By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Bouncing between continents, and cultures, could leave a young musician off-center and woozy. But for Emi Meyer, daughter of an American father and a Japanese mother, born in Kyoto, but raised mostly in Seattle, it’s a routine she grew into long ago.
Referring to her most recent visit to Tokyo, Meyer relates that her band was “… the weekly band on a TV show called ‘El Mundo.’ It was fascinating working behind the scenes and the suspense of broadcasting live. This show covers global topics and is in English and Japanese, so I felt really comfortable. The featured guests one night were Sly and Robbie, reggae legends, so it was a thrill getting to talk with them!”
She arrived in Seattle as a 1-year-old child. “Ballard was our first location, but I lived longest near Leschi. Once I started traveling between Japan and the U.S., I realized how unique the socio-economic diversity of this area was. For example, head west on Jackson Street from Frink Park, and you pass wealthy residences, an Ethiopian community center, a girls’ private school, Washington Middle School, Vietnamese restaurants, and then reach the historic Pioneer Square and piers. Where else do you get that cornucopia of character, while managing this level of cohesiveness, beauty, and quiet?
“Being biracial wasn’t a huge deal,” she continues. “And only when I would attend summer school in Japan, did it feel unusual. The other big differences were [and still are] cigarettes and guns. So many people smoke in Japan, it’s a problem for me especially when performing. And classmates in Japan couldn’t imagine hearing an occasional gun shot, or having firearms available for purchase.”
Meyer took classical piano lessons starting in childhood and credits her piano teacher, Michiko Miyamoto, for setting her on a lifelong musical path. “During our lessons,” Meyer remembers, “our conversations would explore school, travel, sweets, and eventually music, imagining the different stories that might be told through a song. She said to me on several occasions that it was the ‘musicality’ of a student that mattered, not the technical prowess with which they played a piece. That resonates with me to this day — it is your intimacy with the music that matters most, and if it is positive and mutual, you can be lifelong partners.”
She returned to her birth city, oddly enough, as a college student. “I was an ethnomusicology major in college, so when I studied abroad in Kyoto, I took advantage of the city’s dual identity as the ancient capital of Japan and a bustling college town. I studied the ‘gagaku’ (court music) scene and how it interacts with the jazz scene. It was a great excuse to get out to shows and meet incredible musicians.
“I attended a conference where leaders of a temple were updating their ritual music with Western harmony in order to reach a younger crowd. I also found an awesome jazz venue that gives traditional koto (zither) lessons upstairs. The following summer, I toured with a hip hop band that incorporates Japanese instruments like taiko (drums) and shamisen (lute). Having the academic training helped me adjust my singing and piano playing to complement their unique rhythms and pitches.”
So far, Meyer has recorded three CDs, including one, “Passport,” with lyrics entirely in Japanese. Asked about the difference between lyric writing in her two languages, she mused, “Japanese lyrics require a lot of concentrated work, while English ones just flow out. There are contrasts in aesthetic, too. For example, in English, you can sing about the moon and its details. In Japanese, it’s about subtlety. It would be more poetic to indirectly refer to the moon by describing its reflection on the water. Singing in Japanese is fun because I can play with the sounds and vowels in a new way.”
Her third CD, “Suitcase of Stones,” came out earlier this year, and she recently played at Seattle’s prestigious Earshot Jazz Festival. Asked about plans for the immediate future, Meyer said, “I’ll be playing [more] shows in the U.S. and Japan — and working on my next English and Japanese albums!” (end)
For more information on Emi Meyer, her music, and her concert dates, visit www.emimeyer.com.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.