It wouldn’t be the obvious place to look. And yet singer Hajime Chitose was seeking a new peace of mind when, 1.3 billion km away, she found what she was looking for.
“When I saw a picture of Saturn, I thought the relationship between the planet and its many rings represented the good balance that is so important in life,” the bohemian singer proclaims. Known as Cassini rings, they lend their name to Hajime’s latest release.
Hajime, a singer from Amami Oshima island who is dubbed by the media as “The voice of 100 years,” rose to attention in 2002 with her remarkable vibrato vocal delivery and her take on the traditional island folk songs known as shima-uta, and took the music to the mainstream.
Her last album, 2006’s “Hanadairo,” seems like light years away, too: “Cassini” represents a break of near silence of over two years, during which she has been bonding with her new family.
“I took plenty of time, that’s for sure!” she sheepishly declares. Hajime married and had her first child in 2005, going back to work for the release of “Hanadairo” before taking a well-earned rest. Since her indie debut in 2001, this represented her first prolonged break.
“I made this album on the theme of a family or bonding,” she says. “I’ve finally discovered a balance between being with my family and the people who are precious to me.”
Her fourth album proper, “Cassini” includes some notable production credits, such as J-pop duo Sukima Switch’s Shintaro Tokita and Oscar-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. But Hajime is keen to avoid suggestions that she is seeking to develop her sound. Poised childlike and innocent on her chair, her image as an exotic free spirit bears out as she regularly breaks mid-sentence to forage for the right words to say.
Born in 1979 and raised on the northern Ryukyu Island of Amami Oshima, famous for its shima-uta, Hajime learned to play shamisen from a young age, thanks to her mother’s encouragement.
“From then until now, she is so strict!” says Hajime of her mother. “My mother wants me to think that my growth as a singer is never accomplished.”
Shima-uta is handed down through generations and has no written form, so continuous development is what defines a master of the style.
“I got into shima-uta about age 10 or 11. Since there is no musical score for shamisen, I needed to memorize songs, otherwise I couldn’t play a new song. That’s how I started singing. It made it easier!”
During her teens, Hajime won numerous competitions and was invited to Japan’s big cities to perform, something that initially scared her.
“I couldn’t understand how to get on the trains!” she laughs. “We needed to ride underground in the big cities — I was afraid of places beneath the ground. I cried!”
In 1994, aged just 15, she recorded her first shima-uta cassette after winning a local folk-song contest. Three years later she won the grand prize, the highest award for a high-school student, and was offered recording contracts by several labels. But she wasn’t convinced by the smooth-talking record companies and decided not to become a singer. “I was suspicious of them,” she says.
But it seems the opportunity stirred in her mother images of a better life for her daughter. “I didn’t have any intention to leave Amami Oshima, but my mother told me that I should know about life outside the island,” says Hajime.
Seeking inspiration from her elder sister, a beautician, in 1998 she decided to study for the same profession in Osaka.
“Of course, on the day I left Amami Oshima, I left there crying so much with anxiousness about what would happen next and thinking that I wouldn’t be able to come home so easily from now on. Then in Osaka, there were so many cheerful people, so I enjoyed it.”
Unexpectedly, her budding career as a beautician was halted when she discovered she had asthma and couldn’t work with chemicals. But just as she was preparing to return to her native island, she decided to look up Augusta, the one management company whose A&R had come all the way to Amami Oshima to meet her after her grand prize win.
“When I called I found the company really exists!” she exclaims. “I thought he would say he didn’t need me anymore — it had been two years. But without intending, I told him I wanted to make music.”
Despite not speaking the language, Hajime chose to record four English-language cover songs on her self-titled debut independent release. One track was “Birthday” by the Sugarcubes.
“I knew Bjork but I had never heard of (her old band) the Sugarcubes. I wanted to know if I had that kind of voice,” she says.
“I couldn’t speak English and at that time I didn’t have original songs. So I wanted to express the songs of the people who I’d never heard, in my own way. If I cover Japanese lyrics, I understand them, and it might closely resemble the original. But when I sing a song in English, I only sing it with my imagination.”
Her versions of Carole King’s “Home Again” and Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” were a revelation, sounding as though they had been island folk songs all along. They sparked a quick demand for a followup, and shortly thereafter a major label came calling. Her first single with Epic Records, “Wadatsumi no Ki” (“The Sea-God’s Tree,” 2002) sold 850,000 copies, and suddenly Hajime was a bona-fide star.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” she recalls. “(My life) changed a lot. I became too self-conscious when I was walking outside. It wasn’t like I was afraid of going outside, but I felt like I had no freedom of my heart. But now, after all, I think it depends on how you think.”
In the period that followed, Hajime rarely had time to herself. So it is understandable that, this time around, she balanced recording sessions with her home life by entering the studio in sporadic bursts over a longer period. She confesses she learned a lot about herself in the last two years.
“I often went back to Amami Oshima, and now I live in Okinawa,” she says. “I could go back to a simpler life there, like growing vegetables and eating them, going fishing and eating (what I caught).”
This simpler life reflected Hajime’s need to reconcile her place in the world, to find a more humble way of living.
“I think I was greedier when I was single,” she admits. “I thought that I needed to try to do all the things I can or that I should get everything I can. Not like Louis Vuitton bags, but I was greedy to get more words from my husband. Now I just appreciate spending time together. I have peace of mind. Now I can go back to my family from work like switching between on and off.”
This summer Hajime will perform live across Japan, including a show at Tokyo’s spacious 700-year-old Buddhist Ikegami-Honmonji Temple in August.
“I expect the place itself will give me some power,” she enthuses. “When I sing in places without windows, I see and feel the wind and it gives me inspiration.”
“Cassini” is out July 16. Hajime Chitose plays Aug. 23, 2 p.m., at Ikegami-Honmonji Temple, Yagai Tokusetsu, Tokyo (¥8,400,  3752-2331). For other tour dates, see www.office-augusta.com/hajime
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