Music

Seiko Oomori: J-pop’s reigning rule-breaker

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Pop music often opts for positivity rather than confronting the uncomfortable, but Seiko Oomori has never really adhered to J-pop norms.

“The bad things that happen to you can also be attractive, almost kawaii,” she says from one of the upper floors at the headquarters of Avex, a music label that has pumped out no shortage of feel-good pop. “You can feel OK about something that is kuso (crappy).”

That’s where she got the name for her most recent album, “Kusokawa Party,” which came out in July. The 10-song release winds through slow-burning ballads, nervy electro-pop and rock chuggers, with Oomori’s voice threading them together — jumping from whisper to shriek in a flash, all of it delivered with an emotional rawness.

“I’ve always written songs based on the things I observe — how people are, the scenes they find themselves in, how they spend their time,” she says. “But this time, I wanted to write songs about very personal feelings. I hope they will connect with people.”

“Kusokawa Party” has been central to Oomori’s gradual move from Koenji club act to mainstream darling, debuting on the Oricon album charts at No. 9, her highest placement to date. She released a collection of essays in June and has started appearing more frequently on TV, including an appearance on a program devoted to one of her passions, the idol groups of Hello! Project. Speaking of idols, she recently came out with ZOC (an acronym for “zone of control”), a project she describes on her website as an effort to move away from the typical “male producer, female group” dynamic found in J-pop, wherein she’s “a producer, a member and a comrade.”

For anyone overwhelmed by forced positivity from music at a time when the world seems to be trending “downer,” Oomori is a welcome alternative — and one trying to jump-start change.

Born in Ehime Prefecture in 1987, Oomori migrated to the capital and became wrapped up in the Koenji live scene, most notably performing at the offbeat Muryoku Muzenji live house. Solo shows in which she strummed an acoustic guitar and paced around the stage were a particular hit with crowds.

Critics frequently tried to define Oomori during the first half of her career. Her harsh covers of idol-pop songs led to her being labeled an “anti-idol,” bolstered by blunt, confessional lyrics that seemed antithetical to perky J-pop (the label is misguided, though: Oomori genuinely loves idol pop, so much so she did a cover of Keyakizaka46’s “Silent Majority” that was approved by Yasushi Akimoto himself).

Oomori’s Avex output, however, has seen a shift away from the style of those Koenji days. Aided by more resources, she has dabbled in EDM, arena-ready rock and slinky funk. Her experimentation reached a climax with last year’s “kitixxxgaia,” an hour-long set that pushed the boundaries of maximalism.

On “Kusokawa Party” she has reined in the bloat (the album is 40 minutes) and looked inward, starting with opening track and the first song she wrote for the album, “Shinigami.” It’s a musical departure for Oomori, who usually starts her full-lengths with something high-tempo.

“Things usually get more intense near the end of my albums,” she says. “But this time, I wanted to start with ‘Shinigami’ as a kind of conclusion. It’s death at the very beginning, but then it is all creation.”

Whereas previous Avex albums found her working with a variety of producers and arrangers, she worked with one — a sound producer who goes by the name Anchor — for all of “Kusokawa.” She says this made the whole process easier than on previous releases, though the final version of the album wasn’t finished until mid-June, cutting it close to release. (When I mention how quickly Kanye West’s latest albums took to come together and appear online, Oomori excitedly asks questions, curious how someone could work at such a pace.)

While she says “Kusokawa” serves as a departure thematically from other albums, much of it still touches on familiar ideas, ranging from everyday observations to her interest in modern femininity. She leans into it on “Girl’s Girl,” an electro-pop hopper inspired by a boom in Korean cosmetics and interest in Korean group Blackpink (“They are so cute!”).

“That made me think about K-pop, and I wanted to try to translate a K-pop song into J-rock,” she says. “It’s kind of like how Japanese girls try out Korean makeup … in the end, it can become something that is all their own.”

Oomori approaches music like a capital-A artist, emphasizing in older interviews that the songs speak for themselves and often avoiding specifics. She can be confrontational based on older transcripts, but in late June she was in great spirits and happy to chat — she’d spent the night before in Fukuoka, at a guerilla karaoke event with fans. This closeness to her supporters has helped her develop one of the more passionate fandoms in Japanese music, one that parses lyrics closely and keeps tabs on Oomori’s frequent companion, a teddy bear named Nana (who sits on the table during our chat).

Due to her outgoing personality, however, she has also become a divisive figure. Last year at the Baycamp Festival in Kawasaki, the chilled-out band Yogee New Waves riffed on lyrics she sang during her preceding set (“music isn’t magic”). “Music is magic!” the head Yogee said, prompting a series of tweets from Oomori that eventually prompted an apology from the band. While her fans worried about her well-being, netizens in general thought she was a little over the top.

“The internet used to be separate from everyday life for people, but lately the lines have blurred and it has become one big thing where people care about numbers and likes,” she says. “There are different sects and groups that just argue about things.”

The state of online discourse prompted her to write a book, “Cho Kashu” ( which translates along the lines of “Super Singer”), as she relished the chance to speak her mind safely and express herself fully.

“For example, while various cases have been addressed by the #MeToo movement, now they all exist under a vast #MeToo umbrella,” she says. “There are emotions and life stories behind every person and they all encountered different incidents. I believe that delicate nuance is important, and that’s why I think each of these cases should be considered separately.” (In a recent BuzzFeed interview, Oomori says she was sexually assaulted in sixth grade, and was shamed after revealing this information a few years back.)

“I try to say things that are real to me, I don’t just say things that I think are safe to more general people. When I have a strong opinion I want to convey, I use strong language. That’s what has gotten me a lot of attention, good and bad.”

Seiko Oomori plays Dime in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture, on Oct. 4 (7 p.m. start; ¥4,800; 087-822-2520). Her Kusokawa Party Tour then heads across the country, including stops in Fukuoka (Oct. 14), Nagoya (Nov. 9) and Tokyo (Dec. 9). For more information, visit oomoriseiko.info.