J-Pop Girls and Guitars: Female Singer-Songwriters

The talented Japanese pop singer-songwriters and performers featured on this page—Yui, Miwa, Tsuji Shion, Rika Shinohara, Aya Kamiki, Nana Kitade and Cocco—craft guitar-based songs ranging from gentle acoustic ballads to upbeat mid-tempo numbers to full-out rock songs. I hope you enjoy this selection of their music.

YUI

yui

Of all Japanese music artists, YUI is my favourite. I haven’t introduced her in this blog before because her record company (Sony) had a habit of deleting any video of her posted on the web. The good news is that she now has a Vevo channel, so it is easier to introduce her songs. The bad news is that she has recently announced that, after releasing five albums between 2005 and 2010, she is taking an indefinite hiatus from music (She is back now, with her new band Flower Flower). She talks about her career, her love of music and her desire for a break in this interview: MESSAGE from YUI.

While growing up, she was very introverted and started writing poetry (which she then started setting to music), to express her feelings. She soon devoted herself to music, dropping out of high school to join a music cram school and later started performing outside a railway station in her hometown of Fukuoka. The reason, I mention her early life is that it comes through in her heartfelt and often personal lyrics and in her intense performances that evoke a strong sense of sincerity.

Tokyo (short version) – From her first album (From Me to You)
This song is about her the start of professional career, moving from her hometown to Tokyo.


Here is the English translation of the first part of the lyrics (from kiwi-musume.com: now offline):

The day has come when I will leave the room I’m so used to living in
My new journey is still disorienting me

On the bus to the station
I emailed my friend

On the platform in the morning, I tried calling too
But it felt like something had changed

I’ve brought one old guitar with me
I’ve left all my photos behind

Letting something go and then gaining something new
Does the same cycle repeat itself?

When I pretend to be strong, it always leads to dreams
When I let myself be cowardly, they stop

Rolling Star (Short Version), a rock song from her second album Can’t Buy My Love

Coming full-circle with a 2012 reinterpretation of her first hit song—Feel My Soul.

Although YUI sings almost entirely in Japanese, she has a strong fan base around the world, with a lot of people uploading covers of her songs (you can find many of them listed on the YUI_lover fan site).

She has more recently returned to music recording and performing with her new band Flower Flower. Their sound is a lot more ‘indie’. It is interesting to see her development as a songwriter.

YUI-Lover Fan Site and Forum: www.yui-lover.com
YUI Official YouTube Channel: www.youtube.com/user/YUIVEVO
YUI Official Website (Japanese): www.yui-net.com/

miwa

miwa is a young singer-songwriter with three albums under her belt: Guitarissamo (2011), Guitarium (2012) and Delight (2013). Her songs, especially when it comes to her singles, tend to have a bright and optimistic feel Her albums also feature soft ballads and rock numbers. Her most popular single so far has been Don’t Cry Anymore:

Here she is performing Faith live:


miwa Official Website in Japanese): www.miwa-web.com

Tsuji Shion (辻詩音)

Tsuji Shion is another young singer-songwriter who plays acoustic guitar. Like Miwa, her singles tend to have a cheerful feel. She hasn’t been very active recently, however, with her only album to date being released in 2010. She is best know for the song Sky Chord which was used as one of the ending themes in the Bleach Anime.

Candy Kicks

Sky Chord

Tsuji Shion Official Site (in Japanese): http://tsujishion.net/

Rika Shinohara

I don’t know much about this singer song-writer (and her English website hasn’t bee updated for years), but she specializes in beautiful acoustic ballads and covers of English songs in a similar vein.

Borderline

Song of My Days

Official Website (Japanese & English): www.rika-web.com


The next group of artists can play guitar and tend to compose using that instrument, but generally leave the guitar part in their studio recordings and concert performances to others.

Aya Kamiki (上木彩矢)

Aya, known for her powerful vocals, is a rocker who has released six albums since making her debut in 2006. Her sound ranges from a straight-forward and retro Seventies-sounding rock style to some of the electro-dance-rock hybrids on her most recent album.

Sunday Morning, a more laid back sound.

