“I search for answers a lot in life when I feel like I don’t know which way to go or what’s right or wrong,” says singer-songwriter Angela Aki. “So I turn to the piano and search for the answers through songs, and I figured in the end that the searching process has all the answers you are truly looking for.”
Born in Itano, a town of 14,600 in rural Tokushima Prefecture, Shikoku Island, to a Japanese father (Kiyoshi Aki, cofounder of the AEON English-school chain) and an Italian-American mother, 31-year-old Aki’s turbulent life story — which took her to the United States and back again — has handed her more questions than most. The raw candidness of her music over three albums exemplifies her keen desire for reflection, and her loquacious tongue discloses just how much Aki wears her heart on her sleeve — no more so than on her new album, appropriately titled “Answer.”
Likened to the music of American artists Tori Amos and Fiona Apple, Aki’s plaintive odes to love lost and found saw her 2006 Japanese debut album, “Home,” sell over half a million copies, peaking at No. 2 on the Oricon chart. Its 2007 followup, “Today,” went to No. 1, but it was her eighth single at the end of 2008, titled “Tegami” (“Letter”), that seemed to resonate the most with audience and artist alike.
“I wrote ‘Tegami’ for (a group that was entering a) a choir competition; the first time I (wrote a song) for someone else,” she says. “I thought, as a singer-songwriter, why would you give other people your experiences? But I detached myself and presented it as a story and people found it easier to connect with the song, more than if I had just hoarded it and wrote the song for myself. So I learned it’s OK to detach myself and not just say, ‘This is my life and no one is allowed in. I only let you hear my songs.’ “
A vivacious pianist, Aki reveals that her love for the instrument grew out of a difficult upbringing in the most conservative pocket of Japan.
“It was the one thing that kept me sane in Shikoku. My mom was the only foreigner, so it was like (I was) Michael Jackson coming to school!” she smiles contritely.
“I wish I didn’t have to go through that; it was a very hard time in my life. It’s a difficult thing to comes to terms with, to be OK with who you are. You can’t stop people from staring, and so the piano was the only one I could turn to without words.”
Within the confines of a quiet conference room that protects us from the bustling halls of a downtown Tokyo office, Aki reflects on her rural life in Shikoku with a renewed perspective.
“More than the history and more than the nature, I love the people,” she declares. “And it’s an oxymoron, because when I was growing up it was my biggest complex.
“The people are very simple: They have the mentality that your kids are not just your own kids, so each woman raises the neighborhood. You never lock the doors, so people wander in, and that’s what I grew up with: many mothers.”
While her actual mother struggled to get to grips with the Japanese language in the family of four, Aki’s duty as big sister enhanced her desire to come to terms with her identity.
“My sister is one year younger than me, so we grew up like twins,” recalls Aki. “But she was less outspoken, and shy, so it was hard trying to protect her at school. I remember one time she came home crying and I called up the family of some kid who had called her a name. We checked the phone book, and 10-year-old me is calling up the parents of the son and saying, ‘I hope this doesn’t happen anymore!’ ”
As her love for music grew, Aki found herself exposed to two distinct early influences. While her father preferred Japanese enka ballads, her mother introduced her to The Carpenters, The Bee Gees and Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Janis Ian.
“My mom was so moved by music,” says Aki. “It was the ’70s, and you have to imagine that she followed her man to a new place that nobody (like her) had ever been before. You go the supermarket and there are 30 people following you, looking at what you are buying, every day of your life. Random people would come up and touch her hair!
“I went through a period hating it, thinking, ‘Why us? why this situation?’ But once I grew older, I realized the reason was because of my mom, and I had a negative period when I probably put her through hell. I wouldn’t take back my past, but I would take back that. I wish I could have protected her more. I am very close with my mom now.”
At 15, Aki and her family moved to Hawaii, where she studied at the Iolani school in Honolulu.
“The original plan was to go back (to the U.S.) for university, but my mom was afraid we didn’t speak a lick of English and couldn’t get in! She once said, and it stuck with me, that (taking care of us two sisters) was like holding on to two helium balloons, holding on to the string, and each year they were flying higher and higher, and she didn’t know how long she could hold on.
“It must have been horribly sad and lonely. If we had stayed any longer, things probably would have got really bad — maybe to the point that we couldn’t turn back.”
Her life in the U.S. didn’t start any easier though. From the moment she arrived, Aki had to get used to being the outsider once again.
“I got thrown into high school, and they put me in a fourth-grade class. I had no idea what they were talking about; I was 15 and studying with 9-year-olds! That was the most embarrassing time of my entire life, and it’s what pushed me to speak English.”
Aki later moved to Washington, D.C. to study political science (“I thought I could bridge the two cultures of Japan and the U.S. by being a diplomat!”), but after marrying in her early 20s and then divorcing, she soon looked back to Japan for answers.
“I wanted a second start,” she says. “My music was going to sh-t and my dream was not my dream anymore. I had a depressing couple of years working in a Chinese restaurant and then I met someone who worked in Japan making commercials. So I entered a competition and my song ended up getting used (in a Yakult ad)! It was (to be sung by American jazz vocalist) Jimmy Scott and I went to New York. I was really excited.”
Six years later and Aki’s struggles are now working to her advantage. Her ability to effectively combine not just the Japanese and English language, but also the difference in sentiment, is something few of her mixed-Japanese contemporaries have mastered. By separating the two languages into distinct modes of approach, she has developed a technique that enables her to marry the two.
“In English, it’s about how you cleverly capture the emotional part that you feel in your heart, then process it to the brain and the brain writes the song,” she explains. “But in Japanese it’s the opposite: Whatever you feel emotionally, you let the heart hold the pencil and the heart does the writing.
“It’s not that you don’t think things through in Japanese, but I find it more emotional. You can use fewer words. You can have five notes in Japanese and just say ‘us’ (‘watashi-tachi’)! The value of each word is so much more and that’s why I don’t mix languages line by line; I have to totally separate the modes. Once you can turn off the English songwriting part of you, you will be awakened by beautiful words that surround your daily life in Japanese, then you can go back and forth between the two.”
“Answer” is, for the first time, entirely produced by Aki, a responsibility she has taken on with delight.
“It’s not one color: It’s different in elements; there’s a lot of variation,” she says. “So, in order to give it good spice, I had to see each vision through.
“Every song is personal to me. I don’t know why, but I feel like it’s my debut even though it’s my third, and that’s a new feeling for me. The words come, and it’s a key to open the door to my heart. I surprise myself at 31 that I don’t know myself that well.”
“Answer” is out now. Angela Aki’s five-month Japan tour begins April 4; see www.angela-aki.com for details.