Ken Hirai: Soul to soul

by Eric Prideaux

We’ve seen Ken Hirai do it time and time again: mesmerize audiences with his silky tenor voice and those sexily svelte good looks — kneading the air up on stage as if to squeeze from it any drop of passion that his music has somehow failed to discharge.

Thirty years old and 183 cm of lanky seduction, Hirai sets hearts aflame with sensuous performances of funk- and R&B-inspired numbers with titles like “Strawberry Sex,” “Love or Lust” and “Ladynapper.”

It comes as some surprise, then, that for the past month, the Osaka-born performer has topped the Japanese singles charts not with another steamy love ballad, but with a 19th-century American tune called “Grandfather’s Clock,” known until now mainly as a grammar-school song and lullaby for cranky newborns.

With sales of 600,000 copies, that release has secured Hirai a solid position as one of the leading stars of J-Pop. He’s also gained a following across Asia.

So, has all the success gone to the performer’s head? The answer appears to be no — at least not if Ken Hirai, when at home, is anything like the self-effacing man who spoke with The Japan Times in a recent interview.

“I’m really not a star,” Hirai, wearing his trademark three-day stubble, says into his lap. “I’m always worried about failure.”

(Though Hirai can fend for himself in English, we conversed in Japanese.)

Were it not for the self-assured twinkle in his eye and his confident bearing, one might assume Hirai lacked all self esteem.

The son of an architect and a housewife who rarely listened to music, perhaps Hirai started out being modest about his gift.

That, or he learned humility during the seven long years between signing with Sony Records in 1993 as a promising new talent and finally scoring his first mega-hit in 2000 with the soulful ballad “Lakuen” — a break made possible not only by Hirai’s natural talent but also by a growing appreciation in Japan for R&B and other genres of black music.

He’s captured the hearts of Japanese listeners and set his sights on the overseas market. Stay tuned to watch as Ken Hirai attempts his biggest challenge yet in January, when — following pop giant Hikaru Utada’s example — he travels to New York to become the first Japanese male to perform “MTV Unplugged.”

What does it take to make it as a pop star in Japan?

Luck. Luck and a supportive staff. Energy is also important, but I lack both physical and mental energy. I’m always losing heart.

You must be kidding! But moving along . . . Some people classify your music as R&B. How would you categorize it?

I’d call it Japanese pop, what we Japanese call kayokyoku. R&B and soul music are a part of my work. But those are only elements of what I do. After all, I’m Japanese, so I can’t think of myself as 100 percent, unadulterated R&B. I also like enka (Japanese ballads) and Okinawan folk songs.

“Grandfather’s Clock” is taking off. What makes you so fond of children’s music?

Children’s music — these tunes that I’ve heard since I was just a kid — they’re so kind, so tender. Usually, their charm doesn’t derive from any complicated harmonic structure, but rather from their pure melodic beauty — it just feels good to sing them.

That’s the case with “Grandfather’s Clock.” When I sing that song, I feel nostalgia, I feel joy, I feel melancholy. Singing it, once again I’m about 6 or 7 years old.

How did you get into the music industry?

I dreamed of being a singer way back at the age of 3, but only thought about doing it professionally after singing in an extra-curricular club at college when I was 18. At 19 I competed in an open audition for Sony. I won, and that led to my debut.

That’s a lot of ground to cover in one year.

Like I said, it was luck.

Between 1993 and 2000, however, you didn’t really have any major hits. What drove you onward during this period?

First of all, I was fortunate that the label didn’t fire me. (Laughs.) Also, I was kept so busy with monthly live performances, writing songs and going on the radio that I never even got around to thinking about throwing in the towel.

Do you ever worry about things?

I sure do! For one, I want a vacation. Plus, I want to learn how to calm my nerves before going on stage. And I want to stop worrying about sales and just be at peace with myself — like a dolphin, or something.

Before a live performance, I really worry about screwing up. There’ve been times, standing there in the wings, when my mind went completely blank. There is positively nothing more terrorizing. Sky diving, by comparison, is a stroll in the park.

You’ve been making forays into the foreign market. What was it like in June 2000 to brave Amateur Night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater — where anybody who doesn’t make the grade gets booed off the stage?

The woman before me only sang for 10 seconds before the audience booed her away! When I watched that from off stage, a chill went down my spine.

Though I was introduced as a guest, the mostly African-American audience didn’t know me from Adam, and there was some booing. In my mind, I can still see one of the hecklers’ faces so clearly. But I bit the bullet, put it out of my mind and sang on. In the end, I got more applause than booing.

How long have you liked black music?

Actually, until I was about 18, I only listened to Japanese popular music. Only around 19 or 20 did I start listening to Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder, and I asked myself, “How did I manage to overlook this stuff until now?” Stevie, he’s a melody maker, he’s a genius, he’s a god.

I like the sexiness, the emotion and the depth of the vocals in black music. Of course, I like rock, too, but I feel black music has more depth.

The music springs from a background of racial discrimination, from backbreaking labor, from sadness, from salvation. There’s just so much to it.

In January, you’ll perform on “MTV Unplugged.” What’s your plan?

I’m not sure yet, but whatever I do, I want to keep it simple. I want to go out there and deliver the music the same way I always do.

I know I’m going to have one bad case of the butterflies — I mean, all eyes will be on me. So I’ll be happy if I can just relax and sing.

Interview by ERIC PRIDEAUX, Staff writer