Elegance is not just having your clothes and personal grooming just so,” says Maki Nomiya. “It’s also doing even mundane things, like eating, with grace.”
I’m here at the fashionable offices of Nomiya’s agent in Harajuku to talk to the singer ahead of her “Beautiful People” series of recitals. The room we’re in is softly lit. On the table is an unopened box of cakes from a French patisserie and Nomiya speaks carefully enunciating phrases delicately as if the words themselves were also delicious treats. Her comments are illustrated with elegant hand movements and punctuated by the gentle “ting” made by her gold bangles.
Nomiya is one of the few Japanese artists to have gained international recognition. During the 1990s she was frontwoman for Pizzicato Five, a band that spearheaded the Shibuya-kei music scene and toured Europe and North America.
“We were so original. We were pretty unique in Tokyo. We had lots of influences: British rock, American rock, cinema, soundtracks,” says Nomiya. “When our foreign audience heard us, there was something familiar that they could recognize in our music and I found that intriguing because we were from Tokyo.”
“Added to that we were visually very unique, I used to have so many costume changes and people were attracted to the way I looked,” says Nomiya, when asked why she thought Pizzicato Five, also known as P5 to their fans, had such a broad appeal.
Like the band’s sound, Nomiya’s ultra-glamorous image had an element of irony to it. On the cover of “Made in the U.S.A.,” an album that sold 200,000 copies worldwide, Nomiya appears on the cover in heavy make up, sporting a gigantic ’60s bobbed wig and a silver sequined tube dress. The whole ensemble might have been picked out by U.S. drag queen RuPaul and it’s perhaps no surprise that Nomiya has a loyal following among the members of Japan’s gay community.
On the 1991 track “This Year’s Girl,” Nomiya is interviewed by the other half of the P5 duo, Yasuharu Konishi. He asks, “What’s your taste in clothes?” and she answers, “Vulgar, cute, gorgeous.” When he asks what her hobby is she replies, “Barbie doll.”
Nomiya laughs after being reminded of this. “Next year I’ll be 50 so I don’t really play with my Barbie dolls anymore. I still have my Barbie dolls and I take them with me when I DJ, but I don’t buy new ones.”
P5 split in 2001, but since then the former members’ (there were other members prior to the band becoming a duo in the mid ’90s) paths have seldom crossed.
“I really never meet the other members of Pizzicato Five. Even when we were doing Pizzicato Five it was just work, we didn’t meet in private. Since the band split up, our paths haven’t really crossed, it’s not especially as if we hate each other,” she says. Toward the end of their partnership, however, Nomiya became exasperated with being treated like a Barbie doll at the hands of Konishi.
“He told me how to perform, kind of like he was the film director and I was the actress,” she says. “When I became a solo artist I could decide how to use my own voice and move my body, so I tried to find my own voice and express myself freely. I met Makiko Hayashi of Romantica (a group of burlesque performers) and started the recitals together with her three years ago. This year is the third, I’m really wanting to carry on with it.” Hayashi is the director of the recitals, while music has been composed for Nomiya by Kikuchi Naruyoshi (of pop group Spank Happy) and Richard Cameron (of electronic duo Arling & Cameron).
Fans can expect Nomiya to deliver a dazzling show.
“I’ll also have some other songs from my solo albums and of course two or three Pizzicato Five songs,” says Nomiya. “This year’s title is ‘Beautiful People’ and celebrates the fashion icons of the 20th century such as Bridget Bardot and Audrey Hepburn. I’ve chosen seven icons and I’ll be acting their parts and singing. There’s going to be lots of costume changes,” says, giggling with glee.
In addition to singing, Nomiya has branched out into designing clothes. This year she released a line of T-shirts for Uniqlo and she has her own clothing label, Joy. “I’ve been doing that for about three years working with Masse*Mensch who used to design my outfits for Pizzicato Five.”
Since the split with P5, Nomiya has released several solo albums. The most recent of her albums, “Party People,” came out in 2005.
“Right now, I’m in the middle of making a mini-album with a Brazilian band called Pato Fu. The band’s singer is called Fernanda Takai, last year at a solo concert — she’s a really big Pizzicato Five fan — she invited me to come and sing with her. We became friends and now we’re in the middle of recording about five songs,” she says. “They’re making the music in Brazil and I’m recording the vocals in Japan. Because we’ve got such great technology these days, working this way really isn’t a problem.” Pato Fu craft soft, wistful indie music, which makes for a good match with Nomiya’s delicate, sweet-sounding vocals.
Nomiya’s image is so carefully crafted, it’s hard to see under the artifice of this seasoned performer.
“My trade is singing — part of my job is of course to sing but besides that I’ve got to perform like many other singers because the world is looking at you,” says Nomiya. “Even if you’re just going to a party, you’re still acting to a certain extent. I often go to parties but I don’t really like them. The reason I go is because you can meet so many fashionable people and learn from them. Also you can make a lot of contacts with like-minded people and decide to collaborate with them. If I’m honest with myself, I don’t really like being in crowded places because it makes me nervous and shy. So before I go to a party I really have to psych myself up.”
However, this shyness does not extend to being on the stage. “The place I really love being in now is in the concert hall on the day of my performance, before anyone comes to the venue and it’s quiet. That’s my favorite place. I get really nervous but that’s part of it.”
Nomiya Maki Recital Vol. 3: Beautiful People takes place at Ebisu Garden Hall, Tokyo, on Sept. 22 at 7 p.m. Tickets cost ¥7,350.