When I start making a song, for one second I see an amazing view—and in that instant, it cracks and falls to pieces. Then the rest of the process is trying to put the pieces back together. So when it feels familiar, when I see what I saw in that moment the song was conceived, then I know it’s done.—Utada
Hikaru Utada is one of the biggest pop stars in the universe. Over the last ten years, her accomplishments in Japan are simply staggering. Her 1999 debut First Love is the country's biggest-selling album of all time, and three of her albums rank among the Top Ten best-sellers. She has had 12 Number One hits, including four songs in Japan's all-time Top 100. 2001's Distance had the largest first-week sales for any album in Japanese music history, selling an astonishing three million copies. In total, the young singer has sold more than 52 million albums.
But unlike most pop starlets around the world, Utada is also a songwriter and producer; indeed, she says that she thinks of herself as a composer more than as a performer. And on This Is The One, her new Island Def Jam album [featuring ten self-penned songs produced by the powerhouse producers Stargate (Ne-Yo, Rihanna, Beyonce) and Tricky (Britney Spears, Madonna, Mariah Carey)] 26-year-old Utada reveals the unique sense of songcraft that is poised to make her a force in the US and European music communities.
"I wanted to make something that’s accessible but not cheap—not low-class or stupid, but still appealing to a wide audience," says Utada. "I like to make music that’s multi-layered. You might like a song and want to dance, but not really dive into the lyrics and analyze them. And then if you’re more bookish and you like words, you might notice the references I make, to Captain Picard or Freddie Mercury or Winona Ryder.
"Both things are just as important to me—to be catchy, so when you hear a song on the radio it sticks out, and also to have that depth."
In conversation, Utada is endlessly surprising, instantly shattering any expectations or stereotypes. The list of heroes and influences that she cites—from the Cocteau Twins to Conan O'Brien, from author Roald Dahl to the Notorious B.I.G.—is unpredictable but extremely telling. "I like smart people," she says. "Not whether you're educated or not, just whether you have that spark, that light in your attic."
Born and raised in Manhattan and educated at Columbia University, Hikaru Utada grew up surrounded by music. Her father, Teruzane Utada, was an accomplished musician and producer, and her mother, Keiko Fuji, was a successful Japanese enka (ballad) singer. Utada spent her youth shuttling between New York City and Tokyo, but her most consistent home was the recording studio. By age 11, she had written and recorded her first song, and by the time she graduated from junior high school, she had been signed by EMI Records; her first album, Precious, was recorded in English, but didn't come out in the US because of business problems at the label; it was subsequently released in Japan.
After moving to Tokyo full-time, she began recording in Japanese, and her debut album in that language, First Love, was an explosive, historic success. Since then, she has had five Number One albums in Japan—most recently, Heart Station in 2008, which was the year's best-selling non-compilation album.
With that level of popularity, it's easy to wonder why Utada is taking the difficult step of starting over as a new artist for a new audience. "It's true that I could have stuck to my throne and taken the easy way," she says, "but I felt that my creativity, my humanity would be endangered by staying in that position. I don’t want to just be this crazy artist who lives in la-la land, I want to be in touch with the real world and stay humble. And I like it when something feels scary—I see fear as a guiding light."
Utada did make one earlier foray into the English-language marketplace with the Exodus album in 2004. But even though the singles "Easy Breezy" and "Devil Inside" were hits on the club charts, she views the new album as her true debut. "On that album, I was so insecure," she says. "I was trying too hard, it wasn’t natural. But on This Is The One, there’s a maturity, a more free-flowing and natural confidence."
In approaching the new album, Utada was very careful about choosing her collaborators and setting their expectations. "With both teams, I wanted them to lay out the basic tracks," she says, "but I told them that I have to write my own songs, with complete control over melody and lyrics."
The producers also turned out to have very different processes. "With Stargate, it was all data transfer," she says. "I recorded most of the vocals in Tokyo and sent them to Norway or New York. They loved it—they were like ‘This is the future!” But with Tricky, we actually spent time in the studio together, and that was nice and warm. I’m not much of an extrovert, so it was a good experience to have to communicate and get to know a new person."
Utada singles out the track "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence – FYI" (which includes samples from experimental pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto and references to the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) as a central moment in determining her final vision of the album. "I recorded the demo in December of 2007," she says, "but it was a difficult song, and I wasn’t satisfied with it—I had to try to get to the bottom of it. And then just a few months ago, I suddenly came up with the right lyrics, changed the melody in places, and it made sense.
"When that song crystallized," she continues, "the message of it was very strong and confident, and I felt like it was a good introduction to me, that it fits in with my current story."
In contrast, the breezy "Apple and Cinnamon" came "almost too easily" to Utada. The vocals on the final version are mostly what she recorded as the demo. "I almost don't even feel like I made it," she says. "I didn’t get to savor the experience of it." But her own favorite song on the album is the flirty, sophisticated "Me Muero"—"no other song makes me feel the way that one does."
It's been a long journey, full of many miles and many melodies, for Utada to get to this album. But the lessons she's learned ultimately gave her a clear sense of what she was looking for. "I wanted to get back to basics," she says. "Nothing gimmicky, just very straightforward and confident, with a sense of humor. I was so sure of what I was doing, and I just became more of an adult—finally."