Subtitle: After burning up the charts with Japan’s leading pop band, Miwa Yoshida cools out on her own
by Irene M. Kunii
Published: October 14, 1996
AT THE AGE OF THREE, MIWA Yoshida knew what she wanted to do. “Somewhere in my head I had this picture of myself standing on a stage in front of adults and singing,” she recalls. Now that she too is an adult, the singer-songwriter is fulfilling that vision. As the vocalist in Japan’s leading pop-rock band, Dreams Come True, and an accomplished soloist, Yoshida performs before crowds of up to 50,000. “I always thought that I would grow up to become a singer, so I’ve never had any doubts about my work.”
Or about much of anything else, as is evident from her perpetual exuberance. Yoshida has few secrets, aside from her age (roughly 31) and her father’s occupation (she describes him only as a “salaried worker”), and she exudes the confidence that comes from early success. In 1988 she teamed up with bassist Masato Nakamura and keyboardist Takahiro Nishikawa, a high school friend, to create Dreams Come True, which made waves in the Tokyo club scene with its soul- and funk-influenced sound combined with Yoshida’s powerful vocals. The trio hit it big about a year later, when its first album sold more than 1 million copies in Japan. Its 1992 The Swinging Star is the first Japanese album to sell more than 3 million copies. In 1994 Dreams Come True made its international debut with Eternity, the theme song from the animated Hollywood feature The Swan Princess, which Yoshida co-wrote, with Nakamura, and performed in English.
Yoshida is poised to reap more success as an individual performer. In December she launched her first solo album, Beauty and Harmony, recorded in New York City with such well-known American musicians as guitarist David Walker, bassist Chuck Rainey and former Tower of Power trumpeter Greg Adams. With their input Yoshida has achieved a more reflective, sophisticated sound touched by jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues. Her strong, clear voice soars effortlessly from alto to soprano. Her lyrics about love and life, happiness and sadness flow like poetry. As on her albums with Dreams, she sings in Japanese, a language that can sound stilted when combined with Western music. Yet Yoshida manages a smooth delivery, honed over years of listening to her favorite female vocalists, jazz greats Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. “The music of Dreams Come True is for mass consumption, while Yoshida’s solo album is for a smaller, more refined audience,” says Yoichi Shibuya, editor in chief of Rockin’ On, Japan’s most influential rock magazine. “She’s showing off her talent and technique, and saying, ‘There is more to me than you thought.'” Her fans appear to agree; they have bought some 1.5 million copies of her solo album.
Yoshida grew up in central Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, the eldest of three children whose parents both worked. She yearned for piano lessons, but they were a luxury she had to do without. “I really wanted to play the piano,” she recalls, “but I wasn’t able to because of the circumstances.” She was able to listen to the radio, though, and she developed a passion for the soul, funk and rock music she heard on the U.S. Armed Forces network and other stations.
One night when she was seven or so, Yoshida sneaked downstairs after bedtime and found her father watching television. She was so surprised by the music she heard that she joined him in viewing the performance of a female jazz vocalist. He was too mesmerized by what he was hearing to order her back to bed. The singer, Yoshida later learned, was Fitzgerald, who became a source of inspiration for the youngster. “Since that time I’ve always loved female singers with strong, characteristic voices,” she says.
Music soon became her life. In high school Yoshida began forming pop bands with other students and competing in regional music contests. After she graduated, she spent nearly four years in Tokyo working at odd jobs and as a back-up singer. She had never learned to write music, so she would jot down her lyrics and memorize the melodies. “I wasn’t able to express myself musically the way I wanted to, so I was waiting for the right person to come along and help me,” she says. “When I met Masato [Nakamura], I realized he was that person.” Nakamura, in turn, quickly realized her potential. “Dreams Come True was created to introduce everyone to Yoshida the singer,” he says.
For Yoshida the world is a stage; she hopes to perform internationally, while keeping Japan as her base. “I’d like to sing in English,” she says, switching temporarily into that language to show off her skills. But she would also like audiences in other countries to hear her in her native tongue. “Even if they don’t understand the words, they’ll still be able to feel my music.” A number of Japanese musicians — saxophonist Sadao Watanabe, pianist Makoto Ozone, synthesist Kitaro, rhythm programmer and producer Gota Yashiki — have found success outside Japan. But few home-grown pop singers have even tried, aside from Seiko Matsuda, “Japan’s Madonna,” who failed in her 1990 bid for a U.S. career. Yoshida, however, “touches people with her music, and she has a chance of making it internationally,” says Takashi Samizo, director of Japanese television’s top-rated pop-music show, Pop Jam. “Music will soon transcend nationality.”
First, though, Yoshida and Dreams Come True have to complete a 26-concert tour around Japan that runs through this month. The shows have all sold out, as did Yoshida’s solo concerts in May and June. And their careers will continue along parallel paths. “We’ve modeled ourselves after the Rolling Stones in terms of band style,” says Nakamura. “We’ll stay together while going off and doing solo projects.” Yoshida says, “Dreams Come True is the tree trunk, and my solo work is like a limb extending from the trunk.”
Tree-trunk metaphors hardly seem appropriate for Yoshida. Although not aggressively glamorous, the singer has a dark, brooding beauty and a heart-melting smile. Outgoing and personable, she remains close to family and friends. Although notorious for her frequent love affairs in the past, Yoshida has apparently settled down. “I have a long-term boyfriend, but it’s a secret,” she says.
Relationships aside, the most important thing in Yoshida’s life continues to be music. “I’m not confident of my work, but I know I don’t want to perform the music of someone else,” she says, sitting in the lounge of a music studio just before the start of a grueling eight-hour rehearsal. ” I want to sing the music that inspires me.” And she plans to do that for as long as she can, perhaps as long as her idol, Ella Fitzgerald, who died in June at 78. “I want to be able to stand up at the age of 70 or 80 and move people with the sound of my voice,” she says, rising from her chair and singing “Ahhh-ahhh” at the top of her lungs. “That’s the kind of singer I hope to become.” Which is pretty much what she wanted when she was three.