J-Pop’s princess, Ai Kago is all grown up! In March of 2010, the former Morning Musume singer debuted as a Jazz singer with her new album Ai Kago meets Jazz. She made the transition from sweet and simple J-Pop to her own unique brand of Jazz and now she wants to take on America.
Ai Kago stopped by the MTV Iggy offices to talk about that FRIDAY photoshoot, her new musical sound and what it was like to be a child star. We couldn’t help but fall in love with her cute and bubbly personality.
What were the best and worst parts of debuting at 12 in the J-Pop industry?
I would say that the good parts were that I was able to get my name all over Japan and be recognized at a young age. I was able to actually work and meet people. Not many people get the opportunity to perform in front of 20,000 people at the age of 12.
This isn’t really bad, but I never learned how to get on a train and I wasn’t able to do normal things like go to an amusement park with my friends.
How long was your training period?
My training period was three months and I went to dance and singing lessons during the time while going to school.
Do you still keep in touch with Tsuji Nozomi?
I still talk to her sometimes but I haven’t yet met her new family. I did see a picture of the family online and thought they were so cute.
When did you start learning English?
I started learning English about two years ago when I was 20. When I was 19, I lived in L.A for three months and I became interested in learning the language.
What made you want to try jazz?
Back in January 2009, I was able to perform with a very famous kabuki artist called Koasa in Japan. He loves Jazz and he thought I would be good for Jazz so he suggested it to me.
Who are some of the artists you listen to?
I really like Norah Jones because she has a jazzy-pop taste and she has created a new style of Jazz music.
Who would you like to collaborate with?
Dee Dee Bridgewater. Last time I was in New York, that was June. Dee Dee Bridgewater performed at Blue Note. Then she got to go to her show, and I had a chance to talk to her after the show, and DD encouraged me so much. I kind of fell in love with her. I got inspiration from her. That’s why I’d like to do a collaboration with her.
Have you been taking voice lessons to train your voice from going from J-Pop to jazz?
When I sing jazz, I have to work in English. I worked hard on the pronunciation of English. My English pronunciation turned out to be the number one thing I had to study, or work on the most.
But was it hard going from a higher register to a lower register for jazz? Was that difficult?
It was hard. The hardest thing was that Japanese and English have completely different ways of opening your mouth to make sounds, so instead of saying “Ah (like father)” I had to say “Ahh (like cat),” which meant I had to open my mouth to its sides or the opposite of the way I was used to doing. That’s the way you do it, I suppose.
Quite a while ago I was listening to a non-Japanese person singing a Japanese song, and the singer said “che” instead of “te.” I remember thinking that it was really cute. So now I think that even if my English pronunciation isn’t completely perfect, and even if there are places where my English isn’t all the way there, it’s representative of me.
That makes me different, unique.
So you’re creating your own style?
When you entered the jazz industry, was there anything that surprised you about it?
J-Pop and jazz are completely different–I mean the genre of jazz is already totally separate, so it’s really really rare for a young person my age to be singing jazz. That means that I don’t have many opportunities to listen to a person my age singing jazz, so my only option is to listen to jazz professionals and study them.
Are there less opportunities to promote yourself? Are the fans different?
Of course, fans are different. So is the rhythm. There’s less opportunity to promote [myself] since jazz isn’t as famous as J-Pop, and when I perform, I don’t perform in front of a lot of people, but instead [it's] a small setup, like small bars or something like that. So that’s different. It’s a totally different experience to sing in front of small groups of people at bars.
As for your album, did you pick the songs that you were going to sing?
Some of the songs are ones I picked. Then there were songs that were picked by other people, like producers.
Did anyone else pick songs? Did anyone that you admire recommend songs?
I have a song on the album called “How High the Moon” that was actually picked by Kowasa.
Why did you decide to cover English jazz songs?
I also sing J-Pop, as you know, but for me, jazz really is a different field, which meant I was doing something I had never done before. So, in that sense, I decided to do jazz in English.
My favorite song was “Blue Moon.” It’s really good. Which song did you like singing the most?
“Someone to Watch over Me.”
About your photo book, was it fun shooting a photo book with FRIDAY?
Photo book? FRIDAY? Ah! Did you see it!?
