps makes it all the more unusual, given the sheer ubiquity of English phrases in J-pop songs, that the lyrics of “Babylon no Kiseki” are entirely in Japanese (with the sole exception of the word “step”).

“With m-flo, there was a lot of English, mixing in and out,” Lisa notes. “But this time, I thought [about the lyrics] in Japanese from the beginning. I wanted it strictly in Japanese, with no English anywhere, because I wanted everybody to really understand what I’m trying to say. I didn’t want anybody to miss out on it.”

What a novel concept: a J-pop artist who actually has something to say and wants to communicate it clearly.

Lisa emulates her role model, Madonna, in being a take-charge artist, who besides writing her lyrics and music, also handles production duties, overseeing the entire recording procedure in the studio.

“I come up with the basic chords for a song, and then later on when I meet the guys I say, ‘I want the horn section to sound like this, I want more bass . . . on that guitar phrase, could you add some more of that taste,”‘ she explains.

The “guys” in question are none other than Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, who Lisa enlisted as her studio backing band after being encouraged to do so by Avex, the record label to which she and the band are both signed.

“Avex came to me, and said, ‘Would you like to try these guys?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ But I would not do ska. I said I would like to work with these guys, but just straight-up rock music, because the music was already in my head. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

And it sounds like Lisa got her way. Apart from TSPO’s trademark punchy horn sound, the group has transmuted itself into a solid rock ‘n’ roll unit.

“It doesn’t sound like TSPO, and that’s what I wanted to bring out of them,” she says. “I’m doing something different, and they’re doing something different. That’s what makes it special.”

Look for Lisa to release an album next year. I’ve got my eye on her as one of J-pop’s most promising artists.