Mayumi Itsuwa

Mayumi Itsuwa


early childhood

- What are your earliest childhood memories?

Well, I remember that my feet and my body were always covered with dust and dirt. I remember only the evenings,especially sunny days, and the setting sun. If I recall, I felt it was the only time of day when I could freely do whatever I wanted. It was not morning or afternoon or the time for bed. In the evening, I became like a pet dog released from its chain free to roam and go any place that looked curious and interesting. Actually there was a shrine near my house where I played when I was small, in my preschool and early elementary days.

- Did it have spacious grounds?

It was small. The shrine was on top of a hill and the grounds were unkempt and over-grown with weeds.But a lot of children played there. When I went there recently, I was surprised to see the shrine area was very neat and had some red flags around it. And I felt it discouraged entry.

- How was your life in your preschool days?

Well, both of my parents were working and my mother was not at home when I came home from school. I could not get into my house because I was not given a house key, although my elder brother and sister both had one. So I just played around outside. And I enjoyed that time very much, waiting for my parents to come home. It was only during that period of time that I had the feeling of freedom that only children can have without any of life's problems.I prefer sunset to sunrise.
I think that very few people nowadays ever can experience the sunrise.Because they are too sleepy to get up that early. Maybe they could if they stayed up all night.

- Did you start listening to radio programs when you were in middle school?

At my house, the radio was always on, especially at the time for 'Rokyoku'. At night, small children like us listened to what our parents listened to together. 'Rokyoku' was very comforting to me. The music was like a lullaby. It was slow music. I heard that my father liked music and he bought a second-hand violin to practice when he was young. But because of the war, he could not continue. So he gave up the idea of having a musical career. But inside my house, the music-friendly atmosphere remained. We also had a guitar and an accordion in the house.

- Did your father sometimes play the guitar?

Yes. He played some music composed by Mr. Masao Koga.

- In those days, a musical instrument like an accordion was very expensive, wasn't it?

I think so. And we don't have it anymore. I don't know what happened to it. I remember we also had an old gramophone. Our parents thought that I could take care of myself without their help because I was the youngest child, but my father used to spend a lot of time with me listening to records. At that time, records were 78s and they were big. I often listened to records with him.

- Which musical instrument did you play first?

It was a guitar, I guess, the one we had in my house. I wonder how old I was then. It was difficult for me to play because I was so small.

It was even heavy for me to lift. Of course, I could not play any chords. I did not even know waht they were. My father played Koga music which was not western music, and I imitated him.

- Could you play that music?

I could only play the first four bars which was the intro of the Koga music. I don't know which song it was, but I used to play it often. It was a famous song where the melody was played on single strings, not chords.

- When did you start playing the guitar as an instrument?

When I was a high school student. There was a guitar and folk song boom at that time. My father bought me a guitar then. Since my elder sister had one, he felt sorry for me and finally gave me a guitar for my birthday. It was probably when I was in the first year of high school.

- Was that a Yamaha guitar?

I don't remember.

- Do you still have it?

No, I don't have it anymore. There was a school farewell party for the third year students in March of my first year of high school, and I stood on a stage for the first time. In the gymnasium, we all sang the song 'Donna Donna' together at the beginning. Then I was asked to sing alone. At first there were about 10 of us who practiced singing together, but I ended up singing alone. And there was a good response from the people and my record sold well. (laughing) Well, that's not true. (laughing again) But starting the next day, the students at school looked at me very differently.It was very interesting.

- You never thought that you were going to be a professional singer in the future, did you?

No, not at all.

My life before my record debut

- What were you planning to do after high school graduation?

When we were in the last year of school, most students started taking exams and had decided
to go to college or start working, but I did not know what to do. To tell you the truth, I had no idea about
my future. And I was lazy, so I did not take any college entrance exams. I decided to go to an
English business school in the meantime to think about what I really wanted to do while studying
my favorite subject. That kind of easy-going manner didn't encourage me to keep going to school.......

