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Breaking the boundaries of language and genre, Hikaru Utada finds freedom

"It's my job to be honest, that's all that's required of me as an artist," Japanese American artist Hikaru Utada tells NPR.
Courtesy of the artist
"It's my job to be honest, that's all that's required of me as an artist," Japanese American artist Hikaru Utada tells NPR.

Now nearly a quarter-century into their far-reaching career, Hikaru Utada is still finding new ways to express all the facets of the self. The Japanese American pop star, whose 1999 album First Love still holds the honor of being Japan's best selling album of all time, carved out an irreplicable space in the music industry long before it understood how to market artists who eschew the barriers of language, borders and genre.

Since issuing their debut project at age 15 under the moniker Cubic U in 1996, Utada has released eleven adventurous and deeply heartfelt albums that alternate between Japanese and English, and survey everything from R&B and dance pop to experimental electronica and folk. Meanwhile, their fan-favorite pop theme songs for the video game Kingdom Hearts and the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime franchises continue to soundtrack the childhoods of listeners worldwide. Utada's timeless oeuvre is buoyed by their transcendent voice, which always sounds as if it's pulling from a deep well of emotion, always capable of evoking nostalgia at first listen.

Now 39, Utada enters a new era with Bad Mode, their eleventh album released earlier this year. It marks the first time the singer is fully integrating Japanese and English within a single project. "Switching languages definitely allows me to share myself more without the filtering I have to do," Utada explains in a recent call from London, where they now live and work. "I can show a different side of me in English that might sound a bit alarming in Japanese and vice-versa. Then if people want to look into the other language they're not familiar with, they can, but it definitely gives me more freedom."

This sense of liberation comes through in the album's exuberant electronic pop production, featuring contributions from Skrillex, A.G. Cook, and Floating Points, as well as Utada's lyrics that reference the thrill and uncertainty of budding romance. "Here's a Diazepam / We can each take half of / Or we can roll one up / However the night flows," Utada sings to a lover on the project's title track. It's also Utada's first album since they came out as nonbinary last summer, making them one of few Japanese public figures to openly express their gender identity with that language.

Utada has forged their boundary-breaking legacy merely being true to themself. Born in New York City to Teruzane Utada, a record producer father, and Junko Utada, their mother who found success in the '60s and '70s as the enka (a style of Japanese ballad) singer under the name Keijo Fuki, Utada grew up between the U.S. metropolis and Tokyo, picking up musical influences from both worlds.

Later pursuing separate record deals in their respective countries, Utada has collaborated with an eclectic line-up of artists and producers including Timbaland, the Neptunes, Japanese megastar Ringo Sheena, and more. While creating a blueprint for cross-national pop collaborations now rampant on today's charts, Utada was singing lines like, "I don't want to crossover / Between this genre, that genre," on their 2004 album Exodus. The highly avant-garde electronic album, which is not available on streaming services, has since gained a cult following among queer listeners in particular, likely for its disregard for stylistic conventions and queer-coded songs like, "You Make Me Want to Be a Man."

It's hard not to see connections between that project and the genreless, contemporary pop of rising stars like Rina Sawayama and hyperpop experimenters like Katie Dey, who have both listed Utada as influences. Though Utada admits they're slightly unaware of their impact on a rising generation of artists taking inspiration from their catalog — "I'm just getting familiar with the term," they say of "hyperpop" — they spoke with NPR about navigating the early 2000s music industry, how language affects identity and finding liberation in electronic production.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Michelle Hyun Kim, NPR Music: Bad Mode is your first bilingual release. Why now? Because obviously, you've been bilingual your entire life.

Hikaru Utada: When I first began writing music, it was all in English, [and] then I was asked if I could write in Japanese. The whole record deal with the Japanese record company came up and I dispersed some English into [my songs], which was natural for me because I spoke that way with my friends. Because I had this very unique contract situation from there on, I got into a deal with a different record label to do English language stuff, which was a very bizarre set-up — it was interesting. I think that made me feel like I needed to separate English stuff and Japanese stuff.

