Sunbeams #4: SHIHORI Interview – Japanese Singer/Songwriter

From anime and video games to R&B and soul; How one woman’s journey to the west fanned the flames of self-love

Greetings, faithful of the Lost Summer Fold! I welcome you to a very special addition in the Lost Summer Sunbeams project. As a refresher, the Sunbeams series of articles are interviews with various people of interest. These range from your local esports players to your favorite voice actress of a game you’ve played. Everyone featured in Sunbeams has a story to tell. A story driven by passion and purpose that allowed them to get to where they are today. Some are still on the ever-ongoing journey to transform their dreams to reality. In this case, it’s the latter.

As a fan of said artist, this was a very important interview for me. To hear the story of someone who you never thought you’d have the chance to hear and feeling motivated by them is one of the best feelings to have. This was one of my original goals when I started Sunbeams. To have a chance to talk to the people I look up to on a personal level.

Shihori Nakane is a Japanese singer and lyricist, known for lending her vocals and written works to a broad range of anime and video game themes. Some examples include Eternal Fantasy, Ga-Rei Zero, Fairy Tale, Beatmania IIDX, countless Touhou arrangements, and so much more. It would take an entire article to write her accolades alone. Recently, she has moved to the United States to pursue American-style music, releasing several singles over the course of this year. Perhaps one of the biggest contributions she’s known for this year is lending her vocals to the Cowboy Bebop charity composition. With several recent singles of her own, 2020 has been her year.

With the two of us being New York residents, Shihori agreed to an interview with me in person on Friday, October 9th. We spent over an hour at the park talking about a wide range of topics. From her history as an artist, her thoughts of her fanbase, living in the city, and so much more. Below is the interview in text form. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy as well!

NH: Right! So, to start things off… How would you introduce yourself? What made you take up singing and for how long?

SN: Hello! I’m Shihori, a singer/songwriter from Japan! I’ve been a singer and songwriter for a very long time. I’ve started since I was seven! It naturally came to me and I wasn’t musically trained at the time. I wanted to be a singer because due to my Asperger’s disability, I didn’t have many friends at the time. It wasn’t until one time when I was asked to sing in front of an audience. The kids, from those my age and the bigger kids, were all surprised. This took place at a school picnic. I was so shocked that everyone liked my singing. It was my first ever time that I noticed other people. Prior to that, I was always in my own world. I started to dream… Based on my dreams I would write songs and I would sing them in front of my mom [and let my sister join together]

NH: What songs did you dream of?

SN: The lyrics were mostly about original stories. I was really into [stuffed] animals as a child [laughs] I would act out the stories alongside writing the songs while having my sister join in!

NH: So you would basically write songs for these stories in your head, like, an acting drama, and go from there?

SN: Yes exactly! Like, a rabbit’s theme song or about the stars and universe, fantasy, etc. The music aspect was affected by anime. I was very much into anime, so much so that my written works were greatly affected by the anime I watched. So I saw that element in my past songs due to the anime I’ve watched in the past.
Shihori has been a major contributor to the Touhou scene by providing vocals for many songs
NH: I understand actually. When I was around the same age I, too, was invested in writing. I would write short stories based on whatever video games that I was interested in. I found myself in my own world and the teachers were impressed that it was coming from me at that age. So I definitely can relate to using your writing as a form of escape. What happened after your talent was discovered?

SN: After that, I started to become invested in acting. I would participate in the drama club. I wanted to be an actor too, so, I was studying hard to become one. While I was pursuing acting, I started to think about songwriting again. I thought to myself, “Maybe I could do both?” When I was 17, some friends of mine asked me to participate in the school festival. So, I sang for everyone and everyone was like… “Wow~!” There was so much applause.
 
SN: In the aftermath, I became popular in high school because I was known as the “singing kid.” It was then that my best friend encouraged me to pursue singing as a career. Hearing that was like “WAH!” Like an electric shock! Like Pikachu! It was at that moment I really decided to pursue that path. I had some opportunities with major labels and [other gigs] but things didn’t happen so quickly…
Recently, Shihori had provided the vocals for the League of Legends Battle Queens promo
SN: I moved to Tokyo shortly after and I started my career as a studio singer. At the age of 21, I was singing in commercials and game songs. I also began performative music as well. At the time I was a duo with my friend at the time; She would play the piano and I would sing. So many things happened during that time… The company that we were a part of was [led by a crazy boss.] So, she got fired before me and...uh...things became weird. I was kidnapped…

NH: W-Wait… You were what?

