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Ann Lewis in driver’s seat with new single

by Steve McClure

What happens to idols after their popularity has waned?

Some manage to stay in the game by doing stuff like cheesy Christmas dinner shows (have you booked yours yet?). Some use their erstwhile fame as a springboard into politics. But most just sink into middle-class obscurity.

If you’re Ann Lewis, you move to Los Angeles, live in a nice house with four cats and compile household tips that you publish as a book.

Lewis, who was a major pop star in Japan in the ’70s, recently visited Tokyo to promote her new single, “Drive” (her first release in three years), and her new book, “Ann Lewis American Tips.”

Besides the single and the book, Lewis extolled the virtues of Booboo, a pooper-scooper of her own design for cleaning up after cats and dogs.

Holding up a sample of the article before a somewhat amused gathering of journalists, Lewis explained how the idea for Booboo came to her.

“The scoops they have in Japan are small and plastic with short handles, and when I first saw one like this [with a long handle], I thought it was a great idea and bought one,” she said. “But it kept on coming apart, so I decided I wanted to make one for myself.”

I can’t imagine many other J-pop artists promoting what one could uncharitably call a s**t shovel. In the same disarmingly frank manner, Lewis described how she has suffered from severe anxiety attacks for the past five years.

“The panic attacks come and go, and I don’t have them as long as I’m at home. But if I come to a place like this where I get really tense, I might get an attack, so I really don’t want to put myself in tense situations,” she said. “As long as I’m at home in L.A., I’m fine, and things like shopping at the supermarket don’t bother me. So in trying to get away from tense situations like this, I simply ended up doing less and less work.”

Lewis — born in Kobe in 1956 to an American father and a Japanese mother — also shed light on why she decided to start making music again.

“Until now I felt a lot of pressure — like what I sang had to be singable in karaoke. But this time I’ve managed to free myself of all those restraints and politics and do this single the way I want to.”

For her comeback single, Lewis chose the mid-tempo “Drive” by California-based rock band Incubus. Lewis sings it in Japanese in a sultry, haunting style that betrays no signs of the anxiety attacks that have kept her out of the public eye for the past few years. Her first album in four years, “Girls Night Out,” is due out Jan. 22.

“Ann Lewis American Tips” is an entertaining, colorfully illustrated collection of household advice written in English and Japanese.

“I thought that American tips might be interesting for Japanese people,” said Lewis. “It’s got some weird, very American tips, like how you should hang an umbrella upside-down from a chandelier when you clean it so that the dust falls in.”

Her next project is to put together and produce a female vocal group a la Max or Speed.

“I’ve always been full of ideas; they keep on bursting out of me, and there are so many things I want to do,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to produce someone, even when my career was going strong. I’d tell everyone that I was going to do it, but no one would approach me on the subject. They probably thought that I wouldn’t really do it, and I was busy anyway. Now, I have a lot of time, and I’ll be able to live with these girls and look after them personally in L.A.”

I have no doubt they’ll be in good hands. Maybe Lewis’ next book will be a collection of tips for idol wannabes . . . .

“Ann Lewis American Tips” (The Japan Times; 2002) is available at major bookstores.

Like Lewis, jazz pianist Saya Saito calls California home — San Francisco, to be exact. Saya (she prefers to be called by her given name), who has lived and worked in the United States for the past 10 years, was the first woman (and the first Japanese) to be a member of the Neville Brothers Band.

The Tokyo native decided to become a full-time musician while she was a member of the Waseda University Swing and Jazz Club. Her passion for jazz brought her to New Orleans in 1992, where she received a music scholarship from Loyola University

Saya was living and working in New Orleans after getting a master’s degree in music from Loyola. “I was playing at cafes and clubs,” she explained. “Charles Neville was looking for a pianist for his Latin jazz band — his side project.”

That led to Saya also becoming a member of Aaron Neville’s band, and finally a stint as pianist with the Neville sibling ensemble.

“It was hard to believe in the beginning,” Saya said. “I was honored that they asked me [to play in the Neville Brothers Band].”

Although she’s understandably proud of her accomplishment, Saya says that after 2 1/2 years of playing piano with the legendary band, she decided to strike out on her own.

“I started to feel that I really wanted to be in charge of my life,” she explained. Since leaving the Neville Brothers, Saya has concentrated on her career as a solo artist.

She released her debut album, “Dance Your Heart,” in 2000, and this year’s “Unity” album was awarded Swing Journal magazine’s Gold Disc Award. It’s not a jazz recording in the strict sense, but “Unity” reflects her nondogmatic, eclectic approach to music, with Saya’s fluid, lyrical piano playing blending a diverse set of styles.