Seattle Musician Emi Meyer Released Her New Album in Two Languages

Our Q&A with Emi Meyer, who splits time between Japan and the United States.

PIANO MOVER: More widely known in Japan than in the United States, Emi Meyer possesses a singing voice that has been described as “soulful” and “smoky.” Photo by John Vicory.

This article appears in print in the December 2017 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Born in Kyoto, Japan, and raised in Seattle, singer/songwriter and jazz pianist Emi Meyer has performed professionally since 2007, after winning at age 20 the Seattle-Kobe Female Jazz Vocalist Audition. She splits her time between Japan and the United States. Her 2015 studio album, Monochrome, is her sixth. Just released in this country, it comprises a mix of original tunes and jazz standards. 

When can you tell that a song is going in the right direction? When I don’t keep changing it. 

Who influenced you, creatively, early on? My high school English teacher, who started out every class with a free-flow writing exercise that helped me put my thoughts into words. I had never done that before. 

Have you always been a singer? No. I used to have a phobia about singing because in Japan they have karaoke and I would try and copy the singer and since I don’t have a wide range, it would sound ridiculous. I thought I was a bad singer until I found a timbre that worked for me. 

As a professional, have you found yourself in situations where the fit wasn’t right? Oh, yeah. I’ve been asked to sing on film soundtracks that didn’t work out because I didn’t know how to prepare. I’ve since learned a few tricks on how to approach a song that isn’t in my comfort zone. 

How does the Seattle music scene stack up to other big cities? I don’t know what it’s like now, but it was a great place growing up because you could create a musical network beyond the school you went to or the neighborhood you lived in. I attended University Prep [in Seattle] and played in the Roosevelt [High School] after-school jazz program and, for a few semesters, with the Seattle University big band. 

When you find yourself creatively stuck, how do you get unstuck? Collaboration. It gets me out of my head.

Any significant collaborations? Definitely. Last summer in Nashville, I collaborated with the great blues musician, Keb’ Mo’. He found a song we could make together and then coached me, word for word, on how to sing in the pocket. He was so generous with his attention and time. What he taught me about improving my craft is priceless. 

When you’re recording an album, how do you decide which take of a song is going to be the final choice? It’s really hard and if I had to do it myself, I’d get an ulcer! Luckily, I get to choose the best people — recording engineers and producers — who know me and who have really good ears. 

Are you comfortable on stage? I’m comfortable in Hawaii because I see a lot of people who look like me and I’m comfortable in Asia because I have enough experience to know what kind of jokes go over in Korea versus China. I haven’t toured as much in the United States, so I’m not quite as comfortable as I’d like to be. 

What’s your favorite comfort food? Mashed potatoes with some gravy or sauce, especially when my mom cooks it for me. 

How do you balance your creative mind with your business mind? I don’t carry a phone because it’s hard to get into a juicy, creative zone if I’m constantly checking my inbox and texting my friends. I email, text and do social media twice a day. It’s not hard once you get used to it. 

Would you rather be filthy rich or creatively satisfied? (Laughs.) Can you do one for the beginning of your life and the other for the second half? 

Do you get jealous or envious? It’s too tiring to compare yourself with others, so I focus my energy on doing things that challenge me, like releasing albums in both Japanese and English. 

What’s the difference between singing in Japanese and singing in English? When I sing in English, I focus more on the pronunciation because that’s how I hold pitch. In Japanese, I hold pitch by focusing on the emotion of a word. 

Biggest indulgence? I get a little high when I’m buying myself a new pair of shoes. (Laughs.)

Success. What does it look like? Being old and still doing music. And I mean like in my 80s!

You’re stuck on a desert island and can have one book, one record and one food. Keith Haring Journals, [The Band’s] Music from Big Pink — I could put “The Weight” on a permanent loop, and eggs, scrambled.  

Do you have a life philosophy? Don’t deny yourself an experience because you’re afraid of what might happen. 

Finish this sentence: “Emi Meyer is …”  “A music nerd who just wants to be accepted.”

Is there a part of the creative process you like the best? Being in the studio and listening to the song being played back for the first time.  

Is there anyone you would like to punch in the face? Oh! I can’t name them right now because it’s too real! Also, cigarette smokers. 

This article appears in print in the December 2017 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

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