The pop music industry — it’s enough to turn anyone into a schizophrenic. And Tomoko Kawase is perhaps J-pop’s most fragmented personality of all.
Rising to fame in the late-1990s as the singer in top-selling Kyoto guitar-pop band The Brilliant Green, she went solo in 2001 under the name Tommy February6, a super-cute throwback to the British and European chart pop of the ’80s, with a subtly subversive streak. And then in 2003, she went solo again — this time as the darker Tommy Heavenly6, playing Avril Lavigne-esque commercial pop-rock that soundtracked countless anime.
And then she went back to The Brilliant Green for 2010′s “Blackout” album. And now she’s back as both solo artists at once. And now you’re confused, so let’s ask Kawase to clear it up, shall we?
“When I first decided to go solo, I wanted to make music as different as possible from The Brilliant Green,” she recalls as she sits in her favorite seat in the lobby of Warner’s Tokyo HQ, a brassy baseball cap placed sideways atop her head. “I wanted to make danceable music. So I went back to my roots, which was ’80s eurobeat. When I was at school, Rick Astley was all the rage — he even did a soda advert on TV.”
Kawase describes the candy-colored world of bespectacled Tommy February6, who sings saccharine-switchblade songs into Willy Wonka-size lollipops, as a parody. And like the best parodies — think Spinal Tap — it works because the details are so well observed. The Stock Aitken Waterman sound that launched Astley (as well as Kylie Minogue, whose smash hit “I Should Be So Lucky” February once performed on stage) is present and correct, both on her first two albums and, after an eight-year break, the first side of her new release, “February & Heavenly.” But it comes with an extra layer, a subversive core that gives her songs real bite.
“I think February’s sound is still the same,” she says. “And the recording process too — rather than relying solely on sequencers, I use analog synths and aim for an authentic sound, recording onto tape. It takes a long time and it’s more expensive than recording digitally, but it really captures the sound of that period.”
As you might guess, this approach comes not at the behest of a major label (before Warner she was signed to Sony) but because, well, that’s the way she wants to do it. Writing and recording at home with her husband/Brilliant Green bandmate Shunsaku Okuda, she… Oh, hang on — we’ve missed a bit. It’s time to venture to Kawase’s dark side.
‘Of all my personae, I feel closest to Tommy Heavenly6,” says Kawase, explaining how the character was born in response to the playful world she’d created with her first solo outing. Indeed, Heavenly’s early singles were released in tandem with singles by February, and their interlinked music videos showed February swigging a Drink Me potion before re-emerging — without her glasses — as the spikier, edgier Heavenly. A slick studio sheen made her devilish lyrics palatable to a younger audience; it’s not black metal, but it’s black enough to once again be subversive.
“February represents the best parts of my personality and is probably how I’d like people to think I am. But I feel more empathy for Heavenly’s lyrics; I can vent my frustrations, which is invigorating. The girl in The Brilliant Green may seem the most lifelike of my personae, but she is quite an idealized version of me. Heavenly is a better fit.”
Kawase ponders these facets of her own self as if it were the most normal thing in the world to have three successful concurrent careers under different names. (Even pop lunatic Prince used the past-tense when he created his alter ego, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.)
“I think everybody has two faces, two sides to their personality,” proffers Kawase. “Originally, the concept of those two separate solo ‘artists’ was to show the dark and light sides of one person.”
Still, in the past, Kawase kept her various selves apart. Yes, February and Heavenly intermingled, and yes, her Brilliant Green partner is involved in every project. But the releases themselves were always separate items. Until now.
Released this week, “February & Heavenly” comprises seven February songs and seven by Heavenly — together in one package. Kawase had originally intended to release a full-length February album in time for that persona’s 10th anniversary in the summer of 2011, and had been busy stockpiling songs when last March’s earthquake and tsunami struck. Everything stopped.
“I thought life might never go back to normal,” says Kawase. “I wondered whether I’d ever feel like making music again. But eventually things did go back to normal. Then I was invited to write an anime theme (to ‘Bakuman’) as Heavenly — that was ‘Monochrome Rainbow’ (released in time for last Halloween). I thought it would be a waste to not include that song on an album, and for the first time it occurred to me that the two personae might work better together. It seemed like good timing to try.”
The effect, says Kawase, is that February’s songs got a little cuter and Heavenly’s got a fair bit harder; the two personae feeding off one another and creating a new balance that only works because of the closer proximity. Light and shadow. Perfume vs. Pantera. She says she wants to explore these extremes further in future releases.
Another reason for uniting her two solo selves on one CD was to try to intertwine her fans. February’s layered throwback pop sound has garnered an older audience — those who remember eurobeat from the first time around and appreciate the new places she takes it — plus a younger generation who love it because it’s cute. Heavenly, meanwhile, appeals to high-schoolers who perhaps take her as a stepping stone out of kid-friendly pop and into the lifelong demon-worship of rock, plus fans of the anime and films she’s soundtracked.
While Kawase thinks there is a little crossover, most fans of one Tommy probably have no interest in the other — a situation she hopes to rectify with this release.
“There is a divide between fans of The Brilliant Green, of February and of Heavenly,” she says. “When people tweet me, I can tell from their Twitter avatar which persona they are a fan of. People who use anime characters tend to be fans of Heavenly, while February fans often have cute things like cupcakes as their avatar.”
Another great advantage to simultaneously working on February and Heavenly projects is that she gets to revive those interconnecting videos, too — though in a different way from what’s been done before.
“In the video for ‘Hot Chocolat,’ ” says Kawase of February’s brilliantly minimalist comeback single, “there are dolls of the three guys who play in Heavenly’s backing band, with photos of their faces stuck on. The concept is that those three boys are February’s favorite idol group, so she has dolls of them. When Heavenly is playing with those boys in her band (in her own videos), that’s actually February dreaming that she’s performing with them. Next I want to make a song performed by that fake boy band — for real. They’ll be something like New Kids On the Block.”
This could actually happen, because Kawase is also resurrecting her fourth identity: that of producer. Back in 2003, she produced the idol-pop group Tommy Angels, a team of singing and dancing schoolgirls who released one single, charted at No. 78 — and were never heard from again. But Kawase seems ready to give it a more serious shot, and this summer she will unveil a brand-new, as-yet-unnamed duo presented as students at a school run by Tommy (she doesn’t specify which one) who flirt with various fashions. Except they’re not really students, they’re spies. Except they’re not really spies, they’re pop singers.
Confused? Yeah, fair enough. But in Kawase’s calculating mind, it all makes sense. She plans to keep juggling her duties, saying she has plenty more solo material demoed as well as songs for The Brilliant Green. And for the rest of us, all we have to do is slip in the CD and press Play. What could be simpler?