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Courtesy of TAKAY

J-pop megastar Hikaru Utada on teen fame, discrimination, and grief

In a rare English interview, the pop sensation reflects on her ‘traumatic’ rise to fame, working on Hideaki Anno’s Evangelion franchise, and her crush on Megan Thee Stallion

When Hikaru Utada first released her debut album First Love in 1999, the Japanese public had never heard anything like it. Aged 16, the American-Japanese artist ripped up the J-pop rulebook with genre-hopping melodies, influenced by western pop hits and slick R&B grooves. Utada, who grew up in New York, cites Aaliyah as a huge influence at the time. Unlike many late 90s pop stars in Japan, she eschewed the idol route, instead opting to write and produce her own songs. Her voice rose above the usual chart hits, uniquely deep and soulful, while her image was a stark contrast from the hypersexualised aethetic of her western pop contemporaries. If the west had Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, Japan had Utada.

First Love would go on to sell a staggering two million copies in the first two weeks, and remains the country’s best-selling album of all time. Its influence has been so colossal, in fact, that Netflix is currently working on a drama of the same name, inspired by Utada’s music. She would go on to release a further seven albums, her sound blending R&B, dance-pop, rock, and acoustic elements into a signature style that has since become a successful formula for J-pop artists to follow. Her soundtracking work propelled her further and broadened her demographic of fans, including the theme songs for the Kingdom Hearts video game series with the Skrillex-produced “Face My Fears”, and Hideaki Anno’s cult anime franchise Evangelion. In time, Utada became the target of paparazzi, as well as the subject of adoration and obsession for countless fan sites and early Twitter stans.

“23 years later, I still haven’t gotten used to being ‘famous’,” Utada muses to me today. “Famous people are just people, no different from anyone else. It’s just the way that other people see them that is different.”

With over 37 million record sales under her belt, the now-38-year-old – known lovingly as “Hikki” by her fans – is speaking from her house in London, where she lives with her five-year-old son. London, unlike Japan, offers the megastar a semblance of normality – or, at least, as much as she can find as one of the biggest names in Japanese showbiz. She is notoriously private and rarely does interviews, let alone English-speaking ones. Her last English-speaking press appearance was just over a decade ago in a 2009 radio interview on NPR.

We are in conversation for her latest single, “Pink Blood”, which was released last week. The track is an intimate reflection on finding independence, and the residual feelings of melancholy that come with it. She draws on minimalist beats and a rainbow spectrum of trance-like textures. It is mellow, multi-sensory – music to float away to. Utada sings: “There’s no point being valued / By someone who doesn’t know how much I’m worth”.

“It hasn’t been an easy period for any single working mom, artist, or single adult, right?” she tells me. “There were some rough patches for me, but I know how fortunate my circumstances are. I focused on being there for the things that I could do something about.” The singer is known for having a wide range of musical references, previously citing everyone from Metallica to Lauryn Hill as influences. She says she has spent lockdown “dancing to Omar S, singing along to SAULT and Amber Mark”. 

“I may be having a celebrity crush on Megan Thee Stallion,” she says with a laugh.

Her EP One Last Kiss was released this year and features the theme song for the final Evangelion film, Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time, as well as variations of existing songs from the anime. The title track is a stripped-down yet springy pop ballad, produced by PC Music founder A. G. Cook, whose glitchy sound can be felt in the song’s anthemic chorus. “Working with him was great,” explains Utada. “It was like having an amazing interior designer for a crude house I had built.”

The theme song, Utada says, is an exploration of loss, and marks the end of a 14-year period of writing and performing songs for Evangelion. The beloved anime launched its final instalment earlier this year after a nine-year hiatus, and parallels Utada’s own trajectory in ways. Set against a skipping bass and chopped-up vocals, Utada explores “the bittersweetness of moving on, growing up, and coming to terms with yourself”. She explains, “After this final film, I see Evangelion as a long story of mourning, an exploration of the different stages of grief, and how we deal with loss – which has been a prominent theme in my work too.”

