Interview with Taichi Ro

Taichi Ro is a Japanese singer-songwriter from Okinawa who recently started his own solo project with the release of his song Masquerade Dancing and its follow-up LIGTM. With a promising career ahead, Royce Leong of Tokyo ON catches up with Taichi over hot chocolate to find out what his next moves are.

<Photos by Tokio Kuniyoshi>

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Tokyo ON: You're from Okinawa, what was it like growing up there?

Taichi Ro: Okinawa is highly influenced by the United States due to the military presence there, so even before I was born, my mom was going to concerts on their base, and she's seen Diana Ross and all those great celebrities/singers. Everything is free on the base, even Mick Jagger, they came all the way to Okinawa to do huge showcases for the military. Some of the Okinawan people have access to get on the base, and my mom is a huge fan of music.

She even went to Australia on student exchange, and actually that's where she met my dad. She stayed there for two years, I'm not sure where and then..hey..I was born <laughs>.

My dad's side, he has two younger sisters, and those two sisters were married to American military men, so I feel closer to American culture than most other people.

TO: How did you express your interest in music as a kid?

TR: Well, I’ve loved music since I was little, I started learning how to play the piano since I was 10 years old, and then I started DJing in junior high school and made mixtapes/mix CDs. I didn't even know what the definition of it was back then, but I just made CDs with songs connected and gave them to my friends or sold them for like 500 yen.

TO: At that time you were a DJ, what kind of music were you playing?

TR: Hip hop! R&B, reggae, what Japanese people call "black music" or "urban music," that's the only music I was listening to since I was 10 or so, I was really into the culture and everything.

TO: You're telling me that in Okinawa, kids are listening to this stuff?

TR: I'm not sure what other junior high school students listen to, but maybe I was the influencer, because I had many CDs at my house and my friends would come over and listen to good music. It was right when Mixi and Myspace were popular, so of course I was doing that and making connections with people out there. And when I graduated from junior high, I started DJing in the club, and all the military guys would come. It was a kind of hobby. Even though I was a high school student, I was going to the club...with my mom. Well, she's not watching me all the time, but she's gonna be there and make sure I'm okay. So she would take me to the club at 10pm, go home for a nap and come back at 4 or 5 in the morning to say hey.

TO: I used to teach in junior high school in the Kanto area for a couple of years as an ALT, and what kids listened to was AKB48 and mainstream chart, so I'm really surprised that when you were in junior high you were listening to that kind of music.

TR: Yeah everyone was into Usher, Ashanti, Beyonce, Black Eyed Peas, and that was kind of the cool thing to listen to. It could be that other kids didn't listen to that, but my friends were really into it. I'm not sure, but I think in Okinawa it's different. They don't listen to AKB or Johnny's*, one time I heard that Johnny's, they don't come to Okinawa. They're huge here in mainland Japan, but somehow people in Okinawa aren't into it as much.

*Any group managed by the talent agency Johnny & Associates such as Arashi, Hey! Say! JUMP, etc.

TO: I find that really interesting. Probably because of the American influence and being an island culture.

TR: And of course we have Namie Amuro who was born in Okinawa, Da Pump, MAX, all those western influenced artists. They are from Okinawa, so Okinawan people are more familiar with that kind of music rather than cute anime idols.

TO: I think that's really lucky, you were born into good music.  How did you begin your professional music career?

TR: I have a little sister who is a singer and actress, we went to the United States to study, and when we came back to Japan, I was 22 and she was already 20.  I had a few connections that I made in New York, I was introducing her to labels and stuff, but they thought I was too old to sign. As a solo Japanese male singer, it wasn't doing well here. Maybe lately, guys like Hoshino Gen are doing okay, but by the time I got here the only male artists that were doing well were Hirai Ken and Moriyama Naotaro, other stars didn't come through much. It was difficult for me to sign with any labels, I wanted to be a singer but not a composer. So I started writing songs for my sister, and it was nice, she signed with Rising Production which all those artists Namie Amuro, Da Pump and MAX belong to.

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TO: How important do you think a label is now given that the internet allows anyone to distribute music?

TR: Well I know a lot of people who are doing great things like websites and promotions for big labels, but it's funny, I finally started doing something I really like.

I've been writing a lot of songs for K-pop and Japanese people as an internal writer for an agency. You know nowadays, a lot of those K-pop songs are made by foreign producers from Canada and Norway. They tour the UK, China, Korea and Japan, and they have songwriting sessions. One time I was hired as a local writer at my sister's agency Rising Production, I was in the studio, and the agency that was managing the tour, one of the big ones, they somehow liked me and I started working for them, but I wasn't professional yet, I needed to learn how to finish a song, do the production, learn the ways of songwriting. So I decided to go back to Okinawa, that was 2 years ago. Every week I have to finish songs and send to the agency in Tokyo and I get feedback. That was the start. And now I can do everything.

So far I’ve been writing songs in English because the songs could be released in China, Korea or somewhere, but I’ve begun to miss Japanese language. I speak Japanese, and I've been learning Japanese music, but what I write is in English, so I feel that I want to try something in Japanese.

TO: What was the catalyst for starting this solo project?

TR: I’ve been writing songs for people for a while now, I’ve been happy to do it, but I was meeting other musicians, and they asked me "What kind of music are you doing?" I answered "Well, I write songs for K-pop people etc" and I named names, but they were proper musicians you know, they asked me "Why? What's your style, what are you feeling right now?" And I was so shocked. Maybe I was kind of lost because none of my songs were released over the past two years, even though I finished/completed something like 30-50 songs.

