Japanese Producers her0ism & Ryo Ito Talk Shahadi Wright Joseph's Debut & Future of Asian Music: Interview

her0ism and Ryo Ito
Yosuke Torii

her0ism and Ryo Ito

her0ism is a Japanese music producer with numerous hits in his home country and abroad under his belt, who has been based in Los Angeles since 2016. Ryo Ito is also a hit-making J-pop music producer who has played a key role in introducing co-writing as a way of making music in Japan. These two producers working in the forefront of pop music share their thoughts on the current music scenes both in their home country and globally in this latest interview.

her0ism has collaborated with top J-pop and K-pop artists such as MISIA, NEWS, AKB48, Nogizaka46, TVXQ and Seiko Matsuda, as well as popular Western acts including Austin Mahone and Set It Off. He has over 80 No. 1 singles and 110 platinum/gold discs under his belt, and has produced numerous hits not only in his home country but also in the U.S., U.K., Germany, Mexico, South Korea, Greece, Romania and South Africa.

The 38-year-old music producer's recent endeavors include tracks for the popular animated series My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, the theme song of the Mexican film Veinteañera: Divorciada y Fantástica starring Paulina Goto called "Golpe Avisa," and an upcoming track by Gian Varela & Matluck called "Señorita" to be released from Spinnin' Records on Friday (June 26). Last year, he produced "Skin I'm In," the acclaimed debut single by Shahadi Wright Joseph.

Ryo Ito graduated from Berklee College of Music and produced many hit songs for major J-pop boy bands, including the million-selling "Seishun Amigo" by Shuji & Akira (aka Johnny's stars Kazuya Kamenashi & Tomohisa Yamashita) from 2005 and Yamashita's double-platinum single "Daite Senorita."

He began working as a songwriter independently in 2009 after founding Magonodaimade Production, and wrote songs for major J-pop acts including Namie Amuro, AKB48, Nogizaka46 and more. Last year, he founded CWF, a company that runs a community of over 140 composers called Co-Writing Farm.

The winner of the Gold Medal for Amuro's "In Two" at NexTone Award 2019, Ito has actively connected creators in Japan with those in other countries, organizing writing camps in North America and parts of Europe and Asia, moderating writing sessions by global creators.

Tomonori Shiba spoke with the two to catch up with their current projects, and ask their views on the future of the music industry from their respective standpoints. 

her0ism, why did you decide to base yourself in L.A.?

her0ism: When I met Mr. Ito over a decade ago, when I was still writing songs for the Japanese market, he told me that co-writing as a method of writing songs will become the mainstream from now on. He then gave me a chance to attend a writing camp in Europe. First it was in Germany, then next year it was Finland, then Sweden… Every year, I was invited to attend. I was able to produce a good result in Europe, which was my goal at the time.

While I was there, I noticed that a lot of producers spoke about wanting to try their luck in L.A. but that it was easier said than done. I've had this vision of working there ever since.

From your viewpoint, Mr. Ito, what are some of the characteristics of the creative environment in L.A.? 

Ryo Ito: L.A. strikes me as being the center of the world. The overall quality is higher than anywhere else, whether it be singers or producers. Star creators from around the world and not just the U.S. are gathered there, so it's on another level. It's like everyone there is constantly thinking of creating the next trend, the next global hit.

her0ism, when did you first feel confident you could make it in L.A. after moving there?

her0ism: I had this baseless confidence from the beginning, but only recently have I begun feeling a good response. At first, I used to send tracks to major artists, but I've been working more on launching a new star's music career. Her name is Shahadi Wright Joseph.

Could you explain how that project came about?

her0ism: I had an opportunity to meet IMMPAAC (Nate Jolley), the record producer who produced Fifth Harmony and who was nominated for an Emmy for The Rehearsal. He'd been supporting Shahadi since she was a child, and after she kicked off her acting career in such blockbusters as Disney's The Lion King and Jordan Peele's Us, they decided the timing was right for her to put out some music. I was asked to be the project's executive producer with him.

How did you meet IMMPAAC?

her0ism: He came to visit the set of the online music program Pensado's Place and spoke to me after the show. Apparently Dave Pensado had worked with him on movies before, and had told him to drop by the studio because "the Max Martin of Japan" called her0ism would be there.

What potential did you see in Shahadi?

her0ism: She has roots in R&B, but she's only 15 years old, so her voice is still developing. It's fleeting and the appeal of her sound keeps changing. Also, while Shahadi herself is popular, so are the roles she plays in movies, including the one she'll be doing next. Her own identity is influenced by the films she's involved in.

I think about what types of songs would best suit her as an actress and singer. She herself likes R&B, but stuff that's not too pop.

