Yoko Ishida is not poised to take the American pop market by storm. Her music, which consists mostly of highly polished j-pop numbers and anime theme songs, is accessible, but she's faced with establishing herself in a pop market that's traditionally been both brutal to fledgling performers and hostile to anyone who can't or won't sing in English. Fortunately, Yoko's got an angle that should win her a broad and diverse following. She's already known to American fans of Para Para dancing, a fun to watch and tightly choreographed dance trend, because of the fact that Pioneer's Japanese offices have tapped her to sing some 100 revved-up eurobeat covers of anime themes. Her rookie U.S. release, Sweets, is set to be unleashed on July 1, 2003. The record isn't likely to click with the mainstream immediately, but it's packed with songs ripped directly from the soundtracks of popular anime shows like Sugar and Ai Yori Aoshi, giving Ishida's work a good chance of winning most anime fans over.
I'm already sold on Yoko Ishida. The quality of her songs isn't always top-shelf, due in no small part to the overproduction that plagues a lot of j-pop, but she has a remarkably powerful and distinctive singing voice. In the realm of Japanese pop, that makes her stand out immediately-- Japan's mainstream music scene is packed with pretty but unskilled singers. Ishida's a rare bird that has both the looks and the talent. She performs energetically onstage whether she's alone or flanked by a team of Para Para dancers. We here at Anime Jump had a chance to attend a group interview session at Anime Central 2003 with Ishida about her upcoming album and her other forays into music.
(In attendance: Yoko Ishida, Nick Hiroi (Producer, Pioneer Music), Nobuo Yamamoto (Marketing Manager, Pioneer Music), Mike Toole (Anime Jump), Kevin Lillard (Fansview), [Name Garbled] (University of Milwaukee Post), Kim Houston (UWM Post) Sean O'Hara (UM Leader), Unknown (UWM Leader), Sherry (90.5 FM).)
Mike Toole: How did you become a singer? Can you talk a little about your genesis as a performer?
Yoko Ishida: There was a tournament for new and upcoming singers, and I was able to win it. That was the key to me becoming a singer.
Kevin Lillard: Why do you want to become a singer and perform in front of large numbers of people?
YI: I've always liked singing since I was a little girl. I used to play mock concerts with my friends, and we would pretend we were singers onstage. I've always been into things like that and wished that I could one day become a singer and perform onstage. I even pretended to have hand-shaking sessions!
Name Garbled: When making songs for an anime instead of directly for an album, do you think that the creative process is any different?
Nick Hiroi: When making songs for an anime, I have to consider the animation that goes along with the song and what kind of an anime it is. If it's a gentle kind of anime, I can't have a strong song, or there'd be a mismatch. Therefore, I try to choose and compose songs that match the concept and mood of the show.
Kim Houston: I was wondering about the independent music business. Did you have any CDs or music you produced yourself before you were discovered?
YI: I didn't really release any music before the contest. My career in singing exploded as a direct result of winning the contest.
Sean O'Hara: How do you feel about the American convention crowd versus the Japanese crowds and concerts? If you gain wide acceptance in America, would you consider doing full concerts in the U.S.?
YI: I feel the fans' pure love of anime in both American and Japanese conventions are very similar. With Japanese and American concerts, the fans in the audience cheer for me, applaud, and sing along-- also similar. As for your question about concerts, I'd definitely like to hold a full concert here. I'd like to sing in as many places as possible.
Unknown: I was wondering how your music became associated with anime?
YI: The very first singing contest that I won was a contest for singing anime songs for upcoming singers.
Sherry: What type of music do you listen to?
YI: Since I'm an anime song singer, I'm interested in what kind of opening and ending songs there are and who's singing them. Other than that, I also like to listen to j-pop.
MT: At the concert, you spoke of writing the lyrics for some of your music. Did it start out that way, or is it something you eased into over time? Further, do you see yourself taking a more direct role in the creation of your music?
YI: As I started singing anime songs, I started wanting to write my own songs. I started in, and on Sweets, there are four songs that I've written the lyrics to.
KL: Some people, if they got onstage, would be scared of the lights and the audience and the pressure of performance. Are you scared?
YI: I do get nervous sometimes, but once I start singing and the audience is cheering and singing along, the enjoyment of the concert overwhelms my nervousness. So I don't feel very nervous while I'm singing.
NG: Do you enjoy watching anime, or are you only interested in the music?
YI: I enjoy watching anime as well. I think that anime is a realm where both the music and animation come together, so I like both of them.
NG: What are some of your favorite series?
YI: It's hard to choose, but I really like Sugar.
KH: What do you think about the differences between how American pop is received in Japan and how Japanese pop is received here? Are you into American pop?
YI: I listen to whatever music I feel like at the time. I've never really differentiated between American and Japanese pop.