SN: [laughing nervously] Yeah, crazy right!? 

NH: That...sounds very traumatizing!

SN: Yes! Yes it was very traumatizing! [laughs] 

NH: I’m so glad. Well, not glad that it happened to you! But, I’m glad that things got resolved and you were safe and sound!

SN: I couldn’t talk about it for a very long time, but, I’m okay now! It was a long time ago.
NH: It’s also funny you mentioned [game music] because that was one of the first experiences I’ve had in hearing about you. I’ve heard about you at first through a video game. You may have heard of it. Beatmania IIDX?

[Shihori’s eyes start to widen as she begins to process the information]

SN: Oh really~? Wow!

NH: Yeah! There were two songs if I remember..

SN: Ah… I think I know one of the songs. The first one… Halfway…

NH: Halfway of Promise?

SN: Right! Nani mo...kawaru tsuduketei! That was exactly around the time of my earliest work. Around 2002 or something like that?

NH: Yeah, it checks out!

SN: Wow! [clapping in excitement] Oh my God! That’s impressive!
That part of the interview was too cute not to share, so, here’s an excerpt of it.
NH: It all started with several of my friends who were all into the series. Most of them are really good at [Beatmania] but I wasn’t really good. I was really interested in music. The first game that I’d end up playing would be [Beatmania IIDX] Lincle.

SN: That’s a bit more recent. Express Emotion was around 2010...2011?

NH: Yeah! That was when I first heard about you as an artist believe it or not!

SN: Wow that’s insane! [laughs] Those songs. There are many fans, many enthusiastic fans, who I’ve met this year and they would ask me “Are you the one who sung the Beatmania songs?” and I’m like “OH REALLY!? Ahhhh!”

NH: [laughs] It’s a blast from the past isn’t it?

SN: Yes! It’s so crazy and I’m so happy to hear that!
Halfway of Promise is still a popular song played in arcades around Japan
NH: This reminds me of last year. When I attended Otakon last year, there was a tribute to Nujabes concert. One of the artist there, MINMI, it was her first time performing in the States. Even she was blown away from the positive response she received because she didn’t know that there were people in the States who knew her music outside of her work in anime. Do you feel the same way when you have international fans who identify you in a similar manner much like myself for example?

RELATED ARTICLE: Otakon 2019 In Review – The Language of Cosplay and Music

SN: Oh definitely so. I would be caught off guard and I’d be shocked and amazed! Like “How could you know about that?? How did you know about that???” There was a fan who approached me during one of my performances and she knew me from one of my songs featured in a game. I didn’t know that the game was popular overseas because the PC gaming industry [in Japan] is unaware of the overseas market. So even the [Anime industry] themselves are unaware of how popular their [product] is themselves. You know Nana Mizuki, yeah?

NH: Oh! Yeah I know of her.

SN: Well, she’s one of my biggest clients and I’ve been providing a lot of songs for her. She’s [really popular] in Japan, like, one of the most popular and she also has a huge fanbase overseas as well.

NH: Ohh…! I feel really bad now. One of my friends is a huge Mizuki fan and he would have loved to have been around to hear that. 

SN: [laughs]

[Author Note: I’m sorry Dstyles. ;_;]

SN: But yeah, she kinda doesn’t believe that she has as many fans overseas, so when her team brings up the potential to do a show in America due to that, she’s like “Really?? I have fans out there too??” We spoke about the potential of America, because we’re not so sure of the popularity of American market. We’re confident in Asia because that’s our target, but, in America it’s different. 

SN: So, last year I performed with Do As Infinity, and that in itself was amazing to me in itself. Yet, they were so happy to see the reactions of the American audience. “I can’t believe they reacted so well! It’s really good!” It took them off guard because they never expected that kind of treatment. So I can definitely say for all of us, as artists are so happy that we’re able to feel the love. 
NH: I feel like especially with the internet age it’s easier now more than ever to get involved with [Japanese] artists. The ease of access to music [via streaming and buying off the internet] opens new doors. Even in conventions, I’m noticing there’s always a booth somewhere that sells [J-Pop and K-Pop] music. I feel like now, more than ever, there’s a way for fans to connect with their favorite artist and vice versa. Do you feel as someone who is fluent in English and Japanese, that it’s easier to connect with the American fanbase?

SN: It was certainly difficult back when I wasn’t [fluent] in English, but even when I sang primarily in Japanese, somehow people knew [the message behind my words]. They felt my energy. Some people told me that they were able to see visions despite the [language] barrier. I knew then that language didn’t matter. So that was very encouraging! As I stayed [in New York], I realized my messages got through to others. It felt frustrating that, while Americans were able to feel my energy, I wanted them to also hear my message as well. 

