UA is not your average pop star. She arrives at an interview in the western Tokyo suburb that is her home on her bike. In a cut-off T-shirt and long, billowing peasant skirt, she looks like a hipster mama, and after the interview in this ordinary cafe, she’s off to pick up her son from elementary school.
Even her promotional photos stray far from the sexy template of most divas. She often glares at the camera, looking feral rather than fashionable. Her sartorial choices are eccentric, more shamanic than glamorous. Like Bjork, the artist she most resembles aesthetically, if not musically, UA challenges our conception of beauty.
Yet she is undoubtedly beautiful. It is a beauty best appreciated in action. When she speaks, her whole body heaves forward, much as when she sings, to help her make her point. Her hands constantly dance in front of her, as if some bit of Italian DNA had snuck into her genome.
Movement and change have also been the hallmark of UA’s music since her debut album, “11,” in 1997. Propelled by her soulful, throaty voice and the stratospheric success of singles such as “Rhythm,” UA seemed destined for superstardom.
But unlike Misia or Bird, part of the same wave of R&B-influenced singers, UA soon followed her own muse. “Turbo” saw her experimenting with techno and dub, her side-project band Ajico took her in a rock direction. More recently, improvisation and ethnic music underlined the strange and beautiful “Dorobou,” an album that featured the cream of Japan’s improvisational and avant-garde rock musicians.
With “Sun,” her most recent record, UA has returned a little to her soulful roots. But it is soul music as channeled by jazz artists like Alice Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders, and augmented by the strange otherworldly tinkle of the gamelan. Deep and dark, like the water she claims as her talisman, UA is never stagnant and is always moving.
You’ve described the music on this album as being made “in the sun” as opposed to your previous records, which you’ve said were recorded “in the shadows.” It almost seems like a Buddhist or religious progression.
Up to the last album, I had in a way spent all the time inside myself. There is a song on the last album called “Fukan,” which means to stand outside of yourself, or to be objective, but as I was making it, I felt that I was in a hole looking up rather than looking down at myself.
But at the end of the tour, I was left with a sense of gratitude and I felt very strongly that I would have to put that gratitude and that joy into the next songs, that I would have to climb out of that hole.
You mentioned Buddhism . . . I don’t actually make references to it, but it is certainly there, as well as the myths that I’ve been moved by from Native Americans, Indians, etc. . . .
How did Balinese music come to play such a big part on this record?
One major theme of this album is myth. I had been meditating on how to bring this out in my singing, how my singing could become “mythic.” My desire was to transcend what I’d been doing up until then — just singing about personal stuff — and to sing and create a kind of tale or myth that goes beyond the individual.
I found that sort of vibe in Bali. I started out looking for it in Morocco, but there were constraints like time that made it difficult to grasp. But eventually I found that sort of vibe in Bali.
Recently you performed with a shaman from your mother’s home on Amami Island in Okinawa. Have you been influenced by your Okinawan roots?
It’s something more felt than thought, but as time goes on I am that, or am becoming that more and more. That’s the kind of place that I feel most comfortable in — despite the fact that I was raised in Osaka. My dad was from Nara, too, so I guess I’ve always been drawn to the mystical.
Where did the name “Sun” come from?
At first I was worried about naming the album “Sun.” It’s so enormous. It is almost like naming your album “God” or something. But my name is also a reference to water. It means that in Hawaiian, and I feel sometimes that water continually marks my life. And water needs the sun. Water needs to evaporate in order to change, not become stagnant. But importantly, the sun is not always friendly; the sun can also be painful. It makes you recall how small you are.
When filming began on my film “Mizu no Onna,” it was an emotionally trying experience for me. I am a person who sings. I express myself through song, so in a movie, only speaking, I was denied my main means of expression. It lasted three days. There was a healing woman who placed a pink crystal on my heart and some oil from Egypt on my forehead and I was flooded by emotion. I was saved by the sun: the oil from Egypt and the flowing of tears until they ran dry. I was compelled to see my polar opposite. I had to see the desert myself.
The fourth song on “Sun” was born from a trip to Morocco. The song tells a story of the desert and how there is nothing there. It actually happened. I stood in the desert and there was nothing except the tumbleweed, and the wind blew it around in a complete circle as if it were a resurrection.
Are there any myths in particular that you identify with?
Rather than seeing myself in any particular myth, I find a solace, an ease of being with the myths I have been exposed to. I feel as a Japanese person that I’ve always had my mythology within myself. Instead of “I am a Roman Catholic or Protestant,” as a Japanese person I feel that mythology is always in your background. But in modern times it’s rapidly failing and almost lost, particularly when you look at the music that is around now. It is completely absent. I feel closest to Asian mythology, but I am also fascinated by the work of Joseph Campbell and how he could take myths from many different cultures and show that they are in fact the same.
