Billboard Japan launched its Women in Music initiative last year featuring various women in the music industry in a string of projects, one being the interview series highlighting trailblazing women in the industry. This initiative follows the established example of Billboard’s Women in Music event that has honored artists, producers and executives who have made significant contributions to the music industry and empowered women through their work since 2007.
J-pop singer-songwriter eill is the next guest in the interview series. The 24-year-old aspired to become a singer after seeing the K-pop girl group KARA as a child, and now that she has made that dream come true, her music is being featured as themes of movies and anime series and appeals to a wide range of generations. Incorporating elements of R&B and K-pop into her sound, she continues to explore the possibilities of her signature sound accompanying lyrics that encourage people to cherish their individualities.
eill looks back on her beginnings, shares her experiences being a young female singer-songwriter and elaborates on wanting to raise her voice more about various issues in this new interview.
What were you like when you were little?
I was a really shy kid who would blush and look down when the teacher asked me to do something in class. That all changed when I saw KARA perform on TV in sixth grade. I was shocked by the way they wore stage outfits and did their makeup and hair in styles that didn’t pander to anyone, very much unlike my image of “idol” singers, and powerfully sang songs with lyrics that expressed their resolve. I thought, “I want to carve out my own life just like these girls!” and they even influenced my path in life.
So it wasn’t just about KARA’s fashion and songs that grabbed you, but also their attitude and the way they were. What changes did you go through after that?
First, I began to think that I wanted to be a singer. And I became so fascinated with the world of K-pop that I began to study Korean along with singing and piano. I became so absorbed in (learning Korean) that I stopped paying attention to my schoolwork. I couldn’t stand to lose, so when I got into something, I wanted to work as hard as I could at it. I even went too far and was found secretly reading a Korean reference book during class, and when the teacher scolded me, I talked back in Korean. [Laughs] But in the end the teachers supported me because I was trying so hard.
It’s amazing how you really did realize your dream of becoming a singer. Could you share some of the efforts you must have put into behind the scenes along the way?
I wasn’t very good at singing either, and started out by picking out the pitch of each note one by one. So from that level, I gave myself my full attention and made a list of what I lacked, and worked hard to fill in the gaps.
The one who can understand me the best is me, so the thing to do was to face my inner self and have conversations with my heart. Even if I mess up or if I have some kind of shortcoming, I try to accept it fully. And then I go to my favorite sauna or eat my favorite food to get myself in a good mood and move on. I’ve reached a point where I can think like that over the past year or so.
What did you do before you settled into your own way of picking yourself up mentally?
I always hit rock bottom. When I couldn’t come up with lyrics or songs, it felt like I was in a daze day and night, like I was in a nightmare where I’m being backed against a wall. But the lyrics and songs that were born when I was being hard-pressed like that are the ones that could only have come out from that time, and they feel so real that I just feel like hugging them now. So I’d like to tell myself who was going through all that back then that it’s OK to be yourself.
You write your own lyrics. What does the act of writing do for you?
I guess you could say that it’s like “a costume for being who eill is.” I often sing about life, and feel that there’s a side of me that writes lyrics with the sense of “this is the kind of person I want to be.” Someone who’s strong to begin with probably wouldn’t sing “I want to be strong.” For me, writing lyrics is a process of having conversations with myself, and my weak side also comes out along the way. So by putting into words that feeling of “this is who I want to be” and singing them, it’s like I’m encouraging myself.
I couldn’t love myself when I was a young girl, but came across music and discovered the meaning of my life. So I think I’m singing now to bring even a little light to those who might be feeling the same way.
I’m sure there many young women out there who are uplifted by your songs, like “palette,” a celebration of life that encourages people to color their lives in their own way, and “Tada no Gyaru” (“Just a Gal”), a number about how a woman feels about being looked down upon because she’s young. How do you think being a woman has affected your life and your music career?
In the past, like the lyrics in “Tada no Gyaru,” I often experienced being slighted because people thought I don’t write my own music or lyrics. Being a woman and making a living as a singer-songwriter, chances are you’re treated like a dress-up doll. But fortunately, my current team tries to protect me from such treatment. They respect my wishes and walk with me so I’m really grateful for that. On the other hand, I get comments like, “I don’t like strong-looking women like that” when I’m just performing in an outfit with matching top and bottom and holding a loudspeaker. In Japan, there’s still a tendency to shun women who have a strong sense of self, or consider women who lack self-confidence as being “cute,” or shut down anything a woman says as being “tacky” or “scary.”
I recently watched the American movie She Said about the #MeToo movement in the U.S., and while the incidents of 2017 were portrayed in a tone of “this stuff is still happening,” I thought that even in 2023, Japan is still so far behind. There weren’t too many people in the theater to see the film when I saw it, and I wish more people knew about it.
Meanwhile, when I look around me, I have friends who are having a hard time as single mothers. But some haven’t voted in elections even though they’re not satisfied with the current measures taken by the national and local governments. So I say to each of them, “First of all, you have to vote and express your opinions.” I hope society will change so that a kind of system where women don’t have to give things up due to pregnancy and childbirth and are able to see them in a positive light become functional. To achieve this, I think we should communicate what we’re thinking like the #MeToo movement, or take action together with others who share the same problems, maybe in a more pop and fun way, with a vibe like, “Let’s liven things up together!”
So not only do you convey your messages through your music, but you also directly reach out to your friends as well. Why do you think there’s such a difference in your current way of thinking despite the fact that you and your friends grew up in the same place?
I think that’s because I was introduced to music. I looked up to stars like KARA and Beyoncé around the same time, and these divas who were independent and sent out powerful messages were my role models. I also would like to be the kind of person who can give courage through music.
—This interview by Rio Hirai (SOW SWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan