J-pop starlet Yuna Ito gets her groove back

by Robert Michael Poole

“I got my heart broken for the first time,” laments Yuna Ito, “at the unbelievable age of 24!”

Hearing her vibrant new single, “Koi wa Groovy²” (“Love is Groovy²”), it would be hard to guess that such an experience would be the inspiration. “It’s about getting ready to love again,” she remarks warmly.

Ito moved to Japan five years ago from Hawaii, where she was brought up by her Japanese father and Korean-American mother. Now 25, she has always worn her heart on her sleeve. Singles such as 2006′s “Faith” and “Precious” and this year’s duet with Celine Dion, “A World to Believe In,” have tagged her as something of an accomplished balladeer. And since her debut in September 2005 with “Endless Story,” Ito has reeled off 11 consecutive top-20 singles in Japan. Her debut album, “Heart,” topped the charts last year, and this year’s followup, “Wish,” went to No. 3.

Sat on a sofa at Sony Music Japan’s office in Ichigaya, Tokyo, she is the first to admit that September’s single “Miss You” was written and recorded at a time when her personal life was less than rosy.

“It was the first time for me to say ‘No, don’t leave me, where are you going?’ ” she says. “Of course, there was my share of (blame for) it not working out. But once you’ve been there, there’s nothing else to be afraid of in life.”

The new single, however, paints a completely different picture: that of a rejuvenated young woman who is excited and ready to fall in love again.

“It’s saying that you get your heart broken, you cry, you drink too much, you do all kinds of (crazy) stuff and when you get over all of that, it’s about finding your heart again.”

The release also continues Ito’s collaboration with American clothing retail giant Gap, which oversaw the sleek party video that sees her jump out of her real-life billboard advertisement for the company. Renowned for its advertising that has featured more than 300 celebrities, such as Mary J Blige, Madonna and Audrey Hepburn, Gap flew Yuna Ito to New York in February of this year to shoot her for an ad campaign starting this month in Japan.

“I was so excited and couldn’t believe they chose me,” she says. “I’ve been a fan of Gap since high school, where everyone had the Gap-logo sweater. I think I had a white one. I haven’t seen the billboards across Tokyo yet, but I’ve been getting calls from friends saying it’s huge!”

Ito says she takes a hands-on approach to picking which songs to record and release, with a strict selection process that reflects her own intimate emotions.

“If I don’t feel anything, it won’t happen,” she claims.

Upon the release of her first album, “Heart,” which featured a symbol of a heart with a small imperfection, she claimed that love is never perfect.

“Maybe one day, when I get married, that will all change, but for now I’m still that chipped heart — though it’s not exactly a negative thing,” she explains.

“Koi wa Groovy²” picks up on the more dazzling side of Ito that first appeared on her fourth single, 2006′s “Stuck On You.” “It’s a party song, because I didn’t want to be serious and release another message song.”

Usually found in jeans and a casual top, Yuna is used to hearing comments on her own tomboyishness. “God forbid I wear a skirt!” she exclaims. “You can’t even sit in them!” That attitude comes through in her personality and eventually into her songs too.

“When I was recording the lyrics (to “Koi wa Groovy²”), they were actually “Hey boy,” but when I was recording I was thinking, wait, I’m not out to go to clubs to get laid! The point is to go out with your girlfriends and have a great time, and if you find someone, then (you hit) two birds with one stone. So (I changed the lyrics to) “Hey girl.’ ”

Clearly frustrated at the differences between American and Japanese culture when it comes to the female sex finding new love, she elucidates, “We are telling the girls of Japan that Friday night is not the time to sit at home! (And) if you just stand there, do you think he will notice you? You have to do something!”

“When I see a group of girls out in Japan, they usually look so bored, wondering why there are no guys there (with them). You can’t just sit there and expect guys to come to a whole gang of girls. We are not cave people!”

Despite her success, Yuna is also keen to point out that life for her is mostly just like it is for anyone else. She says that working in entertainment “is like a glitter ball, and people want to get in because it is glamorous. And it is glittery, but it’s not real. My friends keep reminding me of it, and if I were to say anything even slightly big-headed, they’d kick me in the butt.”

The really groovy moments for her, though, are on stage, when she feels that she can truly live the dream. “When you are on stage, you can be a princess, have all the power in the world, be anything you want to be during that song.

“It’s overwhelming, wonderful and nerve-racking. All my life, I wanted to be on stage and have everyone in the audience be a fan of mine. Every night (on tour), during the last song (“Precious”), I burst into tears and got really emotional. What you have to remember is that off stage you are a just (another) little girl.”

“Koi wa Groovy²” is out Nov. 26.