Utada is Japan's stealth pop star debuting here

Even her friends didn't know she could fill stadiums

Music: In Concert/CDs

September 30, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

In Japan, her mother's native country, Hikaru Utada is a big deal, a huge pop star whose 1999 debut, First Love, sold 10 million copies. (It's the best-selling homegrown album in Japanese history. The follow-up, 2001's Distance, moved 3 million its first week out.) Utada (she goes by just her last name) still sells out stadiums over there. Her face regularly appears in the country's teen magazines. So, of course, she can't freely walk the streets without causing pandemonium.

But in New York, where the artist lives most of the time, she can chill: hang out with friends, go to a club, go to school. And nobody stops her and screams, Ohmygod! It's Utada!

But her anonymity in America may change with the release of Exodus, her U.S. debut, in stores Tuesday. Quirky, catchy and beat-driven, the record is impressive, rippling with influences ranging from Bjork to Madonna. Hip-hop beats mingle with arty pop melodies.

"In Japan, I felt like I couldn't sound too crazy," says Utada, 21. The singer-songwriter-producer is calling from her New York pad. "The vocals are more important in Japan, not really production. This time, I wanted to concentrate on the production and arranging. Japan is too closed up. You can't be too experimental there."

Gone is the precious pop crooning of her Japanese records. Throughout Exodus, Utada is lyrically fun and assertive -- dismissing careless lovers, declaring her independence, being a grown woman. She pushes her lyrics with aggressive, hard-hitting beats, accented with squishy, swirling synths and zipping bleeps. Her voice -- light and appealing -- is mixed in like another instrument.

"I wanted to make something that was intense but still pop, melodious," says Utada, who produced the album. "I think I did that."

The artist wants to get one thing clear: She's not trying to be the Japanese version of any hot American pop tart. She says, "When I watch MTV or listen to the radio occasionally, I keep on thinking, 'It's the same songs over and over.' I sense among the people that they want something different. But I'm worried about being attached to something already established -- like, I'm not Ashanti. I'm definitely not Britney Spears."

Utada is gutsy and charming, a learn-it-and-do-it-yourself kind of artist. She was about 18 or 19 when she decided to venture into writing, arranging and producing her own material.

"I watched the arrangers and producers on my Japanese albums," Utada says. "I asked them, 'Hey, what's that? What does that do?' I got a keyboard and computer and music programs and learned myself. You don't have to have a home studio to make music. Everything is so compact and small today. I can work on my music on an airplane."

Growing up, the singer-producer was surrounded by music. Keiko Fuji, her mother, was a popular singer in Japan before moving to the United States in the 1970s.

"She introduced me to hip-hop when I was 10," Utada says of her mother. "She would blast The Chronic by Dr. Dre in the living room. I mean, she loved it, this tiny, little Japanese woman just dancing around to Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg."

Her father, Teruzane Utada, was a producer-musician. (He manages his daughter's career today.) For as long as she can remember, Utada has shuttled back and forth between New York and Tokyo.

"When I was really small, I had to be in the studio every night with my parents," she says. "When I was 12, they said, 'Why don't you write songs?'"

So she did. By age 14, she had a contract with Japan's Toshiba-EMI and began recording her first album, whose process overlapped with her first radio show in Japan, Hikki's Sweet & Sour. Once First Love hit the streets in March 1999, Utada became a superstar in her native country almost immediately. After graduating from high school in 2000, she entered Columbia University in Manhattan. She was able to study in peace -- read Dostoevsky and go to her biology classes without folks gawking at her or begging for autographs. Many of her American friends and classmates had no idea she was a megastar in Japan.

But it didn't take long before Utada found work on the U.S. pop music scene. In 2001, the Neptunes, hip to her reputation in Japan, tapped her to work with Foxy Brown on "Blow My Whistle," a track they all co-wrote for the Rush Hour 2 soundtrack. Soon afterward, in early 2002, she signed with Island Def Jam and took a temporary leave from Columbia. In September of that year, she married Japanese movie director and photographer Kazuaki Kiriya, who is 15 years her senior. The marriage didn't hurt her commercial appeal in Japan as Deep River, her third album released that June, sold 5 million copies in the first month of release.

Last year, she finally was able to concentrate on Exodus.

"There's such a shortage of new writers out here," Utada says. "With this record, I want to say to all the artists out there, 'Hey, if you want a writer, a new producer, here I am.'"

To give a few songs an "extra kick," the artist called on master beat maker Timbaland, who remixed the title track, "Wonder 'Bout" and "Let Me Give You My Love," three of the CD's strongest tracks.

"I don't think it's the type of music that can be on American radio," Utada says of Exodus. "I feel like the way to go is on TV and the Internet as far as marketing. I don't know. I'll just keep my fingers crossed that people will hear it."

Hear Rashod Ollison on the radio, Tuesdays at 1 p.m. on Live 105.7 and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on WTMD-FM 89.7.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.