- I don't think it would.(laughing)

I had no strong desire to go to school. So when I was about 18 years old, I started skipping classes
and started going to the music cafe 'Jean-Jean' (*1) in Shibuya.

- Did you just go there to audition?

Well, the cafe 'Jean-Jean' was like the Olympia Theater in Paris to us in those days. It was an
attractive venue for us. I don't remember how I got started, but maybe I had an audition there.
I guess that somehow I made it. Then I sang there once or twice a month after that.

- What kind of songs did you sing there?

As usual, I sang 'Donna Donna' always in the same style. Besides that, I sang some Beatles
songs, and also 'House of the Rising Sun', mostly popular songs that everyone liked. I could
not express myself in song very well at that time. I just sang as a hobby, often singing popular
songs for my friends and relatives.

- I heard that you started writing lyrics in Japanese because the English wasn't working.

There was a radio program which used to be broadcast from a supermarket. I sang English
songs there. At that time, I noticed that the audience could not understand what I was saying in
English at all. These kinds of songs that tell stories really need to be understood to be enjoyed.
Then I realized that singing in Japanese was very important, so I started using Japanese. I never
asked other composers to write scores for my songs. I stubbornly continued to write songs
completely by myself. I did not care that my songs did not become popular, but it was important
for me to keep writing about my life in Japanese. So I wrote some songs like
'Nawatobi(Skipping rope )', 'Ame (Rain)', 'Shojo(Girl)', and ' Anata wo oikakete (Searching for you)'
at the beginning. I wrote songs about my childhood.

About a life after a debut

- Why did you decide to record your records outside of Japan ?

I really wanted to. Carol King was my favorite singer and song writer and I used to listen to her records. While listening to a wide variety of music including hers, I felt that the records made in the U.S. sounded better. So I definitely wanted to have my records made in the U.S. I was not concerned about the cost, but I had this dream and it came true. No other Japanese singer had ever done this before, so it wasn't easy to get permission to do it, but my manager finally agreed to let me try it, and I went to the U.S. for the recording.

- Were you able to communicate with the musicians in English at that time?

A little. We were completely different types of people who grew up on the opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean. I was very nervous the whole time. Everyone at the recording studio called me by my first name, 'Mayumi, Mayumi', and tried to help me relax. I realized that it was a very good atmosphere.

- How did your audiences react after you appeared in a TV commercial ?

Well, I appeared in a TV commercial for pens and they had used my song 'Tobacco Smoke' as background music.Later when I had a joint concert with a Japanese folk singer in Kyoto, he started singing 'Tabako no kemuri(Tobacco Smoke)' as a joke. The audience suddenly went crazy but I didn't know what he had done at thetime. The audience kept getting more and more enthusiastic and I didn't know why. At that time, I realized how much influence the media had on people and I still remember the situation clearly.

- What kind of clothes did you wear at that time?

I always wore jeans.

- Did you wear them from the beginning?

Yes, I didn't have any dressy clothes.

- Did wearing jeans match your feelings?

Yes, it did. It suited me perfectly. I believed the jeans existed only for me.(laughing)

- What other kinds of clothes did you wear besides jeans?

I often wore cotton clothes, especially loose clothes. I wore only cotton clothes, like the Japanese proverb 'Kitakiri suzume (sparrows wearing the same clothes everyday)'. I also liked T-shirts ,especially T-shirts with something printed on them. They seemed to suit me fine, with my guitar.

- What kind of books did you read then?

I didn't read much, but I sometimes read books by Kenji Miyazawa. I read some novels by Soseki Natsume later.

- Did you receive fan letters?

I think that they were delivered to the office. At the time of my debut, I didn't understand the meaning of turning professional and becoming popular. I only knew that my records were released, but I didn't know what would happen after that. I was really at a loss at that time. I knew people were listening to my records somewhere that I didn't know about, but I couldn't grasp the idea that so many people were actually coming to my concerts. I became more and more cautious. My albums sold well and externally I was becoming famous, but at the same time, my heart was going turning inside. Maybe I was supposed to be like that.

