Sound Decision
Interview with Ai Uchida

by Jonathan Mays,
Ai Uchida is half of AVANT GARDE, a club pop duo with a dual existence as one of J-Pop's top go-to teams. While building their own peformance careers, Uchida and Hiroshi Kim have penned and produced for the likes of BoA, hitomi, and Kumi Koda.

AG's creed is the "constant pursuit of better ways to market better music." To that end, Uchida set aside the time to converse several times over the last month. The following is a rearrangement of the dialogue sorted roughly by topic.

First, performing with the Seattle Symphony Chorale. That's not the kind of job someone just walks into...What led you there?
Performing with the Seattle Symphony Chorale was a challenging but fantastic experience from Day 1. Actually I have a funny story about auditions. It was late '97, Seattle: I kept seeing advertisements on TV that the Chorale was holding auditions for new members and even wrote down the number to contact, but I kept putting off making the call. On the last day of auditions, I was with a friend of mine and casually mentioned something along the lines of how I had wanted to sing with the Chorale but didn't have to nerve to try out. She looked at me like I was crazy and said "Come on, Ai, get going!" So two hours before it was all over was when I finally called the audition hotline, but not surprisingly they weren't accepting any more people by then. But at this point I was determined not to let the opportunity pass and found out where the auditions were taking place. I got permission to try out from the nice receptionist there.

The audition was a disaster! The piece I went in with was "When I Fall In Love", a song I had only sung with my jazz teacher and her jazz piano accompaniment, but which, of course, the woman at the piano played with no improv, just the way it was written. When I finally somehow tumbled and stumbled through the piece I was mortified. The chorale director asked me why I had come at the last minute. I told him I wanted an opportunity to sing with a symphony orchestra but it was only when my friend urged me along that I was able to muster up the guts to try out. And I'll never forget what he said then: "It's important to not give up. Welcome to the Chorale". It was a humbling but inspirational lesson. I've never forgotten how instrumental those two people were in my life that day: my friend for giving me the push I needed, and the director for giving me a chance.

That's quite a story! What was it like to be in the Chorale?
Being part of that season was amazing. That was when the Symphony and Chorale moved to its new home, the beautiful and brand new Benaroya Hall on 4th Avenue, in the middle of downtown Seattle. The opening of Benaroya was a huge sensation, with the press everywhere and free concerts for the public. We were the first ones to sing there and it was unbelievably exciting to sing in front of (what felt like) the whole city of Seattle and inaugurate it. Our maestro for the season was Mr Gerard Schwarz, who is kind of a classical music celebrity all over the place but especially in Seattle. He was brilliant and charismatic, and I think by the end of the season most of the women and half of the men were in love with the conductor! Seattle loved him.

It was also through the Seattle Symphony Chorale that I "met" Debussy, when we performed his three Nocturnes. In the third piece, the Song Of The Sirens, the Chorale would portray the sirens' deadly song from The Odyssey. From the moment I heard the haunting melodies and harmonies I was hooked, but the whole water-ocean-storm imagery was extremely moving especially as I was living right by the Puget Sound then, and I just love the water. I guess I fell in love with two people that season, Schwarz and Debussy, so no wonder I had such a great time! (And Jonathan, if you haven't heard the Song Of The Sirens, I highly recommend it!)

How cool—even in Tokyo, that experience must not feel far away. Do you have any good stories of working with Mr. Schwarz?
To be honest I remember his "aura" the most. When he walked into the room everyone stopped, and when he spoke everyone listened; you could hear a pin drop. That was true even when he was speaking through the Chorale and the Symphony. It was like the city listened to him.

Since that rough outing in '97, have you learned any secrets to auditioning?
Enough can't be said about practicing beforehand if you know the piece with which you'll audition. Once you know it like the back of your hand, you can visualize the audition taking place in your mind and keep doing it over and over until you're happy with your performance. Trying it out in front of an audience— like a friend (for emotional prepping) and a sister (for the criticism)— is also helpful. This is what I did my first year of college when I was trying out for a competitive a cappella group. The practicing made me very calm and when I went into the audition, I was ready to give my best.

