The Many ‘Encounters’ Throughout A 25-Year Career that Have Influenced My Thinking and My Personality
This is the first part of a Real Sound interview with Sakamoto Maaya in celebration of her 25th anniversary.
Sakamoto Maaya has just celebrated the 25th anniversary of her CD debut. She made her bow in 1996 with the single ‘Yakusoku o Iranai’, at the age of 16. Under the tutelage of producer Kanno Yōko she’d been refining her expressiveness as a singer and since 2005, expanded her musicality through working with an extraordinary group of creators while at the same time, establishing her artistic individuality by writing her own lyrics and compositions.
On July 15th 2020, her 25th anniversary album ‘Single Collection+ Achikochi’ was released. In this interview, we take a look at her musical growth and trace the changes in her stance towards her music activities as we reflect on her career thus far. (Interview: Mori Tomoyuki)
I used to think of myself as someone with ‘no personality’
Q: It’s the 25th anniversary of your CD debut. What are your feelings about this ‘25th year’ figure?
A: I don’t actually spend my days wondering ‘this is my how many-eth year again?’ but when milestones like this come up, I do think ‘Wow, it’s been that long huh’. There’s a certain gap between perception and reality that brings its surprises but I’d like to think that I’ve been lucky. Having the desire to ‘persist’ with something doesn’t necessarily mean that it will happen – I’ve endured until today thanks to the folks I’ve met and of course, because there are people who will listen to my songs.
Q: You’ve been blessed when it comes to encounters as well.
A: I believe so. There have been a number of instances over the past 25 years where something comes along right in the nick of time to save me when I’m in trouble. I can’t explain it too well in words, but when you’ve been doing something for a long time you get into all kinds of situations, don’t you? Sometimes everything goes smoothly and at other times you just kind of get stuck in a rut. Maybe you’re not feeling up to it physically, or you’ve lost sight of your goals…it’s at times like these that you feel like throwing up your hands in surrender but it only takes an unexpected coincidence, a chance encounter or a random song; maybe even a lyric that I’ve written, to get me to think, ‘let’s just try a little bit harder at this’. And before I knew it, 25 years have gone by (laughs)
Q: I see. Let’s talk about your debut for a bit. You had just turned 16 when ‘Yakusoku o Iranai’ was released. You didn’t possess the ‘ego’ of an artiste or anything like that back then, right…?
A: Probably not at all (laughs) Especially since I only became a singer by accident, so it wasn’t as if I’d prepared myself for any of this nor was it a long-term goal that I’d had at the time. I basically stepped into this world on a level emotional plane, which you could say is equivalent to having zero ego as an artiste. I did love to sing though, so of course I was happy (to get a CD debut) but thinking about it now, I was very childish back then.
Q: You were a child actress since your younger days so was it unexpected for you to debut as a singer?
A: Prior to that I’d had the opportunity to sing songs for commercials and so on but honestly, I was surprised to get to put out a CD with my name on it and have somebody listen to the final product. The day ‘Yakusoku o Iranai’ was released, I paid a visit to the store where I normally buy CDs. To see a CD with my name on it placed on the shelves was actually shocking for me. It was a completely different feeling compared to being on stage as a child actress; ‘Yakusoku o Iranai’ is a song that I loved and wanted people to listen to but at the same time I was sort of thinking ‘God I hope my friends don’t see this, it’s embarrassing’. Quite a contradiction granted my line of work, but I wasn’t ever the type who wanted to stand out from the crowd.
Q: So rather than wanting people to look at you, you merely wanted to be involved in the art of expression?
A: That’s right. When I think about it now, the fact that my mother used to praise my singing a lot when I was young – that played a big part. I’d sing when I was playing, sing when I was watching TV; my mother would constantly shower me with compliments and that made me think, ‘I’ll sing because it makes mom happy’. She was very pleased when I made my CD debut but stopped praising me after that (laughs). Honestly, I’ve never actually thought ‘I’m good at singing’ – I just really loved to sing. For a while after I’d made my debut, I did my best to follow my producer Kanno Yōko-san’s advice to ‘try singing this or that way’. It was quite similar to acting in terms of the desire I had to meet the demands of directors. That was pretty much the foundation that my teenage years were built upon.