NH: I feel like so long as you’re true to yourself and true to your music, it’ll be felt no matter what language it’s spoken to. Some of your English singles [Soul Trip, Perfect Imperfection] definitely succeed in the messages you wish to convey and I feel you do an amazing job in projecting your message into words and compositions. The fans you’ve made via anime and video games over the years and the fans you’ve made in the States seem to be on different spectrums.

SN: I feel right now my fans are definitely scattered everywhere. [laughs] Many people compare the “new me” to the “me” who gained popularity through anime and video games.
NH: Do you feel offense to it? As if one is giving more consideration to your past than your present?

SN: No never! Because I’m used to it! I came from that field, so, I know that the anime and gaming industry made me who I am. I was really happy to be there from the beginning. I always think that anime fans are really good! They are always so kind and respectful to the artist so [the singers] love the fans back! 

NH: So would you feel like all of your fans would follow you in whatever it is you do outside of your field, no matter what? 

SN: Not quite… Some fans are from different origins. Some are J-Pop, others are [contemporary], and some aren’t in any of those fields. Some are older couples too… I feel like currently all of my fans are scattered! If I check who is listening to my songs on Spotify, it varies wildly from age groups. Most are late 20 males, but you have the one 60-year-old and I’m like “Oh wow!”
SN: I think it all reflects on my style as an individual. I don’t consider myself exclusively “anime music” or exclusively “acoustic” or even “pop.” I feel like I am all styles of one rainbow. Previously I was known for “Japanese-style” music, but, I want to learn more about “American-style.” I want to do more English song-writing as well. It’s very difficult, but it’s exciting and it’s fun! Maybe I can bring this unique style of mine to new heights! I don’t know what exactly it is I’m doing as I’m learning while going along, but hopefully, people will continue to enjoy my music while on this journey!

SN: At the conventions, when I sing the songs I’m known for, such as the anime songs, it’s expected. When I sing one or two of my original songs, I’m really surprised when the audience comes up to me and they request to hear more of my original work! So, yeah, there are no limitations to my fans. No matter how I was found out, I cherish all of my fans from the old to the young. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve made fans because of the anime itself, not necessarily due to my voice, exclusively. So I have to take note to humble myself at times! [laughs]
NH: I think it can go both ways. There may be those who have heard of you because of the anime or game that your song was featured in. At the same time, some may develop an interest for a project you’re a part of, specifically because your name is tied to the project itself! This leads me to my next point about Cowboy Bebop… I’ve… Never seen the anime---

SN: Oh no! [laughs]

NH: I’ll watch the anime, I’ll watch it I promise! I know it’s a staple anime to check out! But, I’ve never seen the anime and yet thinking back to the charity video you guys did earlier this year… It was amazing. There were so many involved. Rappers and singers both from the East and the West, voice actors from the show. It made me, now more than ever, want to get into the series.

SN: Yeah it felt very amazing! There was so much talent in that one instance! So much so that I got goosebumps! It was really cool that I got to work with the American [anime] industry [voice actors, musicians] and I was happy that I was able to communicate with them to make that into a reality! I was so honored to be a part of the project and a part of it was due to [COVID]. At the time, we all didn’t have any planned work because everything was cancelled or postponed indefinitely. So we all had the time and the opportunity to all get together for charity! I was so honored to be a part of such a project and it was miraculous.
NH: How were you able to become a part of such an ambitious project? 

SN: The director, Mason Lieberman, and I were friends for a while. We first met at [Liberty City Anime Con] where I performed and he was a guest at the convention. We weren’t formally introduced into a little while later through another mutual friend of ours. A little while later he sent me an invitation for a project he was working on involving Cowboy Bebop and I agreed to it! At the time there wasn’t many people involved, but he had made so many connections over time that a lot more got involved! It was an experience I’ll cherish a lot!
NH: Okay, we’ve spoke about music a lot and anime has been a large influence in your career. What is your favorite anime?

SN: Oh geez… [laughing nervously]

NH: Okay, okay, I know that’s a really broad question. [laughs] Let’s make it easier and say what’s the first anime that comes to mind when it comes to how it shapes you as a person?