The Light, from her most recent album, with a more electronic-influenced arrangement. I’m not sure if this is the direction she is moving in as the album is released by AVEX, a label known more for it’s dance-oriented artists and a label which she has since left.

Nana Kitade (北出菜奈)

It is interesting to see Nana here on 2005 playing the Full Metal Alchemist Theme Kesenai Tsumi 消せない罪. This is at the beginning of her career when she was being presented as a teen rocker (her first album 18: Eighteen, released the same year, refers to her age at the time). Shortly after this performance, while still performing rock songs, she started focusing more on her style and became a figurehead and style icon of the Gothic Lolita sub-culture. She has released three solo albums, has fronted the band Loveless (2009-2012) and is now the vocalist for new band The Teenage Kissers.

Kesenai Tsumi

Hold Heart—Also from the 18: Eighteen album. The arrangement reminds me of Roxanne by the Police.

Her last album, Bondage, featured a range of different styles, rock, anime ballads like Marie Antoinette, punk numbers (Punk & Babys) and experimental songs. Here is, Lamia, one of the tracks off that album:

The 18: Eighteen album is one of the records that first got me interested in Japanese pop. I had assumed J-pop was all about sparkly boy bands and girl groups until I was introduced to rock (Nana Kitade), indie pop (Kojima Mayumi), and alternative rock (The Tokyo Incidents) albums. I can’t find any good up-to-date sites for Nana. Please leave a comment and let me know if you can find a good link to add.

Cocco

Cocco started her career earlier than the other artists on this page, releasing her first album in 1997. Her style blends folk and rock with some influences from the folk music of her native Okinawa. She is known for her intense performance style.

The Hill of Dugongs (「ジュゴンの見える丘」). This is an environmental ballad inspired by the appearance of rare dugongs in Ohura Bay, Okinawa. The music starts at around 5:50.

This next song combines rock with an Okinawa-influenced vocal style.


One worrying trend I see is that most of the artists on this page have been relatively inactive during the past couple of years, YUI is on hiatus, a couple of others have left their record labels and a couple have seen pretty terrifying drops in album sales. Perhaps the K-Pop craze of the last couple of years is making it very challenging to carve out a career as a guitar-based J-rock performer.

Who have I left out? Is there anyone you would like to add to this list? Please leave a comment below.


Articles on Japanese Pop Music

J-Pop Girls and Guitars: Female Singer-songwriters
Girls & guitars: YUI, miwa, & more
J-Rock Mix (Volume 1): Introducing Five Bands
J-Rock 1: the HIATUS, ELLEGARDEN & more
All-girl rock bands from Japan
All-girl bands:  BAND-MAID, Scandal & more
Offbeat & Sophisticated J-Pop
J-Pop: moumoon, ohashiTrio & more

~by longzijun

writing

Return to Writing

Indie J-Pop (Part 1)

These four performers on the J-pop scene—Kojima Mayumi, GARNET CROW, ohashi Trio and moumoon—deal in a more sophisticated brand of melodic pop, incorporating jazz, folk and electronic influences.

The playful, quirky jazz-pop of Kojima Mayumi (小島麻由美)

Kojima Mayumi

Kojima Mayumi (小島麻由美) is one of the performers who first got me interested in Japanese music. I was teaching at City University of Hong Kong and had organised a small music sharing club for students and staff members who wanted to try something new. One of the students introduced singer-songwriter’ Kojima Mayumi’s 5th album Ai No Poltergeist Sounds of—an intriguing mix of pop, big-band jazz, Kurt Weill musical numbers, Stray Cats retro-rock, and Japanese folk. On top of that, you get a singer with a voice that blends girlish naïvety with a sultry lounge style. What an insane mix of sounds! Her music helped me realize just how varied the J-pop scene is. Here is the first track on the album, Poltergeist (ポルターガイスト):

Here is a more laid more recent number, the single Arabesque (somewhat similar in style to one of my favourite songs of hers: 赤い帽子.

