“I grew up watching anime, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a really cool language!’ ” says Emily Connor, four-year Tokyo resident and singer with new pop duo oh sunshine.
“So it became my goal to be able to watch this one-hour film without subtitles. I could speak quite a lot of Japanese and read kanji before I moved here.”
She pauses, then sheepishly adds: “I was a total otaku (fanatic)!”
Connor’s musical partner is Mikio Hirama, one-time member of jazz-rock outfit Tokyo Jihen (fronted by Shiina Ringo) and session musician for artists such as pop diva Superfly, plus a solo act in his own right. A Sapporo native, Hirama moved to Tokyo 11 years ago, meeting Buffalo, New York, transplant Connor in 2009 when he was invited by the producer of her previous band, c.cedille, to record some guitar. They formed oh sunshine in the summer of 2010.
Along with an age gap of 13 years and two disparate cultural backgrounds, the pair also have a totally different set of musical influences. Hirama grew up in the 1970s and ’80s with The Beatles, Guns N’ Roses and various blues artists; Connor in the ’90s with Alanis Morissette, No Doubt and Tom Petty. Somewhere in this mishmash they found some common ground and a shared vision for what they want to create, and the songs quickly flowed.
“I first made ‘I Belong to You’ as a demo,” says Hirama of oh sunshine’s first single, released digitally in November. The song is a smoldering slice of raunchy rock with its tongue firmly in its cheek — or more likely down the throat of its boyfriend, as Connor makes her impure feelings plain.
“I thought it would sound cool to have Emily shout ‘I belong to you!’ over the song. Very rock ‘n’ roll!” says Hirama. “And there’s a part where she starts speaking in funny Japanese: I just wanted her to mess around with it.”
The song was backed by the aptly named ballad “Beautiful,” on which Connor sings lazily over a bed of classic rhythm-and-blues piano; both songs feature on oh sunshine’s self-titled debut mini-album, released at the end of January. The pair decided the song would benefit from a set of Japanese lyrics, which Hirama based loosely on Connor’s original English words (both the English and Japanese versions are included on the single and album).
“We’re based in Japan, so if I didn’t sometimes sing in Japanese, there would be a gap between the fans and this singer who’s come from overseas,” says Connor. “I get terribly nervous though! It’s not my mother tongue, so I have to focus hard while I’m singing.”
“I think her Japanese doesn’t have to be totally perfect,” counters Hirama. “The words of this girl called Emily who’s come from America with an interest in Japan, that’s the best. It’s more real. I’d like her to write some lyrics herself, even if the Japanese is a bit wrong.”
They needn’t fret too much: Connor speaks Japanese for the majority of our conversation in their label’s Tokyo office, dropping in the occasional English word or sentence but generally acquitting herself well.
Since shortly before moving to Japan and until forming oh sunshine, Connor made regular video blogs, mostly in Japanese, posting them to YouTube and generating a phenomenal 13 million views. In Japan, she is one of the site’s all-time most-subscribed users. It’s a subject she is reluctant to discuss (other apparently taboo topics are the teaching and modeling work she did after arriving in Tokyo), though the need to receive attention through video blogs could arguably stem from the same place as wanting to stand on stage: Both are partly about exhibitionism.
“The difference is that on YouTube I’m just messing about, but in the band, I’m passionate about what the two of us are doing,” she says defensively. “I was a schoolgirl when I was doing YouTube and just killing time. It was just a hobby.”
Connor says she began taking vocal training when she was 6 or 7, and has a sultry, warm voice that recalls Cat Power or Sixpence None the Richer’s Leigh Nash. This coupled with Hirama’s bold, striking guitar makes for a compelling package.
A mere four months after making their live debut, oh sunshine will play the Japan Nite stage at the South by Southwest music conference and festival in Austin, Texas, on March 18. Neither musician has performed before in the United States, and Connor will be the one and only non-Japanese artist on the Japan Nite bill. She hopes oh sunshine can prove to the world that Tokyo has become a more cosmopolitan city.
“Just in the four years I’ve been here, Tokyo feels as though it has become more and more international,” she says. “When I speak to people in other bands or people around me, I don’t feel like they treat me differently than they would a Japanese person. Ten years ago this might not have been the case.”
It will be interesting to see how they go down at Japan Nite, which every year attracts a capacity crowd of Japanese-music obsessives. But in the wider context of a Tokyo band finding success in the West, oh sunshine stand a better chance than most, thanks not only to their bilingual vocalist but also the potential global appeal of their cool, catchy songs.
“In 10 years, we’ll have our own private jet and tour the world!” laughs Connor. “I hope we’re still having fun and doing music together by then, but for now I’d rather stay focused on what’s right in front of us.”
oh sunshine’s self-titled mini-album is out now. They play Feb. 22 at Shelter in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo, and March 18 at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. For more information, visit www.myspace.com/oh_sunshinejp.