Billboard Japan Women in Music Interview – Billboard

Rising singer/songwriter TOMOO spoke with Billboard Japan for its Women in Music interview series featuring female players in the Japanese entertainment industry. The WIM initiative in Japan began in 2022 in the same spirit as Billboard’s Women in Music that launched in 2007, honoring artists, producers and executives who have made significant contributions to the music industry and empowered women through their work.

The 28-year-old artist began playing piano from a young age and eventually found joy in writing her own lyrics and singing during junior high. After launching her music career as an independent artist, she signed to a major label in 2022. In this series inviting artists to share their views on the industry’s current landscape, TOMOO carefully articulated her thoughts on her experience during her teenage years that shaped her current view towards gender, her songwriting process and more.

I heard you used to play male roles in school theater before you began focusing on writing songs and singing.

TOMOO: Yes. I went to an all-girls’ school in junior high and high school, and played male roles in the theater club. Since there were only girls around, it was the norm for those with low voices to play the male roles. Back in elementary school, though, the ratio was three boys to one girl, so I had to be competitive to win and used to wish I were a boy. So I willingly played male parts in theater later on. I’d play different characters each time so I studied the “masculinity” of those character by extracting elements from what I’d seen before in other works and by watching a lot of anime. Aside from performing on stage, there weren’t too many opportunities to be aware of gender differences in daily life because of the all-girl environment, so it was hard for me to be a “girly” girl.

That’s interesting how playing male parts in plays helped you become aware of gender differences. Were there any women you admired as a child before entering an all-girls’ school?

I grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and especially loved San from Princess Mononoke. I thought San was cool because she was like a sharp blade, able to keep Ashitaka in check with her harsh tone like her wolf mother, running around in the mountains and good with a knife. I also admired her emotional intensity. When I was a kid, I was taught to stand up to bullies who tried to pick on me. Maybe the reason I wasn’t the modest type was because of my admiration for San. I guess it’s like that “which comes first, the chicken or the egg” kind of thing.

I can see how that might link to your eventually choosing to play men in plays. Has that ideal changed as you’ve grown older? Do you have any images of women you admire now?

I don’t have any clear vision of the kind of person I want to be gender-wise. I do vaguely want to be someone who knows how to be themselves, who can’t easily be categorized as a woman or a man.

I heard that you decided to get into music after you came up with a song when you were trying to write a letter to a friend and thinking of what to write. It’s a really nice anecdote. Did your thoughts naturally evolve into that song?

I loved playing the piano since I was little, so I used to come up with single phrases of a song while playing melodies just for fun. But that was the first time I wrote a song for someone to hear. It also had a lot to do with the fact that it happened around the time I first came across the music of singer-songwriter Shigi. Her songs were different from the familiar J-pop music I’d heard up to that point in that she expressed her raw emotions in her songs. I was stunned to hear such a way of releasing one’s emotions. That feeling of shock encouraged me to write that letter, and the feelings I wanted to express became a song.

So you performed that song in front of someone for the first time, and that friend encouraged you to pursue a career in music. If you write songs as an outlet for your emotions like you say, how do you reconcile that with the necessity to come up with new material for work?

That happens a lot, actually. The way I do it is, after that key emotional moment, vague feelings gradually build up like drops of maple syrup being collected from a tree to become a song when it’s full. That’s one way I write songs now, and another is working off of seeds of ideas that I have saved up but not yet made into a song. I majored in psychology in university and think I’m more able to objectively analyze the subtleties of the human mind now. For example, when there’s friction in a relationship, I now have the perspective to calmly and deeply read the situation and think, “There must be a reason for this reaction,” and this also helps my songwriting.

You gained the means to express your emotions through music, and also gained the ability to observe the human mind from a psychological point of view. Do you think being a woman has any influence on your songwriting and music career?

I can’t think of any ongoing influences, but when I was just starting out, I was told that my voice was too low although I wrote good songs. They said it was hard to succeed in the J-pop mainstream with my voice, so I should try singing in a higher key. This was more than a decade ago, but I remember thinking at the time that they wouldn’t have said it to a guy and that maybe they placed importance on being cute because I’m a female singer-songwriter.

Your resonant alto voice is what sets you apart, so it’s surprising to hear you were told to change that distinctive feature. How did you react to that?

Actually, through vocal training and years of experience, my key is higher now. But at the time, I gave up trying to change things like the strength of my voice and character because I figured, ”I can’t do what I can’t do.” [Laughs] I wanted to spend more time on what I was feeling at the time rather than waste it trying to change direction like I was told. My hands were full with what I had to do and I couldn’t be bothered with that. I’ve continued to express myself in my own way, and it’s so much easier now that I have fans who are happy to accept who I am. And now there’s a whole new range of female vocalists in the J-pop music scene, so I’ve realized that trends change with the times.

You’re right, a lot of J-pop artists these days don’t reveal their faces or gender. It feels like things have changed so much in the last decade.

I know, right? Back then, I wasn’t sure where to categorize myself, and I think that person’s comment was meant as advice to help clarify where I could be filed under. The name TOMOO is gender neutral and I still get a lot of comments from people who hear my voice and assume I’m a guy. But I’m glad about that. In the music video for my song “Yoake no kimi e,” I sing wearing a jacket and pants. The director saw some videos of my live performances and took note of my manly… Well, “manly” isn’t the right word… gender-neutral way of expressing myself, and I think the music video captures what I’ve always wanted to do.

Your audience has probably changed dramatically since you made your major label debut. If you were to give advice to yourself before you were signed to a major label, what would you say?

When you have no idea what you’re doing, you may think that the words and evaluations of those who tell you to do things a certain way will have lasting effects. But it goes without saying that trends change with the times. So instead of worrying about how other people want to categorize you, you should care more about what you like and what you see. You don’t have to aim for perfection, just don’t let your eyes get clouded.

–This interview by Rio Hirai (SOW SWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan

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