【Jun】Alright well I would like to welcome our very first guest on this show. Um he is a famous singer, song writer, music producer. He’s made hits all over the US and Japan um his biggest hit is the “Only One” and it sold 400,000 copies world wide. Formerly known as Kiyotaka known as Kiyo here. Welcome to the show Kiyo.
【KI-YO】Hi how are you doing?
【Jun】Good. Thanks for coming on today.
【KI-YO】Thank you for having me.
【Jun】Alright well I got some questions that I want to get to today. Um and I know that uh you actually just came to the US…When did you come over here?
【KI-YO】Um it was 2010 so it’s almost like 4 years ago.
【KI-YO】Yeah I lived in New York for 3 and a half years and I moved to LA six, seven months ago.
【Jun】Six seven months ago. So do you think um…I know you’re a singer, a song writer but do you think you can give the listeners a little bit about your background, you know where you’re from, why you’re here, what you’re doing…all that good stuff.
【KI-YO】OK I’m originally from Sendai and um I lived in Tokyo for 10 years after that. And then um I made my first release when I was 17 years old.
【Jun】17? Wow young age.
【KI-YO】Yeah. So then and um I used to have a contract with EMA music and I released some albums in Japan. And then um I’ve been inspired by a lot of American music.
【KI-YO】Yeah so I really wanted to start my music career here in the US too. So that’s the reason why I moved here.
【Jun】I see. And what specific genre of music are we talking about here?
【KI-YO】OK um I’ve been listening to a lot of soul music.
【Jun】Soul music. Interesting.
【KI-YO】Like Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway and Aretha Franklyn…
【Jun】Yeah those are all legends right there.
【KI-YO】Yeah I used to like, my mother used to listen to those types of music and then they loved…I just loved listening to them. I just copied them and that’s how I got interested in music.
【Jun】I see. Yeah. So you said you started out in Japan you know you did your first one at 17 years old um why did you decide to come to the US?
【KI-YO】I like to challenge myself. I really um…You know as an artist I think it’s very important to get like…um to be in a place where you can get more inspirations. And so um I also love American music and I wanted to experience more about the music um I love listening to. And so I decided to move to New York and I joined the choir in Harlem.
【Jun】Oh in Harlem?
【KI-YO】Obviously I was the only Asian guy singing in the choir but like that was something that I never experienced in my life. And it was just amazing. A whole different experience. And then I learned so many different things. And those…so many different experiences motivates me to write more songs and you know some how I want to become like a bridge between Japan and the US. I really like to inspire people with my music. So living here gives me a lot of opportunities and motivation to um write music and you know…
【Jun】So probably the listeners right…they’re thinking, OK so this guy he came to the US he probably already knew a lot of English right. Like he came to the US, he had no problem communicating…
【KI-YO】Oh come one.
【KI-YO】I’m still learning English first of all.
【Jun】So what was it like when you first came to the US…um you went to Harlem. How would you rate your English at the time. What level?
【KI-YO】That was horrible. (Laugh)
【Jun】It was horrible? Really?
【KI-YO】I was like um obviously you know I um…I started learning English when I was in junior high school like you know…
【Jun】Just like everybody else.
【KI-YO】Everybody else. But that was very typical Japanese education. So they don’t really focus on pronunciation and speaking. They’re more like reading and writing. So and then um but I always…I’m always interested in English, learning English because I love to sing English songs.
【KI-YO】So in order to do that, you kinda (kind of) have to um look up the meaning of the lyrics and all that so…and also like pronunciation is very important when you sing.
【Jun】Yeah very important.
【KI-YO】Very important. So um when I was 21 years old I went to New York and I got a chance to sing in front of and American audience and I actually I got a lot of applause at the time.
【Jun】Oh you did? That was your first performance too?
【KI-YO】Yeah I sang Whitney Houston “I have nothing.”
【Jun】Really? That’s a tough song to sing as a guy too.
【KI-YO】So and then um after that there is a producer who came to me and then… you’re a singer and then you’re really good so are you signed and then he asked me a lot of questions but I couldn’t really answer those questions.
【Jun】Oh I see.
【KI-YO】That experience kind of opened up and then oh I have to learn speaking English too. And then…since then I started learning English but I would say um starting English seriously is since I moved here.
【Jun】Really? It takes a lot of courage though…to fly to the US not really knowing how to speak English but trying to make a career out there…here right pretty much in the US and then you came here, you realized that I have to speak English right?