TO: Do you feel that you weren't ready?

TR: I wasn't thinking anything, I was just trying hard to get jobs and opportunities, I would just keep writing, and then the first song I wrote for my little sister was chosen for a Vietnamese/Okinawan TV drama where she played one of the main characters. It was broadcast on Okinawan TV and Vietnamese TV, it was chosen for the title song and I was really honored. The production was chosen for a huge award in Tokyo and it was a great success I think.

TO: But now you're feeling you want to go in your own direction.

TR: I still enjoy writing songs for others, but I just want to start my own project, to find my style. I am thankful that I am in this era, to do this, and meet you like this. Traditionally, we might have needed an agency and promoter. When I decided to do my own thing, I was making demos, I was still not sure, because it was nothing like western music, the way of production.

My music is a mix of western things, hip hop, R&B, reggae, but those listeners are not familiar with Japanese music I think. What I'm trying to do is create Japanese lyrics and great Japanese song structure with a little bit of spice, a bit of international influence. So the next song might be a little trap (music), I try to do it with a little reggae, a bit of house, but still it'll be my own.

TO: Certainly if you want to be successful, you can't just go around copying people, you have to find a way to be different and stand out. It's great that you have a lot of influences that you can pull from, which makes you unique compared to someone who is purely listens to Japanese music.

TR: Yeah so with Masquerade Dancing, I sent the song to my favorite mixer and mastering engineer (in the US and the UK) that I've never met, I was just hoping to work with them, so I sent them a message. And they replied and said they really liked the song, and so I asked them if they could to the mix for me, even though I don't have any budget, and they said okay! They're like Grammy award standard, super high level, and it was like...whoa.

They even offered to do my second song as well! I was really impressed. At this point, even with a small budget, I can still do it. That's something I'm proud of, given that usually it costs a lot more when you go through major labels and proper studios with the fees, etc. It gave me the confidence to be able to do it on my own.

It's been about a month since I released the song now. I haven't promoted it or anything, but USEN* played my music a few times a day on different channels from December. I submitted to their website, and they chose my song so I was really happy. That gives me the confidence that the song is good. It tells me I can do this, it's going to be a real project, and grow little by little.

*A music streaming platform for commercial use in restaurants and shops in Japan.

TO: Ideally, would you rather be a solo singer, a song writer, or you want to do everything?

TR: I can do everything so why not? I just do something I can do, and see how it goes, and the opportunities come. Finally! I'm just riding the wave. You'll see. I'm going to try release songs constantly, once every two months.

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When I was in New York, I was the youngest guy around, and a lot of the people I knew then have become successful producers, designers, photographers. I've got a super talented crew that I can rely on. Now that I'm ready to work with them, they're going to help me with my project, so I'm finally at the start line now, it's really exciting. I'm really enjoying it.

TO: Will you continue to sing in Japanese, or will you mix it up?

TR: While I'm in Japan, I feel I should release songs in Japanese. I need a connection to my people. When I was in the United States, or in my studio in Okinawa, I didn't really have a connection, I want to experience what Japanese people are really thinking and feeling now. I want to write songs so that I can learn to connect with Japan and Japanese culture.

TO: Can you tell me who influenced you in terms of music?

TR: Furuuchi Toko. When I came back to Japan, somehow her music was popular on YouTube, and it was really natural. I really liked her music, she really expressed herself in the music without trying. I can tell her favorite music was Marvin Gaye or Isley Brothers, how she picked the words is amazing, and everybody can feel it. She expressed it her way. I don't want to be her male version, but that's kind of the feeling I want.

TO: Do you think J-pop is changing?

TR: I think listeners are more comfortable picking their own style. In the 80's or 90's you had to listen to what they play for you on the TV or radio, that's the only music option you had. Nowadays if you want to listen to rock, you can stick with it, you can be anison otaku*. There are more choices. If you want to listen to all those genres, city pop, Yuming, Yamashita Tatsuro, it’s easy to connect to those artists again. And it's easier to communicate with other people nowadays, in a musical, or personal way.

*Someone who listens primarily to songs from anime shows.

Back then, maybe it wasn't always about quality, you needed to have good luck or fortune. Now, if you can make good music, you just release the songs, show people who you are, and they'll listen and judge if it's good.

TO: I think now, you can reach anyone in the world. There will be people out there somewhere who will like it.

TR: Yeah, comeherefloyd reviewed my song in English, they introduce cool music. Even though my song is in Japanese and I didn't tell them anything, they managed to explain the music perfectly, they just felt it and wrote down what I wanted to express. I was so surprised and it made me believe that music has power. Music really is a universal language!

One thing I really want to do in the future is travel the world and meet with people from different cultures, appreciate their culture, make music mixing my taste and their culture and release it to the world. Right now I'm just doing Japanese music from what I experienced here, but in the future I want to meet different people and challenge what is J-pop. I speak English, and I have an open mind so it's something I believe that I can do. It's definitely a challenge I want to try take on in the future.

TO: Thank you for your time and we wish you the best with your solo project.

Check out Taichi Ro's track Masquerade Dancing and his new song LIGTM, and follow Taichi on Instagram, Spotify and Twitter

Royce Leong