- Have you had more and more interviews since then?

Actually I have a pretty bad reputation among the media people. They say "Mayumi Itsuwa never answers the questions."(laughing) I did not even give serious answers to questions like 'What is your favorite color?'

- In doing that, you decided to concentrate your energy on writing your own songs, didn't you?

Yes, I did. I didn't write songs just to sell my records or to be a star, or to be superior. I started singing out of a pure wish to find myself. I didn't expect that my songs to become hits. I tried to stay out of the limelight that attracts people to hang around like groupies, so as a result I avoided things like having interviews. If I had wanted to be famous, I would have followed a more traditional way, the track already laid out ahead of me. But I intentionally avoided that kind of situation.

- Did you have different songs for the albums and for singles at that time?

No, not at all. If I had done that from the beginning, it wouldn't have felt right. I didn't plan anything. I just wrote songs from my heart.

- How long did you continue writing the lyrics first?

Well, I did that from 1972 and even do so a bit to this day, depending on the situation. Sometimes the music and the lyrics come together, like an inspiration. But most of the time now, the music comes first.

- Which songs were like that?

The first example where I wrote the lyrics first were 'Sayonara dake wa iwanaide' and 'Nokoribi' and also 'Aikagi' and 'Koibito yo'. Maybe after that, when I was writing 'Marionette', the idea for the lyrics and the music came together like places and time suddenly merged into one. I thought 'These lyrics may fit that tune', or 'Well, there is a time lag of about this much.'(laughing) I think 'Koibito yo' is my best song. While writing those songs, it seemed I had reached a high point in my writing. I got the feeling I could write songs in a different way, kind of relaxing into it. Then the music came to me first.

- Were you nervous the second time you recorded outside of Japan?

The second time was easier because the musicians were the same. My voice had became stronger, and I think I was more relaxed.

- At that time, have you ever thought of writing in a more western style?

Not at all. For me, I used to write the lyrics first. For example, I wrote the melody for the song 'Tobacco no kemuri' to call attention to the lyrics. There were a lot of lyrics though. I never thought of westernizing my songs.

- You said that your father used to play Koga music at home, but your songs are more like western music. Why is that?

I heard my father playing a lot of Japanese music when I was growing up but I also listened to other types of music on the radio -- American music, French music, Italian music, etc. That influence became apparent in my songs after 'Sayonara dake wa iwanaide'. I told you that I changed my style around 1978. My songs have been influenced more by Japanese pop songs since then. Before that period, I felt reluctant and embarrassed to write pop songs, so I didn't dare to try it. I think I could have if I had wanted to. Pop songs are a kind of conservative, don't you think? I had the idea that a young generation needed something new.

France, Parco(*1 ) and 'Koibito yo'

- Had you been to France before you went there to record?

I'd never been there before. Compared with the US, my image of France for the young Japanese people like me was that of a dark country hidden in the corner of the world map and I was really worried about going there. In 1976, there was a CBS World Convention(*2) where representatives from all over the world sang songs recommended by their countries. Two groups of singers had their songs presented at the Convention. In the one group, the singers performed their songs live. For the second group, only recordings were heard by the audience. France asked me to come for a debut after hearing my album 'Mayumity' which was introduced at that Convention. At that time my musical activities in Japan were in a slump. That was why I went to France.

- What kind of slump?

I couldn't get inspired to write any more new songs. I didn't give myself up to alcohol though (laughing).
Maybe it was when I wrote, 'Mayumity'. I was very depressed and didn't have any energy to do anything. I could still write songs though, if I pressured myself to write against my will. But I didn't like doing that.
I thought that I needed a rest, so I kind of forced myself to go to France.

- Was that in order to help change your mental state?

