With her sights set on achieving her long-held ambition of winning a Grammy award, Los Angeles-born and Tokyo-based vocalist AI is adamant that dreams only come true with hard graft.
“The reason I want to get a Grammy is because everyone knows them,” AI tells The Japan Times. “And when you get something that everyone knows, your words get powerful. Then I can say, ‘Stop the War!’ “
AI, 26 (born Ai Carina Uemura), hates being told that some things are impossible. Having been brought up in both L.A. and Kagoshima, Kyushu Prefecture, she had an unconventional youth that shows through in her singing. Known for her aggressive delivery and strong persona, AI closely resembles Missy Elliott in her eclecticism and bubbly persona — but has the added ability to sing loud and proud on ballads when needed, shown best on her biggest hit, “Story” (2005). The track sold 3 1/2 million downloads and stayed on the Oricon chart for a year. From February to May this year she performed 32 shows to more than 100,000 fans on a Japan tour that even stretched to a rare show in El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles.
In person though, even the threateningly piercing-blue contact lenses she sports can’t disguise her vivacious personality that invariably eases any room she walks into of any tension.
“I forgot my English!” she ashamedly remarks. Her American accent would suggest that Japan is her guest country, but the truth is a little bit more complicated. Born in L.A. to a Japanese father and a mother of Japanese-Italian parentage, AI felt lost and confused when her family moved to Kagoshima on the southern tip of Japan’s southern island of Kyushu when she was 3 — the first of many moves back and forth between the two countries.
“I could only speak English and I was the only one talking with my mother, because she didn’t understand Japanese,” recalls AI. “I was told the other kids didn’t play with me because I didn’t reply. There was just one boy who always helped me, giving me letters, showing me when to fold my clothes,” she says, referring to the orderly care Japanese children are expected to take over their uniforms in school.
She became ingrained with a dislike of academia, instead enjoying dance and ballet outside of class.
At that point, AI (who had taken up dancing and ballet in her own time in Japan) was already singing, but only within the confines of her home.
“When my dad came home he would say, ‘Please let me watch TV right now,’ and I would say, ‘Why do you stop me singing?’ I liked Whitney Houston and people with loud voices because it made me feel good,” AI beams innocently.
“I started listening to SWV, Boyz II Men and the sound of those kinds of groups on the Japanese usen (radio) system,” she says. “I didn’t like rap music, which had just started. I liked to sing, and they were always cursing! I thought, ‘Why do you have to say it so many times? You can say it once!’ “
Moving back to L.A. against her will, after graduating from junior high school in Japan at 15, she began to find opportunities to make music.
“At that point I didn’t want to go to high school; I wanted to sing,” she says. “I felt you have to work to make your dreams come true, and I wanted to work. I thought if I started early, I could be bigger earlier.”
Despite this, she registered at Glendale High School in L.A.. As she had never formally studied English, her language ability left her once again feeling excluded and disillusioned with school. Outside of class she was already singing in gospel choirs when her mother came across an opportunity for AI to audition for the L.A. County High School for Arts. With the singing classes already full, she gained a place in the ballet class.
Finally surrounded by like-minded people, she joined a four-piece Asian girl group named SX4 that wanted a Japanese girl to complete the lineup. “I was called ‘baby,’ because I was the youngest,” she smirks.
With George Brown of Kool and the Gang as producer, after two years SX4 was offered a record deal that AI wasn’t ready for. “I didn’t understand what a lawyer was,” she explains. “I was 17; I was kind of confused.”
Then, during a summer break in Kagoshima, she sang and was interviewed on a local radio show. Major label BMG quickly contacted her with an offer that made her reconsider her future: a record deal in Japan. While Brown was happy for her to do both, BMG made it clear that she would have to ditch SX4.
Moving back to Japan, she got her debut in 2001 on BMG with the album “My Name Is AI.” However, its generic pop formula proved unsuccessful.
“Maybe I was stuck up or too honest. I had too much attitude. But I couldn’t say too much because I was new and just starting out,” she laments.
Finally in 2003, the spontaneous, charismatic and playful AI that Japan knows today finally came into her own after moving to Def Jam Japan as the label’s first female artist.
“I was surprised to hear their producers and thought, where were you? I can do this! Everything I heard was my type. From there I started writing honestly!”
The move paid off, and since 2004 she has had four consecutive Top 5 albums.
Up next for AI is a mellow duet titled “So Special” with long-term friend Atsushi from the Japanese R&B megastars, EXILE. “We met in a studio, where artists always go back and forth,” she recalls. “Recording was real fun, he writes so fast and I write real slow, so I was shocked!”
Nearer her Grammy dream than ever before, a two-year assault on the U.S. is mooted. “I better hurry up, I am taking too much time! We are moving little by little, planning to build it up, work with artists in the States” she quietly but confidently explains. She’ll love to defy anyone who says she can’t.
Here are three other J-pop artists whose music draws on their cross-cultural roots. By mixing two music cultures, making them neither straight J-pop nor entirely foreign, they’ve each found a niche all of their own.
Born in LA and raised in Hawaii, Ito stormed the charts in Japan with debut single “Endless Story” (2005), from the film “Nana.” Born to a Korean-American mother and Japanese father, she graduated from McKinley High School in Hawaii in 2001. The velvet-voiced singer duetted with Celine Dion, who was inspired enough to record a Japanese version of their duet (“A World to Believe in”), out on Nov. 1.
This charismatic singer-songwriter and accomplished pianist hit the top spot with second album “Today” (2007), which is infused with pop hooks, soaring vocals and ballads galore. Born in Shikoku to a half-Italian mother and Japanese father (as with AI and J-pop superstar Namie Amuro), she moved to Hawaii at 15 and graduated in politics and music from George Washington University in the U.S. capital. She debuted in the States before launching in Japan in 2006.
Gyeonggi-do, Korea native BoA Kwon has lived between her home country and Japan since her debut album “Listen to My Heart” (2002). Six consecutive No. 1 albums attest to the appeal of her J-pop sound combined with a Korean image and accent that seem more earthy and natural than those of her Japanese counterparts. She is soon set to debut in the U.S.
“So Special,” AI’s new single with Atsushi from EXILE, is out now.