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Lowdown on rising stars

by Steve McClure

They sing low and they’re aiming high.

Unlike the chipmunk-on-helium vocal style favored by most Japanese female pop singers, newcomers Asuca Hayashi and Ai have remarkably mature, almost husky voices. And in contrast to the squeaky-clean idol crew, they’re cultivating sophisticated public images that appeal to a wide spectrum of pop music fans.

I heard Hayashi sing at a showcase gig a few weeks ago and was blown away by her amazing voice and her confident, charismatic onstage persona. The girl performs like a real pro — and she’s all of 13 years old!

Born and raised in Osaka, Hayashi became interested in music at an early age. She got into showbiz after her piano teacher sent a tape of her singing to a music producer, which led to Hayashi signing a recording contract with Toshiba-EMI.

Hayashi’s music is very much in the R&B/pop-fusion vein of artists such as Utada Hikaru, with a dash of rock to give it some guts. Hayashi’s first single, “Ake-kaze (Morning Wind),” is a vocal tour-de-force, with the diminutive (154 cm) Hayashi hitting some very low notes before zooming up a couple of octaves for some piercing high notes.

I’m surprised that “Ake-kaze” only made it as far as No. 14 on the Oricon singles chart, but I think Hayashi has what it takes to become one of J-pop’s biggest artists in the years to come, whether here or overseas.

I’m not the only person thinks so. Norman Cheng, who heads up EMI’s operations in Southeast Asia, was so impressed when he heard Hayashi at a promotional event last year that he got EMI Taiwan to release “Ake-kaze” on the same day (Jan. 22) as in Japan — unprecedented for a debut single by a Japanese artist.

In contrast to Hayashi’s more pop-oriented material, Ai’s music is much more in a straight R&B vein. In fact, she sounds way more “black” than most Japanese R&B divas.

Her background has a lot to do with that. Ai was born in Los Angeles in 1981, and both her Japanese father and her half-Japanese, half-American mother exposed her to soul, R&B and rap from the word “go.”

“When I was 3, we moved to my dad’s hometown of Kagoshima. And we always had music in the house,” Ai told me in a recent interview. “We always used to listen to Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston — I love Whitney Houston! — Tina Turner . . . “

After graduating from junior high in Kagoshima, Ai returned to Los Angeles to attend L.A. County High School for the Arts, where she wanted to study voice, but wound up studying dance because the voice class was full. She had taken tap-dancing lessons from her mother since she was 2, but says she’s always thought of herself as a singer first and foremost.

Ai found life in the United States hard going at first. “Since I’d been in Japan from the age of 3, I’d forgotten some of my English,” she recalls. “I couldn’t read or write English, but I could understand when people spoke.”

After graduation, Ai returned to Japan with one goal in mind: to make it as a professional singer.

“I always wanted to sing to people,” she explains, “because there are lots of people who think negatively, who don’t have confidence.

“Everybody around me used to say that I couldn’t make it as a singer or a dancer. But I wanted to sing really bad since, like, I was 12, so I kept on going — I didn’t care what people said.”

That can-do attitude paid off, as Ai soon found herself with a record deal after she returned to Japan.

Her positive take on life comes through strongly on “Saishu Senkoku (Last Words),” Ai’s first single for the Def Jam Japan label. The song — a slow number with a smokin’, sinuous groove and lyrics penned by Ai — urges girls to stand up for themselves and leave a relationship that doesn’t work anymore instead of hanging around passively:

“Because these are my last words ‘Get the hell out of my life!’ “

Ai sings the track in an assured, mature way that immediately sets her apart from mainstream J-pop female vocalists. In other words, she’s got soul.

One thing Ai had to get used to once she was back in Japan was that Japanese audiences tend to be somewhat less vociferous, to put it mildly, than those in the U.S.

“When I was performing in L.A., if you were good, people would be really honest and tell you they love you . . . but if you were bad, well . . . ” A scowl momentarily crosses Ai’s face, making it very clear just how tough and unforgiving American audiences can be.

“When I came back to Japan, I expected the same kind of audiences,” Ai says, “but everybody was just staring at me, and I wondered, ‘Did I sing all right?’ I mean, I sang very well, but the audiences were so quiet. Nobody danced, nobody moved — they were just watching me.”

Lately, though, Ai says she’s noticed that people are loosening up a little at her gigs. “Now they know how to move!”

Ai isn’t shy about revealing her ultimate career goal: “I really, really want to get a Grammy! I know I have to try really hard, but that’s my dream.”

And why not? With her drive and determination, Ai is the kind of artist who could just do it. You go, girl!