Singer Hikaru Utada Intent On Making 'Good Pop' Japanese American singer Hikaru Utada grew up dividing her time between Tokyo and New York. Already a pop-sensation in Japan, Utada explains how she found success and tells how she now plans to conquer the American music charts with her latest album, This is the One.
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Singer Hikaru Utada Intent On Making 'Good Pop'

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Singer Hikaru Utada Intent On Making 'Good Pop'

Singer Hikaru Utada Intent On Making 'Good Pop'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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And finally today, she has sold tens of millions of albums, but you have probably never heard of her unless you have lived in Japan where Hikaru Utada is a full on superstar. Known, like so many celebrities, by just one name, Utada, her debut album, "First Love" is the best selling album in Japanese history. But her roots are global. Utada was born in America and grew up splitting her time between Tokyo and New York. Her latest album "This is the One" is her second English release, and she joins us now from our New York bureau. Welcome.

Ms. HIKARU UTADA (Japanese-American singer): Hello.

MARTIN: Before we start, can we give our listeners just a little taste from your new album?

Ms. UTADA: Yes, of course.

MARTIN: We'll just play a little bit. Here's the first single.

(Soundbite of song "Come Back To Me")

Ms. UTADA: (Singing) Baby come back to me, come back, I'll be everything you need, come back, baby come back to me, come back, boy, you're one in a million, come back, baby come back to me, come back, I'll be everything you need, come back, baby come back to me, come back. On the bayside of Manhattan.

MARTIN: You like it? Do you like it?

Ms. UTADA: Yes.

MARTIN: Yeah. What would you say your influences are? I mean, you had such an interesting upbringing. What - musically, who do you think influenced you?

Ms. UTADA: Musically, um, my parents made me listen… I guess they were playing the Beatles and John Lennon stuff when I was really small, like a baby. But after that, when I began listening to music on my own, I listened to a lot of different stuff, from like the "Little Mermaid" to Metallica, the black album, Mozart, Prince, Cocteau Twins, Led Zeppelin, Kate Bush.

MARTIN: Really eclectic. You started awfully young. You're only, forgive me, I don't want to tell your age, lady, but you're only 26. So you're too young to start lying about your age, but what was that like starting off so young?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. UTADA: Oh my parents are both musicians and I grew up in the studio with them. Like I did my homework in the studio, slept in the studio, and I made my first song when I was like 11, I think. And I was recording from like 12-13, so it was just like the family business.

MARTIN: Well, you're also so productive too, I think, which is…

Ms. UTADA: Yeah, I have been making music at a pretty constant pace. I don't think I've ever had more than like a two-years blank. Because in the last 10 years, I've put out like - what is this, this is like my own seventh album, I think.

MARTIN: Umm, hmm. Do you ever want to rebel like becoming a nuclear engineer or…

Ms. UTADA: Well I did think about becoming a biochemist. And I, actually I didn't want to become a musician because I didn't like the lives that my parents were leading. Like it seemed a little too crazy for me and I thought I would try to not be a musician, or I didn't think I would be a musician ever. But I guess it was inevitable.

MARTIN: Was it the peripatetic lifestyle that was kind of bothersome at that age, was it?

Ms. UTADA: It was just very unstable and lot of emotional ups and downs and, you know, problems with people and money and things like that. I don't think my mother, she was very famous in Japan, I don't think she ever really liked being famous. So I never wanted to be famous myself. So in the beginning, when I did become famous, it was very weird. It was very tough. I didn't even want to debut, which is looking back on it, it's very weird. But when I get offers for things like that, I really can't turn them down. It's like why not? I'll prove I can do it.

MARTIN: But what was - what is that like being as famous as you are in Japan? And that's a stereotype, but Japanese fans are known for their ardor for the people whom they appreciate.

Ms. UTADA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Right. So what's that's like? Can you go to the grocery store, for example? Can you do some shopping?

