One could argue that the world has been stuck in BAD MODE for a few years now.
Granted, it’s not all bad: for many, including Hikaru Utada, it’s also been a time of reprioritizing relationships, taking internal inventory and doing the hard work of self-care. That process has resulted not only in new music from the Japanese-American singer – their first album in four years, BAD MODE, is out Wednesday (Jan. 19) on Milan Records/Sony Music Masterworks – but in significant personal revelations along the way.
Hikki – the nickname affectionately adopted by their fans – first soared to staggering heights of stardom in Japan in 1998, at the age of 15, with the self-penned, co-produced singles “Automatic” and “Time Will Tell,” followed by their record-shattering 1999 debut First Love, which remains the bestselling album in Japanese history. Their imagery-rich songwriting style – paired with an ever-evolving sound blurring elements of R&B, pop, rock, jazz and electronica – resulted in millions of records sold over the years. Myriad contributions to movie, TV and video game soundtracks included, among their most beloved work, the themes for the Kingdom Hearts franchise, including “Hikari” and its English version, “Simple & Clean.”
In the mid ‘00s, they traded omnipresence in Japan for relative obscurity in the United States, returning stateside for a new challenge: an electro-experimental English opus. Exodus, one of the earliest major label crossover efforts for an Asian pop star, spawned the Billboard U.S. Dance Club Songs chart-topper “Devil Inside,” which appeared in Queer as Folk.
Exodus was not a major commercial success, nor was R&B-heavy 2009 follow-up This Is The One, but a pioneering feat nonetheless – especially at a time when popular acts hailing from Asia were still largely absent from the U.S. charts, and before social media and streaming allowed for greater access to global entertainers. Still, Exodus would go on to enjoy fan-favorite status, and its liberated spirit would even inspire the BAD MODE sessions nearly two decades later.
The notoriously low-key singer, who spent much of their life traveling between the U.S. and Japan, now finds their home and heart stationed in London, preparing the release of their latest record. While steeped in R&B melodies reminiscent of their early era, BAD MODE is among their most electronic endeavors in years – from the dazzling “One Last Kiss,” to self-empowerment dance-pop anthem “Find Love,” to “Somewhere Near Marseilles,” which plays like a 12-minute extended remix.
It’s a notable shift for Hikaru, who speaks of getting “sonically very weird again” following 2016’s Fantôme, a moving meditation on life and loss, and the introspective follow-up, Hatsukoi, two years later. Although the multi-talented musician is often solely responsible for composing their own music, a few key guests supply additional flourishes, including PC Music maestro A.G. Cook as well as British producer Sam Shepard (better known as Floating Points), pushing the tracks – and the artist – into new musical territory. There’s also one particularly surprising collaborator: their 6-year-old son.
BAD MODE is also the first record since Hikaru’s headline-making Instagram Live last year, during which they came out as nonbinary. The brief announcement seemed impromptu, but was actually anything but – and was just as quickly met with an outpouring of global love and support. Fittingly, BAD MODE is all about love and support too, especially – and crucially – for oneself.
In a candid conversation, Hikaru spoke to Billboard about their new record and accompanying concert special, identity, navigating fame at a young age, and improving all forms of their relationships.
BAD MODE is an unexpected title. What does the term mean to you?
It’s a weird mixture of English and Japanese, actually. I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense in English. It doesn’t really either in Japanese. It’s a modern thing, more with the youth. In Japanese, when you take the English word “bad,” like “Oh, it gives me the bad,” it means that “it gets me depressed,” or gives me bad vibes. So “bad” is short for “bad vibes.” The way I’ve used it in the song is the opposite of feeling amazing and being in a great situation. It’s, in a nutshell, being a little bit depressed, or just going through a bit of a low period.
Is that how you would describe the period of making this album?
It wasn’t the overall feeling in the period I was making the album, but we all have dips. I’ve been depressed and great, all those things. At the time I wrote the song, as human beings, we were all going through a difficult time with the pandemic.
Also, in personal ways with my close friends and family, there were a lot of things that made me want to be supportive. What does it mean to be a good, supportive friend, or family member, or partner, or lover, or whatever relationship you have with another person? That song was me thinking about, “What would I want from someone? And how can I do that for someone else?” Ultimately, that was the answer. “How can I be independent and have a good relationship with myself so I can improve my relationships with those around me?”
