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Hikaru Utada Looks Into The Mirror

By Erica Russell

Following a string of years that challenged and pushed us all to self-reflect in unexpected ways, Hikaru Utada’s new album, Bad Mode, finds the J-pop legend looking in the mirror. Out January 19, their eighth studio album is largely about growing up, self-love, self-partnering, and acceptance. Utada says it’s also about “working on the relationship with myself to improve on the relationships I have with other people.” It’s a relatable ambition made all the more enjoyable when soundtracked by glossy, jazzy electronica and Utada’s soothing, soulful voice.

“Most of the songs were written since the pandemic began, and I think it’s reflective of how my life was focused on surviving, living, and getting through a shared difficult time, all of us together,” Utada tells MTV News. “It made me really proud of being a mother … I saw how that gave me a lot of strength or maybe [helped me] discover how strong I could be, or how strong I have always been.”

Though Utada spends much of the album reflecting on their own behaviors and desires, they also ruminate on the many dynamic one-on-one relationships in their life. Bad Mode kicks off with a breezy, groovy single of the same name, which is “very much about trying to figure out how I can be supportive for a friend, family member, or partner, and also what I would like from a supportive friend, family member, or partner.” Utada says writing the song also helped them “discover what I would like to do for myself, what I can do for myself, and how I can support myself.” For an artist nearly two-and-a-half decades into their career, personal growth isn’t a milestone — it’s a natural, never-ending pursuit.

Courtesy of Hikaru Utada

Utada is one of the most prolific, top-selling superstars in Japan. Their first three albums landed among the country’s top 10 best-selling albums of all time. To this day, their R&B-fueled 1999 debut First Love, which was released when Utada was only 15, holds the title of Japan’s best-selling album ever.

Utada’s incredibly influential — just ask London pop star Rina Sawayama, who calls Utada “one of my biggest musical inspirations” — and also very famous. Perpetually plastered on billboards and buildings across Japan, Utada has lent their face to major brand campaigns for the likes of Pepsi, Shiseido, and Nintendo DS, as well as provided music for countless media properties, from TV shows to anime and video games.

Nicknamed “Hikki” by their fans, Utada’s megastardom might originate in Japan, but their inimitable impact reaches far across the globe, thanks largely to their music’s universal themes of melancholy and hope, heartache and passion. However, many of their English-speaking fans in the West were introduced to Utada via their musical contributions to the beloved Kingdom Hearts video game series. The first game was released in 2002 with the ethereal electronic folk-pop opening “Simple & Clean,” which remains one of the most iconic video game themes of all time.

In 2019, Utada teamed up with Skrillex and Poo Bear for “Face My Fears,” the skittering future bass theme song for Kingdom Hearts III, the latest installment in the hit franchise. It was the performer’s first track to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 — a rare feat shared only by a handful of Japanese artists over the past 60 years.

Though relatively insular, Utada’s selective collaborations push the singer to new frontiers. They teamed up with Foxy Brown and Pharrell Williams on 2001’s swaggy Rush Hour 2 track “Blow My Whistle,” co-produced alongside Timbaland on 2004’s intoxicating “Exodus ’04,” and worked with Tricky Stewart on 2009’s R&B jam “Taking My Money Back.” There’s also their work with some of Japan’s top musicians, including various team-ups with genre-bending mega-star Ringo Sheena.

“The tricky thing for me is that I am my own producer. If I have someone who wants to come in and say, ‘OK, this is my vision,’ and just wants to take over, even if it’s a great idea, it doesn’t really work for me,” Utada admits. “I need someone who can really get what I’m trying to do and introduce how they think they can add a new dimension to that, or give me their ideas but also be very willing to do some back and forth.”

Bad Mode finds Utada adding a handful of exciting talents to their stable of star collaborators. There’s the aforementioned Skrillex and Poo Bear, as well as Sam Shepherd, a.k.a. Floating Points, the British electronic producer who helped bring the lush grooves of “Somewhere Near Marseilles,” “Bad Mode,” and the Ray of Light-esque “Kibunja Naino (Not in the Mood)” to life. Another unexpected collaborator? Utada’s 6-year-old son, who makes his singing debut on the latter, something Utada says was his idea.