SO: At the concert, you said that you'd recorded your first English track just a few days ago. Did you enjoy that? Would you like to do more?
YI: I enjoyed it very much. Should the opportunity arise, I'd love to do it again.
U: At the concert, you sang some Para Para songs. I'm just wondering how you got involved with Para Para? I don't really know too much about it.
NH: When the Para Para dancing started becoming popular in Japan, Pioneer looked into doing Para Para anime themes. We started looking for a singer to sing the songs. When we heard Ms. Ishida singing, we thought it would be perfect for her. There's been a total of eight CDs and more than 100 Para Para songs.
S: You have a new CD coming out. What's your favorite song on it, and why?
YI: This CD has songs that I sang for anime and songs that I composed myself. It's more like a "best of" CD. I love all of these songs so much that I can't pick a favorite.
MT: Now with Sweets, you're going to be jumping into a market that has not historically been friendly to performers who do not sing in English. I'm wondering, if the Sugar theme goes over well, can we expect an entire album in English?
YI: There are no plans to release an album like that right now. But if the occasion should arise, I'd definitely love to do it.
KL: A question about a couple of popular Japanese styles of music: We seem to have the highly charged goth j-rock stuff, in which everybody wears black and acts as if they're unhappy. Then, we have the j-pop where everyone seems to be happy about it. Where do you lie?
YI: I would definitely lean towards the cheery stuff! Because the darker stuff... isn't it scary?
KL: You sing the Sugar theme song. Are you like Sugar, the character?
YI: I think that I resemble Sugar, because I'm very short!
NG: Are there any American music artists that have influenced your work at all?
YI: Not really. I perform my music the way I feel like doing it.
KH: Are there any specific shows, either upcoming or in the past, that you've really wanted to sing for but couldn't or haven't?
YI: I've always been able to sing the songs I've liked. I don't really know much about what's happening in future projects, but I think I'll get to sing all the songs I want to.
SO: There are j-pop stars on television. Have you ever had any interest in other entertainment careers, like acting?
YI: Other fields of entertainment seem interesting, but right now I'd like to concentrate on singing, live concerts, and talking to my fans.
U: Who would you say your idol was, in terms of singing?
YI: My idea of an idol... I want to become someone that other people look up to myself.
U: But who do YOU look up to?
YI: I wonder... I didn't expect a question like this! I respect everyone who sings, really. I think they're all great.
U: Who was your favorite when you were a kid?
YI: My favorite as a kid... Pink Lady...! (embarrassed laughter)
S: Are you planning to promote your material in Europe or South America?
NH: Well, we'd first like to get a firm grip in America.
Nobuo Yamamoto: There's already interest in Germany, because we sublicense to Germany and other countries also. There's definitely interest, but animation music as a product is still underdeveloped. So we want to make sure we establish a United States market first.
MT: You have a powerful and versatile voice. I don't think I've ever heard a singer who could convincingly tackle the Saint Seiya theme and the Pretty Sammy one...
YI: Thank you very much.
MT: Did you train before you became a professional? Since you've become a pro, have you tried to develop your craft?
YI: I used to sing karaoke a lot before I became a professional singer. After I became a singer, I had voice lessons. I continue to take them.
KL: I understand that the Japanese pop music market is as competitive, if not moreso, that what we have in the U.S. In Japan, what does it mean to be a success?
NH: Success is something that follows hard work. It just comes from singing good songs, so there's not really any one thing that defines a successful artists.
NG: What is the most personally satisfying success that you've had in your career?
YI: I'm very happy with this CD. it feels like the culmination of my spirit as a singer. I'm also very happy that it's coming out in both Japan and the U.S., because it means I can hold concerts in both countries.
KH: I was just wondering if you forsee any trouble getting established in the U.S., like finding concert venues and people that will book a foreign performer?
YI: The thing is, it probably isn't very difficult as long as you're holding concerts that people enjoy and writings songs that are appreciated by everyone. I believe that popularity will follow hard work, and that good work will be appreciated.
SO: Being a pop icon can be taxing-- so much attention. Have you ever had a day that you wish you weren't so famous?
YI: Nope. I've never really thought of it that way.
S: How do you see yourself ten years from now?
YI: I would like to be on a worldwide tour, going around the world and holding concerts.
Will Yoko Ishida be the next Britney Spears? That seems like a long shot. Will she meet with similar or greater success than Japanese peers who have built modest but loyal followings in North America, like Pizzicato Five and Puffy? That's downright likely, and Ishida definitely has the tools to carve out her niche in the world of pop. The fact that she's using anime songs to help make a name for herself just makes her all the more interesting to anime fans all over the world. Ms. Ishida will be continuing to promote her new album throughout the next year. We'll be waiting for our chance to see her perform again, and so should you.
(Special thanks to Pioneer Music for setting this all up.)