【Jun】So what uh…how did you go about studying English? Did you just surround yourself with native speakers? Did you actually study? Sit down and study books? What methods or how were you able to become who you are today?
【KI-YO】OK um I think a lot of Japanese speakers, they um…they focus more on grammar and you know they try to speak perfectly. I’m still you know…my English is not perfect obviously but I just…it’s having fun is the most important part I think. So um I learned English through music and singing along with my favorite artist and that’s how I started learning English. I also did a lot of shadowing.
【Jun】Shadowing? Oh really.
【KI-YO】When I was in New York um there was a three hour walk from my place to the school.
【Jun】3 hour walk ever day just to get to school!
【KI-YO】Yes and then that three hours I was just listening to English podcast and then I was trying to repeat what they were saying.
【KI-YO】Just repeat. I didn’t understand what they were saying. But just repeating and that’s how I learned the rhythm of English. I think it’s very important to get the rhythm because English is more like music.
【KI-YO】So I think of learning English like…it’s like learning music, learning a new song.
【Jun】So you picked up the language almost by rhythm, almost like listening to music.
【KI-YO】Yeah so like sometimes I saw um “let’s have a party!”・・・ “ta-ta-ra-ta-ra!” It’s like a rhythm right?
【Jun】Gotchu Gotchu (Got you, got you)
【KI-YO】But when you say something in Japanese um「パーティーしようよ」・・・「ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta」it’s almost like 16 beats. English is kinda more like shuffling. “ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta” So that’s kinda how I learn English.
【Jun】What type of difficulties did you go through moving over here?
【KI-YO】Um I think, I tried to hang out more with American people. And then it was easier to communicate with only one person…one-on-one. But if you hang out with a bunch of people and then if they have like conversation it’s really hard to participate in the conversation.
【KI-YO】But you kinda (kind of) have to overcome that situation. Even though they say “What are you talking about?” like you know “What did you say?” but you kinda (kind of) have to say something and try to join in the conversation.
【KI-YO】I was like whatever just say something, you know. Because it’s better than just being alone, just listening to their conversation you know.
【Jun】Right right. So would you say the hardest part about the group talk was speed maybe? It was difficult for you to understand what they were saying.
【KI-YO】Yeah and if they are young, they use a lot of slang words. But I think confidence is the key, always the key. So that’s why I studied pronunciation and fluency a lot because if you are not confident in speaking English and your pronunciation when you just talk, speak you immediately feel insecurities.
【Jun】Right. Right. As a Japanese singer trying to break into the US what kind of challenges have you faced?
【Jun】Everything? (Laugh) Every day is a challenge.
【KI-YO】(Laugh) Still in the US, I think Asian singers are not really you know, popular. I would say. Um, so it’s kinda (kind of) rare to see Asian singers singing on TV or anywhere. So obviously it’s very challenging but like I said I like to challenge myself.
【KI-YO】So you know, I have a passion to do it and this is what I love to do so that’s why I do.
【Jun】How much time did you put into studying English? Would you say you put in a lot of time into studying English or was it just more about being around people? Was it a combination of both?
【KI-YO】Yeah. Sometimes it’s fun to hang out with people and learn from their experiences but at the same time you have to do the things you don’t like to do like studying grammar and increasing vocabularies. So I would say both.
【Jun】Both. Did you ever hit a point where you were studying and yet you’re like “I’m not improving. What’s wrong with me?” Or did you always feel like you were constantly getting better and like within yourself you knew that all the e work that you’ve been putting in was paying off.
【KI-YO】I always feel worse when I came back from Japan. You know my English gets rusty and always it’s kinda (kind of) hard to speak. Just hard to move my muscle. And so yeah that’s the time I feel difficulties.
【Jun】And that’s actually a really good point you know because you do get a little bit rusty you know when you come back. It kinda (kind of) frustrates you a little bit right?
【Jun】But I guess you could also use that as a motivation to study again.
【Jun】Yeah yeah. So what brought you to LA Kiyo?
【KI-YO】Mm, so there’s some reasons. First of all, I made this album called “Reborn.” This is an all English album. And I was just thinking about how I could promote this album better. And then um I had some shows in New York and also I had shows here in LA and then when I came here I met a lot of producers and artists and I felt more possibilities that I could work better.
