On the surface, Tokyo-based singer/songwriter MIREI looks like every other East Asian artist trying to make it in the United States. With clear American R&B and pop influences and a shiny, polished social media presence, you’d be forgiven for thinking that she was just another forgettable act from a foreign country.
But after talking to her, it’s clear that this 21-year-old is much more than your average Japanese Idol. In fact, she’s a trailblazer — looking to make statements and take stances. There’s nothing safe about her, and her maturity and self-assuredness come through not only in her music, but in everything she does.
Soundigest caught up with this rising star to see why she feels the need to raise her voice, what’s kept her inspired for the better half of her decade-long career and whether she prefers Japan or the U.S.
はじめまして！First and foremost, I love, love, love your single “Take Me Away,” and think it’s a really incredible debut track into the international world, and your latest single “Let Me Be” is just as good. Are you excited to be releasing music in the United States?
はじめまして and thank you so much, I’m happy to hear that. I’m really excited about releasing music internationally finally, it’s been a dream I had since I started music here in Japan at only 8 years old! This is just the beginning and know I have loads more to do.
Though (in the United States) we never really thought we’d see the day that Eastern artists would cross over to the West, artists like BTS and BlackPink have really broken down those barriers, and it feels like the western world is finally ready for an Asian Invasion (for lack of a better term). Did the recent popularity of K-Pop have anything to do with your English-language debut? Or was this just a happy coincidence?
When I was in elementary school, tons of K-pop idols came to Japan and created their own market here, just the way it’s happening in the U.S. now. I was shocked because I had never seen idols like them. My first childhood idol was G0Dragon from BIGBANG haha. At the time, I was impressed not only by their performance skills but the courage they had to come to a foreign country and speak Japanese! I really respect what they did, and yeah, that was a part of my inspiration to follow my dreams though the timing to go international now doesn’t exactly have to do with the success of K-pop in the US now. It just works out though, now that more artists from around the world are being accepted, wherever they may be from. It’s a happy coincidence, and really exciting! I’d say my new love for social media and the way it connects us has made more of an impact on my decision to go worldwide.
I suppose it’s kind of predictable to compare you to Rina Sawayama, but there are some similarities. Personally, as a Japanese woman myself, I’m all about this sort of super cool, badass, Japanese songstress movement. Do you think you could be at the forefront of something really big?
I love her, I found out about her before she released her songs! I think she’s very unique, brave, and independent. But I think she grew up in London right? I can see the cultural combination from her style in fashion and music.
I’m the most honest I’ve ever been. I couldn’t do that with any of my releases here so I’m happy to hear that I look super cool and badass, haha. Japanese people are very shy and we’re known to hide our feelings (just watch the Queer Eye goes to Japan!). To me, music has always been my way of sharing and hearing opinions and feelings you can’t usually express. I thought with my international release I could finally tell everyone how Japanese girls really are, the things they face in their lives and not just the stereotype of cute and sweet, shy, etc. If I’m able to reach anyone, if anyone will listen to the stories told in these songs, then I will be at the forefront not only for Japanese girls but all girls.
And if I can be really honest — I view you as sort of the antithesis to the stereotypical “Japanese” or “Asian” Idol girl. You’re definitely just as talented, but the subject matter you tackle and your overall image is way more raw and real — especially the way you choose to tackle some more “taboo” subjects. Why do you feel the need to do that? Wouldn’t it be much easier to not speak out about things like mental health, or sexism?
Being an artist in Japan first, I saw so many other artists making up their public images based on what the “norm” was or the expectation in the industry. The industry here is very strict and not everyone can make it because of all the pressure to fit into a mold. It’s not that I think that’s wrong but I also don’t think I can ever sing about what I truly feel and experience in front of people. Making music in Japan is not what I dream of at all, so that’s why I decided to brand out and try it out in the US. My experience in New York City when I was a kid meant so much to me, I knew that was where I needed to start again.
But if we want to talk about the real issues at hand, the suicidal rate of Japanese teenagers is at an all-time high right now. We’re all struggling with our mental health but don’t know how to deal with it because of societal expectations and the culture we’re attached to. I’m really frustrated with how Japanese people are dealing with the #metoo movement too. I feel like our go-to is just be quiet, hush hush, rather than actually facing these things that are very real. If you’re interested, please read the book Black Box written by a Japanese female journalist, Shiori Ito. Actually a lot of the album, but one song in particular, is inspired by her story, and we still need people to know what happened.
The answer is simple: I feel the need to talk about it because it’s real life. And it needs to be heard and not swept under the rug.
Speaking of “much easier,” I’ve read that you have full creative control over both your music and your image. Why do think it’s so important that you keep control over both?
Nowadays, we don’t just listen to an artist’s music, we look into their image, personality, their story, what makes them who they are… Songs are like a timeline of what an artist has gone through and seen in their lifetime. That’s why I think I have to show the world my life through my eyes and with my words. I’ve never been able to write this candidly, and if I did certainly the Japanese music industry would control it. So this was a freeing experience. It’s important for me to keep control over my music and image so people can know who I really am, not just a designed figure in the industry.
You’ve been making music for almost 10 years (quite the feat since you’re only 21 now!), and most people tend to lose passion for things after that long. What keeps you inspired to keep making your art?
I never get tired of listening to music. I mean it when I say music saved me, it’s been a constant I’ve keep close to me for a long time, something that takes me away. I listen to music everywhere I go, always have my headphones on, and just digesting it is the biggest inspiration and sparks my creativity. I have no idea how else I’d express my feelings, without music I wouldn’t be able to write the way I do… I’m not good at painting or talking… I can’t see myself doing anything else. Sometimes I think all I can do is sing and write music so there’s no real choice for me, haha, it’s destiny. I’ll be singing until my voice is gone. I’m so thankful I get to do this and call it my career.
Ok, I’ve asked enough long, thoughtful questions — now for some fun ones! Do you prefer New York City or Tokyo? And why?
New York City. 100%. Well, I guess I’d actually choose based on the weather. When I was in NYC, I got to see the beautiful snow and I can’t forget the amazing view. Tokyo gets cold too but you can’t see the picture perfect powder snow there. New York has cherry blossoms too… I just think NYC is slightly more romantic than Tokyo, haha.
If you could tour with ANY artist, at all, who would you pick, and why?
Rihanna. I’ve loved her since I was young. She’s the one who made me interested in dance music. I’m waiting for her new music, and I’m touring with her that means she’ll have to release the album so that would be dope!
Your album is set to be released in January 2020 — if you can talk about it, what are you most excited about for your release? (For example: Do you have any big shows coming up, or maybe an unreleased music video that you’re excited for?)
I’m preparing a music video for one of the songs on the album right now. It will represent Tokyo’s atmosphere and dive into more of the story I’m trying to tell on the album. I’m also dreaming of doing the showcase in the U.S. around my very first international album. I hope I could fly around the world since my song is being streamed everywhere!
And finally, my favorite question to ask everyone I interview — why should the world care about you, MIREI? (ありがとうございます!)
I’m afraid this won’t be the proper answer, but to be honest I don’t want people to care about me. I’m singing because I want the world to know about what’s going on around me, not just about me. Support me how you can and I’m very happy. But If you don’t, just ignore me. I’m singing because I want to express what I want to be and who really I am, not for getting attention or for criticism.
Featured Image: Instagram (@mireinyc)