ØMI has been industrious.
In February 2021 he shifted the CDL Entertainment project into high gear as a producer. He then released ANSWER…SHINE on Oct. 15, which saw the lead track You, produced by SUGA of BTS, hit No. 17 on Billboard U.S.’s Hot Trending Songs Powered by Twitter chart and rank third among World Digital Song Sales, a sign of its wide appeal both in Japan and internationally. And on Dec. 13 he released SHINE as a digital single.
In an interview with Billboard Japan, the vocalist for Sandaime J SOUL BROTHERS from EXILE TRIBE, solo artist, producer and continual force in the entertainment scene spoke with Azusa Takahashi both about making music and about himself.
To begin, could you refresh our memories on how you got started doing solo projects?
ØMI: For some time, I’d been going into the studio to make the kind of music I liked while thinking about the right moment to go fully solo. 2017 is when that happened. I had just done something significant in Japan with Sandaime J SOUL BROTHERS from EXILE TRIBE, and our achievement as a group gave me the motivation to start doing solo projects.
You changed your artist name from HIROOMI TOSAKA to ØMI in February 2021, which I imagine was a big turning point for you. Was it prompted by something, like a change in the concept for your career?
ØMI: Nothing changed fundamentally. When I started out solo, I had Afrojack doing sound production and I was not especially focused on making music “for Japan” or for “the international scene.” But my overseas friends and producers, family members, and even my fans had been calling me ØMI. Hardly anybody outside Japan called me HIROOMI TOSAKA. So I changed my name to something easily pronounceable around the time when CDL Entertainment really got under way.
You have maintained a constant release schedule, but the album that brought you greater global renown was ANSWER… SHINE. The concept for the preceding album, ANSWER… SHADOW, was “opposing light.” What was your aim with ANSWER… SHINE?
ØMI: The album Who Are You?, which I released before I changed my name, are tracks where I explore questions about who we are through music, my corner of the entertainment world. The ANSWER series is where I answer those questions. Everyone’s personality is a mix of light and shadow, and when you work as an artist that light and darkness becomes more clear. ANSWER… SHADOW is me trying to express the shadow-like aspect of ourselves. And because I felt the need to express the opposite of that, as well, I then also made ANSWER… SHINE. I’m unvarnished on both albums—they’re just me pouring my heart out.
You, the lead track on ANSWER… SHINE, was produced by SUGA of BTS, right?
ØMI: Yes. I had been in contact with HYBE, which produces BTS, since before that, and so I had been talking with Pan from HYBE and with Hiro, LDH’s chairman, about how it would be fun to do something new and bold in the entertainment scene. But the coronavirus pandemic made it difficult to cross each other’s borders, so I proposed that we do something amongst us individual artists. This was right about the time I started production for ANSWER… SHINE. I had been keeping tabs on SUGA’s approach to solo work, as well as the tracks he wrote or produced and those he worked on together with overseas artists. I thought his approach would mesh with mine for ANSWER… SHINE, and when I suggested we work together, he readily accepted.
In what ways did you think your two approaches would mesh?
ØMI: He conveys the light and darkness of the soul through his music, and expresses music as art. He’s like me, in that sense. I self produced ANSWER… SHADOW, so I was absolutely giddy about the kind of music that an ØMI-SUGA duo might be able to pull off for ANSWER… SHINE. His message struck a chord with me, and I thought it would be fun not having any idea what music would come out of the endeavor.
What did you think after listening to what you came up with?
ØMI: SUGA’s a hip-hop artist so I expected he’d be good at the hip-hop sound, but I told him beforehand about the message I wanted to send and the kind of sound I was looking for. When I sent him a reference playlist, he said, “ah, OK. This is what you’re going for.” He understood right away. He then sent me two or three demo songs. One of them was You. BTS fans are probably pretty familiar with the sound, but to me it’s something totally new.
You has made it onto many charts. Why do you think it’s gotten into the ears of so many?
ØMI: You has found a global audience, and that’s entirely due to SUGA. Having said that, it wouldn’t have been such a broad success if the music wasn’t good and if there weren’t so many people around the world who decided to give it a chance. SUGA widened the gate for the song, so to speak, and ØMI fans around the world generated excitement for it and opened that gate. Then people started listening to it and it got around that the song was good. That’s how I see it.
Your digital single SHINE is going to be released on Dec. 13. Where does this track fit in to your body of work?
