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Friday, May 16, 2008

R&B queen Double adds jewel to crown


Special to The Japan Times

Staying at the top of the game after 10 years is no mean feat in Japan's fickle music business. As one of the first artists to bring American-style R&B to these shores, Double's achievements are doubly impressive. And now she's celebrating her first decade with an album of collaborations with Japanese and American artists such as De La Soul, Ak'sent, AI and Kreva. To top it off comes "Black Diamond," a pulsating duet with self-styled "Queen of hip-pop" Namie Amuro.

News photo
One of a kind: Double gets intimate with the mic

Back in 1998, Takako Hirasawa and her sister Sachiko were a revolutionary duo. The mid-'90s had seen dance-pop music dominate the Japanese charts, with R&B no more than a niche genre. When their older sister brought back CDs from the States, the Niigata duo got hooked on artists such as Janet Jackson and TLC, and were soon playing at the Yokota U.S. Air Force base.

The initial success of their singles led to their debut album "Crystal" charting at No. 2 in June 1999, but tragedy had struck just a week prior when Sachiko died suddenly of a blood disease. Takako withdrew from music for a year, but was to come back even stronger.

Choosing to retain the name Double, she ambitiously grounded her style in Japanese culture, creating a new style of Japanese R&B that preceded the recent boom in "black music" and laid the path for stars such as Koda Kumi, AI and the re-styled Amuro.

"The first three years I felt like a newcomer, a rookie," Double reminisces while taking time out in an Aoyama cafe.

"After that, it's been surprising that it's 10 years — time has passed so fast! When I started, I didn't think anything; I just wanted to show my own style, so I didn't care or try to become a star. But I think deep inside my heart I am a little ambitious and I thought I would never quit."

Only 22 when the then-duo's first single "For Me" came out in 1998, Double was working so hard she gave little thought to any alternative career.

"I thought I would be just be a woman working somehow in the beauty industry, as a makeup artist or hairdresser," she says when asked where a life outside of music might have taken her. Throughout her career, Double has chosen to remain largely out of the limelight. She confesses she prefers the studio to the stage and shuns mainstream media unless it's essential.

"I am a kind of 'editing' person," she says.

"I don't like performing live so much because I can't go back and undo or redo anything. So I get nervous a lot. I'm trying not to be nervous but I can't control it. That's why I like making promotional videos so much."

Her decision not to chase the spotlight has earned her the respect of her peers and goes a long way to explaining her longevity.

"In 10 years I have always tried to be stable and control myself emotionally. I have tried to not be going up and down. The highlight for me is when I get to create music!"

One song she feels encapsulated her aims was 1999's "Shake." Combining Sachiko's rap and Takako's soaring vocals, she felt Double got the blend just right. "At that time I thought, I made it!" she proclaims gleefully. In the track, Takako and Sachiko announce themselves as "super sisters," a line repeated in the new track "Black Diamond" to bring things full circle upon her 10th anniversary.

Takako exudes an air of pride in her professional achievements as Double, but behind the egotism of her act is a humble character with personal aspirations still to achieve. One that she accomplished was the recording of a jazz album ("Life Is Beautiful," 2004) with producers m-flo and multi-instrumentalist Toku. "It was m-flo's idea to make an R&B singer sing a jazz track," she says. "I thought I could do it nicely and I thought back to high school, when I dreamed of being a jazz singer. It was a turning point, because I discovered acoustic instruments; I realized how I was relying on digital sounds and so, for my last album, 'Reflex' (2007), I combined digital and acoustic for a new sound."

The chemistry Double finds with her musical peers is the focus of her new album, "The Best Collaborations," where Double delights in sharing her joy of editing with like-minded artists. With the tight schedules of the music business, though, sometimes she doesn't even get to meet the artists in question. Referring to the playful "Say I Gotta Believe," she laments, "With De La Soul, the rap was already made, then I wrote the lyrics. After that I encountered them at an event, but I hadn't met them before."

Another highlight was performing and recording with LA MC Ak'sent.

"She has real power and energy to climb the mountain because she is at the start of her career," says Double. "I was inspired by that."

Her most recent duet is with Namie Amuro, one of Japan's most renowned pop artists, who in recent years made a shift from the dance-pop that made her the biggest star of the mid-'90s to R&B, which has seen her once again become the media darling of J-Pop.

