Artist Spotlight :: Sakamoto Maaya

Sakamoto Maaya, image taken from the Yoko Kanno Database,

This feature is Maaya SAKAMOTO. (Adapted from the original post on my old blog)

This artist turns out to be difficult for me to justify, precisely because she is my all-time favorite singer. Or maybe I shouldn’t say singer; she prefers to think of herself as a person who, among other things, sings, as opposed to being defined as a singer. And why Maaya-san? I’ll get to that in a moment…

Maaya-san (alongside Arai Akino and Aikawa Nanase) was the first Japanese music artist I listened to: at the age of 15, while living in Singapore, I was introduced to music that my sister had become acquainted with through her art school. The first time I heard Maaya-san’s voice, my thought was: “Wow, what a thick voice! Is she fifteen or thirty years old?” At that time, I hadn’t been paying attention to artists’ voices; little was I to know how much thicker voices could be. What I thought of as ‘thick’ was more close to ‘resilience’ if that makes any sense in the context of music. There is a very resilient quality to Maaya-san’s voice, a vitality, a spriteliness, a life to each note. This quality is apparent in any song she sings, but slightly transmuted to fit the mood of each song. She is able to express the emotions of her songs subtlely, and with time, her voice has softened and become more elegant.

Not only is Maaya-san’s voice gracefully skilled, her music — which was previously mostly written by her mentor and producer, Yoko KANNO — matches perfectly. The two work together as if telepathic. Many of her songs have been stuck in my head at one point or another, reverberating on some particular emotional note, with addictive melodies to match. Music aside, even her lyrics are thoughtful and well-written. At first, most of her lyrics were penned by Yuho IWASATO, and often dealt with the usual romantic bent, but after a while Maaya-san took to writing some of her own lyrics, and these are more often than not quite creative and touching, impressing even Yoko Kanno herself. I recommend listening to (and thinking about) the lyrical content of such songs as “Hemisphere”, “I.D.”, “Here”, “Chibikko Folk”, “Strobe no Sora”, “Grapefruit”, “Uchuu Hikoushi no Uta”, to name a few.

I really have very little to complain about Maaya Sakamoto. I could be biased, as she is my favorite artist. One might harp that her voice, throughout most of her songs for a given time period, tends to be generic: no great outbursts of emotion or radically different styles from one song to the next. Yet I argue that the variety of her music and subject matter are enough to distinguish between songs, and that her variation is subtle. The second complaint would be that her music falls under the “pop” category. No irresistibly grooving rap or rhymes, no hard-driving punk-rock beats; no soulful jazz piano; just vibrant acoustic guitar sounds all around. But what’s wrong with pop music if it’s incredibly skillful and well done?

Then and now.
Throughout her musical career, Maaya-san’s voice, style, and material have evolved over the course of about a dozen albums and more singles. But every good artist must evolve; the test of time is whether their change is for the better or worse. In Maaya’s case, the change is simply different; one can tell her early, youthful songs apart from her more mature, recent material. With her increasing skill in songwriting, her self-composed music is improving in quality and more able to match her voice.

Her earlier work relies more on Yoko Kanno’s instrumentals and catchy melodies to pull through, as her singing was straightforward. Her songs tended to be innocent, vibrant, and as Studio Neko-han-ten‘s reviewer puts it: “There is no aggressiveness and the overall message is gentle and positive…certainly [capturing] Maays’s charm.” As Maaya matures, we can hear her singing style relax (particularly between the releases of Dive and Lucy) and become more soulful, more expressive. Her lyrics similarly reflect this growing-up, this increasingly thoughtful sense of self. One might almost call it a “loss of innocence,” but it’s certainly not tragic. At the same time, Yoko Kanno’s music becomes less melody-driven and more of an accompaniment that showcases Maaya’s talent. In the late 2000’s to 2010, Maaya-san started to write more of her own songs. Initially they lacked color and imagination, but have improved and synergized with her always thoughtful lyrics in the past several years.

Favorite songs.
Too many to name! However for first time listeners I suggest songs from her first and second compilation albums Singles Collection + Hotchpotch (“Hikari no Naka e”, “Light of Love”, “Gift”, “Kiseki no Umi”) and Singles Collection + Nikopachi (“Hemisphere”, “Ongaku”, “Midori no Hane”, “Here”) respectively, which give you an idea of the diversity of her music. Particularly Nikopachi.

Least favorite songs.
In general, songs not composed by Yoko Kanno don’t hold that same unique freshness. An example would be Maaya’s collaboration with Chieko Higuchi, which resulted in a group called “Whoops!” and several forgettable singles and albums. Other songs from various video game/anime soundtracks, such as “Teens” and “Primary Days” are just more generic and don’t do justice to Maaya’s talent.

More information.
Victor artist web site 坂本真綾 [I.D.] – Maaya’s official website at Victor Entertainment. In Japanese. Has the requisite news, profile, discography, and weblog. Your first stop, if you know any bit of Japanese. – a wonderfully organized, up-to-date and quite complete site. You can find music samples and extra goodies in the discography section.


Friday, November 27th, 2015 Artist of the Month

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