She has released seven studio albums (the last being in 2006), a live album a couple of compilations and more than a dozen singles. Her song Hatsukoi was used in this amazing Nintendo commercial (shot here in Hong Kong):

Kojima Mayumi Online

The soulful elegance of Garnet Crow

Nana Azuki, Hirohito Furui, Yuri Nakamura, Hitoshi Okamato

When I describe Japanese bands, I often try to think of their Western equivalents. With GARNET  CROW, there don’t seem to be any. The closest I could come up with is a Christine McVie (Fleetwood Mac)-Sade hybrid fronting Crowded House after they’ve all been watching a lot of anime.  That comparison doesn’t do the band justice, but it  might give you and idea of their sound: sophisticated, melodic, classic pop.

GARNET CROW recently celebrated their tenth anniversary. The members, who all have clearly definied roles in song-writing and performance, are Yuri Nakamura (vocals, music composition), Hitoshi Okamoto (guitar), Nana Azuki (keyboards, lyrics) and Hirohito Furui (keyboards, arrangements).

The elegant musical arrangements and Yuri’s deep voice set them apart from other bands. Unlike  many other female singers with deep voices (like Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, PJ Harvey or Melissa Etheridge), who tend to have husky voices, Yuri’s voice is pure and round. She avoids vocal techniques like glides and runs, makes minimal use of vibrato and sometimes can’t quite keep the pitch from faltering when holding long notes, so she doesn’t give the impression of being a technically amazing singer. However, her singing voice, pure and unadorned, is beautiful and expressive and helps give the band its signature sound.

The band has released eight studio albums, the latest release being Parallel Universe (2010), and two compilations. The albums are solid, full of quality songs all the way through, but without obvious hit singles; in way, Garnet Crow are throwbacks to the album-based adult-oriented rock scene of the seventies.

GARNET CROW online

The Jazzy & Smooth Pop of ohashi Trio

ohashi trio

Ohashi Trio (大橋トリオ) is a project of multi-instrumentalist and composer  Ohashi Yoshinori. The music is a laid-back blend of acoustic pop and jazz with an occasional touch of funk, creating a mellow early-70s sonic vibe accompanied by a Victorian visual aesthetic (courtesy of his ever present top hat and jacket).  I came across this artist via a record store listening booth and immediately snapped up the albums This is Music and A Bird. He has since released another album (I Got Rhythm?) and an album of covers (Fake Book).

Half of his songs are in English and half are in Japanese (with my favourite being the English We’re Waiting); the singles and their accompanying videos, however, usually feature the Japanese-language songs.

More ohashi Trio

The light breeziness of moumoon

Kōsuke Masaki & Yuka

moumoon are  a J-Pop duo with a breezy, upbeat sound. The music, composed and arranged by Kōsuke Masaki, has a gentle pop style that sometimes veers towards guitar-based rock, occasionally flirts with electronica and eighties-style new romanticism and even touches upon reggae in a couple of songs. Yuka, the vocalist and lyricist, has a unique style; she tends to sing in a high, airy slightly nasal voice, though she she sometimes adopts a deeper, rounder timbre. The songs are mainly about love, with English lyrics being used quite frequently.

The name of the band is a portmanteau combining mou (French for soft, or more literally slack) and moon.

moumoon, currently signed with the Avex label, had a minor hit this summer with the catchy, but somewhat repetitive Sunshine Girl. Their latest release, the mini-album, Spark, features the song and includes an English language version. They have released only one full album so far—Moumoon, which is an excellent album filled with beautiful melodies and effective, unobtrusive arrangements.

A wide variety of influences from western pop are bubbling beneath the surface. For example, the last track on the album features a chorus with melody strongly reminiscent of Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis while the song Don’t Wanna Be has a chorus that wouldn’t be out of place on an Avril Lavigne album. Personally, I find their rare forays into electronica, like 3 days magic, to be the most interesting. More recently they enjoyed a surge in popularity when their song Hello Shooting Star was using as an ending theme in the anime Assassination Classroom.

moumoon Online

More Articles on Japanese Music

J-Pop Girls and Guitars: Female Singer-songwriters
Girls & guitars: YUI, miwa, & more
J-Rock Mix (Volume 1): Introducing Five Bands
J-Rock 1: the HIATUS, ELLEGARDEN & more
All-girl rock bands from Japan
All-girl bands:  BAND-MAID, Scandal & more
Offbeat & Sophisticated J-Pop
J-Pop: moumoon, ohashiTrio & more

~by longzijun

writing

Return to Writing