Now those contractual situations are out of the way, and I think we're at a time culturally where mixing languages seems like not a big deal at all anymore. Working mainly in the Japanese language and then doing shows overseas or seeing the reaction from fans who don't speak Japanese — knowing all the words, mouthing along to the lyrics — seeing that changed the way I see the language barrier. There is no barrier.

It also feels significant that Bad Mode's title comes from an English word that Japanese youth have taken and created a new meaning for in Japanese.

Yes, Japanese imports. I guess most languages import words from other languages, then it takes on a new meaning which I think is really interesting. It's going to happen more and more, especially [with] the written word, I'd say, because of the internet. We're exposed to more, sonically too, [and] it's a bit alarming sometimes to see how much in the Japanese language. Even the government will try to use a lot of English words like "manifesto" for these important political terms.

There's been an increasing tendency [in Japanese] to use imported English words somehow as a tool, I think to give it a modern feeling or something a bit ambiguous. And then it's easier to convince people what it means, in a way that's advantageous to them. But I find it fascinating how language evolves and influences each other, and Japanese is very creative. Well, any language is creative, but I enjoy the particularities of Japanese. It's a very playful language and [Japanese youth], they've taken the word "bad" and used it like a noun. Bad-o, [which means] negative, bad vibes.

You touched on how the music industry never knew how to market you because you were a bilingual, multinational person with various global references. But in this age, it's very normal to see pop stars make bilingual songs that mashup tons of genres. Do you feel like your career created a blueprint for others?

I know some artists who know what's going on in the industry and what's up with other artists. I am not that type, so I don't really know.

Oh really? Because with the artists that I've seen you collaborate with, I feel like you seem like someone who's up to date on who's up-and-coming.

Not at all. I was just speaking with someone, an Asian American artist in the industry, who told me that as he was growing up, all his friends knew my songs like "First Love" and those songs from my first album in Japanese. I had no idea.

Exodus, your second English-language album and your first under Island Records, eventually gained a cult following. Now when I listen to it, I feel like the experimentation still holds up. How do you look back on that album?

It holds this endearing sort of spot. There's a bit of "awww," [at] the younger me that I see differently now. At the same time, a part of me is like, "Oh wow, look how young I was." All these things I wasn't aware of then, like, "Look at how my insecurities are showing up in some ways," and, "Oh, that's a bit embarrassing." Or my whole identity that I didn't even realize I struggled with, being an Asian woman in America.

I grew up in a very international environment where [my identity] didn't really matter. Then I was confronted with the idea of, "Oh, all these people are going to look at me and see an Asian woman." What does that mean? I think that was really daunting and scary for me. It made me feel really insecure, where I had to heighten [my identity] somehow to tackle it. I had to play into it somehow. But I've learned from that and I'm in a better place. I'm also like, "Wow, this is good stuff." I was really adventurous and just enjoyed what I did. I still like how it sounds.

When you talked to NPR around the time of your 2009 English-language album This Is the One, you said that you felt more boyish in Japanese and feminine in English. That seems significant now that you're releasing your first bilingual album after publicly coming out as nonbinary last year. Do you still find that's the case?

I've definitely found you take on a different identity when you switch between languages when you're multilingual. I think that's very interesting, and I think I'm not sure why I felt more feminine in [English]. Maybe because I'm just more comfortable with [myself now] and I'm more aware of who I am.

I think with Japanese, it makes you more conscious of gender with your diction. Not in the way that Latin languages have feminine nouns and the masculine nouns, but the way you say things will be different if you're a woman or a man. I think growing up with a lot of Japanese anime, manga, that was my main entry into what kept me reading Japanese when I was growing up in New York. [Reading mangas like Ranma ½ and Princess Knight], I was relating to the characters who were speaking like a boy and [I was] able to get into the way boys are supposed to talk. [It] added that dimension. The fact that the language makes you conscious of gender, I think allowed me to explore the different sides of myself without having to pick one.

