Meet Emiri Ota, Kansai’s Answer to Björk
You’ve never heard a J-pop artist quite like Emiri Ota.
Sat at her piano, fingers bashing out ragged chords while her voice swoops, coos and croaks over the top, the baby-faced singer-songwriter evokes the same shock of the new that you might get hearing Björk, Kate Bush or Fiona Apple for the first time. This 20-year-old Kansai native scooped the grand prize at Yamaha’s Music Revolution young musicians’ contest in 2007 and went on to land a contract with Avex imprint Cutting Edge. Her three singles to date, released in a series titled “Sekai No Minasan E” (lit. To the People of the World), have each been accompanied by a live DVD showcasing her singular talents, both performing solo and – in the most recent one – with a full orchestra. In person, Ota is soft-spoken and seems to choose her words very carefully indeed.
What was your first musical memory?
Starting piano lessons when I was three. Also, my mother was always singing “Ai no Suichuuka,” by singer and actress Keiko Matsuzaka, around the house, and I remember that I used to imitate her.
What kind of song was it?
(Giggles) It was adult stuff, kayokyoku (the precursor to J-pop). It’s a really good song.
Did you have a lot of music playing around you while you were young?
Yes, I used to hear a lot of karaoke. When I did ballet, I’d listen to the piano accompaniment, and then with flamenco, I’d listen to that music too…
Flamenco? How old were you when you did that?
That was when I was a fourth year elementary school student, but my mother had been doing it since when I was little.
Which did you prefer, ballet or flamenco?
Flamenco. I liked the fact that you could show emotions on your face, all kinds of human suffering. It’s a dance that lets you express things honestly – I like that.
I’m guessing there are more people who started playing piano from the age of three than, say, the guitar. Do you think playing from such a young age gives you a deeper relationship with the instrument?
Right. It probably doesn’t matter if you play well or not, but I think you have a really deep connection with the piano if you start at three, something that can’t be seen.
I read that you started off with a piano teacher but were largely self-taught after that. Do you think the music you’re making now would’ve been very different if you’d had a more formal education?
You mean, my music wouldn’t have ended up the way it did? I think that’s right, yes.
Have you heard any other music that sounds like yours?
That sounds similar? Similar to my music? Um… no, I don’t think I have.
So if someone asks you what your music is influenced by, how do you reply?
I don’t! (Laughs)
Where do these songs come from, then?
When I started out, I was writing words that sounded like catchphrases, then I moved on to a process that’s more story-based.
That’s just for the lyrics though, right?
Yes. You were asking where the songs came from. (Huge pause) I guess they come from somewhere interesting.
Which comes first, the lyrics or the melody?
Always the lyrics.
Are there any melodies that came really easily, or lyrics that were tough to turn into a song?
Yes, there were some. There’s a song called “Paka Paka Daigakusei” that’s included in my second release; the melody for that one came really quickly. I’d written the lyrics in the style of a children’s song, so I went for a kind of nursery rhyme tune, too.
And were there any that came with a lot more difficulty?
I really had to work on my third single. I’d already decided on a concept; I wanted to write something really catchy, but I was going round and round in circles trying to get there. In the end I gave up on what I’d been doing until then and started writing what became the song “Kagome Kagome ’12.” It was like, “Aha!” And then 20 minutes later I had the finished song.
So it was completely different than before?
The songs on the accompanying DVD for “Kagome Kagome ’12” are pretty old, right? How does it feel playing them now?
It depends on the song, really, but there are some that feel a bit immature or even a little embarrassing now. Then there are others when I feel like I’ve moved on, so I don’t really feel any emotion when I play them.
It seems pretty unusual for a new artist to debut with a series of live DVDs and singles. Why did you decide to do it this way?
The director suggested it – he thought my shows were interesting, so it made sense to release the songs in sets with live videos.
With the singles, did you already have a clear idea of how you wanted the songs to be arranged?
I did the arrangement myself for my second single, “Saitan Ruto.” It had been knocking around for a few years, so it was just a question of setting it to live instrumentation. Masanori Shimada did the arrangements for the first and third singles. For “Kagome Kagome ’12,” we got him to do something that you could play on the radio, while with “Shugoutai” I liked the rough version that he’d done, so we went with that
Which do you think expresses the “real you” the best?
I think when it’s just me, accompanying myself on piano. “Saitan Ruuto” comes pretty close, too.
Your singing style is pretty unusual. How has it developed over time?
My voice used to sound quite shrill. There was a period when I sang like that; really shrill, at the top of my lungs. But then I started experimenting. I tried it more sotto voce, like more of a whispering voice, then I studied how to sing in this guttural, husky way. I tried lots of different techniques, and mixed them all together, and that’s how I ended up singing the way I do.
Do you always practice in a studio?
No, I practice at home. But only until 10:00p.m., though!
So you won’t get any complaints from the neighbors?
Do you feel you have much in common with any other J-pop artists?
I don’t think so.
All your releases have been titled “To the people of the world.” Seeing that this article is going to go out in English, what would you most like to say to people around the world?
There are so many things out there. (Really long pause) I want to tell people to try and remember from time to time that it isn’t just about what you see, what you hear and what you feel – there’s a whole world out there, beyond the realm of your own experiences. That’s what I’d like to say.