“I’ve been on the Crystal Kay train,” says the R&B diva sitting across the table. Twenty-one-year-old Crystal Kay isn’t speaking figuratively, or in some sort of existential code; she’s referring instead to Tokyo’s Yamanote Line, whose carriages were recently plastered inside and out with her visage in an advertisement for Tully’s Coffee. How’s that for a compromising situation?
“I take the train to school [university], and I was wondering whether the train I was waiting for was going to be the Crystal Kay train or not,” she continues. “And it was, so I’m like, ‘Oh shoot!’ But it’s no problem. Nobody really recognizes me. I don’t think a lot of people are paying attention, especially in the morning,” she laughs.
It’s acceptable for artists to kowtow to the advertising yen in consumerist Japan. Unlike in the West, brand sponsorship rarely effects credibility, with a less cynical populace eagerly embracing the extra exposure for their favorite artists. In huge billboards around Tokyo at the moment, for example, you’ll see J-pop’s reigning queen, Ayumi Hamasaki, hawking the Weider energy drink, while another idol, Kaela Kimura, seems to promote just about every product in the whole country.
For her part, Kay is at least upfront about her openness to lending her name to advertising a product. When asked whether there is anything she’d refuse to sell, she says: “I think I would just have to go along with my record company. I don’t really hate anything in particular. But something that’s far from my image, like real estate, I would avoid.”
Her latest album even includes a track featured in the Japanese airings of U.S. television drama “Lost,” titled “Lonely Girl.” Kay mentioned on stage that she was a fan of the show, she says, and before she knew it she’d been offered a place on the soundtrack to the third series.
Tie-ins are part and parcel of hiking the road to pop success in Japan, but they are less common for a mixed-race foreigner. Kay, who was born and raised in Yokohama to an African-American father and ethnically Korean mother raised in Japan, is an anomaly in the homogenous J-pop scene. And despite releasing seven albums in the eight years since her debut at age 13, Kay still feels she has certain goals to achieve.
“I don’t see myself as ‘up there’ yet,” she says. “You’re not up there until older people know your name. Utada Hikaru, everybody knows her name.”
It’s not for lack of trying. Working as a voice actress since the age of 6 and signing with Epic Records aged 12, Kay has experienced sacrifice and compromise, juggling her education (she’s a final-year social studies major) with her aspirations to be the next Janet Jackson.
“I used to think it was hard work in the beginning, because I was still 13 and it was really hectic. It was like, go to school, do basketball practice, go to work on the weekends; I was like, ‘Why can’t I just hang out like the rest of ’em?’ “
While Kay could easily have focused solely on music instead of college, she decided to have a backup plan and pursue a degree. Nonetheless, “hopefully I can stick to plan A!” she says.
“My goal is to get a Grammy. It’s a big goal! I want to go worldwide eventually, so I just have to work hard for that.”
Ah, the sweet allure of global fame. It’s something that has so far eluded Japan’s brightest hopes — think of the dismal sales in the West of Utada Hikaru’s crossover album “Exodus” in 2004.
Recently, industry players such as Sire Records boss Seymour Stein (who helped launched the careers of Madonna and The Ramones) have come out and said that the next global superstar will come from Asia, and Kay knows full well that she’ll have to work her bottom off if she’s to avoid “doing an Utada.”
“Hopefully, I can start getting prepared for an American album after I graduate,” she says. “I wanna be ready, set some kind of mark in Japan, and then go. I don’t wanna just be clueless and go to the States, because it’s gonna be really hard. But I think that if I came out in the States, they would always compare me with Amerie because of our same ethnic background,” she says, referring to the R&B star who shares Kay’s Korean-American lineage.
In the meantime, she has a new album to promote. “All Yours” is a collection of love songs: some R&B floor fillers, others syrupy ballads. It shot straight to No. 1 on its release last month — marking the first time Kay’s topped the charts.
“I think it’s a great album,” she says with a giggle. “It feels like I’ve finally caught up to my songs, age-wise. I started when I was 13, so if I was singing about love, I hadn’t even experienced it yet. So I was trying to act mature. This album is all 21-year-old me. I think I’ve experienced love! But there’s probably a lot for me to experience yet.”
“All Yours” features a wide variety of songwriters and producers. In standard J-pop practice, Kay says she recorded a stockpile of songs and then whittled them down to 14. She admits that the final say is out of her hands.
“It’s my say, at first, and then we discuss and look at the whole picture and decide what’s best for the album,” she says.
This wasn’t always the case. Kay doesn’t give examples, but she says that songs have slipped onto albums in the past that she was less than happy with.
“I think that changed as I got older. As I got more serious toward work, I realized that I had to have a say if there was a song I really didn’t want on the album, because if I don’t say anything, it’s just going to be released. I started realizing that this is my album and people are going to perceive me by what I put out.”
Similarly, Kay feels pleased with how her image has evolved over the years. “I think I’m becoming more of a lady,” she blurts. “I had this whole bubbly, girlish image for a while. When I first started, I had that whole black R&B soul singer image because I’m foreign, obviously. I’ve had a lot of phases as I got older. If you look at my CD covers, it’s pretty visible!”
As for real life: “I dress up, I dress down. It depends on the occasion. It doesn’t bother me that I have to make an effort for work. Every girl wants to be made up, you know. We get to wear nice dresses and designer dresses, and it’s really fun. SMAP don’t get to do that!”
Crytal Kay’s 13-date nationwide tour starts at Zepp Tokyo on Aug. 23-24 and ends at the same venue on Sept. 14. Other dates are: Nagoya (Aug. 27-28), Osaka (30-31), Fukuoka (Sept. 2-3), Sendai (6-7), Sapporo (9) and Tokyo (13). For details, visit www.sonymusic.co.jp/Music/Arch/ES/CrystalKay/index.html