"I was a big fan of her since she debuted," Double gushes. "She changed her style with the 'Suitechic' project (a one-off record from 2002 featuring various new urban acts, in which an inspired Amuro successfully reinvented herself). Before that I never thought I could work with her, even though I like her, because the music was different. But after "Suitechic" she became more hip-hop, so it seemed like good timing. It was one of my dreams to collaborate with her!"

Both shy when not in front of the cameras, it took a few meetings for the two girls to hit if off. While Amuro has achieved superstar status, it's Double who pioneered R&B in Japan, and their shared mutual respect seemed at first to distance them during their recent video shoot for "Black Diamond" — a track that sees the two strong-minded singers on a mission to find the elusive rare gem of the right guy for them.

During the more relaxed atmosphere of media promotion for the song, she says the two have since become good friends, and they will both appear at the MTV Japan Awards later this month.

On a recent visit to Tokyo, St. Louis rapper Chingy stated his ambition to work with Double, so potential collaborators are in no short supply.

"With Chingy, if the timing matches, we can do it," says Double. "There were many people I wanted to put on my new CD, but I couldn't. I just like to work with artists who can sing really well. I don't know or mind who is hot right now, and to be honest, I don't really follow what's going on."

Ten years may be a milestone, but Double is keen to achieve more and is not taking out much time for reflection.

"This is just a point, not the end of an era," she says, although she goes on to suggest, "Such a time may come; it could be soon, or a long time ahead."

Next up for Double is her first national tour in six years, running through July and climaxing at Tokyo's Studio Coast. As she prepares her nerves, the sense is that these shows will be her best yet.

"My proudest moment in these 10 years is who I am right now," she says assuredly. "So all I'm thinking about is this tour."

"The Best Collaborations" is out May 28. Double plays July 10, 18:00, Zepp Sapporo, ¥6,000, (011) 261-5569; 18, 18:00, Zepp Sendai, ¥6000, (022) 222-9999; 19, 17:00, Niigata Lots, ¥6,000, (025) 245-5100; 23, 18:00, Fukuoka Drum Logos, ¥6,000, (092) 714-0159; 25, 18:00, Osaka Nanba Hatch, ¥6,000, (06) 6233-8888; 26, 17:00, Zepp Nagoya, ¥6,000, (052) 320-9100; 31, 18:30, Shin-kiba Studio Coast, Tokyo, ¥6,000, (03) 3475-9999.

Surrounded by players and full of creation

On set for her latest video, "Black Diamond," alongside Namie Amuro, Takako Hirasawa is at home in the pseudo-glamorous surroundings of a fabricated Las Vegas- style casino filled with Japanese and Western extras engaging in make-believe gambling. Despite the all-night shoot in a west Tokyo warehouse, she truly seems in her element.

"It's a joy!" she squeals. "I love creating things. I could be creating and editing promotion videos all the time."

Despite the extraordinary efficiency of the film crew, swiftly adjusting the set for an array of dance routines and rolling shots, PV recordings can be tepid affairs. But it's the results of those efforts that most excites Double.

"It's tiring, because it takes a really long time, but my first experience of R&B was to see a promotional video and I was really impressed," she says.

"From there I started listening to my sister's CDs and thought that I want everyone to feel the same way as I felt."

The video in question was for Mary J Blige's "Real Love," a 1992 single from Blige's debut album. Notable for its depiction of street culture, it combined edgy dance routines and scenes of a lustful relationship.

"I was recording a TV show that introduced some music by new artists," she recalls. "I was shocked and overwhelmed! It was like a bomb! I didn't understand the music before but when I saw the video again and again, I understood."

Double's videos certainly have had more of an American edge than those of most Japanese artists, starting with her personal favorites, "Handle" and "U" (both 2000). "Those two were shot in L.A. with the same director (Brian Alexander Morgan) and everything about them was great!" she exclaims.

Since those early singles, the scale and budget of her videos has increased with her success. "Rock the Party" (2005) was a huge production shot on location at a luxurious mansion, while the impressive and dreamlike "Spring Love" (2007) had her nude with angel wings surveying a fantasy world. With eight dancers and 40 extras on set for "Black Diamond," you'd be forgiven for thinking that nerves would be frayed, but not so. Cool, calm and collected, both singers show their professionalism in these otherworldly surroundings, playing up to the cameras and awaiting their cues. As people filter home in the early hours of the following morning, Takako is last to leave.

"I want to express my style of R&B music: a special style, because I'm born and raised in Japan," she explains. "In a video I can show my way. As Double."



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