Rising Asian Stars RIRI and Julia Wu Talk New Single, 'Summertime': Interview

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Julia Wu, "Summertime"

Rising Japanese singer RIRI recently released "Summertime," used as the commercial song for Japanese sunscreen brand Anessa's summer campaign.

At just 16 years old, RIRI began her musical endeavors in L.A., making her major label debut in February 2018. Now 19, the singer has covered Zedd's dreamy "Stay" at the request of the pop/EDM producer himself and has been making waves in Japan and overseas.

Australia-born Chinese R&B singer Julia Wu -- graduate of the prestigious Berklee School of Music and signed to streaming giant KKBOX's music label, KKFARM -- has put her own spin on RIRI's latest track. Simply titled "Summertime (Julia Wu Mix)," the breezy English / Chinese track was released Wednesday (June 26).

The multi-lingual songstresses met up for the for the first time via Skype with Billboard Japan to discuss "Summertime," kickstarting their careers on singing competitions and the challenge of performing in different languages:

RIRI, you were one of the finalists on David Foster's Born to Sing Asia competition, and Julia, you got your start on The X Factor Australia.

Julia Wu: Yeah, I did The X Factor Australia when I was 19. At that time, I was in college, majoring in piano, so singing for me was always like a hobby. And my mom was like, "If you really want to sing, you should go on a platform that encourages a lot of young talent," so I went on it. I had no experience singing publicly at all, so I was super nervous, and I forgot all my lyrics. That for me was a big turning point, even though I screwed up.

RIRI: I auditioned when I was 11. I heard about Born to Sing Asia two weeks before the deadline. Even though I had never taken singing lessons, I sent in my application with the hope that David Foster would hear my voice. It was my first time singing in front of 5,000 people, but being able to perform in front of a big crowd with David on piano made me really want to pursue music and my dream of becoming an international singer.

Julia Wu: Wow! I only started singing in high school because I was playing classical piano my entire life. My family wanted me to go to Juilliard or Curtis, the classical music schools. One day, I sang in front of my classmates, and I told my parents, "I kinda want to sing. I don't want to do piano anymore," and they were in shock. But I'm still here singing so … (laughs).

"Summertime" is a refreshing and chill bop, which is perfect for summer. Can you tell us about the songwriting process?

RIRI: I made this song with Nariaki Obukuro and KEIJU from KANDYTOWN and entrusted Nariaki with the composition. It's the commercial song for Anessa, and it was my first time being involved with a commercial song. Singing that kind of melody was new to me too. I wanted people to visualize the commercial instantly when they heard it and wanted them to think it was a cool song, so I recorded it with that in mind.

Julia, what was your impression of RIRI's version when you heard it for the first time?

Julia Wu: I first heard the song and recorded it right before I was going to Australia for my annual holiday. To be able to have a chill and really good vibes song and to be able to sing it in Chinese and English was really cool. We see that language is really not a problem at all when the sound and vibes are good. 

RIRI, what did you make of Julia's "Summertime" mix?

RIRI: I feel like I was able to hear a brand new take on "Summertime," which was so refreshing. Julia's vocals have different nuances and intricacies compared to mine.

Julia Wu: I had heard about RIRI and her music when she came out with her first album. RIRI is a great singer, and I knew the song was going to be R&B and soulful so I was like, "Sure, let's do this. It can't go wrong."

Like with "Summertime," you're both used to singing in different languages like English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean.

Julia Wu: I think, at first, English was always easier for me. When I came to Taipei two years ago, I really had to learn how to write music, sing in Chinese and make it feel natural. Because of the way you pronounce the words, the way the sound comes out when you speak in Chinese, felt like it was from a different place. It's coming a lot more naturally for me now, but that was something I struggled with at first.

RIRI: Japanese and English pronunciations are very different, so it's difficult. I always have a hard time trying to balance the Japanese and English lyrics. Of course, when I'm speaking, my Japanese is better, but when I'm singing, it feels more natural in English since I grew up listening to a lot of Western music.

Having lived and performed in different countries, how do those experiences feed into you and your music?

RIRI: My first time performing overseas was at SXSW. I was super nervous before I went onstage because I didn't know how people would respond. But when the show starts, foreign audiences tend to be more enthusiastic, right? So they got into it right away. During the show, I made this speech about my dream of wanting to do well overseas and was so happy when they cheered me on, saying "Good luck!" I know it's a massive dream, but that experience did strengthen my desire to pursue an international career.

Julia Wu: For me, growing up in Australia really shaped me as a person and my personality, because Australians are so chill, relaxed and laid back. I'm not like it's the end of the world when problems come up. My time in the U.S., when I was at Berklee School of Music, I was surrounded by incredible musicians. Even though I was majoring in piano, I learned so much from just watching everyone. As musicians, you learn a lot from each other. There are so many people with different backgrounds at Berklee, it helps you open your eyes to how many styles of music there are, and how many amazing musicians there are.

Did those experiences make you aware of the importance of sticking to your roots and being yourself?

Julia Wu: At first, I felt very pressured because I felt everybody was better because they are really talented people. But then, you get to a point where you are like you can't be stuck here forever, you have to improve. For me, it was always about improving and bettering myself, and that still speaks to me now. I've had two albums released here, and I'm onto my third one right now, and I'm just really taking the time to listen to a lot of music and write music when I have the time off and just keep thinking about how I can improve.

RIRI: My individuality and being able to express myself in an authentic way has always been very important to me. I feel blessed now, because my team treats me with respect. When I was working on music in L.A., there were times when I could feel the people there were looking at me like I was this small Asian girl. That made me think about having confidence in what I want to say. When you try to express that as well as you can, it makes people around you happy. I was able to learn about the importance of expression.

Finally, what's your favorite summertime jam?

RIRI: It's our song "Summertime," right? 

Julia Wu: (Laughs) When I finished recording the song, honestly, I was playing it back a lot during my holiday time in Australia. I put it on because the sound is so nice and so chill. I think if I'm on my off time, and if I'm listening to my own song, it must be a pretty good song. I wasn't listening to it because I had to practice it or anything. It's just good vibes.

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