Q: Instead of reflecting Sakamoto-san’s own preferences and intentions, your expressiveness as a singer was guided by the musician named Kanno Yōko.
A: Obviously my own will gradually started to make its presence felt and I gained an interest in lyric-writing later on, but I suppose that back then, I thought of myself as having ‘no personality’. People would encourage me to do things in my own way but I’d turn shy and end up having no idea what to do whereas if someone told me ‘this is what this role is about’, I’d have no problems expressing myself, sometimes in ways that surprised myself. Even as a singer, I’d find that the scope of the expressions that I used in a song would expand if I had ‘this song is about becoming someone like this’ explained to me. Thanks to the acting experience I’d acquired from when I was young, I found that there were parts [of this approach] that I could utilise in my singing.
Q: But on the other hand, you had the desire to ‘find out who you were as an artiste’, correct?
A: I’ve always had a complex about that. I didn’t really understand ‘who’ I was or what ‘originality’ meant for me, and I wondered whether I could carry on doing what I did without [knowing]. So I’ve been searching for this ‘personality’ of mine for a long time. There was a point in time where I pretended to have ‘personality’ when I most certainly didn’t (laughs).
Q: Those are pretty complicated feelings.
A: But I do think that most of us, to a certain extent, harbour such feelings when we’re young. What I’m like when I’m at school, what I’m like at home, or the person that I think I am – there are bound to be a few inconsistencies between those [aspects], and one might end up being unsure of ‘where my true self lies’ or ‘what I want to do’. We all live our lives allowing certain aspects of ourselves to be exposed to others but for me, I had to put my own name out there; express myself outwardly. I think there were parts of my teenage years that seemed a bit documentary-like, where the aim was to show everyone just how much I’d grown.
Q: Do you think you absorbed a lot [of knowledge] through doing music?
A: I’m pretty sure that the reason I liked acting was because an inconspicuous, colourless person like me was able to find pleasure in the freedom to ‘become someone other than myself’ whenever I was given a role. Having gone down the music route, I was increasingly being asked to ‘express myself more’ and while I’d be thinking ‘I’ve got nothing worth showing…’, Kanno-san would reply ‘there must be something’ and she’d get me to keep trying out all sorts of different things to try and increase my [self-]awareness. With hindsight, I’m so glad that I was given the space during my formative years to ‘think about who Sakamoto Maaya is when she’s not playing a role’, and that I was able to grow up without turning away from who I am.
If “I” am nowhere to be found, it would feel fake
Q: You split from your producer Kanno-san in 2005 with the single ‘Loop’ – did that mean that you’d found your artistic personality?
A: I did find myself there, at that moment in time. But I do also feel that I was trying to become the Sakamoto Maaya that Kanno-san had wished me to be. Kanno-san really understood what ‘being Sakamoto Maaya’ meant and there hadn’t been a need for things to be explained up until that point, so I did feel anxious about whether I could sing adequately for someone whom I was meeting for the first time. ‘Loop’ came a short time after I’d graduated from university and was once again thinking about making a living in this industry. I was expanding the scope of my work by trying out musical work and so forth, and getting to meet such amazing people in my age group made me realise ‘what a narrow world I’d been living in’. And it pretty much crushed my perception that ‘I’d have no problem keeping up [with the others]’.
Q: Were you shocked to meet such talented people from your age group?
A: I really was. When I was a child actress, I was always the youngest wherever I went and hardly ever met any other children of my age. By the time I’d taken my first step outside, I was in my mid-20s and others my age were already working twice as hard, had tons of talent and shone at what they did. It felt like I’d been constantly playing truant; that I’d been brought up in a bubble. I’d only ever worked with the same people I’d known my whole life and would likely keep producing good works even if I ended up never broadening my horizons. I know that this is something I can only say now in retrospect, but if I’d continued going down that road, I don’t think I would have lasted 25 years. Something inside me would have died somewhere along the way, I think. Despite that, I was still uneasy about trying something new. Going back to what we were discussing – the last album I made with Kanno-san (2003’s ‘Shōnen Alice’) was a fantastically good album. Though I agree with that sentiment, I have to say that I didn’t feel particularly happy when I heard the acclaim it received. Most of it was thanks to Kanno-san being in charge – my thoughts were, ‘I am still not that accomplished yet’ and my own assessment clashed [with general opinion]. Instead of feeling down, I felt angry for whatever reason. I would often compare myself to other people and think ‘how naive can I be?’, getting annoyed at and disappointed in myself for being unable to accomplish anything of note. I do think I was quite selfish back then.
