Birthday: January 7, 1984
Blood type: O
Bokuraniwa song sample
Echoes over the ocean (8-26-2009)
2. Sing all night
3. Apple of my eye
6. Save my life
7. Thank you
9. Drive with me
10. S.O.S -SAME OLD SONG-
11. Kodoku na tenshi
12. Who am I
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Kat McDowell Interview
"I was playing in a bar in Roppongi one night a few weeks before I was heading back to New Zealand. I had given up on doing music in Japan after many people telling me how hard it would be for someone like me. A Sony scout heard about me and came to see me play..." Kat McDowell
For Kat McDowell that pivotal day of discovery would come after a long, multi-cultural journey. She spent the first five years of her life in Japan and the next 17 in New Zealand, where she learned to appreciate the twin cultures of her heritage. When she set her sites on a career in music, the time had come for her to return to Japan.
But finding success in the Japanese music industry is a challenge, especially when, as she herself admits, "I always struggled with the fact that I didn't look Japanese and I was never going to be accepted as Japanese when on the inside parts of me were incredibly Japanese." So how does this chapter in the life of Kat McDowell end? With the release of her debut album "Echoes over the ocean" on August 26.
On October 23, 2009 Kat McDowell was kind enough to give an interview to Andrew from J-Pop World. All photos courtesy of Kat McDowell.
Let's start with the August release of your debut album "Echoes over the ocean." How big of a moment was that for you?
It's been a long time coming... So it was a great feeling to release it!! I think I wrote down "release an album" as one of my goals when I was 11 years old or something... so years later it's a dream come true.
Of course I have many more dreams and goals now but it's great to look back sometimes and reflect and celebrate. The release day itself I was in the studio recording vocals with a house artist called Daishi Dance for his next album, so the day itself was just another day, but it felt good none the less!
How long had you been working on the album's music?
The recording process was two years... Some of the songs had been released as singles etc... But I was experimenting with a lot of different sounds and I think I had to go through this longer process to end up with a better album. I can say it was well worth the tears and frustration!! Writing lyrics in Japanese was the most challenging part of it!
Tell us about working with the producer Yashiki Gota.
He is an amazing man! He lived in the UK for 17 years and I lived in New Zealand for 17 years and we both came back around the same time, so we had a lot in common and a mutual understanding of many things! He has worked with people like Bjork, and Simply Red and people I respect so much, but he was so down to Earth. His recording style was very free flowing... He would choose the musicians for the recording and would get in to the studio and jam it out... so there was very little pre-production in the recording process.
Who else worked on the music with you?
Gota produced most of the songs... and another producer Negishi Takamune worked on a few of my favorite songs like Stop and Save my life. I also got the opportunity to work with some younger people like Hayashi who used to be in a band called Pen Pals who produced Drive with me. And some of my musician friends also helped me out.
Kumiko Takahashi, who drums from Chatmonchy, has been collaborating on the Japanese lyrics with me this year and Verbal from M-flo and I worked on a song together (called SOS same old song). I've been sooo lucky to have had the opportunity to work with these people!!
The album was released through Avex's label Binyl Records. How did you get hooked up with them?
It's a LOOONG story... and I give all credit to God for leading me to them... But I was playing in a bar in Roppongi one night a few weeks before I was heading back to New Zealand. I had given up on doing music in Japan after many people telling me how hard it would be for someone like me. A Sony scout heard about me and came to see me play and he introduced me to my management, which is now Sony Music Artists, and they did some label shopping and Binyl put their hand up.
I was stoked to be working with them because I was a fan of Monkey Majik and I guess I would love to follow in Monkey Majik's footsteps.
You sing in both English and Japanese. How different is it musically to express yourself in these different languages?
My Japanese is getting better and better but it's very different. Sometimes it's easier to convey emotion when I'm singing in English, but recently both languages are coming to me much more naturally now.
Bokuraniwa is a good example of your folk pop sound. Can you tell us the story behind this song?
This was the last song that was recorded for this album. It was actually one of my favorite songs but for some reason hadn't been recorded yet and then a commercial tie up offer came up and they were looking for a specific song, so I showed them a demo of this song and they loved it so we recorded it in a hurry!
The lyrics also reflect the album title "Echoes over the ocean." It's a positive song about listening to the inner guide, or for me it's God's voice, and then stepping out in faith. The album title comes from a 3000 year old psalm by one of my heroes King David. He was a musician and a poet and in one of his songs (Psalm 29:3) he sings "The Lord's voice echoes over the Ocean..." and I fell in love with that line!!
