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Inside tracks

Composer of 1,000 J-pop songs Joey Carbone says the success of Lost In Translation may have finally paved the way for a J-pop hit in America.

Joey Carbone with J-pop group MAX

Few would be surprised to learn that the latest hit by MAX or SMAP wasn’t penned by the bands themselves. But how many would think that the song was written by an American?

For 20 years, American composer Joey Carbone has been penning songs for J-pop acts, providing the music for hits by SMAP, MAX and dozens of others. Close to Johnny Kitagawa, the legendary producer of boy bands like SMAP, Carbone has an insider’s perspective that comes from decades of working with Japan’s music industry.

But recently, Carbone says over coffee in Shibuya, it’s become hard to keep up with the rapid changes transforming Japan’s music business. “When I first started out in Japan, there was a system of never firing people, and never changing companies,” he says. “Since the Bubble burst, more people are getting let go from record companies—especially older guys—and a lot of people are moving around like crazy. As a foreigner, it’s very difficult for me to keep my finger on who’s where.”

First coming to Japan in 1985 when one of his songs won the grand prize at the Tokyo Music Festival, Carbone came to be represented by Taiyo Music, owned by “Tats” Nashima, at the time the most powerful person in the Japanese yougaku (Western music) scene and also, notes Carbone, the man who brought the Beatles over and got Paul McCartney out of jail when he was arrested for marijuana possession in 1980.

Carbone became infatuated not only with the country and its people, but with the distinctive flavor of Japanese music. “I grew up on Motown, the Beach Boys and Phil Spector stuff, so I was really taken with the melodic structure of Japanese pop,” he says. “It always seems to be very catchy and has a strong melodic sense, as opposed to American music which is very linear in nature.”

Notwithstanding J-pop’s increasingly Western flavor, the native New Yorker says he can still hear an undercurrent of kayoukyoku (Japanese ballads). “These days, Japanese record companies say they want Western music. But they don’t really mean that: They want a Western feeling, rhythmically, but when it comes down to the melody, they still want a really hook-y chorus that everyone can sing in karaoke.”

Despite the changes wrenching the music business and the increasing musicianship of Japanese artists, Carbone observes that the obsession with youth remains impervious to change. “The idol scene, which some people thought would go away, never seems to go away. When I go to a Japanese record company to promote a female artist, everyone is looking for someone 17, 18 years old.”

Bucking the trend are SMAP, who Carbone notes are as successful as ever even as its members push 30. “You see them on TV and they’re not thin, young boys anymore, they’re not what you would call idols. Shingo’s put on a little weight. He looks like a typical oyaji. But if you go to a concert you’ll see girls who may have aged along with him, but they’re still screaming like 15-year-olds.”

Central to the success of SMAP and countless boy bands over the past four decades has been Johnny Kitagawa, head of the powerful Johnny’s Jimusho agency. Carbone has worked closely with Kitagawa.

While granting that Kitagawa wields considerable influence, Carbone differs with some who say this has a stultifying effect on Japan’s entertainment industry. “I agree that his company is powerful, but if a TV show puts one of his acts on, it’s only going to be great for the ratings; if a magazine does an article on Johnny’s artists, it will sell magazines. I think they will all be happy to use Johnny’s talents.”

Carbone says Kitagawa’s genius lies in finding someone at a young age, and imagining what they might look like a few years later. “As a businessman, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Johnny because, in a sense, he’s more creative than his artists. His creativity is to put these acts together. If you listen to a SMAP album, the vocals might not be world-class, but you will notice that the songs are usually pretty good, and the production is first-class. So as a lover of pop music, when I look at the whole package, I’m nothing but impressed with what I hear and see.”

In Japan to market a batch of new songs, some of the rights for which have already been optioned by current J-pop darlings Boa and Yuki Koyanagi, Carbone is also working on a compilation album series, Japanese In America (JIA), to introduce expatriate Japanese and Japanese-American artists to audiences on both sides of the ocean.

So as an insider, what does he think of J-pop artists’ Quixotic attempts to crack the American market, which haven’t succeeded since the “Sukiyaki Song” became a surprise No. 1 in the early ’60s?

“The biggest problem has been the lack of singers who sing effectively with emotion in the English language. Out of all the artists I’ve heard, I think Utada Hikaru has the best chance because she grew up in New York and her English is fluent.”

Carbone also sees a darker reason for the lack of success. “I also feel there’s been some discrimination from America in accepting Asian artists. I think Japan has always been open to accepting any music, whether it’s reggae or French pop, but Americans only seem to be interested in black or white artists, or some English artists, maybe occasionally a Swedish or Australian pop act.”

He does, however, note some easing of prejudice. “There’s been increased interest in recent years with The Last Samurai, Lost In Translation and the big animation boom. I hope those walls come down.”

Joey Carbone is looking for singers who can sing in Japanese to introduce to Japanese record companies. He invites interested readers to contact him by email at: joeyc123@earthlink.net

credit: Joey Carbone


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