ØMI: Just as You represented the message I wanted to convey with ANSWER… SHINE, SHINE is something of a theme song for ANSWER… SHINE. It has an “ØMI-like” sound, so in that sense, too, it’s like an expression of intent to continue in the vein of ANSWER… SHINE.
You mentioned “ØMI-like” sound. How do you achieve that?
ØMI: I really enjoy putting elements of ’80s music into my songs. The beat, the backing instruments, and approach to adding sound all borrow from ’80s dance music. I mix that with a modern dance music style for things like my use of synthesizers for lead instruments. I’ve worked with UTA a lot, and I worked with him again on this. He and I were trying to figure out what genre the music fit into. When I do interviews like this and they ask me about the genre of my music, I tell them I mix genres. [Laughs] But that’s my thing when it comes to sound.
We can definitely hear that! [Laughs] So then you add your vocals and you get “ØMI-like music.” Have you done anything special when recording your tracks?
ØMI: On SHINE, the key goes up in the final part of the chorus. I didn’t originally plan to have any key changes, but during production I decided I wanted to do something interesting and asked SUGA if he thought a key change might sound weird. When we listened to the version with the key change, we were like “this might actually work. Most people probably won’t even notice the key change, anyway.” It was just kind of a geeky and fun thing to do. I also focused on how I sang—how I raised my voice and sang out, trying to make the most of the higher ranges of my voice. I don’t think I do any key changes on ANSWER… SHADOW, but in line with expressing my intent to give off powerful light, I tried to convey the concept of shifting one gear up.
So the secret to that feeling in your music of an engine revving up and then shutting off owes to the key you’re singing in! Even within just one of your songs you can hear a multitude of genres and techniques, and there’s such a broad range of flavors in your solo tracks. That makes me curious about your music-making roots.
ØMI: I’ve never studied music, learned an instrument, or received voice training. I’m just a guy who’s taken an interest in the music around him and listened to it over the years. Ever since middle school I’ve been listening to so many different genres. I liked hip hop, and I was big into R&B, too. I listened to a lot of Brian McKnight, in particular, who worked with JOE and Ryuji Imaichi. I also listened to artists like John David Souther and Drake — really just listened to it all. When I got a little older and started going to clubs, I dipped into all kinds of genres like hip-hop, psychedelia, and techno. And of course I’m familiar with J-POP, as every Japanese person is. I just remembered — I once went to see a Chemical Brothers concert, too. So I have no particular leaning when it comes to genre. Although I’ve listened to different music in different periods of my life, if I had to say where my roots lie, that would have to be R&B and hip-hop.
Recently you’re producing songs for a girl band.
ØMI: Yes. I’ve been a member of Japan’s entertainment industry for a while now, and I’ve never witnessed any “girl band culture” here. And if there wasn’t one, I figured I should try to make one. Japan has a lot of boy bands, though. There are many younger teams in LDH, and there’s also Johnny and Associates. Lately there’s also been BE:FIRST, produced by SKY-HI, and bands like JO1 and INI. I didn’t see the need for my involvement with that scene, so I started producing songs for a girl band instead. I got involved in doing the auditions and market research, all of that. Now I’m conducting the project together with a team of producers, with guidance from HYBE.
Market research!? You’re really going the whole nine yards.
ØMI: I figured I would have to know that way of doing things, so I’m studying and checking everything carefully along the way. Meanwhile I’m thinking about the right approach and song making style for bringing LDH’s bands to the global market. I’m hoping to take what I’ve learned in my career and put it to use as a sort of consultant for LDH.
Like being an artist while also being a producer?
ØMI: You could say that. Looking at Japan’s entertainment market, there are a lot of people around my age who are in production. SKY-HI is one example. But my goal is not to do it because so-and-so is doing it; we’ve all just gotten to an age where we’re thinking about things. We’re right at a time when, after having built up mountains as artists, we’re starting to think about our roles for the future. Now we’re finding places where we can maybe change the status quo.
I’m excited to see all the different things you end up doing. Lastly, what can your fans look forward to from you in the future?
ØMI: First I’ll be releasing SHINE on Dec. 13, and I hope people will enjoy my brand of entertainment, and the ANSWER series. Also keep a watch on my unique approach and projects in the Japanese music and entertainment scenes, as well as on the international stage.
This interview by Azusa Takahashi first appeared on Billboard Japan.