Exclusive Yumi Shizukusa Interview: “‘Don’t stop believing’ is the most important belief to me”

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Since the release of her first album all the way back in 2003, Japanese R&B veteran Yumi Shizukusa has worked hard to carve out her own sound and identity.

During a five year gap (which Yumi reflects on during this interview) Yumi dedicated herself to mastering her artistry and reinventing herself, finally returning in 2013 with an album that was the truest representation of herself yet; A woman’s heart. Since then, Yumi has consistently shared great music, climaxing with the earlier release of ROUGE this year, her most artistic and ambitious album to date.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Yumi (in between her birthday celebrations) about everything that inspired ROUGE and her wonderfully unique R&B sound, creating music for an international audience plus her plans for artistic domination!

There is a five year gap between your fourth album THE PAINTED SOUL (2008) and fifth album A woman’s heart (2013). What were you doing during those five years?

Actually, at that time, I had lost my voice and was not able to sing at all. Therefore, I had decided to take the time to find a new vocal style and rediscover what ‘music’ is to me. Looking back, I can say it was really tough times, such as being in a world surrounded by darkness with no sun to rise. But knowing that I had my fans and people waiting for me, I was determined to sing and perform for them again.

Day and day, I trained harder to get my voice back, kept working on new songs and lyrics, and also kept drawing pictures. I would often compose a wide variety of new songs at home and then work on them at the studio every week. From among the process gradually, I found the music, originality, and sound that matches my vocals best.

It took such a long time, but I had a lot of confidence in the songs that were being made, and strange to say, the more we completed the songs, the more I was regaining my singing voice, so consequently I can say it was all good for me. Had it not been for those tough times, I could not have reached my current music style and the completion of my new album A woman’s heart. I feel now that those days were necessary for me as it made me realize how music was such an important thing for me again.

Which female musicians inspire you the most? For example, “down and out” (from 2015 album BLUE) and “ROUGE [interlude]” sound similar to Jhené Aiko’s music.

Yes, I am influenced by Jhené Aiko. I’ve been a fan of her music since she released her first mixtape. I also admire SADE. She is so unique and I love her a lot.

In 2013, the release of your album A woman’s heart celebrated your ten year anniversary as a singer. How did it feel to celebrate this milestone?

Ever since my debut, I have wanted to become an artist with a long career, so even with all the things that happened in the past, it feels great to celebrate my 10 year anniversary. I am very thankful to all my fans that keep supporting me and to my staff members, I just can’t thank them enough. At the same time, this is going to be a new start to my next story and music career!

Songs like “I don’t Love You” and “All my life” are an example of your unique ‘ethereal R&B’ sound – what or who influences that?

I usually start from getting the tracks from T-4 and Xtra Jam, who are the track makers, my first inspiration of listening to the feel, texture and flow on the track has a huge influence.

Also, since I was a kid I loved to paint pictures, so I believe I’ve been influenced by art, too. When I start making music, sometimes a color comes to my mind.  To me, song writing is like drawing a free line on a white canvas; it is as if that line naturally becomes a note on a score. I always have in mind to make music that is unconventional and a bit unique [where] you may see my playful spirit in it.

Out of all of your albums that you have released, which one is your favorite? Personally, I couldn’t decide between A woman’s heart, BLUE and ROUGE.

Well, I can’t decide either! I have a special attachment to all of them.

Does it surprise you that people outside of Japan, and also people who don’t speak Japanese, listen to your music?

I intend to make my music toward a worldwide audience so I am rather delighted than surprised.

What is your theme or message with newest album ROUGE?

In a word, the theme is “passion”. Sometimes we smile and pretend to be happy even though we are actually not. The album is about the “passion” that is hiding inside of our heart.

As for the title “ROUGE”, it came from a color of women’s lipstick. I thought that red has a special meaning for a woman. It could be used to express a strong will, a message, or to dress up beautifully, or when you want a change. I felt a lot of stories from that color. Plus, I intended to express my strong determination. So, that is the reason why the album was titled “ROUGE”.

When the repetitive days of your life makes you feel the loss of your enthusiasm, this album [will] start a new flare in your eye. However cold the wind blows in your heart, however uncertain tomorrow may be, the motive that keeps us moving forward is “passion”. Keep the fire burning strong. That is the message and my wish that I put in this album.

