Some people were born to work in the arts. Shamisen player and singer songwriter Yuzu is one of those people. She has been playing the piano since the age of 3, and in recent years, trained herself to become an international shamisen player and composer. At the time of this interview, she had just returned from a performance in Cambodia and was headed to Vietnam and Thailand.
The city closest to her heart, though, is New York.
“I was invited by hip-hop performer Akim Funk Buddha to go to N.Y. and perform on the keyboard. We happened to meet in Tokyo, and he was recruiting Japanese musicians to share his gigs. So I took off and spent a month there. I learned that there’s a market for contemporary Japanese music, provided we bring our own perspectives to the content and work with original material.”
After a few visits to New York, Yuzu, whose full name is Yuzu Natsumi, decided to switch to the shamisen and started going to a shamisen school. Before long, she was playing to audiences in the U.S. and other countries.
“The shamisen is a very liberating instrument,” says Yuzu. “It can be taken apart and reassembled in no time. It’s compact enough to be carry-on luggage, and most importantly, I can do this solo. The shamisen is unique in that it doubles as a percussion and string instrument, freeing the player from relying on a band.”
The shamisen is also the perfect accompaniment for Yuzu’s personal mission, which is “to let the world know what Japan is really like. Many Americans, for example, think that Japan is all about maiko and ninja. I wanted to put a big dent in that misguided illusion with my one-woman shamisen show.”
Yuzu didn’t get to this place easily — she had always studied, worked and trained extra hard to attain her goals. In her native Toyama, her high school teachers encouraged her to try for Tokyo University.
“I figured that if I studied like a demon, I would get accepted. But that didn’t happen, and I went to Ochanomizu University instead.”
Once her life in Tokyo kicked off, “I joined a theater group and started making music while learning to act. I was devoting my life to making my dream come true, which at the time was to become a voice actor.”
She was also studying contemporary English literature and stage theory at Ochanomizu.
“Both endeavors prepared me to speak English and cultivate a positive attitude in life. If I had gone to Tokyo University, maybe I wouldn’t be here. So I guess it worked out for the better.” For all her success on the shamisen, Yuzu says that her first dream was voice acting.
“What I really wanted to do was voice acting. But there was a major setback — I was living in Toyama Prefecture, hundreds of miles away from voice acting schools or anything to do with media! I had to get myself to Tokyo.”
During her senior year at Ochanomizu, and after much soul searching, Yuzu decided to concentrate on her music.
“At university, there was an unspoken pressure to find a corporate job before graduation or your life would be ruined. I thought of doing both music and working for a company, but my parents talked me out of it. I just didn’t know what I was going to do — I was in a state of limbo.”
Because of that limbo, Yuzu took another year and a half before graduating, but she has no regrets. “That time helped me to discover what I really wanted to do,” she says.
Yuzu calls her particular music style “urban folk,” and it has captivated audiences both at home and abroad.
“I find that American audiences really like listening to the musician’s back stories — I always describe the songs I’m about to perform, and I try to insert a bit of personal history into the narrative. Japanese audiences are different — they’re into trends and what’s hot on social media, so I adjust my performances in accordance to audience preferences. Lately, I’ve been going to countries other than the U.S., so I still have a lot to learn.” (Kaori Shoji)
Words to live by