2004-10-05 - "Crossover appeal" - Mercury News

"Crossover appeal"

By: DAN WONG - Knight Ridder Digital
Mercury News - October 5th, 2004
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For American-born Hikaru Utada, becoming Japan's biggest pop star isn't enough. She's ready to break into the U.S. music scene with her first English-language CD.

The 21-year-old New York native is off to a fast start. Her first single, "Devil Inside" off her forthcoming new album, "Exodus" has spent eight weeks on Billboard's hot dance music chart, reaching No. 7 this week. "Exodus," in stores today, is her first American album after having sold more than 21 million CDs in Japan since her debut in 1999.

Utada, a bilingual singer-songwriter, is often described as Japan's "Britney Spears," a moniker she dislikes, although she understands the connection. She rose to fame at age 15 with a best-selling album.

"Age-wise, I'm a 21-year-old girl, so I fit right in there with Britney Spears, but I don't feel very close to her musically," says Utada, who put her college education at New York's Columbia University on hold, so she can devote her full attention to her music career.

Unlike Spears, Utada writes her own lyrics and music, and isn't driven by stardom, she explains.

"I'm not a very diva-like person. I'm not very, 'I want to be a star!' People like Madonna and Britney Spears go for the attention," she said. "I love doing what I do, and I do want people to hear it and react to it and like it. It's not necessarily the attention I crave for… I'm more the writer and producer. I'm happy in the studio."

Utada's new album is more R&B and dance-oriented, forgoing the pop sound of her Japanese CDs. And the lyrics and melodies have a decidedly more playful tone. When she wrote the lyrics to "Exodus" in English, she felt free to use any lyrics that rhymed or sounded good, even if it didn't necessarily make sense. In Japan, the lyrics are important, similar to country music in America, where the words make the song. So she felt limited with her Japanese CDs.

"English is a lot more musical. It just suits singing more," Utada said. "I didn't realize until I began writing all these songs in English how much I've been limiting myself with my Japanese music."

Her lyrics for the new album are a bit racy, at least by more conservative Japanese standards. For example, in the song, "The Workout," she sings, "I was dancing with a dirty blond Texan / Charming accent but the music's playing too loud for talking / So I showed him how people in the Far East get down."

"In English, it sounds normal," Utada said. "It's not a horrible, dirty, sleazy song. It sounds very danceable and fun."

Utada seemed destined to enter the music industry. Her mother, Keiko Fuji, was a popular traditional Japanese singer in the 1970s and her father Teruzane Utada is a music producer. She was born in New York, but split her childhood between Manhattan and Tokyo.

She has eclectic musical tastes. Through her parents' influence, she listened to a lot of rock, from Led Zeppelin to Pearl Jam, R&B artists Aaliyah and Janet Jackson, and even hip hop. "Right now, my favorite album is the Cocteau Twins' singles collection "Stars and Topsoil" and Jeff Buckley, and I really can't live without my Sting, or The Police. I'm just really, really crazy about that guy."

Utada is accustomed to producing and arranging her albums by herself, but for her first English album, she sought out hotshot producer Timbaland, who's worked with Missy Elliott, Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake, to help with a few songs.

"We spent a week on it," she said. "At the end of it, he really understood what I was trying to do. It was a very cool experience."

Already released in Japan, 550,000 copies of "Exodus" were sold in four days, breaking the record for an English-language album, according to Universal Music.

Utada said she was surprised by her album's success in Japan.

"I felt really great about that," she said. "It was an experiment, releasing it in Japan. I really thought, 'Who the hell is going to buy it?' It's English."

Few Asian music groups have risen to prominence in America. And popular Japanese artists, like Puffy AmiYumi and Dreams Come True, haven't had much success cracking the U.S. market. Nevertheless, Utada is confident she can achieve the same success in America as she has in Japan.

"A lot of groups sing great in Japanese, then try to sing in English when they don't speak it. They lose a bit of their quality," she said. "If I didn't grow up in America, I wouldn't even try to do this. What connection would I have?"

Utada cherishes her anonymity in America but realizes she may start to get recognized. In Japan, she causes a commotion every time she goes out in public.

"At first it was difficult," she said. "It's like when you're a teenager and you have a close family, you have all these relatives expecting things from you, checking up on you. And it felt like having a few million of those in Japan."

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