“Becoming really famous at 15, 16 was traumatic. It was exciting when people began reacting to my songs, but the attention extended beyond just my music” – Hikaru Utada

Utada compares the period of grieving with the death of her mother, the esteemed enka (Japanese ballad) singer Keiko Fuji. “My whole life I was grieving for my mother, losing her slowly to mental illness, and since her death eight years ago, it became a conscious grief, a loss I didn’t know how to move on from,” she explains. “When I began working on ‘One Last Kiss’ I finally understood that the point was not to try to leave that behind, but to accept that I will carry it with me always. It still hurts, and that’s alright. What was a loss became a gift.”

Utada grew up embedded in the music industry – her mother the respected singer, her father Teruzane Utada an accomplished record producer. It would have looked to be the ultimate incubator. “I thought I would be more prepared because my mother was very famous in Japan, but becoming really famous at 15, 16 was traumatic. It was exciting when people began reacting to my songs, but the attention extended beyond just my music.

“Losing privacy and becoming a sitting target for public opinion was terrifying. I did my best to be dignified even when I felt crushed or violated.”

Despite this, she says she is “grateful” for those formative experiences. “I learned not to take anything personally, from anyone. That’s a really valuable skill,” she adds. “Also, whether it’s praise or criticism, I try not to take it too seriously. At most, they’re about stuff I’ve already put out, and I’m more interested in what I’m doing now or have yet to do.”

Utada announced her foray into the American market with her electronically-fuelled 2004 album Exodus. Co-produced by Timbaland, the English-language record marked a move away from the heart-tugging and ambiguous melodies that cemented her status as a teen sensation. The album was fiercely original, bold and edgy, incorporating dance elements and avant-garde melodies into moody club beats. But it failed to earn Utada much attention outside of Japan. With little support from radio or video outlets, it never cracked the Billboard top 100.

At the time, Utada spoke of her hesitation going into the western market. Speaking to MTV in 2004, she reflecting on feeling discrimination as an Asian artist: “I don't think it’s the music that I’m concerned about. It’s obviously that I looked really different and there really aren’t any completely Asian people (who are popular singers in the US) right now.”

“It doesn’t really matter to me now, but back then I remember feeling very self-conscious about being seen as an Asian woman,” she reflects. “The problem was I didn’t actually identify as ‘an Asian woman’. I’d grown up in such an international school environment that my ethnicity or how I look hadn’t been a conscious part of my identity, and I think I was afraid of being misunderstood.”

Critical reception to Exodus, however, was largely positive. AllMusic described it as the “American arrival of an unusual and challenging artist”, while USA Today offered that Utada was “more than a ghost in her own machine”. The album has also garnered a small-but-passionate cult following across the internet. While she calls the project “confused” in terms of marketing and promotion, Utada maintains that she’s proud of the work she did. “I absolutely love what I did musically and lyrically in Exodus and I almost feel jealous of the sense of liberation and creativity of it!” she says.

“My whole life I was grieving for my mother, losing her slowly to mental illness, and since her death eight years ago, it became a conscious grief, a loss I didn’t know how to move on from” – Hikaru Utada

“Pink Blood” has already amassed 3.6 million views on YouTube since its release last week, and continues to climb the US and Canadian charts. With a new album on the way, Utada’s ever-evolving sound pushes at the boundaries of pop’s landscape. Her wider influence is also undeniable – the frenetic, glossy music scene of A.G. Cook or Charli XCX now gaining mainstream success was inarguably bolstered by Utada, while future-pop star Rina Sawayama cited Exodus as a major influence on her 2020 debut, SAWAYAMA, telling NYLON, “she’s genuinely the reason why I started doing music”. The synthetic, AI-powered melodies of Hatsune Miku or K-pop stars Aespa and other artists at the forefront of J-pop today owe her too. “I think my music can only evolve as much as I evolve as a human being,” she says. “I hope my songs reflect my inner growth and personal journey.”

I ask Utada what she thinks the biggest misconception is that people have of her. “The reaction I get most often from people who see me in person is, ‘Wow, she really exists’,” she pauses. “It’s hard to think of any misconception that could top that.”

Pink Blood is out now via Sony