And then there’s PC Music maestro A.G. Cook, with whom Utada worked on singles “Kimini Muchuu” and “One Last Kiss,” the twinkling theme song for the 2021 smash anime film Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time. “He is amazing and I was very lucky to be able to work with him,” Utada says of co-producing with Cook, who was “willing to chat and text and exchange opinions and ideas” remotely during the height of lockdown in 2020, when Utada was working primarily at home. Cook’s enthusiasm and flexibility offered the pop star a sense of artistic ease, even when things went awry.

At one point near the completion of “One Last Kiss,” Utada and their mixing engineer realized the song was missing something. “I mentioned it to Alex [Cook], and he said, ‘Oh my god, I forgot to send the bass track!’” Utada recounts, laughing. “He sent it, we put it back in, and it sounded really good with the original track. These little mishaps, any sort of mistakes or anything unplanned, I see them as chances. They’re usually great opportunities to make something better or do something beyond what you planned.”

Born in Manhattan and raised in both Tokyo and New York City, the bulk of Utada’s music has been released in Japanese. Of their 10 studio albums, only two — 2004’s experimental electro-pop LP Exodus and 2009’s more straightforward R&B record This Is the One — were English-language releases. Frustratingly, neither made much of a blip in the American market, though Exodus has found lasting cult status among pop aficionados.

Bad Mode marks Utada’s first official bilingual album, featuring songs with both English and Japanese lyrics; English-language versions of Japanese songs; and an all-new English-language single called “Find Love,” a chill, disco-infused anthem that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early 2000s Kylie Minogue record.

The Japanese-American icon didn’t necessarily “plan for” Bad Mode to be bilingual — it just unfurled that way organically: “The whole album has just been a reflection of my daily life. I mainly speak Japanese with my son and someone from the company who works for me, who is Japanese. The rest of my time, I speak English with my friends here [in London]. When I look back, I think, ‘Why did it have to be all Japanese or all English before? Why can’t I just put them together?’ This is my world, and my album should reflect that even in the language the lyrics are written in.”

In June 2021, while much of the world celebrated Pride Month, Utada came out as nonbinary in an Instagram livestream. The announcement marked a huge moment in the Japanese music industry and beyond. Though both social awareness for LGBTQ+ issues and pro-LGBTQ+ legislation have increased in Japan in recent years, progress has been slow, stalled by traditionally conservative values, deeply embedded social expectations regarding gender roles, and legal roadblocks, particularly for same-sex marriage.

“I especially felt the love and support from my non-Japanese fans,” Utada says. “The reaction was so cool and I really needed that, because to say that, as a Japanese public figure, took so much courage. I knew it wouldn’t be a big deal for my family or people I know, but it would be misunderstood a lot or misinterpreted in all different kinds of ways in certain circles. The support and love I got really helped and inspired me.”

Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of Utada’s history-making debut. Though not overly nostalgic, the musician looks back on the early years of their music career “with a great deal of affection.”

“There’s so much you can learn by looking back on the past. But musically, I don’t really think about what I’ve done up to now that much. I just think, wow, I’ve been so lucky,” Utada shares. The artist explains how they were allowed “complete creative freedom” when they first began working in the studio in Tokyo as a precocious 14-year-old.

“I think that was a pretty rare situation and I’m grateful for the freedom I was given from the beginning,” Utada continues. But some things never change. In a 2009 interview, Utada revealed that despite their success, they continued to feel like an outsider. Perhaps unexpectedly, the sentiment still rings true for the superstar today: “I still feel that I built my identity around being an outsider.”

Utada recently went to an exhibition for late artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi in London that touched them on a deeply personal level. “He talked about being a Nisei — a second-generation Japanese born in the States, raised as a kid in Japan, who grew up in this international situation, feeling neither accepted in Japan nor the States. I had a similar situation as a kid, growing up between two very different cultures and physical geographic locations. I would feel a bit of loneliness because sometimes I’d get close to a Japanese person and miss the fact that they didn’t see my Western side, or vice versa.”

Regardless, Utada believes there’s an unspoken “unity between people who feel like outsiders,” something with which their diverse and devoted global fanbase would likely agree. It’s just another reason their music and journey have resonated with so many listeners.

“The amazing thing about the imaginary world of art — because art is all imagined stuff in someone’s mind that’s just expressed and becomes something you can share — is you don’t have to share the same experiences to share the same feelings. Whether it’s your country, or your gender, or your role in your family, or whatever it is, [those things] can make you feel like you belong in a way. But if they make you feel like you don’t belong, then you can be part of the world of outsiders. We can be outsiders together.”

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