Metropolis Magazine
Issue #805 - Friday, Aug 28th, 2009
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310: Speech
309: Santana

By Kevin Mcgue

Emi Meyer
The bicultural jazz singer explores her Japanese side

Jo Liu

Emi Meyer is a perfect example of why bicultural people in Japan shouldn’t be called “half,” but rather “double.” In the case of this pianist and singer-songwriter, “multi” might actually be more fitting.

Born in Kyoto to an American father and Japanese mother, Meyer was raised in Seattle before heading to LA to study ethnomusicology. She self-produced her debut 2007 album, Curious Creatures, and her unique vocal style won critical accolades as well as spots in music showcases like Seattle’s Northwest Folklife Festival.

Now, at the precocious age of 22, she is following in the footsteps of bicultural songwriters like American Rachael Yamagata by expanding her musical activities to Japan, touring the country, playing the prestigious Kobe Jazz Festival, and unveiling new songs in Japanese. It is a whirlwind start to a career that gives us much to savor and plenty to look forward to.

Growing up in Seattle allowed Meyer to pursue a variety of interests and exposed her to a wide range of music. “There is a nice mixture of tradition and innovation in Seattle, resulting in thriving niches and subcultures,” she says from her current home in LA. Although the city became the center of worldwide attention with the rise of Nirvana and the Sub Pop label, Meyer contends that it still has less of a music-industry presence than LA. “It was nice to be sheltered from [that] as I developed my passion for music.”

That passion began with classical piano as a child, which was soon influenced by an interest in jazz. It wasn’t long before Meyer began experimenting with singing along to her improvised jazz piano. The result was a natural and soulful vocal styling, adding further depth to her poignant lyrics.
“There is one good song on every person’s tongue,” Meyer broods on a track from Curious Creatures. Indeed, songwriting seems to come naturally to this young artist. “When I write a song, it’s like I have this emotional or conceptual itch that I’m trying to scratch, and I put together notes and words that feel right,” she reflects. “I usually don’t have the final direction or purpose of the song in mind.”

Studying ethnomusicology has helped Meyer gain new appreciation of the songwriting process, although she is cautious about throwing such influences into the mix. “My studies raised the idea of ‘exoticization,’ and I am determined to make sure I understand an instrument’s sound and origins before I include it in my music,” she says. “I want to respect the tradition and people it represents.”
Writing new songs in Japanese, which appear as bonus tracks on the recently released Japan edition of Curious Creatures, added yet another dimension to the creative process. “In Japanese, I work in the opposite direction,” she explains. “I start out with a distinct message I want to communicate and work from there to develop the lyrics.”

In addition to several upcoming solo concerts and in-store performances, Meyer is also the opening act on the tour of another bicultural artist, Yael Naim, the French-Israeli singer-songwriter whose music was hand-picked by Steve Jobs to promote the MacBook Air. “I am a huge fan,” Meyer wrote on her blog, “so every show will be a deluxe combination of being a performer and fan.”

This year, Meyer has been getting a lot more experience playing for Japanese fans. “Audiences are subdued during the show, which can be unnerving,” she admits, “but they articulate their appreciation after each song.”

Emi Meyer plays Club Quattro, June 22-23 (with Yael Naim) and June 30 (solo). See concert listings (popular) for details.

Got something to say about this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.

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