Yes, partly. The opportunity to go to France came from the people there via CBS France. So I thought it
was a good opportunity. But I did not actively seek to go and didn't know what I was doing. I just felt drawn to go. So I went.

- Did you write songs to sing in France before leaving Japan?

No, I just had French lyricists translate my songs into French.

- After returning to Japan, you had some time to think. Tell me about your Parco performance.

Well, France inspired me and gave me a guideline for my whole life, not only in my music. That I was actually there had meaning for me.

- So your experience in France changed you drastically. One example is that the image of you as a longhaired woman wearing jeans completely changed. Was it a kind of culture shock?

Ha ha. Well, my color sense changed. Actually I am the kind of person who doesn't hesitate to make changes. So my way of writing songs completely changed after coming back from France. My old fans may have felt uneasy when they listened to my newer musical style.

- Many years ago, there were many people who were drawn to a particular genre, like folk song fans. So the change in your songwriting style must have been a kind of a shock to those people.

I think so.

- Besides that, you performed at 'Parco'?

Yes, I did, at Parco.

- Did your experience of going to France change your mood, too?

Yes, it did. Before that I didn't care about what I wore at all. I just wore clothes I thought would convey the image of me as a singer and songwriter or as a messenger to deliver my ideas. But after France, I started to adopt more visual techniques in my performances. I used to think that I should blend in with the instrumentation. And I used to be nervous when I wasn't holding my guitar or sitting at the piano, but I decided to start singing using a hand mike and dancing around a bit. That's whenI really began to feel like a professional singer.

- You said that you were in a slump. Did anything good come out of that experience?

Yes, I think so. I could not think clearly at all during the slump. And because of that I was able to go to France.

- How long did Parco concerts last? Did they last quite long?

They continued for a long time and each concert also was quite long. I did this as a kind of a lesson for
myself at the beginning. Unlike in big concert halls, the audience sitting in the last row could see my face
in the Parco concert hall. This made me want to develop my talents as Mayumi Itsuwa the performer rather than just as a composer. If a concert has a long run, the audience can select a convenient day to see it. But for the performers, it is much tougher. Performing live concerts is not like screening a movie. The singers have to perform live every day. The performance is physical labor for us, so it's possible for us to become worn out mentally. Some days we have good performances, but other days we don't. Some days we don't feel very enthusiastic, but other days we inspire the audience, etc. These kinds of things repeat every day. But looking back on that time, every day was a good lesson for me.

- What would you do if you were asked to have a three-week concert?

Well, that would be very tough. It's different when you are on a tour where the venues and the kinds of people in the audience change, but for three weeks at one venue this would not be the case. It's very difficult in many ways, so I don't think that I would do it.

- I think you have tried a lot of new things.

I think so. At that time, everything was so fresh and interesting to try. I felt as if I was going to get a lot of inspiration from doing them.

- Was the song 'Sayonara dake wa iwanaide' a step toward 'Koibito yo'? Do you feel that this song made it possible for you to write 'Koibito yo'?

Yes, I think so. 'Sayonara dake wa iwanaide' was a very challenging song for me. I am sorry to say this now, but at that time I thought this song would be kept only on tape, but my music director released it as
a single. CBS Sony had their own image of the outside of Mayumi Itsuwa as a singer and thought this song could make her successfully professionally. However I didn't realize it. When I was younger, I used to sing pop songs, but I felt kind of ashamed to sing them then. Because 'Sayonara dake wa iwanaide'
was more like a pop song for me I realized that I had already acquired the necessary singing skills to
sing pops (laughing). People may say that I had been hiding that ability. (laughing) When 'Sayonara dake wa iwanaide' was released, it eventually became a hit.

- For 'Koibito yo', did the lyrics come first?

That song came very naturally. I wrote a few songs at that time. I remember that we were planning to release a single record, so I wrote three songs. This song was one of them and the lyrics came first and they came very easily.

- This song became a big hit for you. What does that mean to you as a songwriter?