Your last few albums and last few tours have been marked by incredibly interesting musical arrangements and interesting, and often unlikely, combinations of people.
Lately, I’ve felt like this is my great talent — finding people and bringing them together. About the time of “Ametora,” I was looking far afield for people to work with in New York, London. I had some great experiences, like playing a real jazz club in Brooklyn doing live takes with an orchestra. I remember thinking, “I can’t pass out here or I’ll hit the microphone and it’ll be on the tape.” But recently, as I’ve become older I’ve realized that there are also great people right here.
Your career has been marked by amazing changes: from soul and R&B to techno, rock and world music, and you also used improvisation and traditional music.
That’s me. I am multifaceted. I am a variety of things. At the same time, I feel that through all this variety at the core, the backbone hasn’t really changed at all. I’ve always felt a hesitation at being called a musician. I’ll accept the label “singer,” but I don’t think that I’m there to create music — for one, I’ve never had any formal training.
I need to be constantly changing, flowing, or I fear that I’ll turn into a swamp, become stagnant water. By going through these changes, I feel like I’m an empty vessel and I’m inspired, I’m filled by what happens in my encounters with people.
What is the core then?
If I were to pinpoint the center of my music, it would, of course, be my voice. Over the past years, I’ve really come to realize what a handicap being a singer carries with it. For one thing, singing always carries meaning. Placed among other instruments, it has such a gravitational pull on the listener, it immediately becomes the focus.
Also, it’s difficult having to sing in a language, to worry about pronunciation, selecting words. Unlike English, where you can make the language into less concrete signifiers, that is something you can’t do in Japanese. In Japanese songs, words are generally unequivocal. With this album, I’ve tried to overcome this handicap by making it less personalized.
I just feel it tedious and boring to have things turn out the way they are expected to. I’ve taken it one step further than the last time. For example, in “Dorobo no Toki” I was trying to capture the moment that the song was born. Instead of perfecting and developing it, I left it underdeveloped and flawed, but ultimately fresh.
Recently, improvisation seems to have become a bigger part of your music, both in your own recording and performing, and also in your collaboration with noted improvisers like Yuji Katsui (Rovo) and Kazuhisa Uchihashi (Altered States).
It has been the next logical step. Like I mentioned earlier, I am bored with mapping things out. In an improvisational situation, skill or even feeling aren’t in question, just the desire to make something happen. That is what makes it special for me, and also the people watching. In that regard Katsui and Uchihashi are important for opening my eyes. But playing live is really different from recording a CD. The song is important, the lyrics are important, so I am trying to create a subtle balance. On “Sun” there is a great deal of interspersed improvisation. The last track is fully improvised, and other tracks have added bits that are improvised. But there are other things that are intricately programmed.
I imagine that after the huge success of “11” there were many people who would have been just as happy to have you continue to make the same kind of music, to record “12,” “13,” etc. How do you balance music-making as an art and music-making as a business?
I don’t really think about it because I can’t really begin to grasp the mind-set of a whole mass of people, though I do feel that I would like to be able to sing simpler songs again, and I think I’ll arrive at that point once more. Right now, I’m in the middle of that journey.
I’ve been able to sing one of my old hits “Jonetsu (Passion)” again, but for a while I couldn’t do it. I still can’t sing a lot of my old favorites, but I think I will eventually. I can’t perform a lie. It is too stressful. Sure, the sales have dropped, but in the long term, I have to be straight with myself.
“Sun” isn’t your only new album. You’ve also released the soundtrack to your children’s program on NHK, “Do Re Mi.” Is there a difference making music for children vs. adults?
My approach isn’t so different, but it is a little scary because children are so perceptive. Because they are children’s songs, I’ve been able to hone my idea of what it means to sing, especially when it comes to going beyond the self. Especially with songs like “Umi wa Hiroi na (How Wide is the Ocean),” because they don’t deal with the little self.
In the same way that your music goes off into unexpected directions, your visual imagery — cover art, videos, etc. — always pushes at the boundaries, almost daring us to reconceive our ideas of beauty.
Getting involved in the visual stuff is exciting. For the previous record, I was trying to push things really far, but the visual image is always the result of a long discussion with the design team and the connecting points we find as a result.
I’m probably trying to present a different perspective, to pose a question, maybe about the state of Japan or Tokyo. But it would be good, sometime in the future, to stand alone, unfettered, to arrive at a simple portrait and just be myself.