“Almost every year, I’m working at Christmastime,” mourns Kaori Asada. “If I’m not working, I’ll have a big Christmas party with friends and family. But in the last 10 years, I haven’t had that kind of Christmas party, ha ha. Still, I like Christmas.”
What Asada, better known as Kyoto-born J-pop singer Bonnie Pink, likes even more is Christmas songs. Since her first single, the Christmas-themed “Orange,” was released in 1995, Asada has harbored desires to make an album of tinsel-tinged tunes.
Her wish is fulfilled this week with the release of “Chain,” a minialbum stuffed with a song of the same name and four cover songs. (When asked when her Hanukkah album is due, she replies, “I don’t know! Is it different?”)
“When I wrote ‘Chain,’ it was not Christmastime; it was May or June,” admits the 35-year-old singer. “I visualized the image of Christmas and I wrote down some words — like candle, snow, white, gingerbread — and the story came out naturally. I thought maybe you need a happy-sad Christmas song, so I tried to write a story where this girl is spending Christmas all alone but hoping that somebody will come join her at Christmas.”
The result is a tearjerker in the tradition of yuletide movie staple “It’s a Wonderful Life” or the Ernest Tubb classic “Blue Christmas.” A piano-led ballad swells and spills among sweeping strings, while Asada emotes her little heart out to uplifting effect.
The covers are more straightforward: “Wonderful Christmastime,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Let it Snow” and “The Christmas Song” are given reverent but playful treatment.
In other words, no real surprises, and certainly nothing to rival the versions by such crooners as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Paul McCartney (actually, scratch that — Asada’s voice is much better than Macca’s), but the songs are as fruity as Christmas pudding and will surely brighten up a few households on Dec. 25 this year.
“I gathered (several) Christmas compilations and listened to them carefully, and picked some songs that fit my vibe,” says Asada, explaining her choice of covers. “I chose standards that have been sung by a lot of singers; to sing those standards is kind of a dream. I kept it simple. I wanted to sing like I’m singing at home, like every Christmastime, so that people can relate to it. It’s very homely and cozy.”
With her embracing of Western traditions and her near-perfect English, in which she not only speaks but also sometimes writes songs, it should come as no surprise that Asada has started finding exposure outside of Japan. Known for having worked several times with superproducer Tore Johansson (The Cardigans) and other Swedish producers, Asada this year achieved her first album release in Sweden, “Thinking Out Loud” (released in Japan last year).
She also recorded the theme tune to Xbox 360 game “Tales of Vesperia,” with a version of her song “Kane wo Narashite (Ring a Bell)” in Japanese here and in English abroad. The game has sold several hundred thousand units since its release in August, a prime showcase for any artist. Asada says that writing the song itself, however, was no easy job.
“That was very hard,” she laughs. “I do write songs in English too, but I don’t (usually) make two different versions. When you try to translate or change the words, it always feels uncomfortable, because it’s kinda set once and you have to break it again. But I learned a lot.”
Asada says that the global reach that video games offer only sunk in after “Tales of Vesperia” was released and fans started to leave feedback on video-sharing Web site YouTube.
“People write comments on (the page of the video for) my song, and I noticed they’re not only in English — they comment on that song in different countries and in different languages. So then I realized, ‘OK, this English version is released all over the world.’ “
Does she ever reply to YouTube users’ comments?
“No! Never. Should I? I’ve never tried that kind of thing. But I like reading them. Sometimes, when they write bad stuff, I feel horrible, so I try not to look at it too much.”
Asada’s biggest hit to date was June 2006’s “A Perfect Sky,” which hit the No. 2 spot and guided “Thinking Out Loud” to No. 5 a year later. The overt pop nature of the song proved infectious enough for it to be covered (in English) for a single released by new U.K. singer Charlie — not exactly a megastar, but still, it’s a rare achievement for a J-pop artist to be covered abroad.
“That was cool,” enthuses Asada. “They sent me the English lyrics; if I was asked to write an English version, I would say no, because the original was a big hit for me, so it’s hard to change the words. But I think whoever wrote the lyrics, he or she did a good job.”
Asada says it feels good to have her songs going out into the world in this way, and she hopes to find new opportunities abroad through working with foreign artists. Next year, a track she recorded with Swedish band Teddybears will be released internationally, though details are being closely guarded by Asada’s management. And she recently collaborated with British R&B star Craig David, singing on a version of “All the Way” for his “Greatest Hits” collection (also out this week) and cowriting a song for her next full album, due next spring. She says the album will be “very international” and “versatile,” recorded as it is in London, Stockholm and Los Angeles — but again, details are under wraps.
For the time being, Asada is basking in her winter wonderland. When asked what she’d like to find under the tree this December, she replies, “Oh! I haven’t thought about it. Nobody’s asked me!” But she hopes that when people listen to “Chain,” “they’re gonna start thinking about the important people for them and send love to one another, linking like a chain.”
You could say it’s a mushy sentiment, but hey — it’s Christmas.
“Chain” is out now.