You've always been dropping hints that you're queer throughout your career, but how has the response been to coming out? Did you feel some pressure to be a role model?

Well, you're right about [that], good detective work. But, I'm not the change. I've always been this way. It's just that I didn't have the vocabulary to do anything except drop hints. I didn't know there was a word that I could identify with. So when I came across the word nonbinary, it was a bit of a "Eureka" moment. It was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, like, "Oh!" I've been an outsider in so many different ways — culturally, or being a different age from the kids in my class. I just thought my gender identity was also one of those things that I just don't fit in with.

Around that time, a lot of people with a big platform, mostly in Western culture [like] athletes and artists, were coming out and saying they [were] doing it because visibility is really important. And it was the case for me — coming across the word did wonders for me. No one should feel like they have to share anything that private or personal, but just as a person with a platform, I felt that I have less to lose than people who would be scared to be honest about who they are. It's my job to be honest, that's all that's required of me as an artist. The only thing I owe to anyone, and mostly to myself, is just honesty. For other people there's the fear of social acceptance — and of course that exists for me — but I wouldn't lose my job or lose friends over this.

The response is always mixed. It was difficult to see some of the... should I say, the ignorance — that was expected though. But I was really touched by people saying [things] like, they were watching the news with their parents and it gave them a chance to talk about it. It really took some courage, even though I did it in a very nonchalant way. It was one of the most rewarding things that I've done.

In a recent interview, you said that you felt like Bad Mode felt connected to Exodus, because you felt that "there was a liberation within myself" and you wanted to return to the feeling of making sounds from scratch? How do you think liberation is connected to electronic production?

I think a bit of it is liberation from context and connotations that come attached with certain live instruments or sounds that occur in nature. If you hear strings, people have associations with that. There's a sense of genre that comes attached to certain instruments. Like, "Oh, acoustic piano, then is it a pop ballad?" Just starting from this completely imaginary world without even an instrument to start with, I want it to go back there, to point zero.

Your mother was an enka artist, and in an interview you mentioned that she had a darkness in her voice that people think carried over to you. Is that the only way you were influenced by the genre?

No, I don't think it was the [genre]. I think she had a particularly [distinct voice]. Even within enka, that was what people noticed about her the most, [they said] when she sings happy lyrics, generally it can have a little sadness to it. She had this doll-like appearance. The contrast was very striking. I think I've definitely carried on some of whatever was in her voice. I didn't notice it until I began putting stuff out there. I don't think I've been influenced by enka, but I have been influenced in the sense of just watching a professional singer doing her job. There was a lot to learn from there.

In some pockets of the world, you're best known for your Kingdom Hearts video game songs. When I look at comments under the songs on YouTube, they're very intense and emotional because people connect your music to their childhood. What is it like having that legacy tied to your work?

I think it's so cool that there's something you can share with people as you share time with them. Time progresses differently for each individual, but generally just knowing that I've shared this time with people, I find it very amazing. It's the one thing that you can't just make happen — it literally takes time. I really appreciate the connection and I feel very fortunate.

I didn't think they were going to be long-term things. With both [Kingdom Hearts and Evangelion] I just accepted the first offer, the one song. I had no idea that they were going to span more than a decade and become a 15-year project. It just happened for me too. The growth and the time that the creators of those games and Evangelion have gone through, we're all sharing that together.

Are there any moments that you feel like have really defined your career?

The things that come to mind are things that have had an extremely significant effect on myself, just in my life. I guess I don't really think of my career that much. I'm not sure what my career means to me. It's tricky. I think what an artist does is try to live, mainly, and then be honest. [You] question yourself, question things, and be curious. Then [you] try to present the most honest version of yourself that you can. So it's basically just me. It's a way of living.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 11, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that the artist's album Exodus was not on streaming services. Previously posted Feb 10: A previous version of this piece misspelled Keiko Fuji's name as Keijo Fuki.
Michelle Hyun Kim