Since 2007, Billboard’s Women in Music event has honored artists, producers and executives who have made significant contributions to the music industry and empowered women through their work as Woman of the Year and other awards. Billboard Japan launched its own WIM initiative in 2022 and has been featuring various women in the music industry in a string of projects, one being the interview series highlighting trailblazing women in the industry.
UA is the next guest in the series. The singer is set to perform at the Billboard Japan Women In Music Vol. 0 event to be held at Billboard Live Osaka on March 3. Since her debut in 1995, the Osaka native has released numerous hit songs including the massively popular “Jounetsu” (“Passion”) from 1996 and continues to take on new challenges as an artist today. In her private life, she’s the mother of four and is based in Canada. The 50-year-old songstress looks back on her career and shares her thoughts on balancing career and private life in this new interview.
What kind of women did you look up to when you were a child?
UA: I saw lots of people on TV, but when I was little, I looked up to people who were closer to me, like my aunt who used to take care of me for a while. She was funny and charming, and her presence really helped me at the time.
The first artists I became a fan of were Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin. I found out about Aretha when I was a teenager, fell in love with her voice, and collected her records. Information wasn’t readily available back then, so I didn’t know anything about the kind of life she’d led. I was strongly drawn to and admired her voice and singing prowess. I first came across Janis in a movie theater when I saw footage of her singing at a big festival. I was shocked as if I’d been struck by lightning and cried on the spot.
These two artists helped me realize that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who sing on stage, and those who watch them. I began thinking that I’d like to be one of those who sing on stage if possible.
So I do have that kind of fan mentality, but I also feel that I don’t know who those people really are. For a long time now, I’ve thought that although I might be a fan of someone, there really isn’t anyone I can say that I wholeheartedly admire for their personality.
If not any specific person, do you have a definition of your ideal kind of woman?
People are fragile and change easily from day to day, and nobody is perfect in the real world. That’s why I feel good when I meet people who have the ability to accept and the ability to listen and enjoy doing so. I guess that’s the kind of woman I admire.
The direction I’m headed as the person I am when I’m with my family and friends and as UA the artist who expresses things is different. So I think maybe the kind of woman I aspire to be as an individual and the kind I admire as UA are slightly different.
The person you are at home and the artist onstage are heading in different directions. That’s an interesting observation.
For the past 27 to 28 years I’ve been wondering what it’s like to maintain a good balance between the two, and feel like I’m still in the process of working on it.
You became a fan of Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin in your teenage years and went on to make your debut as a singer on stage. Your hit single “Jounetsu” came out in 1996, and the following year you gave birth to your first child, (actor) Nijiro Murakami. You then formed the band AJICO with Kenichi Asai in 2000, so looking at the timeline alone, it must have been a very eventful time. How did pregnancy and childbirth affect your career?
Looking back chronologically like that, it certainly was a turbulent time. [Laughs] But you see, I’m actually the type of person who insists on taking adequate time off, so after making an album and touring with it, I was allowed to take a proper break. I knew from the beginning that I’d burst if I kept working all the time. I was still young when Nijiro was born, so I think I took about three months off, then started easing back to work.
I witnessed something so pure and beautiful and clear in (Nijiro’s) new life. Also, some horrific incidents happened (in Japan in 1997), and it felt like the world was changing rapidly. The single I released before childbirth was “Amai Unmei” (“Sweet Destiny”), a song with lyrics about wanting to leave things up to a “sweet” fate, but after childbirth, I wanted to sing about a dystopian world in a vivid way, so “Kanashimi Johnny” (“Sad Johnny”) was born.
The experience of pregnancy and childbirth and the time I was able to put into it were like gifts to me. He was my first child and raising a child was a real challenge. I kind of feel like I inconvenienced Nijiro, and would like to apologize to him for some things now. In any case, the experience was like being allowed to practice becoming a parent while still being a kid myself.
When someone’s career is interrupted by pregnancy or childbirth, it’s sometimes interpreted in a negative way, but I think it’s lovely how you describe the experience as a gift that worked out positively. Has being a woman influenced UA in other ways?
I’m the type of person who thinks that I’d like to be a woman even if I were to be born again. Even now, I feel like I’m able to sing because I’m a woman. If I’d been born a man, I might not have chosen to sing, though I can’t say for sure because I’ve never been one before. Men are so unknown to me, and I’m constantly presented with themes to think about from my partner.
You’ve raised boys, though. Any discoveries through that experience you could share?
I have four children. One is a girl and the rest are boys. I try not to say unreasonable things like (act a certain way because) “you’re a boy” or “you’re older” to my boys, and try to tell them how they should be as people instead of their gender. But I do think I have a special empathy for my girl.
You mentioned earlier that you sing because you’re a woman. Were there any difficulties you faced as an artist or in other areas of your daily life because you’re a woman?
None, really. I don’t know why… but I’ve never felt that way. I think I’ve been very fortunate as an artist. I didn’t have much of an amateur period, and it was like I made my debut just when I became seriously involved in music, so I didn’t understand anything. I was always struggling to create each work. There was pressure and I was always nervous, but I faced it and overcame it, and then I’d spread out another blank sheet of paper in front of me and write another song. Looking back now, I had no other choice. But it seems to me that I didn’t make a single mistake along the way.
On the year-end Billboard Japan Hot 100 chart for 2022, 58 of the top 100 acts were male, 27 were female, and 15 were mixed gender groups. What do you think of this result, given that there are many great female artists in Japan?
I think one way of interpreting this result is that the power of women who are fans of the opposite sex was strong, rather than any lack in capabilities of female artists. Even within my circle, it feels like there are lots of women whose drive to support their favorites across generations is powerful.
That’s a really interesting take. Based on what you’ve said so far, what do you think is needed to make it easier for women to thrive in the music and entertainment industry?
This isn’t limited to the music industry, but for the time being, the functionalities of men and women’s bodies can’t be changed. You can choose how you live, but you can’t choose the function of the body you have, and it’s not easy to change. I think the reason why people choose not to have kids based on their careers (in Japan) is because the government doesn’t provide enough support and security during the period of having and raising children. I’m personally glad I was able to experience pregnancy and childbirth, so I wish that an environment where more women can feel more positive about choosing to have children would be put into place. It’d be nice to have a system that allows women to move on to the next step in their lives while experiencing these things instead of thinking “pregnancy and childbirth = career interruption.” I think this is a national issue, not a music industry issue.
—This interview by Rio Hirai (SOW SWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan