“There is still some racial thing going on,” claims a mild-mannered Crystal Kay. “Some people can’t accept there are a lot of foreigners out there, even in the industry.
The 23-year-old is the original pioneer for interracial artists in Japan, and with eight top-10 albums under her belt, she is currently celebrating 10 years in the business with her first “Best of” collection and a tour.
Effortlessly glamorous in the office of her record company in Nogizaka in the Minato district of Tokyo, she is charming and modest about her impact on a J-pop scene that is increasingly discovering mixed-race acts.
Born to a U.S.-serviceman father and a South Korean mother, Kay debuted at a time when the J-Pop world was flooded with domestic acts little influenced by foreign music.
Her rise to the top of the charts not only heralded the mass appeal of R&B in J-pop but also influenced a generation of new singers. From part-Trinidadian R&B star Thelma Aoyama to African-American enka singer Jero, half-Polish-American rock singer Anna Tsuchiya and half-Italian-American pop singer Angela Aki, the face of J-pop is changing fast.
“People are getting used to it. You can see a lot more mixed people on TV, and even (among) models in magazines, most are mixed or half,” Kay explains.
“It’s very flattering to be acknowledged as one of the first, if someone tells me that my music means something,” she coyly remarks. “Hopefully I can set a good example!”
“There was a new artist called Emi Maria (half Japanese and half Papua New Guinean) who performed with me at a summer festival. I didn’t meet her but she left a demo and a note saying ‘You’re my idol, I’m sad I couldn’t meet you in person’. It was so sweet. You can see it all over the place, even in a very traditional genre like enka, so it’s a good start.
The whole definition of what constitutes a J-pop artist is in question, and it’s something even Kay finds hard to grasp.
“I consider myself a Japanese artist because I was born and raised here, but nationality-wise I look, and am, foreign.”
Despite the changes in the J-pop music scene recently, though, Kay is not resting on her laurels.
“I still have a long way to go. I am known, but there’s a lot more to do. That’s my ambition. I have never done a Budokan concert and I haven’t had a No. 1 single yet, so there’s a lot more to do.
Kay grew up in Yokohama in a musical family: Her mother was a singer, while her father writes music “for fun.” As a child she was lucky enough to meet such luminaries as Diana Ross and Bobby Brown through her parents.
“They would take me to shows, and I have so many pictures of me with artists from the States from when I was a baby. I remember Diana Ross; I went up to the stage and gave her flowers!
Kay’s aural diet of U.S. R&B, soul and funk — “Michael and Janet were my idols,” she enthuses — was enhanced when she started listening to Japanese music at the age of 11 as artists from the stable of producer Tetsuya Komuro hit the top of the charts.
“I would listen with my friends to artists like Speed, who were young and talented, and Namie Amuro.
Having started off singing songs on commercials from the age of 4, Kay got her lucky break when she recorded a jingle for Vitamin Water.
“I guess they got a lot of calls asking who was singing it. So we decided to turn the 30-second (clip) into a full song, and that was my debut, ‘Eternal Memories (1999).’
Debut album “Crystal Lover Light” followed in 2000 when she was just 13, and, excluding 2004, a new album has followed every year. “The Best of Crystal Kay,” though, shows just how proud she is of every step along the way.
“Ten years is a long time and I’m sure a lot of people just found out about me through the (recent) pop songs, so I wanted those people to hear my older songs. I’ve done a lot of different styles and I’m really proud of all my albums.
Elaborating on the impact of her first releases, she continues; “There wasn’t any other half-black-half-Korean artist and R&B wasn’t mainstream. (“Crystal Lover Light”) was an experimental album, very stateside. It wasn’t a hit, but the production is really on point and I’m really proud of it.
When success started coming her way, Kay admits she was quite unprepared for her burgeoning career. “I wasn’t thinking about anything! It was something fun that I liked to do as a young girl and it took me a while to realize the responsibility. There are people you have to please, you have to sing for someone, not just yourself, and I realized that at my first gig when I was 15. I thought ‘Oh wow, people actually do listen to my music and come and pay to watch my show,’ so I have to get serious with this, for real!
Her impression on the nation’s consciousness came gradually. Fourth album “4 Real” (2003) saw the release of perhaps her most famous song, “Boyfriend: Part II,” and was also notable for the first ever “M-Flo loves” single (“I Like It”), a series by Japan’s leading hip-hop producers M-Flo that has continued to enormous success to this day. It was Crystal’s first top-10 hit.
“After ‘Koi ni Ochitara’ (2005), things became different,” Kay asserts. “That’s when I switched to a J-pop sound, so more people listened to it and it was also a tie-in for a drama series (of the same name), so that song helped me and my music spread a little more.”
In recent years, Kay has tried her hand at various music styles on her albums, something she puts down to growing up in the limelight. “I’ve been thinking I want to try this, I want to try that . . . but definitely as a female from 13 until now, we go through a lot of things. Love songs become more personal and real. And as I experience it, my music gets more mature each time.”
“I have a lot of love songs, compared to American music where you can write about anything if it’s catchy or the beat is cool. But you can’t do that here. It has to be listener friendly; you have to relate to it and it has to be emotional or heart-rending. A lot of people want to hear that because they can’t express it themselves. They want to hear it in the music, for the song to do it for them because (Japanese) are not straightforward like in the West. Love songs, especially one-way love, hits them the most.
The personal highlight of Kay’s career so far, though, she says, is her unexpected trip to Los Angeles to work with legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, famed for working with her idol Janet Jackson.
“It was like a dream come true and I couldn’t believe it. My company asked me whom I wanted to work with so I gave it a try. They didn’t tell me anything because they didn’t want to break my heart if it didn’t happen. So it was a surprise when they told me, ‘You are going to go to L.A.’ “
“It was three nights and five days, a crazy schedule, and starting from scratch we made ‘Kirakuni’ (2006). We hit it off and it seemed like they had fun; it was something new for them. They brought the best out of me and it was a boost of confidence. I’ve wanted to go worldwide since I was a little girl, so it opened a little bit of that door.
Kay’s desire to hit the international scene remains. Though she originally aimed to do so by 18, she is still only 23 with time on her side.
“A lot of it is the right timing and the right people for a totally different market” she explains.
Now enjoying singing full-time after graduating in sociology from Sophia University last year, Kay sees this 10-year celebration as a turning point in her career and the right time to plan much further ahead.
“It marks an ending and a beginning. Right now I definitely feel it’s a fresh start. In these 10 years I think I have been all over the place, and that’s a good thing. I got to experience a lot of things musically, but now I think its time for me to create something a little more focused, what suits me best and what says ‘This is Crystal Kay’s style.’ “
“The Best of Crystal Kay” is out now on Epic Records Japan. Crystal Kay is at Yokohama Blitz, Nov. 6; Tokyo JCB Hall, Nov. 19, and Tokyo NHK Hall, Dec. 2. For more information, call (03) 3475-9999.