Declaring your love out loud has its risks and rewards. The object of your affection might swoon and fall into your arms, or they could awkwardly give you an embarrassed look and change the subject.
Singer Chris Hart saw his declaration reciprocated in 2012 when he appeared on “Song for Japan: Nodojiman the World!,” a televised singing competition in which people from around the world sing Japanese songs. The Californian crooner won first place and a massive Japanese fan following.
“It wasn’t like (U.S.-based singing competition) ‘American Idol’ where you go on and you get a record deal,” Hart says. “I thought it would be like other shows I had been on since I moved to Japan, where I go on, sing and just go back to normal life.”
However, the day the show aired, Hart received a call from producer and songwriter Jeff Miyahara, and from there his music career took off.
“Jeff introduced me to the label and pushed a lot of things toward the major debut,” the now 35-year-old Hart recalls. “I went back on the show in October 2012, and we were already recording ‘Home’ and ‘I Love You’ along with other songs by December.”
“I Love You” was released in 2014 and it seems that many in Japan have remained smitten ever since. The video currently sits at more than 33 million views on YouTube and Hart has released nine albums.
The 2020 version of “I Love You,” which, frankly, comes at a time when we could all use some heart-warming sentiments, still features Hart’s stellar vocals but combines them with a more up-to-date style of production.
Hart’s parents met in a college funk band, so he says he had been surrounded by music growing up. However, the surprise was that he would fall in love with J-pop. He first encountered Japanese culture in junior high school and notes that the melodic structures in popular Japanese music were different to the ones he heard at home.
“I started getting into Japanese music and I had friends that had invited me to be in a rock band,” Hart says. “I had only played classical instruments at the time, so I became the vocalist and fell into the habit of being the singer for a while. I (also) started doing music in Japanese, writing all the lyrics and songs, and the whole production myself. I would then perform them at different clubs and events in the Bay Area, so even back in the States I was only performing in Japanese.”
Hart began to think that it would be better to live in Japan if he wanted to pursue music. Luckily, his mother worked in a company that sold vending machines and was opening up an office in Japan.
“They offered me a job, so I moved to Japan as a vending machine tech,” he says.
Soon after arriving in Japan, some TV executives came across a YouTube clip of Hart singing in Japanese and invited him on “Nodojiman the World.” That kicked off a career covering a range of Japanese music, from the Okinawan-style “Tears for You” made famous by Rimi Natsukawa to J-pop royalty Hikaru Utada’s “First Love.”
“I started with covers essentially because our team felt that was the best way to introduce myself,” Hart says. “The cover album did very well, which was followed by an original album; then we got a song from one of the members of Kiroro and I did a collaboration with Seiko Matsuda — all this really propelled things.”
After years of performing and recording, however, Hart says he hit a low point when he lost the inspiration to produce new work.
“I took a two-year hiatus to reassess my skills because I no longer knew who I wanted to be as an artist moving forward,” Hart says. “When you start to write your own stuff after doing covers of so many hit songs, suddenly you think: Does my album have to be a collection of the best singles, or can I forgive myself and just make an album with a story that doesn’t have to live up to that same level? I felt a lot of pressure.”
After taking some time off, Hart is back with a more modern style and approach to his craft. The newest version of “I Love You” — which is interesting as he is essentially covering himself — has Japanese and English versions and, most notably, a slick beat.
Hart says that when working on the English version of the track, directly translating the lyrics from Japanese proved to be a bit of a challenge. After several tries, he decided to introduce brand new lyrics and wound up flipping the script in the process.
“The problem was making sure that it made sense culturally,” Hart says. “One of the things I realized while writing the English lyrics was that I tried to make it as close as possible to the original Japanese, but because I kept saying, ‘I love you, I love you, I need you,’ I started sounding like a stalker. I changed the English version so that instead of being (from the perspective of) the person who is being broken up with, it’s the person that’s breaking up with someone else.”
The change paid off, and the new “I Love You” has already gotten attention from overseas artists, ranging from covers performed by Filipino singers to requests for the song to be done in Chinese.
Hart now says his goal is to create a new sound for Japan to promote its music and culture, and he wants people to understand how unique the Japanese music scene is.
“The songs that I am writing now are very different from what I’ve done in the past and I wanted the new ‘I Love You’ to be that first step,” Hart says. “I wanted to take that song and make a newer version that is indicative of where I want to go — in a direction that is part J-pop, but also more international.”
Now a naturalized Japanese citizen, Hart says his experience in the Japanese music industry has been atypical, but in a positive way.
“The beauty of my career so far is that as an African American singer in Japan, I’ve done every genre you could imagine; I’ve done folk, classical, enka and rock,” he says. “No one has ever said, ‘That’s unusual’ or ‘Why are you doing that?’ I can’t imagine I would have been able to do the range of songs that I’ve done in any of the markets.”
Hart also says that he has never considered pursuing a music career in the United States as he believes the Japanese music industry gives him more freedom to explore than he would have there.
“I think in the United States there is that nagging sense of needing to comply with an image that everyone has for Black musicians. There is that stigma that’s really hard to break,” Hart says. “Japanese people haven’t necessarily adopted the same sense of what Black people should or shouldn’t be, which has allowed me a lot of room to experiment with different genres.”
As part of this new chapter of his music career, Hart is planning a few projects for next year that involve raising more awareness on issues such as domestic violence and LGBTQ rights in Japan through his music.
“I am still in the process of finding the most natural way for Japan to progress in its own way, while allowing it to keep its own culture,” he adds. “There is still a lot of work to do, but I am excited for what is to come.”
Chris Hart’s “Love is Love” tour runs from Aug. 21 to Oct. 14, with shows in Chiba, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka and Tokyo. For more information, visit www.universal-music.co.jp/chris-hart.