In a Q&A last year, you explained that on previous albums, your music was inspired by your relationships with others, but that this album was shaping up to be more about a relationship with yourself.
Yes. In the time I made the songs on the album, I was really focusing on working on the relationship with myself, self-love and just the whole. … I love RuPaul, and I’m such a big fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s so inspiring and moving. The main message being: “if you can’t love yourself, how are you going to love somebody else?” Amen! I was just thinking, “Yes! That is it, exactly.”
So, it’s safe to say Drag Race helped inspire this album?
Do you have any favorite queens?
I began watching from the first season. So many of them are good – well, all of them are really good. But something that’s been fresh in my mind is the UK series, and Bimini Bon Boulash. She just really stood out to me. I wish she’d won. I related to the growth. I get excited when I feel myself growing or opening up or discovering something about myself. I feel like I saw that during that season with her. I think that’s why I felt very personally involved.
It feels like the right time to mention this: a decade ago, I wrote about coming out through the music of Exodus. You shared it in one of, I think, your first English tweets, and said it gave you some insight into the reason for the high count of your gay fans. First, I want to say thank you for that–
No, thank you for that.
I was wondering if you had thoughts on how your music has resonated with the queer community.
Yes. When I noticed I seemed to have a lot of queer fans, it just seemed natural to me. I didn’t find it surprising. It just made sense. There’s a sense of being an outsider, or not being able to be yourself, which is horrible. Fearing that you won’t be accepted the way you are. I relate to that a lot. It makes me happy when I hear that my loneliness, or my sense of being an outsider, is something that can be shared. We can feel that together.
I also don’t think you’ve discussed your Pride stream announcement much further yet, and wanted to give you the opportunity to do so.
I didn’t know the word “nonbinary” until probably not even a full two years before that. When I came across the idea of it… in Japanese, there’s this expression, “fish scales fall off of your eyeballs.” (“Me kara uroko ga ochiru.”) It’s a weird expression, but that’s exactly what I felt. It’s a moment of “eureka,” or shock, almost.
When I was with boys, I felt like I was trying to be a boy. When I was with girls, I felt like I was trying to be a girl. Nothing felt completely natural to me. There was a bit of forcing myself somehow in social situations, or seeing my own body and every time thinking, “Oh, what? Well…okay.” But when I brought up things like that with people I trust, it was always like, “Oh well, you’re this kooky artist.” I never met anyone who said, “Oh my God, I know what that’s like.” I just thought it was a me thing. To know there were loads of people out there feeling something similar, it was the most validating experience I’ve ever had. It just changed everything – my relationship with the world and myself – but it wasn’t anything I felt I needed to tell everyone.
Time went on. I saw people with big platforms saying, “This is the least I can do. Visibility is so important.” I was really feeling that. I thought, “Okay, what have I got to lose?”
The Instagram Q&A coincided with that. I usually notice a theme in the questions. A lot of people were asking – or the ones that stood out to me, maybe – about being gay, not being able to come out, feeling guilty because they have a partner but can’t tell the rest of the world. There were a lot of people saying, “After trying so long to be liked by everyone, I no longer know who I am.” I felt those were connected issues. It made me think, “What can I do?”
The urge to do what I could was growing, but I was still really scared to say it officially. I thought, “Wow, it’s scary for me, and I don’t even have to worry about getting fired over this or losing family support. I know all my friends and family will be fine, and I’m still really scared. All I’m scared of is losing some kind of public image some people I don’t even know might have. That’s silly. If I say it, it might have a positive effect.” At the end of the day, I was just being honest, so what harm could it do?
But it was still scary. I remember shaking a bit before saying it. I was like, “I’ll just try to say this casually as I can,” but I really needed to have my big teddy bear Kuma behind me. [laughs] I had to go off social media for a while after that, because the reaction was quite intense, especially in Japan. But I’m really happy that I said that I’m nonbinary. It was a good decision. All the love and support was really amazing.
It was an incredible move, and I think it inspired many people. As you said, the visibility does matter.
When it comes to social media, you tweet life observations here and there, and on Instagram, you share objects you find. There was also a time you did blog updates. What is your relationship to social media now? Are you looking at it?
I’m not very active on it. I just don’t feel the need to be. Often, I think, “Oh, I should be advertising about work-related stuff, or mention that I have an album coming.” I do more of that on Twitter, but I like just sharing the stuff I see.
