Japan's Reiji Kawaguchi Debuts With Hope-Filled EP Featuring 'Despacito' Writer

Courtesy of Billboard Japan
Reiji Kawaguchi

Japanese singer-songwriter Reiji Kawaguchi made his debut with his first EP, Departure, at the end of July.

The seven-song set features catchy dance beats that fit perfectly for the summer season, including the Latin-infused lead single "Like I do" and the electro-pop love song "Summers Still Burning," the first track on the record.

While both music videos are worth checking out -- "Like I do" was directed by Japanese visual artist Spikey John and "Summers Still Burning" by Jonah Schwartz -- Kawaguchi has another song with over 420,000 views on YouTube called "R.O.C.K.M.E. ft. Marty James" (Dave Audé Remix), an unprecedented number for the first video by a new artist.

Marty James is probably best known for co-writing the English-language remix of Luis Fonsi's Grammy-nominated global hit "Despacito" featuring Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber.

The award-winning singer-songwriter and music producer co-wrote the first three songs on Departure -- the aforementioned "Summers Still Burning," "Like I do" and "R.O.C.K.M.E." -- with Kawaguchi, an unknown singer-songwriter at the time and the first J-pop artist James had ever collaborated with.

The single-take dance-heavy music video accompanying "R.O.C.K.M.E." was created by the Norwegian dance crew Quick Style, the choreographers of the record-breaking visuals for BTS's "Boy With Luv feat. Halsey." Like James, Kawaguchi was the first J-pop artist the dance trio worked with, and they contributed their flair for dance to help launch the emerging singer's promising music career.

Reiji Kawaguchi's music career took off after he began uploading cover songs to video-sharing sites. The 25-year-old belongs to a generation that grew up taking in music online, where national borders are practically non-existent, and using the Internet to promote his own brand was the natural thing to do.

The reputation of "singer-songwriter" in J-pop still usually evokes the notion of solo artists who write and perform their own music, unlike the current global trend of various songwriters and producers collaborating with artists who serve as a kind of platform for the collective artistry. Pop music is made on a much bigger scale nowadays, but this method is still far from the norm in Japan.

Back in 2017, before making his debut, Kawaguchi began traveling back and forth between Tokyo and L.A. to learn the collaborative process of co-writing songs.

As Latin music continues to take on the world, and with Asian artists like BTS breaking into the Western music market on their own terms in recent years, Kawaguchi is fully aware that language isn't necessarily a barrier in music production and self-expression and can no longer be used as an excuse.

Like the Latin artists who sing in Spanish and K-pop acts who perform in Korean, the songs on Kawaguchi's debut EP seamlessly blend Japanese and English over beats and melodies created in collaboration with many artists. They embody a new generation of J-pop that expands its definition by crossing borders and defying genres.

"I feel the joy of music on a daily basis because it gives me many borderless encounters," Kawaguchi said, and such encounters aren't limited to people from different countries: One of the names credited on "R.O.C.K.M.E." is the Grammy-nominated Japanese music producer starRo, who co-wrote the ballad "two prisoners" on Departure.

starRo is based in L.A., where the EP was recorded, and it's no longer rare for two Japanese artists to run into each other outside their home country. It's an example of what contemporary J-pop artists should aim for in this day and age, to create an environment for themselves where they can feel free to unleash their creativity.

While naming Camila Cabello and Bruno Mars among his favorite artists, Kawaguchi also cites J-pop veteran singer-songwriter Koji Tamaki as a major influence. Tamaki's peak was in the '80s, long before Kawaguchi was born, and the young artist's timeless taste in music reflects the freedom of discovering artists online. "Departure" is a hope-filled expression of his determination to take a step forward from where he's currently standing in his own musical journey.

The covers that Kawaguchi posts from time to time on his Instagram -- ranging from G-Dragon to Adele to Tamaki -- also showcase his atmospheric vocals. While the songs on his debut EP are undeniably collaborative, his gifted voice is what makes them uniquely his own, and his sensational debut signals a bright future for J-pop's next generation.


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