“There’s a whole bigger world out there than what we are doing,” says jazz pianist and vocalist Emi Meyer. “Studying roots music and ethnomusicology always kept me open-minded.”
Born in Kyoto, but raised in Seattle, 23-year-old Meyer is exploring new musical genres for her sophomore album, “Passport.” She has teamed up with Japanese rapper and producer Shingo Annen, known to his fans as Shing02, for a journey that encompasses bossa nova, reggae and hip-hop. Annen describes the amalgamation as “an organic fusion of culture and styles.”
“It’s more about the person who is playing,” says Meyer of their collaboration. “It’d be easy to hire a bassist, but we are all personally connected with the people involved, and by extension we respect the instrument they are playing. When we recorded in Brazil, (the fact that) they don’t really understand the lyrics opened the door to even more expression.”
The collaboration with Annen was an idea sparked when Meyer went to live in Kyoto as part of a college study-abroad program. It was the musician’s first time living in Japan since her birth.
Meyer’s host mother at the time, an anthropology teacher, showed her a documentary on Annen.
After returning to the U.S., Meyer contacted Annen through social-networking site MySpace, and eventually they began producing tracks together despite living on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean. When Meyer came back to Japan again, she joined Annen on one of his tours of the nation.
“It was eye-opening to discover subcultures in Japan that I couldn’t find on my own,” says Meyer. “I had discovered jazz, indie and the folk-pop scenes of Kyoto and Tokyo but never delved into reggae, hip-hop or cross-cultural music, so it showed a whole new side of Japan to me.”
The duo then began working on “Passport” immediately after the summer 2008 tour. By that time, Meyer’s debut album, “Curious Creature,” had reached the No. 1 spot on the iTunes Japan jazz chart. That success had a profound effect on Meyer, with critics directly comparing her to contemporaries such as Norah Jones and Joanna Wang.
“Situations develop in Japan that demand us to focus, (while) we all come from a freelancing mentality,” explains Annen. “If we are invited to go and play somewhere, we’d love to do it and not worry about what market we are targeting, and that is also true for releasing or creating music, because we can be spontaneous.”
“Passport” is stamped with Meyer’s experiences traveling and recording with international musicians, and it’s a mature leap forward from “Curious Creature.” This time around, she captures the essence of a variety of genres, and the execution is held together with laid-back coproduction by Annen that gives it an almost improvised feel.
Annen’s entry into the music world came late. Born in Japan, the 34-year-old spent his youth in Tanzania and London before returning to Japan for his middle school years. He eventually settled in San Francisco at the age of 15.
“I was (originally) into art; then I got into hip-hop when I discovered that there are many ways to produce music and that rap is itself an art form. I didn’t really notice it in high school when I was listening to records, but to see firsthand how everything was made independently was a fun experience.”
Studying at the University of California, Berkeley, Annen found himself exposed to the Oakland and San Francisco Bay-area hip-hop scene, which germinated through a generation that were direct descendants of members of civil rights movement groups such as the Black Panthers and Asian-American activists who stood beside them.
“It was natural to have political and social messages in my music; I was fortunate to be exposed to it,” says Annen. “It’s been a series of discoveries after learning that hip-hop has a larger role that it can play and it’s not just about talking about your lifestyle.”
Meanwhile, Meyer was studying Indian ragas, African drumming and Japanese gagaku (classical court music) as part of her ethnomusicology studies.
“It involved my thesis of studying how divided the J-pop scene is in Japan from hogaku (Japanese music) and yogaku (Western music), and that gave me a perspective for my own activities in Japan,” she says.
“It’s not what you study but the way you absorb the material that definitely gives you a new way to process information and practice,” explains Annen. “I studied engineering and I don’t use trigonometry, but it helped to learn to stay focused on stuff that I will be learning in the real world.”
Despite such a wide range of musical influences on her work, Meyer admits she always feels most at home playing jazz.
“It gives me the tools to express myself because musically it teaches you how to improvise, and you can take that to any genre.”
“Also I think the mentality of growing up around jazz musicians was healthy because it’s not about you or your ego. It’s more about the music and what it says. There’s much more respect for the music rather than for (the person), and that’s something I really admire,” she says. “This is what it’s supposed to be like!”
With a new all-English album recently finished and ready for release later this year, Meyer is about to embark on a tour of Japan to support “Passport.” Having played Fuji Rock Festival last year, she’s hoping to reach a new audience this summer, too.
“An intimate setting, like a cafe, is comfortable because you get to be yourself. But at a festival, you are almost not yourself; no one can really see you. In between (songs) I don’t know if I should be personable, but I really love playing because of the people who wouldn’t know you otherwise.”
Joining her behind the scenes, and perhaps for one or two appearances, will be Shingo, who hopes to continue the partnership in the future.
“It’s been a magnetic occurrence,” he says. “You are immersed in a topic and something comes along that takes you on a journey.
“You express your interest out there and you don’t know how the world will respond, but if you are really eager to do something, then the opportunity will find you, and vice versa.”
Emi Meyer’s new album “Passport” (Plankton) is on sale now.