I am very glad about it, no question. Nobody influenced me in the writing of that song and no one else had any input into it. It just kind of happened naturally. If there was any hidden meaning in the lyrics, it didn't do well at the beginning. Then it gradually started gaining popularity, slowly climbing the charts, which made me very happy. And this song is an example of the perfect expression of my musical style. Anyone who listens to only this one song should be able to understand me nearly perfectly. Whenever I sing this song, I always feel very serious, even to this day.

- Have you ever changed the arrangement of that song?

I sometimes alter the arrangement for live performances, but not fundamentally. Once Mr. Funayama, the arranger, decided to begin the song with forty seconds of only strings like the musical score for a movie.
I don't think that could happen again. Everybody was so enthusiastic and cooperative at that time. To tell
you the truth, the take that was on the album was the first vocal dubbing right after setting the tempo for the song when I just said "I'm going to sing now. Please record it!". Actually I went into the recording booth before the musicians had finished packing up their instruments to leave.

- I heard that a pirated edition of one of your records was being sold in Hong Kong.

Yes, I saw them. That's why I became popular in Hong Kong, too. There were so many pirated records released that I became popular without realizing it. (laughing) When I arrived at the airport for my concerts in 1982, there were huge crowds of fans waiting for me.

- Was that a cover version?

Yes, it was. The pirated one also had the same type of arrangement as mine and it sold well before my version did.

- If you want to be a popular singer in Hong Kong, you need to write good songs and you have to be a good singer as well. We could say it is a good vocal song. Was the atmosphere on the stage in Hong Kong completely different from when you appeared in the Olympia Theater?

In France, I had to sing songs in French and so the audience response was good because of that, or maybe because of Adamo who invited me to sing on his stage, and they applauded enthusiastically. Comparing that with my experience in Hong Kong, Hong Kong was a great experience for me. It was the
most energetic performance I had during that period. The audience yelled, 'Keep it up! More! More!'. I had one concert outside in a stadium with about 7,000 to 8,000 people. Everybody showed his or her excitement by shouting 'Finally, we have a singer to idolize!' They listened attentively and seemed to be
enjoying my songs from the bottom of their hearts as if they were oblivious to everything else. Their eyes
were shining, too. I was very encouraged by that concert. I felt that the people received a kind of energy
from my performances outside of Japan. I n Hong Kong I was more a writer than a singer. For one thing, my name became well known among the local singers as a writer first, not as a singer. So it was only after I was in the Kohaku Utagassen (Red & White Song Festival) that I became popular enough that my audiences responded enthusiastically. Those people now even know the latest information on my newly released albums.

- Did you visit Indonesia?

Yes, I went to Jakarta to have a concert after my first child's birth. I became famous there without ever performing there. That was because of 'Kokorono tomo'.

- The children there pointed at you and said something...?

When I was walking around downtown, the people were saying, 'Kokorono tomo'. And some people at the airport said the same thing. (laughing). I've only sung that song in Japanese, so I have no idea why it was so popular there.

- So it seems you don't have any intention of dominating the world with your music, do you? But it was very interesting to hear that your songs have become big hits in Hong Kong and Indonesia even though they are in Japanese.

English songs are understood everywhere, but Japanese songs are usually thought to be too difficult to be understood all over the world. But Japanese songs were accepted because people understood the real feeling and emotions expressed in the songs irrespective of the words.

Note]Parco(*1): There are still perfomances at the Parco Theater.
CBS World Convention(*2): CBS Sony (current Sony Music) introduced prospective singers
and their songs at the Convention


- Do you want your children to be professional musicians?

I don't think so. I am only an observer regarding my children's career. That means that I want them to be responsible for their own lives.

- What do your children mean to you?

They are the origin of love.

- Do you mean that parents are awakened to love if they have children?