Next, working with hitomi, hiro, Koda Kumi, anyone who would really catch casual J-Pop fans' attention (or even someone less well known). Do you have any good stories?
Let's see. I've met all three of those artists and each one is unique, in both personality and in style. As you may know, hitomi always writes her own lyrics. When she asks me to translate something into English, she gives me ideas first, not just sentences. And because her ideas are usually very specific and artistic, it's easy to maintain the "lyrical" quality, even in the translation. hiro is friendly and sweet, and maybe her likable personality overshadows the fact that she executes a lot of direction over each project and song. For example, even when she's not the one recording but there's a guitarist coming into the studio for one of her songs, she'll still come in to oversee it.

And Koda Kumi has a cute dog, Lamb-chan, that she brings with her almost everywhere (Lamb-chan is the giant pup featured in one of her videos)! She (I mean the singer) is lively, friendly, down to earth... and edgy: at her birthday party a few years ago, she gave everyone lollipop condoms as party favors! Kumiko Kato is a beauty and a smart girl. Not only is she talented, she has the diligence needed to make her into a sensational star. I learn a lot from all these singers as they have so much to teach.

Sounds like hitomi has a first-class translator. Can you give an example of how you put her ideas into words?
Well, I don't know if she has a first-class translator but I would agree if you said she has someone who loves to write lyrics. But I have to stress that she makes the job easy for me. Often I am given several of her own English attempts, which is helpful because just a keyword or two is enough to continue in the direction she wants to go. If she records them it's even better, because her tone can be very revealing. Taking these things as well as the rest of the song into consideration, I am usually able to offer a few suggestions for her team to choose from.

And when she just gives me an idea to work off of, I like to listen to the track while also keeping her main lyrics in mind and kind of zone out until I feel like I've hit on something. I often like to imagine that I am scavenging for words that already exist when I write lyrics, and that's the approach I take with translation sometimes, too.

Are there any special challenges in working with a big artist on a big project? Deadlines, restrictions, something else?
The big artists HK and I have met have all been professional and reasonable and we haven't had any major challenges come our way— not yet, anyway!

What about advantages?
The #1 advantage of working with them? That we're invited to their birthday parties!! Well, that plus we get to meet and work with great instrumentalists, engineers and directors that we wouldn't have otherwise. With any serious artist, famous or not, it's pretty exciting to come together with the aim of creating something good.

Why don't we talk about a song of which you are particularly proud? Or maybe a good concert story?
I love "Love Angel" (hitomi). Zentaro Watanabe did a beautiful arrangement to that song and I was like.. "Yessss! You got it!!" Concerts are amazing…to hear a song you contributed to being performed by pros with thousands of people grooving to it?! It is out of this world. Each concert, every time, I get goose-bumps and teary-eyed. I feel that a song is something that has a life of its own, so when it's being performed, it's like seeing it alive and kicking and happy.

Love Angel is an awesome song, especially the solo synth; I can only imagine what it must have been like at a huge concert. Any other favorite songs or concert moments?
Thank you! Another memorable concert moment was when HK and I were invited to see hiro perform at a school festival and she sang "CRAZY", which was our debut-song as songwriters. There's a rap section sung by Ken from Da-Pump, and she had invited a student on stage to do the rap section with her! I think the school really enjoyed that, and we thought it was so sweet and hiro-like to think of such a thing. Plus it was cool to here her singing CRAZY, of course!

Now, you put together your first mini-album from scratch, from composing to marketing, right? Is being an "indie" group in Japan different from in America?
I don't know what it's like to be on a label in the states, but being on my own indie label here has helped me develop into a singer and songwriter who is aware of the whole picture, and not just the parts I am singing or writing lyrics for. When my partner Hiroshi Kim and I started AVANT GARDE and Spinshell Records in 2001, no one baby-sat us and we had to do everything ourselves. At the time I was like, "wait, where's our manager??" but now I realize we would have never learned about the music industry in the way that we did, had we signed a deal with a major-label from the start.