【KI-YO】So now I’ve been working with some artists here and producers um so that’s one reason and another reason is um pop music is like really huge here. In New York I think theater and jazz music, cluster music are very popular but not really like commercial music I would say. So that’s part of the reason and also I think here, the Asian community is kinda (kind of) big.
【Jun】It is. It’s much bigger right?
【KI-YO】Yeah. And so in New York of course there are some Asian communities but it’s hard to say but I think when the artist is Asian usually people who like their music is their own race. Like they started from their own race and then kind of extended their fan base to other people. I don’t know if I can say it here but it’s kind of like a strategy thing too.
【Jun】Uh huh right. Yeah I mean I’m sure there is strategy right? I mean you just don’t get big all of a sudden. You’re planting seeds and little by little your gaining your fan base right.
【Jun】So how’s it been so far? How’s LA treating you?
【KI-YO】Yeah you know when I first moved here it was kinda (kind of) tough cuz (because) I didn’t know anybody. I knew some…a few people. But you have to drive everywhere and so I had a rough time to just meet people here. But it’s getting better now I have more friends and I have opportunity to sing and I’ve worked with some producers and artists here. So it’s getting better and better.
【Jun】So as a Japanese person, I know you’ve been living here for a while, I know you got back for tours in Japan too but what do you miss about Japan?
【Jun】Food? (Laugh) It is the food huh?
【KI-YO】Always the food.
【Jun】American food is no good?
【KI-YO】I mean it’s OK to eat occasionally but I always miss Japanese food.
【Jun】It is the Japanese food. But at least here in LA you get a little bit more Japanese food right?
【KI-YO】Yeah. My friends, family um when something bad happens in the US I miss Japan. Oh this never happens in Japan, why? You know something like that.
【Jun】Yeah yeah you know when things get a little bit tough right it’s always better to be in a place where you feel comfortable and when your in a area like this sometimes you have no where to turn to, no one to turn to um but then I also feel like that’s a growing point too right? Because you’re pretty much on your own. You have to figure things out on your own so you have really no one to lean on at that time.
【Jun】Do you think that when you do speak English or when you speak Japanese that there has to be maybe some kind of switch within you where you have to understand that I’m speaking to an American now, I can’t be this modest. You think that there is like that cultural switch that you have to make in order to really communicate with people.
【Jun】Or do you think it’s better to just kinda (kind of) stay true to who you are as a Japanese person and if that’s how you feel this is how I’m going to present myself. How did you adapt to that situation there? Because I feel like you made a really really good transition and um I’m sure it took you a while but you know speaking to you now I feel like I’m speaking to an American guy and I’m sure if I speak to you in Japanese, I feel like I’m speaking to a Japanese person. So do you feel like you make that switch?
【KI-YO】Yes and no.
【Jun】Yes and no. OK let’s hear about it.
【KI-YO】I’m a Japanese person, first of all and I think it’s getting better for me to balance it because my first year in here in the US it was very hard for me to balance it. Because I have to admit that I tried to be more American cuz I didn’t have that many Japanese friends. I tried not to hang out with Japanese people because I came here to learn a new language and also I tried to do something different here. So I didn’t want to speak Japanese all the time.
【KI-YO】But it was very difficult for me to hang out with um completely different people and people who have different background. That was the moment I missed Japan and it was just hard and sometimes I feel alone and I wanted to speak Japanese but I kinda try to be like more American. It’s so complicated and difficult. But now I can balance it better because I feel more comfortable being a Japanese person at the same time I live in the US. So I’m not a person who’s trying to be American but I’m sort of Americanized but I still have like Japanese background and I feel comfortable about it.
【Jun】That’s where your roots are right? So you know that cultural language transition I feel like is always tough, right? Um and that’s the thing when you sometimes live in Japan is, you can study out of a book, you can learn all the language but you know how you present yourself, how you are. You talked about the rhythm right, how you speak. This is all something that just comes with experience and I think you brought up a good point. It was the same with me to when I went to Japan is when you first go to a foreign country you try to fit in. You try to become who they are right? And then in the beginning it’s exciting right, you get to meet all these people but after you reach a certain point then you start getting a little tired. Right because you’re not really yourself and you’re just trying to adjust to who they are and there’s that period where you are just trying to find yourself between who you really are and trying to adjust to that culture, to that language. Um and I think that’s something that takes time but when you find that balance that’s when you become fluent as you are.
【Jun】So that’s really awesome.
KI-YO singer / song writer / music producer