Jazz artist Emi Meyer teams up with guitarist Seiichi Nagai for a warm, poppy album

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

Jazz artist Emi Meyer had plenty to be happy about in 2008. She had just self-released her debut album “Curious Creature,” she was performing shows around Kyoto and major labels in Tokyo were attempting to woo her. The half-American, half-Japanese Meyer, though, says the situation wasn’t so sunny.

“It was kind of a struggle, because they were debating whether I should be recording music where I only sing in Japanese or only in English. Whenever they’d come to live shows, they’d say, ‘You should try only speaking in English next time!’ But I was like, ‘Yeah yeah, that’s great . . . but release this album I made!’

“They were looking for artists that they could shape, but I’d already made an album and I had an idea of what kind of music I wanted to release.”

Meyer, however, managed to maneuver herself into an ideal artistic situation. Since 2008, she has recorded albums in both English and Japanese, and she has retained her artistic independence. It shows on the 27-year-old artist’s newest album, “Emi Meyer & Seiichi Nagai,” which finds her teaming up with the guitarist from the band Sotaisei Riron, a collaboration Meyer was excited to make happen. Half of the album finds her performing the jazz-style songs that have constituted her previous releases, while the other half finds her edging into sun-soaked, pop-inspired sounds.

Meyer was born in Kyoto, but only lived there for a year and a half.

“My mom was studying Buddhist art, and was finishing up her Ph.D in Kyoto,” she says. “It just so happened she had me there. We then went to Seattle so she could graduate from the University Of Washington.”

She grew up in the United States, but she says she had plenty of chances to connect with her birth country.

“I went to a Japanese school in Seattle, and I always spoke Japanese with my mom. My grandma lives in Osaka, so growing up we would visit every summer,” she says.

Meyer has played the piano since the age of 6, but in high school her interests shifted.

“I branched out into jazz, and once you have jazz under your fingers, you can make up chords based on the situation,” she says. “So I played in a friend’s rock band.”

She became more interested in jazz, and kept at it as she entered California’s Pomona College.

Meyer ended up studying abroad in Kyoto for a year and a half.

“I was studying how the jazz scene mixed with traditional Japanese music,” she says. “I went to a lot of jazz shows. Initially, that was purely for study reasons. But as I’d interview musicians, they’d ask what I did and I told them I played music, too. And they’d say, ‘We need a pianist for this show,’ so I started playing as well.”

Meyer had also recorded her first album, “Curious Creature,” in Los Angeles, and soon she was performing her own music with bands across the city.

“MySpace was still big then, and major-label people would contact me through that site asking us to play shows in Tokyo,” she says. It was around this time the label courtship began, a process that dragged on for more than a year — while Meyer was trying to finish her college thesis (“I was leading a double life”).

“Finally, in December 2008 I just went to a CD shop and I looked up all the foreign artists I liked who were released in Japan, such as Jesse Harris. They all came out on the same label, Plankton. So I gave them a call.”

Plankton gave “Curious Creature” a proper domestic release in 2009, and since then the imprint has released all of her albums, both in Japanese (2010′s “Passport,” featuring heavy collaboration with rapper Shing02) and English (2011′s “Suitcase of Stones” and 2013′s “Galaxy Skirt”).

Her newest full-length turns the focus back toward Japan, with help from Nagai. Meyer says she had seen the guitarist perform with Sotaisei Riron several years ago.

“I remember his guitar being very John-Mayer-ish, it was very melodic,” she says. Meyer’s drummer introduced the two, and they soon started collaborating in Hawaii, in order to “be away from everything.” Even their phones didn’t work.

“It’s so easy to have lots of songwriters or composers pitch you material, and then you choose. But it’s never really your own,” Meyer says. “So the point of creating it from scratch with Nagai was to be like, ‘We haven’t made this sort of vibe yet, let’s do this.’ ”

“I was interested in working with her due to her cheerful disposition,” Nagai says. “And because of the free ticket to Hawaii.

“We started work on three or four of those songs, and for those Nagai’s character comes across very strong,” Meyer says. A warm poppy vibe permeates songs such as “Surfin’ Girl” and the whistle-filled “Atarashi Kisetsu” (“New Season”), and it’s apparent the pair were influenced by their Hawaiian surroundings. “My older material isn’t always this upbeat, so performing these has been fun,” she adds.

After recording the first batch of songs for the album in Japan, Meyer went back to the United States for six months. “I had time to soak in the material we had made. I decided I also wanted to revisit some of the elements of my second album, ‘Passport,’ which was less poppy.” Much of the collection’s back half was originally written by Meyer alone at her piano, then reinvented for the band.

“I thought it would be a good segue from my first Japanese album to the second one. Ultimately, I wanted to make a very well-rounded album.”

Nagai says the process took about three years total, but that it was a breeze. “She was very fast in making decisions about the phrasing in each song, and she had no problems with the mixing,” he says. “It was totally pleasant.”

“It was actually really fun for me,” Meyer adds, “because I could play something on the piano and throw it to Nagai or our drummer, and they’d really expand on that. Then I’d come back with a melody. No matter what I threw at them, they could handle it.”

Meyer has a few shows scheduled for the fall in Japan, but she’s found other avenues to explore as well. She’s been collaborating with coconut-water brand Vita Coco for a forthcoming campaign, and she has taken part in fashion-related events. In October, she’ll go to Paris to record an album of jazz standards.

“Now that I’ve had more work experience and more albums out, I’ve realized that I’m really blessed to have a really unique situation,” Meyer says. “I’ve maintained my freedom as an artist and a person. I feel very lucky for that.”

“Emi Meyer & Seiichi Nagai” is in stores now. For more information, visit www.emimeyer.com.