Interview + images :
The people of Osaka take pride in being unpretentious and down-to-earth. Their sometimes disarming directness doesn't fit the stereotype of the demure, self-effacing Japanese. Which makes it a pleasure to interview vocalist/guitarist Miyavi , an Osaka native who, after making a name for himself in his home country, is now setting his sights on the world beyond Japan's shores. He's confident and cocky, but also charming.
Since his debut in 1999 as a member of visual-kei (think glam rock) band Dué le Quartz, Miyavi has charted his own path in the often cut-throat Japanese music business. Just one look at him tells you that this is a guy who's not afraid to break with convention: his arms and torso are liberally decorated with tattoos. Since in Japan tattoos are associated with gangsters and other unsavoury sorts, Miyavi is sending out a clear message that he's not afraid to be seen as a rebel in a society where conformism is the norm.
His music goes against the grain too. Unlike the saccharine, cookie-cutter pop that dominates the Japanese charts, Miyavi sings and plays with a gutsy intensity that knocks you off your feet. Although he's moved on from the visual-kei style, his roots in that hyper-dramatic musical idiom are evident when he struts the stage and strikes dramatic poses as he pours out his soul with his passionate singing and guitar playing.
Although you'd never guess it from his passionate live shows, music wasn't his first love. When he was in junior high school, he played centre half in a local soccer team, but an injury forced him to abandon any hope of making it as a professional athlete. Soccer's loss turned out to be music's gain.
“It (the injury) was really positive for me,” Miyavi (whose real name is Takamasa Ishihara) explains in fluent, confident English, “because otherwise I wouldn't have played the guitar. I was tired and bored with daily life, and I started to do bad things. I didn't expect that I would be into music that much, but when I started playing the guitar, I pictured myself in front of a big crowd and having the same feeling as when I was playing soccer.”
Set on making his mark in the music world, at the end of the '90s he hit the road for Tokyo, home to Japan's major music companies and key live-music venues.
At first, life in the Japanese capital was hard — at one point his worldly goods comprised the clothes on his back and his mobile phone. His mood was dark. “I was scared and suspicious (of people),” he says. “I wanted to escape from actual life.”
Things took a turn for the better when he became friends with some musicians who shared his passion for rock 'n' roll. In 1999, Miyavi and his pals formed Dué le Quartz. For Miyavi, visual kei's attraction was that it offered a sense of freedom by allowing him to express himself through a stage persona. “I felt I was really free when I was putting on make-up,” he says.
As Dué le Quartz started creating a buzz on the Japanese music scene, the media picked up on Miyavi's natural good looks. He was featured in magazine photos and landed parts in two feature films.
“Then, over the years, being in the industry started restricting me,” he says. “It was really stressful. I felt depressed, like my head and body were apart. So I decided to break up the band, because as a musician it wasn't enough for me. And putting on make-up is not the only way of expressing yourself.”
When the members of Dué le Quartz went their separate ways in 2002, he began crafting his own musical style. Fusing elements of pop, rock and blues, he now plays a Taylor T5 acoustic guitar with pickups and contact mikes that is hooked up to a regular amp and a bass amp. That combination creates a sharp, but full-bodied sound.
He switches back and forth between fast-paced finger picking, aggressive strumming and using the guitar as a percussion instrument. One of his trademarks is to use banks of effects pedals to set up series of riff-based loops over which he plays lead and/or sings. Instead of playing with a full band, he usually performs with a drummer, who plays a stripped-down kit alongside the guitarist.
His musical influences, like his playing style, are decidedly eclectic. His musical idols include Metallica, Guns N' Roses, Michael Hedges, Elvis Presley and X Japan (whose drummer, Yoshiki, he played with as part of visual-kei supergroup S.K.I.N. in Long Beach, California in the US in 2007).
It's getting a bit hot in the small meeting room at the record label where the interview is being held, and so Miyavi removes his sweater. More tattoos become visible on his tank top-clad torso. They're not your garden- variety Japanese tats, however. Instead of dragons or glamorous geisha, his fleshy etchings comprise texts taken from various Eastern spiritual traditions. His upper right arm, for example, bears the inscription [Tenjou tenka yuiga dokuson] (I am the one and only. In heaven and on earth).” One on his left arm informs us that [Isshougai bonzin nari] (All my life I'm just a man).”
Most impressive, however, is his back, which is almost completely covered by the Buddhist “Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra”.
In 2009, consistent with his determination to buck the system Miyavi established his own management company (he's the president) instead of entrusting his affairs to one of Japan's paternalistic — and often exploitative — talent agencies. He's now signed to (foreign-owned) EMI Music Japan, which released his superlative album What's My Name? in October 2010 in Japan and later in various Asian countries.
He is one of those rare artists whose charisma lets him connect with audiences either in a big venue or a small club. And his natural charm and infectious energy, as well as his English-language skills, have helped him develop an international fan base. He notes that while his previous record label didn't want him to sing in English, writing songs in that language makes it easier to connect with his foreign fans.
On 10 October, Miyavi kicks off his third international tour with a gig at a club in San Francisco, with a string of dates in the US and Latin America set to follow. He sees himself as a kind of cultural ambassador for Japan, and while that might sound pretentious, he radiates a sincerity that makes you take him at his word.
And unlike the many J-pop artists for whom overseas tours are usually pro forma exercises whose real purpose is to impress their fans back home, Miyavi is clearly hungry for acceptance by international audiences. “I want to blow them away,” he says.
Steve McClure is the Tokyo-based executive editor of online newsletter McClure's Asia Music