Yes, of course. I hate paparazzi, but it was so fun.
Like the shot of you throwing paper bits in the air, that’s one of the best.
Yeah, that’s the best. I’m on top of this table in the editing room going crazy with FRIDAY ripping paper up. It felt so good to do.
Did you come up with it yourself, the idea?
What was it like behind the scenes?
It was kind of tense.
I hate paparazzi so much. But the paparazzi is interested in me, which means everybody is interested in me. The whole thing is… I hate paparazzi, but the fact that they take pictures of me means that [the public] is interested in me. So, even though I don’t like them, it’s part of my world.
There’s people where everyone knows their face, right? But that creates the opportunity for fans to actually get more interest in me, and get to know me.
Everything is connected, all things in life. The paparazzi like me, and that’s going to be published in the newspapers, and newspapers will be used when people pick up dog crap and stuff. So everything is recycled or connected. And I think that’s useful. Everything is connected, so the whole thing makes sense to me.
What did you think about the reception, people’s opinions of your book? What did you think?
I thought not many people, actresses or singers, could actually have done it. Not taking advantage of it, but… Because actually FRIDAY covered my scandals and stuff, but I took advantage of it. So doing things like that, not many people could have done it, so I think everybody thinks I’m crazy in a good way, in a unique way. They probably think, “That’s Ai Kago for you, alright.”
The concept of the photo book was your enemy is your ally, but your ally is your enemy.
That’s right. The photo book FRIDAY did was “your enemy is your ally; your ally is your enemy.” That was the concept.
Did you go to them with the idea?
Last year you released your J-Pop single, and then this year jazz. Do you think you want to do both?
I’d like to do both if it’s possible. But I’m now more interested in jazz, because the style is very… free. Recently I’ve become less interested in J-Pop, and I can express myself in jazz. And so, if I feel like, “Oh, I want to sing jazz this way, with this kind of feeling,” then I can do that with jazz, but I can’t do that with J-Pop. So I like singing jazz more than J-Pop now.
Do you follow J-Pop right now?
For jazz fans, do you have any ideas to make–the jazz fans right now are a bit older, there aren’t that many young jazz fans. So is there something you plan on doing to get more young fans into the jazz world? To make more people interested in jazz?
Yes. The fact of the matter is that there aren’t many young people listening to jazz, which is why I think it was probably a surprise in Japan that I started a career in jazz. I don’t know that much about jazz, so I’d like to broaden jazz to young people so that we can enjoy together by doing a variety of things, like hip-hop jazz.
To make jazz more open to young people?
I want jazz to be more open, and by doing so I think–there’s many kind of styles of jazz, but there’s not that many, right. But maybe I could try some kind of new thing, maybe. So I think it’d be a good idea to do something like kawaii/cute jazz or add some theatrics.
Like dancing and stuff.
Yeah, jazz with a style. I used to be an idol, so I’d like to do some idol stuff (in jazz performances).
You filmed “Kung Fu Chef” with Vanness Wu. What was he like? What was that entire experience like?
He is soooo nice guy. I love him. Vanness is incredibly stoic. Did that make sense? He’s crazy popular in Taiwan. He’s like a big brother to me.
Like a brother.
Like a brother. He says, “You are my sister.”
Would you like to pursue your acting career?
Yes. I was in two films in Hong Kong. Japan has their own way of shooting films, just like Hong Kong has their own way, so it was really an experience for me to appear in those two films. So I’d like to continue expressing myself as an actress.
You wrote the book, KAGO AI LIVE. That was for teenagers. Have you thought about writing another book from another perspective, as a grown-up?
At this moment, no. But when I turn 30, maybe I’d like to write about myself.
After living in LA, did it make you want to stay in America, or do you still want to go back to Japan?
Yes. I wanted to stay in the States. I renewed my passport! (laughs)
What’s your favorite American food?
I love ice cream. In New York, I like Red Mango. I like it all. I love cereal.
What do you miss the most about Japan?
You can’t get that here?
How is it different?
It’s not as fresh. Japanese rice is shinier. It’s kind of different.
Have you been to Japanese restaurants here?
Do you like any?
Right now, what are you listening to?
Lady Gaga. And Alicia Keyes. And Jason Mraz.
Thank you very much!