Megumi Wata didn’t want to be a typical idol. “I see it as twinkly and fuwa fuwa (soft), very pastel. My idol of idols is someone like Seiko Matsuda, who is so different than groups today,” she says at a cafe in Ikebukuro, a neighborhood she prefers to the usual idol haunts of Harajuku and Akihabara.
Luckily for her, she met two fellow artists sharing her view.
“Nariaki Obukuro, the owner of our label (Tokyo Recordings), was friends with a guy running a company in charge of making idol groups,” says Wata’s producer and composer Shinta Sakamoto, who is sitting one seat over. “Wata was in that agency, but she didn’t want to be a traditional idol.”
Wata, Sakamoto and Obukuro shunned sparkly sounds and embraced an electronic style owing more to American and British indie producers than AKB48. Over skittery beats and woozy synthesizers, Wata sings in a high-pitch that recalls the chirpiness of idol pop, but set against music that makes it sound unsettling. She released her second album, “Blindman,” last week, which maintains an uneasy vibe while embracing a more narrative-driven structure.
Born in Hong Kong, Wata moved to Japan soon after and spent her childhood moving around the country.
“I really liked music, but I always wanted to be a voice actor or manga artist,” she says. Wata loves anime, and cites cartoons such as “Sailor Moon” and “Revolutionary Girl Utena” as major personal influences. She’s deeply knowledgeable and when I tell her I like “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” she lists off modern-day shows the actors from that series are in that I should check out.
“I’m still in the process of making my dream of being a voice actor come true, I see singing as a step in that process,” she says. “I really just wanted to experience it, I didn’t realize it would come this far.”
Wata fit with what producer Sakamoto and lyricist Obukuro (also of electronic duo N.O.R.K.) hoped to do, which was make music reflecting the current global mood.
“In the world, things feel … I have to say …” Sakamoto says, not sure how to end the sentence. I suggest “grim,” but ultimately he thinks “tense” works better.
Wata’s first album, “Sainandawa” (“Catastrophic”), played up the unnerving. The music moved from ironically chiming pop turned sour by downtrodden lyrics, to sea-sick electronic numbers such as the title track, which looks skeptically at the world from the perspective of a young person. What makes the whole thing really disconcerting is the singing, delivered in a monotone that Sakamoto and Wata describe as “mechanical.”
For “Blindman,” they wanted Wata to be more human. Sakamoto says she serves more as a narrator here, telling a story inspired by an experience Obukuro had with a blind person.
“For this album, we wrote out the specific emotion for every line on pieces of paper,” Wata says, Sakamoto elaborating “that we didn’t just write ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ down,” but rather whole situations the singer had to capture.
The unease remains — especially on between-song tracks wherein Obukuro pitch-shifts his voice to deliver cryptic spoken-word bits over piano — but the new storytelling approach results in different emotions sneaking in, from bleary-eyed exhaustion to pure release (such as on the album’s climax “Run! Run! Run!,” in which guitars add extra punch to Wata’s sound).
“Blindman,” like the material before it, sounds radically different from the peppy sounds of Oricon chart idol pop, even if the basic structure (woman singer, men behind the scenes) isn’t far off. Yet Wata, along with acts such as Young Juvenile Youth, separates herself by taking care to create songs where the voice and music work together just right to make something that feels a bit off.
“Blindman” is in stores now. Megumi Wata will perform sets at Tower Records stores from Feb. 14 (starting at LaLaport Tachikawa Tachihi in Tachikawa, Tokyo). For more information on shows, visit www.watamegumi.jp.
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