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Friday, Sept. 3, 2010
J-pop diva Superfly has the classics covered
Chart-topping solo singer Shiho Ochi on the soulful songs that make her tick
Special to The Japan Times
"It's really fulfilling to tackle a truly classic song with a beautiful melody; just to merely touch a song like that feels wonderful," says Shiho Ochi, better known to her legion of fans as J-pop soul diva Superfly, as we chat in her record company's Tokyo office.
Released this week, her 10th single, "Wildflower," comes backed with a 15-track covers CD, compiling her versions of time-honored soul and rock 'n' roll songs that were included as B-sides on previous singles (usually as the third track) or recorded live. Because of the inclusion of this second disc, the single will be counted by Japanese chart compiler Oricon as an album, and is almost guaranteed to follow her self-titled 2008 debut and 2009's "Box Emotions" to the No. 1 spot.
Perfectly echoing her 1960s- and '70s-styled music, the giggly 26-year-old's flower-child fashion has helped fuel a revival in hippyish headbands and ethnic one-piece dresses, as a short wander around Tokyo youth district Shibuya will attest. Her own line of clothes, Cosmic Market (produced in collaboration with fashion brand A.I.C), has cemented Ochi's position as one of modern music's most unassuming trendsetters. But it is her powerful voice and dazzling vocal range that have won Superfly respect from critics and fans alike.
Ochi grew up in Ehime Prefecture in northwestern Shikoku, surrounded by mountains, greenery and the croaking of frogs, whose summer vocalizations were so loud they kept her awake at night.
Surprisingly, she's not the roots music buff that her fans might expect; at least, she wasn't originally. She says she grew up listening to "normal" Japanese pop music; it was her musical collaborator, Koichi Tabo, whose obsession shaped the Superfly sound. Two years Ochi's senior and a friend from the music club they both attended when they were at nearby universities, Tabo was a total fanatic, making MiniDisc compilations of quintessential Western soul and rock songs for the then-18-year-old Ochi that changed the way she thought about music and her place within it.
"Just from listening to those MiniDiscs, I grew to love the music, until it got to the point where I'd go out and buy those artists' albums myself," she says.
Through the club, Ochi and Tabo began playing music together, and Ochi found that the covers they performed of songs by artists such as The Rolling Stones, Madonna and her newfound heroine Janis Joplin suited her powerful voice better than run-of-the-mill J-pop.
"My voice was always quite high, but originally I couldn't sing very low notes," she says. "I found it frustrating. But when I was 18 or 19, I tried singing a song by the (Rolling) Stones and I realized I enjoyed singing those old classics. Then I discovered Aretha (Franklin) and soul music, and tried really hard to sing along."
Around the mid-noughties, the fledgling Superfly — Ochi and Tabo — sent demo CDs of their own songs to various record companies; major label Warner Music Japan asked to hear more, and the duo obliged, but it quickly became apparent that nothing was going to happen as long as they were based in Ehime, prompting a move to the bright lights of Tokyo and, eventually, a home within Warner. Singles began to flow in 2007.
Later that year, Tabo left the band as an official member and instead became simply the songwriter, ostensibly leaving Ochi as a solo artist. She says that this had been his wish all along, and that she'd had to coerce him into sharing the limelight with her in the first place.
"Tabo's not the kind of person who likes to be in the public eye," she says with a laugh. "He doesn't like playing live shows; he's happier working behind the scenes."
In just three years, Superfly has sold over a million albums — not including sales of this week's new release, which are likely to add to the number considerably. But Ochi remains humble, attributing her success to the efforts of the management and record label staff around her. (The staff at Warner return the compliment when Ochi is out of earshot, saying that she's an exceptionally hard worker.)
As with most major J-pop acts, placement of Superfly's songs in TV shows, movies and adverts has been crucial to her mainstream success. All four tracks on the new single and two from the covers album have been licensed out.
"Wildflower" is the theme song to "Gold," a Fuji Television drama about the athletic ambitions of a mother and daughter with their eyes on the ultimate track-and-field prize: a gold medal.
