Singer Mayu Wakisaka takes inspiration from the TV drama boom

by Ryotaro Aoki

Special To The Japan Times

Singer-songwriter Mayu Wakisaka harbors dreams of Hollywood, but she’s not about to enroll at drama school.

“I want my songs to be used in Western TV dramas and commercials,” she says. “I don’t really want my songs to be sung at karaoke . . . I’m really bad at making things that sound like J-pop. So when you consider that, the songs naturally end up sounding like they were made for a more Western fanbase.”

Wakisaka’s debut full-length album, “Half Way to You,” was released here last month and will come out in South Korea and Singapore on May 30. It’s a compilation of tracks from her previously self-released EPs and, true to her own descriptions of them, they don’t sound like typical Oricon chart fare: There are no cheesy, easy-to-sing karaoke choruses here. Some of the standouts include “24 Hours,” a quiet acoustic ballad in which Wakisaka counts down the moments until she leaves a lover, the country music-inspired “Between You and Me,” and “Into the Wild,” a dynamic track with quiet verses that sample natural sounds before leading into a soaring chorus that evokes a nostalgic longing for youthful romance.

“Just recently I was really into ‘Gossip Girl,’ and now I’m into ‘Hart of Dixie,’ ” she says, pulling out an iPod. She shows me a playlist full of episodes. “I get inspired by TV dramas and films, and things that happen in moments in life and feelings I’ve had come out through the songs,” she says. “But it’s not like I have these things happen to me constantly, so if I don’t have any ideas I watch a drama and if I find a scene that I like, I write a song while watching it.”

Originally from Osaka, Wakisaka started playing in bands in high school. While in university, she entered and won Yamaha’s Vocal Queen Contest. After graduating, she enrolled in law school, but gave it up after a year in order to pursue music full time. Deciding that she wanted to learn how to write her own material, she entered LA Music Academy in Pasadena, California, where she re-learned all the basics of music theory. Soon after enrolling and writing songs, the music supervisor of the hit TV show “E.R.” contacted Wakisaka to discuss using one of her songs in an episode.

In the end, the song wasn’t used on “E.R.” However, the offer gave Wakisaka’s new ideas on how to release her music. Popular music is used to soundtrack programs in Japan, but the tracks tend to be decided through back-channel deals. She had never considered that a TV soundtrack could break an indie artist.

Upon finishing the two-year program, she briefly stayed in the United States, playing shows at venues and small coffee shops. She then stumbled across an ad for Sony’s Walkman mp3 player, which was looking for artists who wanted to feature their songs as pre-loaded music on the device. “Fall” and “24 Hours” — both of which appear on the new album — were selected. Exposure through her involvement with the Walkman has garnered Wakisaka offers to play around the world, including a stint at last month’s South by Southwest music showcase in Texas, and a set at The Great Escape music festival in Brighton, England, just under two weeks ago.

“While South by Southwest is more about having fun or partying while the festival is on, The Great Escape was set in a more relaxed and locally focused environment,” she says. “I played in St. Mary’s Church and can definitely say it was the most beautiful venue I’ve ever performed at. It was built in the 1800s and it has nice warm acoustics that really suit my voice and songs.”

“Half Way to You” shows off Wakisaka’s eclectic tastes and beautiful songwriting, with its mixture of folk, jazz and pop, evoking the likes of musicians such as Carol King, Sheryl Crow and Norah Jones. While the press here has described her music as having a “Western” sound, that label has never concerned her. She says she’s merely taking influence from whatever is around her and then putting her music out as it is — without putting them through any sort of “Japanese filter.”

“I think it’s a matter of how you output the stuff you like,” she explains. “It’s like making pasta; you can make it so that it fits the tastes of Japanese people, like shiso-mentaiko (perilla-cod roe) pasta, or you can make something that tastes like the stuff they make in a restaurant in Italy. I think it’s a matter of preference.”

The same philosophy applies to her English lyrics, which she says fit her rhythmic and melodic sensibilities better than Japanese.

“I just thought my English songs were better than my Japanese songs,” she says. “When producers ask if I’ll write in Japanese, I tell them, ‘If I write a J-pop song and the singer was me or a pretty model 10 years younger than me who’s bad at singing, which would you sign?’ They all say that they would sign the model. So if I write in Japanese some of the originality gets lost.”

Wakisaka isn’t solely interested in writing for television programs, she thinks that just like a viewer can see themselves in a character on TV, they can probably hear themselves in her songs.

“I’m writing about my own feelings so in a way it’s a soundtrack to my life as well,” she says. “The songs aren’t really like ‘club hits’, but I think I’ve written an album with songs that are aligned with people’s lifestyles and feelings.”

Mayu Wakisaka is performing morning coffee shows at Tsutaya in Daikanyama on May 24 and June 28 (10:30 a.m. start; 03-3770-2525). She plays at Tokyo Tower’s Club 333 on May 28; and Gee-ge in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on June 6 (¥3,000 in adv.; 8 p.m. start; 03-6416-3468). For more information, visit www.mayuwakisaka.com