by Jonathan Mays,
Ever since I met Kumiko Kato in February, I have been known among my friends as the guy who got throat medicine from a Japanese pop star. The distinction is rather embarrassing, but it paints a clear picture of Kumiko's personality, and it reminds me of why this sparkling new artist's music is worth a listen.
We were sitting in the studio, and Kumiko was running through a list of her dance experiences. "Ballet, hip-hop, jazz dance, reggae, salsa—" and apparently I took this as a cue to showcase my sore throat with a few coughs. Kumiko's manager looked horrified. He had already mentioned (with a tone of warning) that Kumiko was flying to Atlanta the next day for a critical recording session. In other words, if Kumiko caught a cold, it would be my head on a pike.
Figuring I had just blown my last chance, I clicked the recorder off and started to get out of my seat. But Kumiko had other thoughts.
"Wait!" she ordered. Then she picked up her purse and began to rummage through it. This jogged my memory of something I had read at the bottom of her bio sheet: "Things in Kumiko's Purse." Eye drops, lipstick, portable MP3 player...oh, no. Herbal throat medicine. Sure enough, she pulled out a pair of small white pills. "Here, take these. They will help your throat."
The problem with recording studios is that they don't come with holes that a terribly embarrassed interviewer can jump into. This was a hundred times worse than the time a J-Pop artist decided to practice her English by quizzing me on my love life, or the time I pissed off an entire room of executives by asking someone about a sex doll. But Kumiko didn't seem bothered at all. "I'm not going anywhere," she said. Talk about pulling an anti-diva. She stayed until our studio time was up, and then we walked to a nearby Starbucks to chat some more.
Looking back, I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised by Kumiko's reaction. I mean, here's somebody who juggled three part-time jobs as a teenager in order to save up enough money to fly to New York from her hometown of Nagoya. She's worked as an entertainer before, starring in NHK Nagoya's "Diary of a Junior High School Student." And her father, the original bass player in the hit late 70s pop group "Sentimental City Romance," was certainly a positive influence when she decided at age ten that the performing life was for her. But Kumiko has never been afraid of a challenge, like moving to a heavily Hispanic neighborhood in the Bronx or enrolling in LaGuardia Community College to continue her education in a foreign country.
The interview itself was a challenge for Kumiko, in part because I was clearly under the weather, but also because we did it in English. Sometimes we couldn't connect—for example, she said, "When I came to New York, I realized that I had to dance Japanese traditional dance because I am Japanese," and I could never quite figure out what she meant.
Kumiko's manager pinpointed the rift. "All Japanese students start learning English when they are in junior high," he said, "But we just do writing, reading, composition, grammar. There's no conversation or listening comprehension, so it's hard for us to speak and listen."
That's where music, the universal language, comes in handy. Even though we were still speaking in English, it was much easier to find a common wavelength.
"Dance taught me how to move my body."
"It shows in your singing."
"Yes, it connects my voice."
"You have a sense of phrasing."
"Exactly, I can move within the beat."
"Everything is fluid."
Right then, I knew we had finally reached the heart of the matter. I asked Kumiko to make her pitch, to convince people to listen to her music. "I sing from... from my heart," she said, slowly gathering the words. "And I dance from my soul," she says, "So... I know you will love it!"
If her demo tape is any indication, Kumiko is right on the mark. Her showcase piece, "Thinking of You," has a fantastic southwestern flavor, and Kumiko shapes her phrases naturally, with more attention to breathing and dynamic changes than I hear from most Japanese artists. In fact, I feel uncomfortable calling her a "Japanese artist," because that brings all sorts of baggage that doesn't apply to Kumiko. Her career is firmly rooted in the United States, where she began singing only two years ago.
When Sounday Records releases her debut single this summer, rest assured the Japanese labels will be paying attention, wondering if they can use her like they used Kumi Koda and market Kumiko as an international star back in Japan. But for now, that doesn't matter. What does is that Kumiko Kato is ready for prime time, and Western music fans would be wise to keep one eye and two ears on her.
I got one final surprise that weekend. While we were having dinner (and I was suffering the cruel form of payback known as the English-forbidden dinner conversation), Kumiko asked me about college life. "I've never had anything like it," she said. Discussing chemistry and student government with a Japanese pop star—well, that's about as likely as getting throat medicine from one.
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