"They're terribly stoic and Spartan in their attempts," says Ochi of the show's main characters. "I really wanted to write a song with that same kind of strength behind it. The image I had in mind when I wrote the melody was of a flower blooming fiercely in a desolate land."
The B-sides are seeing some action too. "Tamashii Revolution" gained heavy exposure as the theme tune for NHK's World Cup TV coverage; "Roll Over the Rainbow" was used for a summer event put on by Fuji Television; and "Free Planet," a high-tempo hard-rock song (albeit a heavily produced one), appeared in a Sony-Ericsson mobile phone ad.
Although offered as a bonus disc and comprised mostly of previously released tracks, the covers album has plenty of meat for Superfly newcomers. Ochi's favorite track on the album is the 17th-century British folk song "The Water is Wide" (her version is based on that released by Los Angeles singer- songwriter Karla Bonoff in 1979), whose simple but evocative melody pushed her to focus on getting the perfect take. With a laugh, she admits that her live cover of The Eagles' "Desperado" could have turned out better. Conspicuous by its absence is a cover of Curtis Mayfield's do-or-die antihero blaxploitation anthem "Superfly" — a song that Ochi exclaims would be "way too hard."
"That's a really high hurdle!" she says. "I'm massively influenced by that song of course, but I'm not ready to attempt to sing it yet. Curtis Mayfield had such a powerful voice."
She's being modest. One of the most impressive moments on the album is her take on Aretha Franklin's "Natural Woman," which also appeared in the summer shipwreck movie "Tokyo-jima." Franklin had a huge vocal range; there surely aren't many people who could do that song the justice Ochi does here.
She sings these covers in pretty convincing English — yet, surprisingly, Ochi says she doesn't speak the language at all, instead learning each song by ear and doing her best to match the accent. "I never know how well I'm doing with the pronunciation," she admits; Superfly's lyrics, which Ochi writes, are in Japanese.
Still, she has made small steps toward the West. On the sultry 2007 single "I Spy I Spy," she was backed by Australian garage-rock band Jet. And in 2008, Ochi's love for Janis Joplin paid off big-time when Japanese TV station Music On! had her front a travelogue show called "Following the Steps of Janis," in which she visited the blues-rock queen's old San Francisco haunts and interviewed Sam Andrew of Joplin's one-time band Big Brother and the Holding Company.
"Since he knew I was a singer, he suggested I play a song for him, so I did. And then he told me that there would be a festival called Heroes of Woodstock in 12 months' time and asked if I would like to perform (with Big Brother). I thought he was joking, but sure enough, a year later the invitation came."
Ochi sang two Joplin covers ("Down on Me" and "Piece of My Heart") with Big Brother on the New York State site of the original 1969 event, for an appreciative if unacquainted audience of mostly older Americans — again with the cameras rolling for Music On! TV.
"I was terribly nervous," she admits. "I don't think I've ever been so nervous in my life. If I'd been performing my own music at the festival, it would have been different, but Janis Joplin's songs are so famous, and Woodstock itself is such a prestigious event, so I felt really overwhelmed. When the audience applauded at the end, I cried."
It might seem ludicrous for a pro such as Ochi to fret over playing for an audience of forgiving nostalgists, as opposed to critical teens. After all, she's played a sold-out show at the 10,000-capacity Budokan, and even that didn't impress her much; her ambition is to sing at the 50,000-seat Tokyo Dome. But fret she did.
"Even though my songs had already been No. 1 in Japan, none of that mattered, and before the show, nothing felt lucid," she recalls of her Woodstock show. "But when it came time to sing in front of all these people who had no idea who Superfly was, I suddenly started thinking about the support of all my Japanese fans, and that gave me the confidence to do my best."
As it turns out, Shiho Ochi's best is pretty damn good. She's transcended mainstream trends to make hits of decidedly retro songs that hark to a period long before she was born. Determined to push her incredible voice ever further, she carries all the heart and soul of the character in the song from which she took her name; we look forward to seeing her at No. 1 again when the charts are announced next Wednesday.
"Wildflower & Cover Songs: Complete Best 'Track 3' " is out now.