Five years ago I didn't know anything about mixing, mastering, microphones, or the difference between this sound engineer and that sound engineer, let alone how to write a press release or direct a photo shoot. Knowing all these things today gives me greater confidence as a singer. Of course HK and I made mistakes along the way, especially in the beginning, but what we learned from them is exactly what has helped us be better producers, for ourselves as well as for other people.

Maybe because I was allowed to have these experiences, I was able to grow with myself and not grow into someone's expectations of who Ai Uchida or AVANT GARDE should be. When we first started I just wanted to be the next Madonna. Now I realize, you need to know the back-side as well as the front-side to be anything like her.

Let's take this broader: What's it like to work as a musician in Tokyo?
You know, I feel very lucky working in Tokyo because there is so much talent here. There are a ton of gifted instrumentalists and engineers; everyone's level of professionalism and playing style is very high. And obviously there are many great Japanese singers, but there are also quite a few international and foreign artists based in Tokyo. On weekends, their events and parties are packed, and Japanese artists and listeners will be there, not just foreign people. Now that services like iTunes are so popular, I believe there will be more opportunities for Japanese and Japan-based musicians to test their songs on a border-less audience; you won't need a huge PR team to get your chance.

I am American; I am also Japanese. My music partner is Korean but his whole life he's lived in Japan. The reason we live and work in Tokyo is because it's exciting to be here and there's work for us. We're really not very different from everybody else trying to make music. This city is filled with extremities of all kinds: old-meets-new, East-meets-West, cute-meets-freaky, traditional-meets-eccentric, and artists have always been attracted to cities like that. Being part of that scene here and now is thrilling and inspiring. And the food's not bad either! How's that for broad?

Nice. The East-meets-West thing reminds me of an article that Ben from Toonzone pointed out recently:

"Mark Russell, a Seoul correspondent for Billboard, says Korean musicians simply have trouble "crossing over." "When Latin music came to the United States, did those artists try to sound like Puff Daddy or Boyz 2 Men? No," he said. "They were true to their own sound, with just some improvement in production values. Even Japanese pop has its own quirky style. But what is Korean about Korean pop? Nothing! In the melody, the singing style, instrumentation or harmonies. It is all just a rehash of American pop with a little J-pop glam thrown in."

I don't really buy that Korean music is simply American pop with a hint of J-Pop, but it does make me wonder where you draw the line between East and West these days. Does J-Pop have a distinct identity? What about Korean music? Can you still say, "Oh, that beat is J-Pop influenced, and that melody is popular in Korea" or something like that?
Whenever I see Korean singers on TV, I'm always like "wow, they are so talented!" Their choreography is always very tight and, man, they can sing!! I don't know what makes K-pop distinct, though I do feel like they have a lot of ballads. J-pop... I'd say some of the distinctive qualities are elaborate melodies, the occasional key change for final verses, and intricate arrangements. But this is a hard question, pass please :)

Okay, on a level, what are the major influences in your own music right now?
HK and I both like EBTG, Frou Frou, Kruder & Dorfmeister, and we're dipping into club music now.

Who's your typical audience? Do you expect it to be different with Last Sad Song in the US?
Our normal audience tends to be people in their mid-20's and up. We have lots of moms and dads tell us they like our music, and that's really flattering because I don't normally consider club music to be mom n pop beats. We've always tried to be consistent with maintaining the "pop" sound in our music. If we're attracting a wide age group for our audience, maybe it means we're somehow managing to stay above-ground, which was one of our professional goals when we started AG.

What I'm really looking forward to with having Last Sad Song in the States is that people, should they wish, can sing along! With the Japanese lyrics, that was kind of out of the question though I do applaud my friends' and relatives' attempts :). I want to share Last Sad Song with people who like to dance and listen to music loudly in their cars. I think it would be a great soundtrack for a roadtrip... I hope!

