Music

Emi Meyer: Trading in the jazz standards for original songs

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

The first half of the 2010s offered singer-songwriter Emi Meyer few breaks. She released a full-length album every year until 2015, driven both by creative energy and a feeling that she needed to put herself out there.

“That was my fulfillment in life. It was almost a little borderline obsessive,” Meyer, 32, says. Over that period, she released albums of original jazz material, collaborations pushing her closer to mainstream J-pop and covers of standards. She says this rapid approach to putting out music set herself up well for the rest of the decade, and now she’s far more comfortable as an artist.

“Even stepping into the studio, I used to be more insecure,” she says. “‘How do I make this person interested in me, or how do I sound good?’ But at this point, I’ve done so much of that kind of soul searching and being insecure that when I get to a meeting or get in the studio, I’ve done my preparation. I don’t feel as ‘second guessy’ about what they want me to be or who they want me to sound like. I don’t get as nervous, and I’m not as questioning of myself.”

This confidence comes across on “Wings,” Meyer’s first album of primarily original songs since her 2015 collaboration with Seiichi Nagai of the band Sotaisei Riron. Released in June, the 11-song set was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, with production by Lowell Reynolds and one track co-written by blues player Kevin Moore (better known as Keb’ Mo’).

“Wings” finds Meyer crafting 1970s-indebted numbers full of horns and strings, with lyrics sung in English reflecting on her growth as a person, the topsy-turvy state of the world and becoming a mother.

The half-American, half-Japanese artist, who grew up in Seattle but now resides in Tokyo, last released an album of jazz covers. Meyer says her management team suggested she make something that would hook people’s attention, with a set of familiar songs being the best way to achieve this.

“The reason that kind of set me up really well for making an original album was that for the first time I was singing other people’s songs,” she says. “That was a very insecure moment for me, because lots of people had done great versions of these songs. That was a chance to do something I wasn’t comfortable with. It also reignited a spark in her.

“The way I could take that and return to my roots was to try to make really, really great songs that I feel represent me. Not because I wrote it for a Japanese audience or an English audience, but because I’m rediscovering the craft of songwriting through singing other people’s great songs.”

Meyer collected ideas over the next two years, careful not to rush anything. She recorded “Wings” in August of 2017 during a two-week stay in Nashville. The decision to record in Tennessee’s capital was due to behind-the-scenes changes for Meyer in the years prior … and a fortuitous NBC drama.

“I just felt at the time I had to be such a hard-ass to get my point across. I feel that’s not really appropriate in Japan, but (if I don’t) people in Japan won’t hear what I want to do,” she says. “At that time I was watching this show called ‘Nashville.’ There are a lot of powerful women making decisions about their careers. At that moment it really spoke to me. I would watch that and give myself a pep talk. ‘Yeah, it’s OK, people might think you’re mean when you say something, but you are just standing up for yourself or others.'”

This epiphany, coupled with a desire to focus on songcraft over worrying about audience reaction, led her to the “Music City.” She reached out to Moore and prolific producer Reynolds, both of whom agreed to work with her. While she prepared significantly before arriving, Meyer says she approached the studio with a stress-free mindset for these sessions, which she saw as more collaborative.

“But I stuck to my guns when I needed to,” she says. Meyer points to the opening track on “Wings,” “Dream Poetry,” as being a case where she fought for her vision. The song starts as a rollicking piano-guided number, but takes an unexpected turn and shifts gears into a totally different tune

“At first people didn’t really understand what I was aiming for. Now I hear people say they really like what we did there. Some even say I should do even more music just like the bridge,” she says with a laugh.

Lyrically, “Wings” often reflects the way Meyer has come into her own, but parts also reflect the state of the world in 2019. “Soul Naturale” hits on the hyperspeed pace of life in the social-media age, while “High Hopes” came about following the 2016 United States presidential election.

“I’m not saying which side I was on, but I noticed a lot of people were depressed — especially in Seattle, which is such a liberal city. People were so dark,” she says. “I was lucky to be in Japan, where I didn’t have to read the headlines. But I wanted to have high hopes, and I think that’s contagious … but there was also a little bit of wondering how you have high hopes and make something positive when you have social media and things that tend to spiral negatively so quickly.”

Also on her mind was her first child, a daughter. Meyer says she was about 4½ months pregnant when recording “Wings,” and this actually made some of the process smoother.

“Singing was much easier being pregnant,” she says. “Having the extra weight there made my stomach super relaxed, and it helped with the projection of my voice.” She does say she took plenty of breaks rather than push herself, though. Two tracks on the album — “Original” and “Nashville Lullaby” — function as songs for her child.

Besides motherhood, much has changed for Meyer. A decade ago Japan was enjoying a singer-songwriter boom that she was lucky to be part of, while non-Japanese artists were more embraced than they are now in the domestic market.

“It’s a real hard time, actually, releasing an album like this. My manager actually asked me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I do,'” she says with a laugh. Meyer says the other option on the table was to do a cover album of more jazz standards or of ’70s Japanese songs.

But she stuck to what she wanted to do, and it paid off with those following her career most closely.

“The album is only available in Japan right now, but Spotify put it up worldwide by mistake. So I had to take it down,” she says. “But for the first time ever, I got a lot of messages from people saying they were enjoying the album, ‘Why can’t I hear it anymore?’ To me that means a lot, that there is a non-Japanese audience out there that cares enough to message me when they can’t get the music. That made it worth it, making this album.”

For more information on Emi Meyer, visit emimeyer.jp.