I really like finding things. There’s a sense of being lost, something that was left behind. It makes me imagine the person or thing that has lost this thing that I found. Both ends. I’m serious. I found another plaster bandage on the ground today and got really excited. I took a photo. I so look forward to posting it on Instagram. I’ve just come to point where I’m like, “Ugh, I’m crap at using it as a promotional thing,” but it’s okay.
As long as it sparks joy. Most people have a negative relationship with social media. I think it’s interesting what insights we do get into your personal life on the album. On “Not in the Mood,” is the little voice there… your son?
Yeah. It’s my son. I was working on the track at home in this room, and he just walked in and sat on my lap and I said, “You want to listen?” He was listening to it, and said, “Oh, how about this?” And he began singing his idea. I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s good. You want to put that down?” And he stood on my chair, sang into the mic properly with headphones on. It was really nice, so it made it into the song.
I didn’t use it just because it’s my son. I told him “I can’t promise you it’ll be in the song, but it might make it.” When I played him the final product, I was like, “See? You sound amazing. You’re in the end. It’s the best part.” He’s like, “Yeah. I think that my part should be more in the other choruses too, like an echo to your singing.”
Wow! So he’s got the musical ear already.
Yeah. He has ideas. I love that he’s fearless, and that he’s confident and expressing himself.
How aware is he of the Hikaru Utada legacy?
He is aware of it. He came to my tour in Japan at the end of 2018. He saw the dress rehearsal, and one show in Tokyo, and one in Osaka. He remembers that pretty well and knows my songs. He says that I’m his favorite singer. I just… [smiling] Aww. But he listens to other stuff! I don’t just make him listen to my songs! No, no other artists! [laughs]
But it’s really cool. He says he wants to be a singer. And a scientist. And a football player and an explorer. He knows I’m a singer. If we go somewhere, like we’re at the hairdresser and he’s getting a haircut, he’s like, “Yeah, I want to be a singer. My mom’s a singer, too.” I feel really lucky that he can see the stuff I’ve made and he’s proud of me.
That’s so sweet. If you debuted today at the same age you did then, do you think it would have been easier?
It would be more difficult, probably. It was difficult enough at that point, just having the loss of privacy and having paparazzi all around. Being a teenager is hard. Being 14 is a difficult time. You’re so sensitive. Your brain is still changing. You don’t know who you are yet. You don’t need all these people adding lenses that are not even yours to your own view of yourself. But that’s what happens when you get famous. It hurts to be misunderstood. I think you can learn ways of letting it affect you less, but I don’t think it’s possible to be completely immune to the hurtfulness that comes along with being misunderstood. Or the loneliness.
I’m glad I just had tabloids and paparazzi. It was the dawn of this whole Internet age, and those forums. I was 15 and I came across a forum that said, “The let’s-talk-s—t-about-Hikaru Utada forum.” F—ked up. It was just so unnecessary. Looking back, I’m grateful, because it helped me understand early on that it’s so not personal. They just needed someone to talk s—t about. I was visible and readily available. If you seem successful, it’s easy for people to think, “Look at how great that person’s doing. I hate that person.” It had nothing to do with me. It taught me how to separate it from myself. It could have been anyone famous.
You live in London now, where you recorded a special concert showcase premiering at the same time as this record. Can you talk about preparing this, the set list choices, and how the overall experience was for you?
I didn’t really know what to expect going into it, but it turned out to be a really special and intimate performance. I loved the closer interaction I got with everyone involved in the project because it was a small team compared to a tour, and I think the great, warm vibe we had going from rehearsals allowed me to share more intimate sides of my creative process during the performance.
And the band look and sound amazing. It’s so nice to be able to see so much of what they’re doing and all their gear, etc. Originally, we thought of doing the entire album but not all the songs were done in time for the show. I’m glad we got to throw in some songs from the past because of that though… both from Exodus. They seemed to fit in with the feeling of the new material and it was a fun challenge.
There are some songs that have been huge hits and major milestones in your career. But when you look back, are there specific records or songs that you’re personally particularly proud of, and why?
If I have to pick something, I would say Exodus, because I can appreciate how bold I was, and it still sounds weird and fresh and exciting to me… and Fantôme, which marked the beginning of a new chapter of my life as an artist and as a human being. They were the most honest and courageous I’d allowed myself to be up to that point.