It's an excellent disc. So is the club scene in Japan any different from America's?
Aside from every venue having its own unique ambiance, I'd say the club experience is quite similar in both countries. If I were to single out one distinction maybe it's the dance floors... many clubs in Tokyo have a big dance floor, maybe more so than the clubs I've been to in Seattle and NY. The dance floor and stage is the first thing people notice at Warehouse, too.

A short time ago Hiroaki Yura, a violinist who started a professional orchestra for anime and video game music, was here to talk about his goals and achievements. He said one of his goals is to expose teens to classical music by "sneaking" the occasional concerto in between video game themes. Now, you've also worked on two different "sides" of music—pop and classical. What do you think of his approach?
What Hiroaki Yura said and is doing is really cool. I think with people like that who know how to get young people's attention, classical music will reach and be appreciated by young music aficionados as well as older ones. The funny thing about classical music is, though it may have a stuffy stereotype attached to it, many of its pieces are just as crazy as some of the things we hear on the radio or sample on iTunes... I suppose we have to remember it was pop music back in the day.

Spinshell Night is coming up soon...what's the plan for that event?
YES! Spinshell Night is going to be a fabulous night. We have great bands and musicians who live and work in Tokyo, like "prince squad" and of course "Kumiko Kato", and we're just gonna have a good time! Ram Rider agreed to come spin for us, which is huge treat for all of us. And of course AG will be performing our new songs like Last Sad Song so we're psyched about that. It's been a few years since we've performed in front of a club audience (since Living Floor at Shibuya Club Asia in 2002-2003) but HK and I love the energy and vibe of clubs and club-goers so we can't wait to get back on stage and do our thing. Are you in town Jonathan? You'd be more than welcome to the party!

…and now we're a couple of days after Spinshell Night. How'd it go? Did it take long to get back into "club" mode?
Okagesamade ("thanks to everyone's efforts"), the event was a success! Getting into the club mode was super easy. I love it when people dance, and that's exactly what the audience did for us the other night. It means the world when people dance to our music, and I had forgotten how great that feels! HK and I definitely want to do more shows at clubs again. The energy in the air from the audience is addictive.

We also had so many great performers that night with whom we shared the stage... The audience went crazy over Kumiko; she's really in tune with them and she sounded perfect. prince squad is a new act in Tokyo and about a hundred people came to just check them out! We had a wonderful pole dance artist—Lu, who is based in NY but teaches and performs in Tokyo too— who added a unique color to the whole event. And of course all the DJ's—especially Ram Rider—had the dance floor hopping. To be part of all that as performers was flattering, not to mention lots of fun.

I was kind of worried about the event because it was our first one to organize, but luckily lots of people showed up and all the acts and DJs went very well. Phew! I'm already excited for our next Spinshell Night, which we're planning on having in October.

I've seen your AC music video a few times, and I still have no clue what's going on. Are you going to spill the secret anytime soon?
Ha ha! This is the million dollar question. Here's a hint: the lyrics are sung from the perspective of a bystander, someone who cares about a friend or family or stranger in need, but can't help them, because the only person who can help someone is ultimately themselves. So the music video illustrates that helplessness that the bystander feels (myself), but ultimately... da da da daaaam... we see that I am those people. They are me and I am them. One of the repeated lines in the song translates to "you can do it if you believe it", and the music video focuses on the irony of a person in need, that they are in fact the person who can help. Or, at least, methinks so..., let me go watch it again... :)

What else are you working on now?
More dance-able songs! It's crazy how many energy-packed songs are being "birthed" at the studio recently. We love ballads so we definitely want to include one or two in that direction on our next album, but first we gotta get some of this "quan" out of our way, otherwise our hips will be shaking while I'm crooning and HK is sustaining long piano chords!

Thanks again for your time.
It's my pleasure. And please let me know when you'll be coming out to Tokyo to see us perform!

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