SN: My biggest influence would have to be Neon Genesis Evangelion. Definitely. At the time I was around the same age as Shinji and the rest. So, I felt sympathy for them and their struggles. At the time, I was also in the drama club as well as learning psychology. I felt like Evangelion was heavily psychological and philosophical. So that affected me so much! I was reading those type of books any chance I could. Even during math class, I would be reading psychology books. I didn’t care, I wanted to learn as much as I could about it. 
NH: I can see that for sure. Evangelion, to me, focuses deep on the aspect of human nature. If you think of Asuka, you think of her struggles with her inferiority complex while at the same time wanting to be useful in the eyes of her loved ones. There’s a lot to pick apart with Evangelion much like there’s a lot to pick apart when it comes to conveying one’s message through lyrics.

SN: Right. Ultimately [the anime and studying psychology] became useful to delve deeper into my lyrics and the messages behind them, so it spoke to me quite well.

NH: Do you have any other projects along the way that you’re currently working on that your fans will want to look forward to?

SN: I’m releasing a new single this month titled “I Cover You.” I wanted to stick with the theme of “self-confession” as seen in my previous works because of the stressful times. I wanted to talk about self-compassion. You can expect a full CD release sometime next year hopefully.
NH: There’s something I’ve been curious about. What made you want to move to America? Specifically New York?

SN: I’ve always had plans to move to America, mainly due to the situations in Japan, but I always expected it to be later. It happened sooner than I expected. What motivated my decision was, at the time, I was watching American TV dramas with the intent on learning English while preparing to move to America someday.

NH: That’s funny you mention that because you always have people here in America who admit to watching anime with the intent on learning Japanese and visiting Japan.

SN: Yeah yeah! [laughs] It’s the same thing just about! I was watching the show, Glee, and the main character, Rachel, was always like “I want to go to New York! Broadway! So amazing!” After seeing New York and how centered around music it was due to Broadway and its theater, I decided “I want to go to New York too! I don’t know where it is on the map! I just want to go!”  I guess it’s similar to when you watch anime and the location of the anime is in Kyoto. You’d say “Oh Kyoto it’s so beautiful! Where...is Kyoto?” It’s the same thing pretty much.
NH: So how do you like New York? Did it live up to your expectations?

SN: In the beginning, everything was nice. I had several bad experiences in Japan, culturally, so I loved New York in comparison. Over time, I started to see the culture differences here that made me start to appreciate Japan a little bit more as well. I needed to adjust to the culture of America because of the conflicts I felt. It was tiring to adjust to the culture here, but the more time I spent here, the more I was able to find my identity. For the longest time I felt like who I was in Japan was who I was in general. That wasn’t the case. It was mainly the culture that made me who I was. Once that registered in my head, it became exciting, starting this year, to find out things about myself that I wouldn’t have found out had I stayed in Japan.
NH: Throughout this entire interview, I can’t help but feel energized talking with you. With so much that has happened throughout your life, leading up to this point, and with us currently going through a pandemic, you remain up-beat and positive. What is the drive for your positivity and what advice can you give to those who feel like the weight of the world is weighing them down?

SN: I have some big dreams left to live. I want to spread the message of love and life. That dream had motivated me to push on for many years. We’re all greater than what society tells us we are. “You have to struggle” “You have to survive.” “You have to be forced to do this and that.” We are all capable of turning our dreams into a reality and we all shouldn’t feel like we are slaves to the system of society. I want to convey that as my message through my music. 

SN: Even when I am in a bad state myself, I think about how we are all meant for something greater. We are all born to find pursuit of happiness, to be amazing, to be the best we can be. I always convince myself that no matter what, there is always light where there is shadow. I try to make the best out of a bad situation. There’s always a way out of the darkness. Even for things that are out of my control, I focus on what I know I have a control of. So no matter what, I try my best to remain optimistic. 

At this point, I stopped recording, yet Shihori and I continued to talk. We spoke about regional differences in the States for example. How different “accents” in the States can be equated to different “dialects” in Japan. I ended up spending a lot more time hanging out than I initially planned and if it lasted, we would have talked into the evening. There wasn’t enough time in a day, and I cherished every moment of it.

One of the last things she said before we said our goodbyes was her choice of anime. She specified that she loved anime that had an end-goal. Anime that had a hardship for the protagonist to overcome, such as Naruto and Sasuke’s relationship in Naruto. Comparing that to how one lives their life, it’s best to live one’s life with an obstacle to overcome. This relates to what she said about never giving up on your dreams.

This year has been a scary one to think about, but, so long as you have a goal to pursue, it’ll be enough to keep going. Especially so, if you have those on your side who believes in you along the way. In conclusion, I support you in making your dreams into a reality, Miss Shihori. Thank you once again for the time!

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Shihori Youtube (ENG)
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