Feature - Back Numbers
Telling Secrets - A Konversation with Kumi Koda (2005.04.02)
"I've never had anyone tell me they liked me - I've always been the one to take the first step," she says in a recent interview as Nippop listens sympathetically.
Koda continues, warming to her theme: "You know, for Valentine's Day, I actually make chocolates myself? I've even knitted mufflers for the occasion. But no 'giri-choco' for me. On the first Valentine's Day after my debut, I gave chocolates to all the people at Avex, but I didn't get a single chocolate in return! And that was when I decided I was never going to hand out chocolates at work, ever."
And as your intrepid Nippop interviewer tries to remember the location of the nearest chocolaterie, Koda adds coyly: "I really think that foreign men are all gentlemen."
Well, gosh... Anyway, fascinating though it is to hear la belle Kumi describe her romantic frustrations, Nippop is reminded that the main topic of the interview is Koda's music, specifically her latest album, "Secret," which came out Feb. 9.
"Secret" is the fourth album for Koda, who released her first single, "Take Back," in December 2000, and her first album, Affection, in March 2002.
Unusually, "Take Back" was released in the U.S. before it came out in Japan, when Avex licensed an English-language version of the track to American dance label Orpheus in November 2000. "Take Back" peaked at No. 18 on Billboard's Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales chart.
"We hadn't really intended to release it, but remixes were all the rage then," Koda says, explaining that "Take Back" was released in the U.S. in a remixed version after Avex's New York office suggested the track might go over well with American club DJs.
Returning to the present, Koda explains why her new album is called Secret.
"After the album was finished, I remembered that all sorts of secrets were hidden inside it," she says. "One of them is a first-edition-only centerfold - one of those things you snip open to discover a sexily clad 'Ku-chan'."
Close inspection of the booklet accompanying Secret reveals several provocative shots of the pleasantly proportioned Koda.
"We also created promotional videos as special attachments for the album, and we have an album-edition promotion video for (the single) 'Hands' that hasn't been cut as a single," Koda continues. "And I have two dogs, and one of my two dogs will turn up underneath the CD when you take it out of its case. And you won't know which it will be until you open the package. So, it's called 'Secret' because of all the surprises inside it, like a toy chest."
Like several other Japanese artists, Koda has recently become popular among American fans of Japanese anime and video games. Her song "Real Emotion" was the theme song for one instalment of the Final Fantasy video game series, which led to Koda being invited to perform at the Ushicon anime convention in Austin, Texas, in January 2004.
"My performance was about 30 minutes long, so I think I sang six or seven songs," Koda says. "I was considering singing 'Real Emotion' in English, but everyone seemed to enjoy it more when I sang in Japanese, so I sang that in Japanese. And I sang 'Trust Your Love' (Koda's second U.S. single) and 'Take Back' in the English versions as well."
Koda, who was born in Kyoto in 1982, has music in her blood: her grandfather was a master of the shakuhachi bamboo flute, and her mother was a KOTO teacher.
"I think my biggest influence has been my mother," Koda says. "She's always loved music, and she started taking me to karaoke when I was really small. So I've been holding a mike since I was very young. And she was really good too. She wasn't a professional singer, but she set an example for me.
"People would stop to listen to her when she started singing," Koda recalls. "And watching that, I decided that I wanted to have people stopping to listen to me too."
Koda didn't get into R&B until Avex signed her to its Rhythm Zone label after she came second out of 120,000 entrants in Avex's "Dream Audition" nationwide talent search in her second year of high school.
"I'd never listened to anything other than Japanese music for a long time," she explains. "I'm the sort who likes reading the lyrics, and Western music is in English, which I wasn't very good at. If I couldn't understand it, I couldn't sing it - even at karaoke - so I didn't listen to it much.
"But then I got into Rhythm Zone at Avex, and there were a lot of artists I respected, like m-flo. And when they asked me what kind of music I wanted to do, I answered, 'I want to make music like m-flo.' And it turned out that they were heavily influenced by R&B. And so, I got into Rhythm Zone, and they told me to listen to Western music and lent me tons of CDs every day."
Koda obviously did her homework, because since her debut she's evolved into a skilled, self-assured artist whose music cleverly fuses dance-oriented R&B with karaoke-friendly, hook-filled melodies. And her charming, not to say disarming, combination of honesty and innocent coquetry makes her one of the J-pop scene's more interesting personalities.
The conversation somehow returns to the theme of Ku-chan's love life, as she describes her ideal date.
"A dinner, maybe going someplace romantic, with a beautiful night sky afterwards - I love drives. But I want my date to be original when it comes to giving me a present, although it doesn't have to be anything special."
Eligible bachelors, take note.
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