Ms. UTADA: I don't really get noticed in Japan. It's funny because, ah…

MARTIN: I'm sorry, I find it hard to believe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. UTADA: Ah, well. I, if I begin talking with people, like a store clerk, let's say, or a waitress, or I look at someone in the eye - I get noticed. But I just, I am a very regular person. I just walk around with a baseball cap and on one seems to believe that I would be walking around. People kind of take a second look like, huh? Is that Utada? I guess people don't just think of me as a very real, real person walking around, buying groceries.

MARTIN: Do you feel differently, as an artist in Japan and in the U.S., when you're working in either country, do you feel like a different person or do you feel like the same?

Ms. UTADA: Ah, in terms of the language, it does make a difference. Because when I'm speaking in Japanese or speaking in English, I think I take on different personalities. This happens with a lot of bilingual kids, but I seem to sound a little more diplomatic when I speak in English or a little more settled down, like calmer, kind of, I guess, and kind of proper. And then in Japanese, I think this is because I learned, I used to read a lot of Japanese comic books, I sound more like a comic book character, like just kind of whacky personality sort of - a lot more animated. And when I sing or when I write, it's a bit different too.

So when I write Japanese songs and sing them, I sound a little more androgynous, like boyish. And then I, I noticed this recently like with this in my latest album in English, I seem to sound a little more feminine when I write songs in English, like the woman side of me seems to come out a little more.

MARTIN: And why do you think that is? It's interesting.

Ms. UTADA: I don't know. I think I just feel a bit comfortable being sexy or showing my womanly sides in English.

MARTIN: You learnt both languages at the same time.

Ms. UTADA: Pretty much, well no. I, I think I only spoke Japanese when I was like in kindergarten. And then, in first grade of elementary school I came back to New York and I spoke no English, basically. But I was thrown into a school with only English speaking girls. So I think after three months, though, I was completely fluent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Did you have any other languages?

Ms. UTADA: No, only, only two.

MARTIN: Only two.

Ms. UTADA: Only two.

MARTIN: But you've got another song, "Me muero" which is Spanish for I'm dying.

Ms. UTADA: Yeah. I'm dying. Basically yes.

MARTIN: How does that come to you? Tell me about that one.

Ms. UTADA: Umm. When I'm writing a song, usually the images of the words come to me in - not as words, but just as sounds like vowels and consonants. So I would have like a melody in my head and then when I try to figure out what kind of words I'm going to put on to it, I begin hearing things like: le-re-ledo or some kind of the sounds or sequence of sounds and it sounded like there could be a word in Spanish that could fit like a (unintelligible) or something like that and I began looking… I speak, I absolutely speaking no Spanish. So I began going on the Internet to just search for words and phrases in Spanish that fit that pattern of consonant vowel, and I just came across Me Muero, which means I'm Dying.

MARTIN: Let's, let's play a little bit. Let's just play it. Now that we've heard the process, let's have a little bit. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Me muero")

Ms. UTADA: (Singing) Oh my lover's gone away, gone to Istanbul, light as a feather, I lie in my bed and flip through TV channels, eating whatever, I'm smoking my days way reading old e-mails, in my old pajamas, what a day, me muero, muero, muero.

MARTIN: It's hot.

Ms. UTADA: Thank you. It's actually my favorite song in the album.

MARTIN: It is. Oh good. I'm glad we picked it.

Ms. UTADA: Excellent choice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What do you like about it?

Ms. UTADA: Um, well all my lyrics have some parts are really funny, like a lot of humor in it. But especially for this song, I say, umm, like the Winona Ryder part and like mentioning: Godiva, Old Pajamas, and Istanbul. I mean, I just like the fact that it's funny and dark at the same time, as I do mention things like suicidal and depression and things like that, umm.

MARTIN: Put in a nice way.

Ms. UTADA: You know, it's both funny and dark, and cute and serious, and it's very me I felt, all the contradictions.

(Soundbite of song, "Me muero")

Ms. UTADA: (Singing) Oh my lover's gone away, gone to Istanbul, light as a feather, I lie in my bed and flip through TV channels, eating whatever, I'm smoking my days way reading old e-mails, in my old pajamas, what a day, me muero, muero, muero.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are speaking with Utada about her new album, "This is the One."

