Anna Tsuchiya’s classic new world

by Robert Michael Poole

“I find beauty in the dark side or in people’s anger!” confesses a boisterous Anna Tsuchiya. Surprisingly, Japan’s choice wild-child actress, model and singer did not talk about herself egotistically, but merely justified her love of Chopin over Mozart: “When I (first) listened to Chopin’s ‘The Revolution,’ I thought classical music is rock music,” she says. “It was beautiful and I wanted to go into rock!”

Tsuchiya, 25, is gearing up for her performance at the New Classic Gig, a unique live event that sees unlikely musicians paired with a full orchestra, all as part of a fashion show directed by creator Hideki Matsui (a Europe-based fashion designer — not the New York Yankees baseball player).

“This event is called ‘classic’ but it is not classical at all. Nobody has ever listened to this kind of music,” says Matsui.

“There is a 70-piece orchestra behind Tsuchiya, and she needs them all. Usually 40 will do, but some of her songs need a harp just for one stroke in one song, but, as she says herself, an orchestra is rock! To satisfy that kind of person, we need all 70!”

Now in its third year and broadcast in 38 countries, including the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, the show has previously featured artists such as Verbal (from m-flo), Shonen no Kaze and Chara. This year, Tsuchiya is joined by R&B singer Thelma Aoyama and rock star Koji Kikkawa.

“It will be totally different to before,” says Matsui. “We’re featuring the fashion aspect that we weren’t able to do before, because this year we got a strong fashion weapon (in Tsuchiya).” The costumes for the show are being made by Balmain, a popular new fashion brand famous for its studded high heels and big-shoulder fashion designs. “We are making the stage costumes with the stylists of the team in Paris, though it is hard for Tsuchiya to go back and forth for fitting, because they drafted the patterns over there.”

If all the lavish extravagance sounds like pandemonium, it is lost on Tsuchiya. “I never get nervous. Absolutely never! Actually, I’ve wanted to use an orchestra in my own live show, but to be frank, it costs a lot so it never happened. We used a few strings, but this is what I really wanted to do, so I feel more like ‘I made it!’ “

Tsuchiya’s reputation goes before her, even in France, according to Matsui. “It was funny talking to the French creators about Tsuchiya. I showed some materials and explained her to them, about her profile as a model, actress and singer. But they simply said there couldn’t be someone like that!”

Tsuchiya was born to a Japanese mother and Polish-Irish-American father from Buffalo, N.Y. Bilingual at an early age, she admits forgetting much of her English after her parents divorced when she was 7. “British English is easy to understand, but I don’t like American English that young Americans speak so fast with ‘it’s like. . . it’s like. . .’!” she says.

Tsuchiya began her modeling career at age 14, but made her name as an actress playing off-beat characters such as the delinquent punk Ichigo Shiraygui in “Kamikaze Girls” (2004) and the rebellious but beautiful courtesan Kiyoha in “Sakuran” (2007). While her roles earned her a reputation as unique and independent, her personal life was soon in the public eye.

At 18, she launched her music career as the lead singer of punkish indie rock duo Spin Aqua. “First of all, I used to listen to Whitney Houston, then Diana Ross, Cindy Lauper, Bette Midler, Mariah Carey, then Bon Jovi and Guns N’ Roses. (But) I was in a choir at school!” she says of her influences.

Spin Aqua disbanded in 2004 after one album due to Tsuchiya falling pregnant by model and actor Joshua Niimura. They married and soon had a son, Sky, in November of the same year. Just two years later, the couple had divorced, only for Niimura to later pass away of heart failure at the age of 25 in May 2008.

Tsuchiya’s unconventional appearance, lifestyle and exuberant character gained her further support from fans, and she bounced back with her 2008 album, “Nudy Show,” a bold and sexually explicit release. She has also become known as a bit of a party girl.

“It is cool being wild and broken-down, but drinking at nighttime is enough for me,” she says. “Also, I believe when you make rock music, it might not be cool if you behave not so cleverly. I really think it is cool to be like Amy (Winehouse), but actually, I’ve been rather earnest. I think I could get there, but the happiest thing for me is my family.

“When I drink a bit, I can get crazy, but not too much. I imagine what it would be like if I go crazy for all of my life.”

July 2009 saw her release “Brave Vibration,” a track that accompanies her advertisements for sunscreen brand Anessa, in which she is seen cavorting with an elephant on the beaches of Thailand. Like many of her singles, the track features some odd English lyrics.

“Shiseido wanted the theme of the commercial to be a strong woman who lives with the sun, and I chose a pop song for it. I thought it might be interesting if another lyricist wrote the lyrics, so I asked a female lyricist to write about it. She is a bit of a curious person though!

“When I received ‘Brave Vibration,’ I couldn’t understand the lyrics. But I understood the strength of the song and I defined the meaning for myself because I needed to be persuaded.”

Tsuchiya is also keen to dispel suggestions that the elephant featured in the commercial was a CG creation. “His name is Big. He could feel me by flapping his ears. It felt good! We couldn’t make eye contact because I was on him, but it was like we communicated through his ears. He was actually checking me to make sure I didn’t fall down. He also took a can of beer with his trunk, took it to his mouth and drank it all, then crushed the can and threw it away! And his eyes turned red and he got a bit drunk!”

On her own records, Tsuchiya is an accomplished lyricist, yet despite her background, and seemingly raucous lifestyle, she remarkably struggles to find inspiration from her own life.

“The (things I have experienced) are already all in the past,” she explains. “We all have feelings though, such as sorrow and determination. We have art surrounding us, all kinds of different people, and I can often find something in common with them. I sometimes think about what I’d be doing or thinking if I were that person. We can’t take our past back, but I imagine if I lived like someone else, what it would be like. Then strong feelings rise up. It is cool to say they are all my experiences though,” she says, before acknowledging, “I’m an eccentric person, is it difficult to understand?”

“I’m strange and I like to seek things that have no answers, I often ask people what color something is. Everybody will say ‘It’s orange,’ then I will say ‘Is it really? To me it’s pink!’ You can recognize the color with your sense where the information has already been inputted, or you can decide the color as you like. I always have strange thoughts like that.”

Tsuchiya’s idiosyncratic personality clearly resonates with organizer Matsui, who can’t wait for the New Classic Gig to begin: “When I imagined Anna singing with the audience and the orchestra, it made me really emotional. It is hard to explain fully the image I have, so I really want everybody to witness the scene. I really think New Classic can actually become a whole new genre of music!”

New Classic Gig takes places at The Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho on Aug. 15 and 16 (03-5221-9000). Anna Tsuchiya’s “Brave Vibration” is out now on Avex Trax.