How did you make her debut song, "Skin I'm In"

her0ism: Shahadi's ideas had a lot to do with it, along with her manager. I was present when they were working on the lyrics. It's a pretty profound theme for a 15-year-old girl to sing, but I wanted to deliver the message in a breezy way. The aim of this song was to have a teenager sing a self-confident song without hurting anyone. Her own identity was crucial in this song, so it doesn't sound pop on purpose.

Ito: I felt that it's quite heavy. When first heard it, I was surprised that she was only 15.

Her latest single "Wallpaper" sounds closer to electronic pop than authentic R&B.

her0ism: Yes, "Wallpaper" is definitely pop. Doing only R&B isn't fun so I considered how I could her expand her breadth. She's still young so I wanted to bring out that kind of freshness she has. Universal Music helped us release it globally.

Mr. Ito, you hosted a writing camp in Taiwan last year. Could you elaborate on why you help organize these camps in various places around the world?

Ito: In September 2019, we held a writing camp sponsored by MICP Holdings, a joint entertainment company invested by the Cool Japan Fund and several major entertainment corporations in Japan, established for the purpose of exporting Japanese content to Asia. This camp was also co-sponsored by JMCE, a foundation that assists the export of Japanese music, and supported by a Taiwanese music publisher called One Asia Music and my company, CWF. So it was a pretty major undertaking.

And earlier this year, I took part in another camp in Taiwan organized by a local publisher, and made many new connections. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has shut down international travel since then, but we're still getting together virtually with creators around the world to write songs together.

The reason why I help organize these camps is because I want to create a connection between creators in Japan and those in other countries. Writing camps are held in various parts of the world, but Japanese creators didn't take part in these big camps in Taiwan, and I was told by the local artists that they thought Japanese artists weren't interested in them or their market. These people had grown up listening to J-pop, so they're interested in co-writing with Japanese music producers.

I'm sure there are many creators in Japan who are interested in C-pop and the Chinese-language music market, but as it stands, the connection between the two is still weak. The differences in convention between the way the music industry works in Japan and overseas are major obstacles, and I feel there are many problems to be solved.

I want to create an environment where writing camps are more freely conducted in various countries. We can't organize any this year, but for 2021, we're planning camps in L.A., Canada, Australia, South Korea, Sweden, Thailand, Taiwan again and more, though it's still unclear how many we can pull off. I feel it's my mission to send out the message that there are many gifted and ambitious creators in Japan, even more so than simply creating good songs.

How do you think the position, the role and the image of the Japanese music industry will change in light of future global music trends?

her0ism: From the perspective here in L.A., it's obvious that for better or worse, J-pop hasn't changed. For example, Drake dominated the charts in most countries, but not in Japan. I used to interpret that difference in a negative way. But the funny thing is, after moving out of the country and observing things from here, I see it as a neat cultural trait. It's a distinctive culture that has been cultivated in Japan. So I don't think things will change much from now on, either. J-pop will continue on in its idiosyncratic way. 

Ito: Honestly speaking, some kind of action should have been taken to coincide with the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Special events such as the Olympics and World Cup games direct a lot of attention to the music of that country. I'm sure there are people out there who want to listen to music featuring Japanese identity, but the industry was unable to sow the seeds for that occasion.

I don't think we have enough time left now and the events will come and go without any substantive action being taken. And even with the Olympics having been postponed to 2021, the situation is still the same. I don't think we have no more chances left, though. What I'm doing now is like sowing seeds for the future, too.

What kind of future do you envision?

Ito: First of all, I think Asian music should merge into one big movement. If J-pop, C-pop and K-pop could somehow create a kind of "Asian Pop" movement, that music would be heard all over Asia and then potentially become popular globally. I think it's possible, but it'll take time, and we'll have to lay the groundwork. It's important to make continuous efforts.

her0ism: That's true. If there's a genre called Latin, why not a genre called Asian? An Asian boom could come in the future. As an artist, writing camps with people from South Korea, Taiwan and China sound fascinating, though I can see how there would be various hurdles to overcome. So, providing an environment for Asian creators to work together is paving the way for the future of music in the region.

Ito: When you're in Japan, it's really hard to get a sense of what kind of music is being made in other parts of Asia, like China or Thailand or Indonesia. But you can find out if you go there. For example, the artists I met in Taiwan were all sophisticated and had solid musical backgrounds.

But the connection between creators in different countries wasn't firmly established before. Just exporting content isn't enough to make music more international. A network of creators that crosses borders is crucial. By creating things together, a completely new kind of music might spring up and spread in a global way, becoming the next big hit. That's why co-writing will become one of the key concepts in music-making from now on.