On ROUGE, you worked with some international producers (Jason “J-Vibe” Farmer, Jeftuz). How did you discover these producers? What was working with them like?

I would often check SoundCloud to find new music that inspires me. One day, I discovered their music and fell in love with their sound. I decided to give it a go and sent a message with my tracks attached, asking them if we could do something together. I got a positive reply from them so we kept sending our data back and forth via e-mail and finalized our work. Although we had not met each other before and that we had to work across the country, the process was quite simple. I was sure that we could make great music together so I just trusted in their talent and taste. The recording process of receiving the track they have finished for me and putting my vocals onto it was really exciting. I felt a great chemistry between us.

As I do the song composing and lyrics all by myself, it was interesting and a great learning process to see how artists from a different country make their music and do their sound approach.

It was a joy and a great honor to be able to collaborate with such a wonderful artist.

For some of ROUGE’s songs you have also collaborated with Yoko Blaqstone again, who you have made music with since your debut album CONTROL your touch in 2003 – please describe your creative process with her.

I had a strong wish being able to work with Yoko Blaqstone someday again so I was happy that my wish came true on this album. At first, I was supposed to compose the melody on Jeftuz’s track, but when I listened to the loop track in the studio I had this curiosity to see what kind of melody Yoko would compose for this track. I have had respect and trust in her for a long time, so I just told her my image and left it to her.

You did a good job designing the artwork yourself for ROUGE – what was the concept that you wanted to portray?

Thank you!  By designing the artwork of the album myself, I believe I have managed to show the theme of the album visually. The concept is; surging feelings, conflicts, desire, and despair. They were my key image when I made the chorus work and wrote the lyrics.

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What is your creative process like when writing a new song or album?

I look deep down in my heart and see what I feel at the time, then translate them into words or melody or photos or pictures. They are like a jigsaw puzzle piece. As the number increases, the scattered pieces will gradually match and make me see the whole image. This is when I can go complete them into a song or an album.

What’s it like being a woman in the Japanese music industry?

It never crossed my mind. I have never felt any difficulties or any demands in particular. I just concentrate on making good music as a person.

What would be your advice to young girls who want to get into the industry?

My advice for them will be, don’t hesitate and believe in yourself.

Why did you part ways with GIZA studio, the label you debuted with? Do you prefer major labels (such as GIZA studio) or independent labels?

I am very thankful to GIZA. I remember moving to Osaka alone because that was where their office was. Back then I was just a high school student, but after spending a few years at that label and was over the age of twenty, I wanted to make a change and start a new challenge in Tokyo.

As for the question on major or indie, I don’t know whichever is better because I have never been in an indie label.

Recently, Ayumi Hamasaki revealed that she is going completely deaf, yet she will continue to perform. Does her dedication to performing shock you, or can you relate?

Yes, I can relate to her. I think the people who supported her over the years had a huge meaning to her, too. For an artist, the fans will always be a big encouragement.

However narrow and steep the path ahead of you seems to be, if that is the path that makes you see your existence and meaning of life, I myself would choose that path, too.

Which female musicians would you like to collaborate with?

I want to collaborate with Jhené Aiko, SYD, Tinashe and Lianne La Havas.

What is the most important thing to you, in regards to your music career?

 “Don’t stop believing” is the most important thing to me.

Are there any female musicians in Japan who you think deserve more recognition?

That is difficult to answer and I can’t choose one.  Because there are so many talented musicians in Japan!

Which country would you most like to perform in? Do you have plans for an international tour?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a plan for world tour now, but I would like to perform in the U.S. One time when I went to New York to record and shoot, I was attracted by the city’s emotions and all the people from different cultural backgrounds. I would love to perform in such place in a remarkable unique style. I’m also interested in Europe, too.

What is the next step for Yumi Shizukusa?

I am thinking about it all the time. I think my next step is to find and challenge something new. Make music that is even more sophisticated, and also adopting ideas from outside of the music genre.

I now have a vision of making an artistic photo collection that has a conceptual message. There will be music that is linked to the theme. It will then be exhibited in an art gallery with live music and performances. I really want to express my works the way which can’t be done by anybody else. I think this going to be my next big step.

Please look forward to the next Yumi Shizukusa!

Buy Yumi Shizukusa’s new album, ROUGE.

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