BENI: Fame, fashion and musical fusion

BENI: Fame, fashion and musical fusion

We sit down with Japanese R&B singer BENI to talk about the bittersweet melodies of J-Pop, the challenges of stardom in the Internet age and the under-appreciation of Japanese fashion
BENI poses in front of the Universal Channel logo at the channel's press event on April 1, 2010.

24 year-old Okinawan-born, American-raised R&B singer Beni Arashiro debuted under her full name back in 2004 on dance music label Avex Trax. Since then she's moved over to Universal Music to be reborn as BENI.

Besides her Oricon-charting ballads and four full-length albums, you may also know BENI from her modeling work with Shibuya 109 brand Cecil McBee and as the host of NHK's youth fashion show "Tokyo Kawaii TV."

We sat down with BENI before her performance at the launch of the new Universal Channel Japan cable station, for which she acts as the spokeswoman.

CNNGo: We know you moved around a lot. Can you tell us more about your background?

BENI: I was born in Okinawa and was there until third or fourth grade. From there I moved to San Diego until I was in middle school. And then I moved back to Japan and lived in Kanagawa Prefecture. So it was always back and forth. But the longest I have ever been in one place is Tokyo. And now this is home.

CNNGo: Do you miss living in sunny and warm climates?

BENI: Yes, I was always surrounded by oceans and nice beaches and warm weather. It was really crazy coming to Tokyo -- how cold it is and seeing snow. I'm getting used to it, but I still need my huge down jacket to get by in the wintertime.

CNNGo: When did you decide that you wanted to be a singer?

BENI: I always loved music. I started playing the piano when I was five. And I also started dancing around that time. My parents loved music too. So music was always in the atmosphere. I started singing in elementary school in a chorus group, and from then on I had a lot of opportunities to sing on stage in front of people, and that just led to me wanting to take it further, make it a career. I came out with my first CD when I was 18. But early on, I knew I wanted to sing.

CNNGo: What kind of music did you grow up on?

BENI: My parents listened to a lot of Western music, so as a child, in the late 1980s, early 1990s, I looked up to female singers like Janet Jackson and Madonna. And I went to an American school my whole life, so I was always listening to more Western music than J-Pop, but when we came back to Japan, I really started listening to Japanese pop music. I started to sing in Japanese and learn more Japanese. I wanted to be able to do a mix of what I like, my roots, the music I grew up with, plus the Japanese sound, the Japanese language. I try to make that mix a part of my music.

CNNGo: What do you like about J-Pop that Western music lacks?

BENI: A lot of Western music is about the beats and the feeling of the song. J-Pop focuses on the melodies. There are a lot of beautiful songs with beautiful melodies. So when I do Japanese R&B, I do a blend of the original American R&B sound with the pretty, Japanesey melodies on top.

BENIBENI answers questions at the Universal Channel Japan press conference.CNNGo: Do you think there is a different lyrical message with Japanese R&B as well?

BENI: Yes, definitely. The Japanese love sentimental stuff. They love to vent through the music. They love "setsunai" (bittersweet) songs -- something they can cry to and relate with. You get a lot of club bangers in the States, but here they love to listen to the music and relate and feel like, oh I'm not the only one who feels like this. Lyrics are a big part of what a Japanese audience looks for in the music. I hear that a lot of girls my age get into music by going onto websites to find lyrics that they like or can relate to and then they listen to the song. So it's a totally different doorway to music.

CNNGo: Do you find it easy to be expressive in Japanese?

BENI: Just writing in Japanese for me was very hard because I was always immersed in American culture. And trying to write something poetic in Japanese when I only read English books was really hard at first. Now I'm starting to get used to it. I think the trend now also is that the lyrics have to be like how you actually speak to each other. It doesn't have to be anything fancy. It hits harder when it's real. This makes it a lot easier for me when I'm trying to write a song and I can just express what I feel, just how it is, how I would say it.

CNNGo: How do you feel about J-Pop right now compared to 10 years ago when it was at its peak in sales?

BENI: 10 years ago, there was a big distance between the artist and the fans, but now we have blogs and Mixi and all these ways we can communicate with fans. I have a blog, I write entries everyday about what I do and my private life, so I think the listeners are a lot closer. You have to be able to relate with them but also be a star. So the balance gets kind of tough sometimes, because you have an image but at the same time you don't want to push them away. They have to want to relate to you. Even for me 10 years ago when I was listening to people like Namie Amuro, the only way I could find out about their private lives would be to read an interview. But now we are just so close to the fans.

It's way easier because I can just be who I am and be natural. At the same time, I also want to be a role model and someone people can look up to. So yeah, it's about the balance. If you give away too much, there's no mystery, no fun in it. I always keep that in mind.

CNNGo: How do you want to challenge yourself with each new song or album?

BENI: I always keep what the fans what to hear from me, plus add more, plus add the growth that I go through every time I release something. Every time I come out with a new album, I as a person obviously grow as well. So what I write and how I sound is going to change naturally. But I try to keep that base that the fans want to hear. I am constantly, constantly evolving but still keeping my style. 

CNNGo: I know you are involved with Japanese fashion. Were you shocked by it first coming to Tokyo?

BENI: I always loved fashion so I guess I could say it's always been fun living in Tokyo because you can get anything here. People love fashion in Tokyo, so it's really easy to find people you can relate with. But when I first came, it was so different from the States, how they approach fashion. Even magazines, in America, you have a lot of interviews and in the last few pages, you have some fashion shots. Here it's front-to-back a catalog -- where you can get an item, how much. That's why a lot of people probably think Japanese people just are copying these magazines, but the fact that a lot of the girls are constantly thinking about what to wear, spending a lot of money on their clothes, that's really Tokyo-ish. It deserves more attention. I don't think people realize it's so fashion-based here.

CNNGo: Do you go back to Okinawa a lot?

BENI: Thankfully I get the chance to do a lot of concerts there, and I shoot commercials for Orion beer, and so I have a lot of opportunities to go back home and relax for a little bit and then come back. I love being home.

CNNGo: What's your upcoming schedule?

BENI: Just working on a new album. I have to make eight new songs in one month, so it's going to be pretty hectic. But I am pretty much just going around Japan doing gigs and working on this new project.