I've always loved going to the beach and writing prayers in the sand or taking my guitar... I feel closer to God at the ocean and can hear his voice from across the sea... and it's probably because I'm not so distracted by the city lights and having things so "close" to me... but have more space to breathe.
Apple of my eye conveys some of the soul searching you've gone through in your own life. Can you tell us what the song means to you and how you wrote it?
It's a similar theme to the question above but it's a song about identity. We are constantly trying to find out who we are by our environment, whether it's "I'm a lawyer, a teacher, a painter, a musician" or we try to find our self worth in how much people around us love us or speak highly of us.
But trying to find our true self worth in other people who's emotions/judgments waver and constantly change is like trying to see your reflection in the water. Water is constantly moving and distorts our "true" image. So the beginning of the song starts with me looking at my reflection in the water all confused... but at the end of the song I realize that I need to look "Up" instead of "Down" because the only person who truly knows me... is the one who made me...
lol... I am sure most people wouldn't have guessed this is what I wrote the song about... but this is how I feel when I sing this song. Who cares what "everybody" thinks when you are loved by "somebody" is the message!
S.O.S - same old song KAT & VERBAL includes a bit of rapping. Can you tell us about the other artist and what it was like recording this track?
Verbal is in a group called m-flo and he is an extremely respected artist in Japan. I was so honored to work with him! He is such an amazing person and artist and I respect him so much! He wrote all the lyrics to this song, and I wrote the music. It was fun jamming this out in the studio with him and then recording it together.
You do a cover version of the Japanese folk song Nagoriyuki. Can you tell us more about this song and why you choose it?
Iruka was a singer/songwriter that my mother really liked and I remember listening to her live tape when I was 7 and deciding I wanted to be a singer right then and there... Because she was so influential in my life I decided to cover this song of hers to introduce my roots as an artist. I changed the arrangement quite a bit and translated the lyrics into English and mixed it up so it's very much a "Kat" version of this song.
Tell us more about Who am I.
Who am I is a piano ballad song... Probably the second song I have ever written on piano. It was written around the time I released my first single and was feeling a bit insecure at the time. I guess it's a question I will continually ask myself and never fully know the answer to... I love this song because it's quite different to my other songs and when I play shows a lot of people cry during this song.
How do your create music? Do you have a process you go through or is each song unique?
Usually start with guitar, I record voice memos on my iPhone... hum melodies over the guitar then scribble in my lyric book which I take with me everywhere, or I use lyrics already scribbled in there when I need inspiration.
Where have you been performing in Japan to support the album? Can you share some memories from the shows?
Most of my shows for this album release have been in Tokyo, Chiba, Yokohama... close to home. I am going to Osaka this weekend and will be doing some intimate café gigs in Sapporo, Hiroshima later on this year... Over the Summer I played at beach houses and festivals a lot.
ASP Japan made me their push artist for 2009 so I played at a lot of the surfing competitions around Japan over the summer and that was fun! The intimate beach houses were amazing, playing against the rhythm of the ocean...
And the Summer festivals were sooo fun! I played my first show in Australia at the One Movement Festival in Perth which was my first International Summer festival (outside Japan and New Zealand). As part of the festival I collaborated with an Australian artist and we wrote some cross cultural Japlish songs which was a really fun experience. We wrote two songs for the festival and played them for the first time in front of thousands of people!
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
I am working on my next project... Writing songs, writing lyrics... I have been co-writing with Kumiko, who plays drums for Chatmonchy, and it's been a great learning curve for me. Writing in English comes so much more naturally for me and so it's been good to co-write lyrics together with an advanced Japanese lyricist. We sit around in each other's living rooms drinking cups of tea with my guitar and come up with ideas together.
Let's take a trip into the past and learn more about your unique personal journey. First, can you tell us about your parents and how they met?
My parents met in New Zealand, but I was born in Japan.
Do you have any memories of the first five years you spent in Japan?
Yes, memories of the countryside in Nagano where my grandma and grandpa lived are the most vivid. I remember some things about the Buddhist kindergarten I went to, mostly that it was a dark place (as in there just wasn't much light in the corridors) and that my best friend lived across the street from me and we spent every day together.
At 5 your family moved to New Zealand. Can you tell us about your hometown and what it was like growing up there?
I couldn't speak a word of English, then moved to New Zealand when I was 5. I had a hard time making friends because of the language and cultural difference. I lived in the mountains far away from friends which was a bit hard for me.
Was your home always a bilingual environment? Did you think this was something unusual at the time?
Yes, and no I thought it was normal.
How did you first get into music?
I've loved to sing and perform ever since I can remember but it was Iruka's live tape that inspired me.
