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Ayu: "I understand it's my role to realize people's dreams"

Empress of Pop
Like no J-pop star you've ever seen or heard, Ayumi Hamasaki rose to the top by controlling every aspect of her career and persona. Now she wants the world

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Ayumi Hamasaki
An exclusive interview with TIME

'I have very clear ideas of what I want'
In an exclusive interview with TIME, Ayumi Hamasaki talks about her music, her fans and how fame has changed her life

Ayumi Hamasaki, Ayu to fans, is the most powerful figure in Japanese pop music. She's sold more records than any other musical act for two years running in the world's largest music market outside the U.S. Her frequent makeovers determine the course of fashion. Her huge black eyes peer out from billboards in every corner of the country. Fans memorize her lyrics, transform into Ayu clones and swear she's changed their lives. At 23, she rules Japanese youth culture—and therefore influences all of Asia's.

Though Hamasaki rarely gives in-depth interviews, TIME's Lisa Takeuchi Cullen sat down with her in late February to talk about her upbringing, her musical influences, and what she thinks about her fans in Asia.

TIME: Who's this?
Marron. He's a wire-haired dachshund. He's still just eight months old—a puppy—but doesn't he look like an old man?

Yeah, because of his whiskers. Anyway, thanks for taking this interview. What intrigued us is that despite your popularity around the region, the Ayumi Hamasaki that people know is based on an image. What we'd like is to introduce the real Ayumi Hamasaki to our readers. Yoroshiku.

Listening to your last album, I thought it had a worldly outlook. Your manager told me the terror incident in New York had an impact on you. What did you think when you saw it on TV?
I thought it was a movie. I couldn't believe it was real. I've been to New York many times, and I couldn't accept it was really reality.

Did it influence your music?
Yes. It inspired one of the songs on the album [A Song Is Born].

And the image on the album cover. The white dove—a symbol of peace.
I had a completely different idea for the cover at first. We'd already reserved the space, decided the hair and makeup and everything. But after the incident, as is typical of me, I suddenly changed my mind. I knew it wasn't the time for gaudiness, for elaborate sets and costumes. It sounds odd coming from me, but I realize what I say and how I look has a great impact.

I'm told it also influenced your decision to go to Asia.
I'd never been.

Yeah, although I'd been to the U.S. many times.

How did you feel about your fans at the MTV awards show [in Singapore]?
I'd heard a lot of Asian people were rooting for me, but I had no idea. I was stunned. They were... impassioned, especially compared to Japan. I couldn't even have anticipated that kind of welcome. It made me realize how much the people of Asia support me, and that I had to go back.

You began composing on this album. What instigated that?
The way I work, typically, I do everything at the very last minute. Even if I was given two months, I'd do it in the last three days. It's best of course to ask someone who's a professional to do it.

Because it's faster?
Actually, no. It's hard to decide how to match words to music. It's not like it's twice the work. It's always difficult for me to explain to the composer what I'm looking for. I'm not a professional; I lack even basic knowledge about writing music. But I discovered that if I do it myself, it's quicker and closer to what I have in mind. When I start from scratch, I can do exactly what I want.

Compared to A Song for XX, your first album, it's like a different person is writing the lyrics on your latest. Your earlier songs focus on loneliness, and they seem more autobiographic. I Am..., though, takes on a broader view, touching on issues like faith and peace.
In the beginning, I was searching for myself in my music. My music was for me. I didn't have the mental room to be conscious of the listener; I wrote to save myself. I didn't understand what it was to write songs. But over time I began to see many things, my influence, the responsibilities that gave me.

Does that weigh you down? For instance, when I talk to kids in Japan, it seems to me they have no dreams, no aims. But when I ask whom they admire, it's you.
There were times it weighed me down. Like I was being chased. I pushed myself... even when it was impossible, I couldn't say so. I know everyone at [record company] Avex works hard for me, relies on me. Now, I don't mind. I accept it. I can lean on others, too. I feel it's okay to show that side of myself, and that's made it easier.

Let's talk about your past. You were raised by a single mother, which was rare at the time. Did that make you feel different?
I thought Mommy's life was strange, not mine.

You call her Mommy? That's so American.
Yeah, she told me to.

She lives in Tokyo now?
Yes. We're still close.


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