If Emi Meyer leaves the room when “The Sound of Music” is playing, don’t take it personally. It’s just one of those things for the singer-songwriter, whose life as a child of a Japanese mother and American father has put her in several interesting situations, not the least of which was a trip to her home country of Japan to sing the aforementioned song in front of a class of kids she wasn’t too familiar with.
“I still have this really traumatic memory,” Meyer, who was raised in Seattle, laughs. “In the summer, I would visit my cousins in Japan and visit their schools for a week or two. In one music class, they assumed that because I grew up in the States that I would be able to sing ‘The Sound of Music.’ I had no experience singing in front of people and I didn’t know all the words to it. Then the piano player started in a random key, way too high for me. I had to struggle in a really embarrassing way through the song in front of about 40 kids.”
That’s the type of thing that can make someone swear off music altogether, but Meyer kept playing piano, and as she started joining bands, she was drafted into singing at various points. Now it was a lot different.
“It was like adrenaline shots when I would sing,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is almost more fun than just playing piano.’”
Fast forward to today, and Meyer, owner of one of the most striking voices you will hear, is more than comfortable with singing. In fact, that voice has become her bread and butter both here in the States, where her 2015 album Monochrome just received a U.S. release last month, and in the country of her birth, where it’s safe to use the old phrase that she’s “Big in Japan.”
It’s a pretty impressive feat to pull off, but it does come with some challenges, as Meyer has to deal with two diverse cultures that have different tastes when it comes to music.
“At the beginning, I thought it was no big deal because I’m just recording my music in the U.S. and I take it over there and I sell it and tour,” she said. “But the longer I’ve been there and I spend more time there, I try to specialize my music for the Japanese market sometimes, and that’s proven really challenging for me to make sure I keep those two sides of myself separate because the melodies are different.
“The people in the Japanese market love melodies that they can sing to because there’s a very big karaoke culture,” Meyer continues. “And while that’s really exciting and interesting as a challenge to make something that’s really sing-able to so many people, it can also be limiting if you don’t stay self-aware about that. It can prevent some of the organic and unique melodies you would make otherwise.”
So when Meyer is back home in the U.S. during the summer and early fall, she gets to return to her singer-songwriter roots, something that takes a little bit of an adjustment period.
“I try to shut off the creative side of myself that I would be using when I’m in Japan and focus on more of the U.S. side and melodies that are less easy to remember and lyrics that are less easy to sing or understand,” she said. “It’s challenging and, like jetlag, it takes a little bit of time to readjust whenever I move from country to country.”
It is almost the best of both worlds for the 30-year-old, as she can appeal to audiences around the globe while showing off a wide array of songwriting and performance talent. And while that may sound simple, it’s not.
“In the beginning it was really hard for me to do because I had my identity as a singer-songwriter,” she said. “I started recording music in LA and I thought, ‘I don’t ever want to tailor what I’m making to any territory.’ But then I realized the reality of trying to make a living in the business, and there are different tastes in each country, and you don’t necessarily realize that when you’re growing up in the U.S. because you grow up with what’s popular and there’s a bunch of different niches. But there’s a whole other market in Asia where what they desire is very different. So for me to reach the next level in my career, both in Japan and in the U.S., I needed to find what really works for the audience in Japan. And that was really exciting for me because it challenged me. I wasn’t very good at writing hooks before I started working in Japan, but I realized that there’s something to be said for a really catchy hook.”
And there’s even more to say for that voice, which will get Meyer through whatever the music business — in Japan and the States — throws at her. And don’t worry, she hasn’t hit a wall. In fact, she’s ready to start throwing some more curveballs.
“Once you get caught up in what people want, it’s hard to remember what you want,” she said. “That’s been a big process for me this year, forgetting the tricks of the trade and returning to the time of me and the piano before I had even released my first CD, and I’m thinking about what it is I really want to sing about.”
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