MARTIN: How do you describe yourself? People call you pop, you know, pop star…

Ms. UTADA: Yeah.

MARTIN: But do you think of yourself as pop?

Ms. UTADA: Well, my intent for making this album was to make really good serious pop. And I don't like dispensable pop, like the bubble gum kind of stuff, but um. Like I miss good old pop, like from the '90s, you know, we had like Ace of Base, and TLC and things like that. And I felt that was kind of missing recently.

MARTIN: What distinguishes serious pop from dispensable pop?

Ms. UTADA: Yes, to me good pop is something that can connect with a wide audience through integrity and honesty on the part of the artist. And then bad pop is just really like just catering to the masses. Where, you know, it's not about the artist anymore, but what sell kind of thing. And good pop is just really good music, like good melodies, good lyrics, a good track. But then all the work that I've been doing so far in Japan has, it's never really fit into any pre-existing genre. So, I mean there're phases when I had a bit of like an urban feeling, like an r&b kind of taste.

Where times when some of my songs that sounded a bit slightly more like rock, but it's gotten to the point where I've like my own Utada genre. Since I do all the track making, in Japan, the stuff from the past. So…

MARTIN: Are you still at Columbia?

Ms. UTADA: No. I went there for one semester and I quit.


Ms. UTADA: I got bored. I'm one of those Columbia dropouts.

MARTIN: Well, there are few others like Lauryn Hill. You've got a distinguished - Sista Souljah.

Ms. UTADA: I know.

MARTIN: Distinguish artists who passed through the doors of Columbia. I'm sure they're happy to have me for semester.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I mean I applaud you for going, but I'm always curious about people who have this whole other career and life. What were you thinking?

Ms. UTADA: Well, that's what everyone asked me like why are you going to university, when you have a job already, but I didn't want to go to get a job. I was hoping to have a more challenging kind of experience in terms of academics, and to meet more interesting people. But when I got there and began like, foundation classes… I mean, I'm sure if you pick a major and carry on it becomes more challenging. But the level of other students, the professors, and like this is the whole academic level - it wasn't as interesting as I hoped and it seemed like an extension of high school.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. UTADA: To be honest, yes.

MARTIN: Did you live in a dorm?

Ms. UTADA: No, that's another thing. I wanted to get the whole, you know, university experience, but because of security issues I couldn't dorm. And I had like weird stockers on campus and the paparazzi from Japan would follow me around between classes.

MARTIN: Oh, I'm sorry.

Ms. UTADA: Things like that and it just wasn't worth it. I didn't get the full university like, life, like the dorming life, and things like that. Anyway so…

MARTIN: She didn't have to fight with your roommate about whether she had a boyfriend over…

Ms. UTADA: Right.

MARTIN: and putting the sock on the door and all that.

Ms. UTADA: We're busy, do not disturb. Well what then that's the best kind of stuff like I wanted, I guess.

MARTIN: Well what's next for you? You've already done so many things, made seven albums…

Ms. UTADA: I don't know.

MARTIN: Transcontinental, and gone to Columbia, got bored.

Ms. UTADA: I'm thinking may be I'll eventually just, soon enough, take a break and learn cooking, like have kids, maybe, or learn how to like, knit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. UTADA: I don't know. I just want to keep on doing things I haven't done before and maybe go to university, I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, I am sure there are any number of institutions that would be happy to have you.

Ms. UTADA: I hope so.

MARTIN: What should we go out on?

Ms. UTADA: What song? Maybe "Apple and Cinnamon" because everyone seems to like that song and it's one of my favorite, too.

MARTIN: Okay, that was an important thing, do you like it, that's the important thing. Okay. Utada's new album is called "This is the One". She joined us from our New York Bureau. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. UTADA: Thank you, eventually, I may be go down to the DC.

MARTIN: We hope so.

(Soundbite of song, "This Is the One")

MARTIN: For more on Utada please check out our Web site, the TELL ME MORE page at and that's our program for today. I'm Michele Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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