As you grew into your teens how did you view your heritage? Was it something you thought much about?
Yes, I always struggled with the fact that I didn't look Japanese and I was never going to be accepted as Japanese when on the inside parts of me were incredibly Japanese.
Looking back now, how important do you think having roots in two different cultures influenced who you are today?
It gives me A LOT of perspective on things knowing two cultures. I would like to learn more about other cultures too because I'm sure that would expand my mind and thinking even more! I spent a week in Bali a couple of years ago and that for me was a huge difference in the way people see things. I might think I know a lot because I know two cultures... but I think if I went to the middle east, or southeast Asia or central and south America I will realize how little I actually know about the world.
One thing I believe is that despite all the cultural differences people have the same basic needs and desires and much more can be achieved through finding our common ground than comparing differences I guess. I guess knowing two cultures only makes me aware of how much I don't know.
When did you decide that you wanted to make music your career?
When I was 7.
What did your parents think of your decision at the time?
They thought I was crazy and they definitely didn't think I had enough talent to get anywhere with it... Mum continued to discourage me for about ten years then flipped 180 and has become my biggest supporter. My dad has mostly given up but I think he's still worried about me. Lol...
What were some of the first performances you did starting out, and what were those days like for you?
A lot of playing to crowds that weren't listening... busking, talent competitions, school shows, even in Tokyo before I was signed I had one gig where there were two people to see the first set and then one of them had to leave so I was playing to one friend and the barman for my second set.
Tell you what though... As hard as that was... Now I have just as much fun playing to ten people as to playing to 5,000. I love music more than ever and just for the sake of music.
In 2005 you did a tour in both the UK and Japan. Tell us about that year and what memories stand out the most.
It was a self-organized tour. So I slept on friends floors and traveled around playing in bars in London and all the way up to Edinburgh and then shows in Tokyo.
What made you decide to move to Japan?
It was one of my last shows in Tokyo that picked up the interest of a scout from Sony. He asked me to come back so I decided to explore the opportunity.
You did vocals for a lot of Japanese commercials in that first year or two?
Yeah, I was singing session and it paid the bills and was a fun experience.
Your career has taken some ups and downs, including being signed with Sony Music for a time. What has helped you to get through the many challenges of working in the music industry?
Faith in God has probably been the biggest one and of course really amazing friends, and a passion for music that overrides all the hard times and keeps me determined!!
How did you feel when you were contracted to Avex's label Binyl Records?
I felt like I had met the right people to work with. People who really believed in me and were wanting to develop my artistic creativity.
Tell us about working on your 2007 releases with the label.
2007 was the big first release so there was a lot of new things for me. I tried out many new things and experimented. To be honest I lost a lot of confidence in myself that year and it took a while to get it back again. Nothing like getting thrown in the deep end.
Who are some of the people who have helped you the most in your musical career?
The wonderful staff at SMA and Binyl of course, and the amazing musicians I have worked with and have as friends who are moral support.
Btw, how did you get the nickname "Kat" and how do most Japanese actually pronounce your name?
"Kyatto." I got it when I was 15... People thought I looked like and acted like a cat...
Can we get a quick peak into the romantic side of Kat McDowell? What is your concept for a romantic date?
Concept? I am more of an "outside get in nature" kinda girl than an inside diner... I would much rather go for a walk on the beach or a bento in the park over a flashy restaurant any day...
Any thoughts on marriage and kids in the future?
Yeah, I've always been open to it but I guess I've always been so focused on music I've never been in a hurry... I always worried that I wouldn't be able to find someone who could understand what I was doing or have a big enough heart to support me. I am a strong willed person... hehe... But I know that there is always someone for everyone.
Outside of music what do you like to do for fun and relaxation?
Surfing!!!!!!!! And I've been watching a lot of movies lately at home.
Do you have anything else you want to bring up or comment on?
Oh yeah! I've been making YouTube videos for the last year and it's a hobby I've taken up pretty seriously now... making home made music videos and playing covers. I will sometimes take requests too and it's a great way to connect up with people so it would be great if you came and visited!
Do you have a final message to all your fans?
Yes!! I really appreciate all the support from people who comment on my blog, YouTube, twitter, MySpace etc... to people who actually go out and buy the albums. It's always an honor and a privilege when people respond positively to my music so I just want to say thank you to those people who keep me going!! And that I do try to stay on a very personal level so please drop me a line and say hi via the net!I hope to come out in person and play where you are one day too!!
For more info checkout Kat McDowell's official site and MySpace page. Leave your comments about this interview and read what others had to say at the following link: Interview Comments