Q: That’s a pretty big wall to run into.
A: While splitting from Kanno-san as my producer wasn’t quite my version of going on a pilgrimage [to find myself], I do think Kanno-san felt a bit like a lioness pushing her own cub off the edge of a cliff. On my part I had braced myself, thinking that ‘If I go out into the wide world and don’t manage to survive, then I was never worth much in the first place anyway’.
Q: You ended up working with a diverse group of songwriters for your singles starting with ‘Loop’ – h-wonder, Suzuki Shōko, Cano Caoli and so on.
A: That was the intention, and my staff members thought it’d be good to let me come into contact with all sorts of different people. I thought of it positively – I might discover potential within myself that I never knew existed, or some crazy chemical reaction could occur when I meet someone new. That period was a succession of experiments for me.
Q: Through trial and error, you eventually reached the conclusion that ‘no matter who I work with, it’ll still be a Sakamoto Maaya song’?
A: I only started to feel that way in my 30s. When you think about it, what a long time it’s taken, hasn’t it? (laughs) The songs included in ‘Achikochi’ (that were released post-2013) are all songs made with the firm conviction that ‘I can be myself no matter who I work with’ and with pleasure gained from the knowledge that ‘it’s okay to fail’ – I can listen to them with peace of mind. Up to that point, the experimental process had always troubled me. I’d start from scratch, trying to get across exactly what I wanted or didn’t want throughout the making of a track. I exhausted myself every single time, which I mean in a good way. Different recording engineers have different working methods and I was able to make discoveries regarding ‘what I should do to produce a certain type of sound’. It was a continuous learning process.
Q: 2011’s ‘You can’t catch me’, released to time with your 15th anniversary year, was your first chart-topping album and may also have been the first of Sakamoto-san’s albums to establish your ‘personality’. It featured a diverse group of songwriters and fully demonstrated your potential as a singer.
A: It really was an experiment though. I was still exploring all kinds of things and each song on ‘You can’t catch me’ featured a different engineer. Originally, I’d planned and thought it better to engage a single engineer trusted by one of the songwriters but by the halfway point [we] were thinking, ‘how on earth do you put all of this together on 1 album?’ (laughs) It was a very trying process, but I learned a lot.
Q: What are your thoughts on lyric writing? Since 2010, you’ve gained increasing attention as a lyricist.
A: I’d always loved to write lyrics but I was already in my 30s by the time I started to want to write about all kinds of things. When I was in my teens, I could only write based on my own experiences so even if I was trying to write a love song, I didn’t have the vocabulary for it. Now that I’m getting older, I find the content of my lyrics being enriched by my own experiences and those of people around me. When I was young, I would need a specific theme; for example, ‘Justice prevails!’ but now, I understand that there is a myriad of emotions within me and I’ve come to be able to express them through my lyrics. Once that was clear, lyric-writing became even more enjoyable to me.
Q: When one writes based on their own experiences, the tendency is for the songs to be a little bit samey, singing about repetitive themes. You could describe it as [a person’s unique] flavour but to me, Sakamoto-san is more of an ‘author’.
A: There is a part of me which thinks ‘I’d feel embarrassed to keep singing about the same things all the time’ but luckily, I have been entrusted with many opportunities to perform theme songs that are tie-ups [for series/productions] and that does help to broaden my range. Earlier, I mentioned that ‘through a role, I can express myself in ways that I never thought possible’ and this runs in a similar vein. I’m often asked to write in ways that would normally be unfathomable to me, such as ‘make “conquering the world” the theme of a song’, or write about ‘a teenager who gains superpowers out of the blue and he now rides giant robots’ – it’s fun to write lyrics as I’m gradually being fed bits of information. Still, it’d feel fake if the songs I wrote for tie-ups didn’t have a little bit of ‘me’ in there somewhere. Okay, maybe it’d be fine to have nothing of ‘me’ in a song but I try to include maybe 2 lines that represent ‘what I want to say right now’. I used to believe that it’d be bad if ‘I’ wasn’t in the song at all, but I can strike a fine balance between story and song nowadays. I think I’ve finally grown up.