Yes, I think so. It is worthwhile having children only if you are capable of feeling love. I really believe that. Children are innocent and feel love toward their parents without judgment. Just observing them leads me to the world of love. They think only about you, not other people. This is unconditional love. We never realize what a precious thing that experience is until we have children. I find myself appreciating my children even if I don't always express those feelings in an obvious way. So parents should be responsible for their children and support them until they reach the stage when they can be independent and decide what to do about their own future. I feel I havethat responsibility. Then children will go on to teach their own children the things that they have learned from their parents. I think the lessons are cumulative, that one generation's knowledge is added to that of the past generation, perpetually. In that sense, it is mandatory for human beings to have children in order to follow the right path.

- Have you ever thought about writing an advice column for other people, such as in a newspaper or a magazine?

Never. Never ever(laughing).Just before my debut, I answered some questions written on cards during a late night radio program. One card said, 'I cannot live alone. What shall I do?' My answer was 'Please be stronger!' That's it.(laughing)I am not good at that kind of thing because I am not the type of person who tends to sympathize seriously enough to listen to other people. But now actually I think I have changed since then, because now I have become a parent and now I gladly listen to my children. I have developed the ability to listen to other people now.

- Even for adult problems?

I would be able to do some consultation if I were asked. I have more ideas of what kind of advice to give now that I am old enough to have had more experience.

- Have you ever written songs for your children?

No, I haven't. I wrote some songs including 'Kaze no Uta', based on some impressions I have had from my
children. After having your own children, you understand the child's feelings such as affection toward the
parents in your heart, and you can recall it kind of nostalgically. I wrote that song with that kind of feeling.

- Children remind us of many kinds of things. Does your house have a yard?

Yes, it does. It is not big though, but we have enough space to grow flowers. And we can walk out there barefoot. Since I lived in an apartment in a downtown area when my son was born, I wanted him to walk on the ground. Children tend to pee while walking, but there aren't any good places like ditches where they can easily do that in the center of the city. There used to be many places like that in the past. I used to wonder where I could take him to do that. Children are indeed precious.

Personal View

- Have you ever refused to appear on TV?

In the beginning, yes. Midway in my career, I didn't mind occasional TV appearances and I was asked to appear on TV when my song 'Shojo' was released. But I had no intention of appearing at that time. People have said that one's image can become tarnished after appearing on TV.

- What do you think are the advantages of cable TV

When cable first started, the biggest advantage was being able to watch movies any time you wanted. Since I have children and I have to stay at home to take care of them, cable TV is one way for me to keep in touch with what is going on in the world. But there are not any exciting music programs shown on any channels including cable TV these days. If I had to describe the state of TV today, I'd say it was like 'a thin tea', no substance. I think that it will take time for something new to come about.

- When did you start to feel that way?

Looking at things in the world including Japan, I feel that there haven't been any great developments in music recently. I don't know when I started feeling it, but it's not a recent feeling. I've had it for quite some time now. There are a few nice melodic songs, but they won't last. All the recently popular songs sound the same. But people listen to those songs so they become popular as do the singers who sing them. When I think of the motivation for people to listen to that kind of music, I would say it is because the songs are compatible with their sense of the music. But ultimately the individual songs are very temporal. A perfectly written song is not for one time period. It lasts forever.

- What would you say is Mayumi Itsuwa's life ambition?

Retirement! No kidding.(laughing)If saying makes it so, what I do and my career could become one. I could say I don't have any more aspirations. (laughing) But I do want to write good songs, songs that will be appreciated in and of themselves, that will stand on their own forever and will be listened to anywhere at any time, long after I'm gone. I cannot write songs that transcend limitations if I have a preconceived intention of doing that. I don't even know yet what kind of songs they are. So I think I should just do it and let the ideas come to me naturally in their own time. It is not easy, though. The timing has to be just right.

- I guess you often had such ideas, but have you enjoyed your career of 20 years?

Yes, I am glad I did this. I didn't devote myself solely to my music, but to other things like marriage and having children as well. That's why I can appreciate it.

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