I would compare the new album to Exodus in ways. Was it a conscious decision?
I was listening to more clubby, dance-y stuff. That sounds like a really unprofessional way of expressing that genre. [laughs] Yeah, I was into house music quite a lot around when I made “Find Love.” There were new artists I discovered, like Moodymann and Glenn Underground, that I got really into. I think if you listen to Glenn Underground’s “May Datroit,” you’ll see the influence on “Find Love.”
With the two albums before BAD MODE [Fantôme and Hatsukoi], they were experimental to me in the sense that I used a lot of live instrumentation, which was a great learning experience. I was lucky. There were these great musicians I had access to. It was about trusting other people and letting something happen that was not entirely under my control. I could make a demo and give instructions in some ways, but then you have to trust them and roll with it and see what happens. It was a nice way to build confidence and feel a bit more grown-up about everything.
After two albums like that, I knew I wanted to do something sonically very weird again. I wanted to go back there. I thought back on Exodus and felt a similar feeling, like a liberation happening within myself. I just wanted to let it happen, with more electronic sounds that I built from zero.
I got some great help on this album. It was really cool collaborating with Nariaki Obukuro. I’ve been working with him for some time on his stuff, too. And A.G. Cook and Floating Points – such a blessing. I feel so lucky I got to meet them and work with them. There’s a friendship as well. Making new friends who I can also make really interesting stuff with…that’s been really cool.
You’ve always been hands-on with production. When do you finally say, “Okay, actually yes, it’s time to collaborate”?
To me, making music has always been really private. It’s my safe space that came out of necessity, almost. So it’s been a lot of just me, and needing to feel alone and safe to get into it. I haven’t really collaborated that much, mainly for that reason. It’s been difficult to share that space and open up. But I did, even on songs I basically did most of the tracks on. I wanted some outside help when it got technical so I could say, “This is the thing I’ve laid down, but I want to change the sound to something a bit more like this.” That just made more sense to me.
It was finding people that were just cool and flexible. Maybe also me being more secure, so I could tell them what it is that I want. I think I got a lot better at it. Before, I couldn’t really explain that to someone. Working with musicians gave me a great deal of practice in verbally explaining what direction I want the song to go. Ultimately, music is a shared language. At the same time, they’ve helped me socially and musically.
This is also the first time you’ve had Japanese and English versions of multiple songs on one album.
I stopped placing restrictions on myself. Why not have both English songs and Japanese songs in one album? I live and breathe in both languages, and looking back, it feels weird that I thought I had to separate those sides of myself.
Is there something new you’ve learned about yourself in making this record?
I learned that I am a person with love. I was always scared that I don’t know what love is, that there’s something wrong with me, and the “feeling” that people talk about seemed elusive and mysterious. I still don’t think I experience love as a “feeling.”
I’ve come to my own idea of love, which is that for me, loving someone means committing to do my best to always make the other person feel loved, no matter what they’re going through. And I’ve been trying to do that for myself, too. Working on songs about self-love, self-esteem, and being there for someone, like “Find Love,” “PINK BLOOD” and “BAD MODE,” were a part of my journey in getting where I am now.
What does success look like to Hikaru Utada in 2022, and has your definition of success changed over the years?
Success. Wow. I don’t think anyone’s ever really asked me that before.
I think of my favorite quote from this Japanese poet and novelist, Kenji Miyazawa. “’No one knows what true happiness is, least of all me. But no matter how hard it is, if you keep to the path you deem to be true, you can overcome any mountain. With each step in that direction, people come closer to happiness,’ said the lighthouse keeper, comfortingly. ‘I agree,’ said the young man, closing his eyes as if in prayer, ‘but to reach the truest happiness, one must make their way through many sorrows.’” – Night on the Galactic Railroad.
I don’t really believe in the concept of success. I think it’s just an idea that exists in our minds. I also don’t believe in failure, because whatever you do now can change the meaning of something that happened in the past. Something you thought was a failure, you could look back on and realize, “Oh, that got me here now and I feel successful,” or vice versa. I think it just depends on what moment you’re looking back on. It’s an interpretation, and it always changes. That’s what’s great about doing stuff and continuing to do stuff. The only failure is if I were to give up trying. And so, I suppose a successful year for me would mean a year of continuing to try. Trying, learning, and growing.