Thirty years ago, when the shy but enormously talented 17-year-old Anri released her debut single “Olivia wo Kikinagara”(Listening to Olivia) and first album Apricot Jam, the singer could scarcely have imagined that she would one day become not only one of Japan’s most popular and influential songwriters, performers and musical icons, but a vibrant cultural ambassador for her homeland as well.
Infusing elements of American R&B, rock and jazz into her energetic J-pop style, she revolutionized Japanese pop music, scoring enduring hits with numerous songs that have become standards, including the theme song to “Cat’s Eye” from the NTV animation series (which debuted at #1 on Countdown Japan) and the romantic ballads “Summer Candles” and “Dolphin Ring,” which years later remain popular staples at wedding ceremonies throughout the country. Inspired by the American breakdancing film “Breakin’,” Anri brought the popular dance moves to the stage for the first time during her national tour in 1988; her shows included two of the performers from the movie. Thanks to her unique influence, the traditionally reserved Japanese culture opened up to the very Western concept of incorporating dance with music in live performances. To this day, dance is a major part of the Japanese concert experience. An equally innovative force in the worlds of fashion, makeup and hair styles, Anri brought her music and elegant sophistication to a global audience for the first time by performing the official theme song for the 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano.
After playing thousands of concerts, recording over 40 albums, composing 200 songs for herself and other top Japanese and Asian artists and creating some of Japan’s most innovative pop music videos (close to 100 long and short form clips), Anri is still at the top of her game entering her incredible fourth decade of writing and performing. Her latest album, Tears of Anri, reached the Top 15 on the Japanese pop charts in 2007 and she appeared on every major Japanese music and talk show. One of her songs was chosen as the theme for one of the country’s most popular morning shows, and another, “Natsuno Yume” (Summer Dream) was a #1 Japanese pop hit for singer Ryu Siwon in 2006.
She also enjoyed great success earlier in the 2000s with her greatest hits compilation Anri ¡Ý The Best and her 2000 original recording The Beach House, which was based on her theme song “Return To The Sea.” These were followed by her collections Quiet Storm (2002) and Sol (2006), which were produced by legendary American contemporary jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour and featured performances by him and other top Los Angeles based session musicians Jimmy Johnson, Vinnie Colaiuta, Alex Acuna, Luis Conte and Steve Tavaglione.
Truly a musical citizen of the world, Anri has recorded projects everywhere from Australia to London, but her role as a true innovator in Japanese pop music stems from being one of the first artists ever to come to the U.S. and work with top American studio musicians in Los Angeles and New York. Her first studio experience in L.A. was at the famed A&M Studios, where she ran into two of her greatest vocal influences, the late Minnie Riperton and Karen Carpenter. Over the years, she has returned to the West Coast numerous times to record with the famed “Toto guys” who were also top session players¡½Jeff Porcaro, Steve Lukather and David Paich¡½as well as Ray Parker, Jr., Lee Sklar and multiple Grammy winning producer David Foster. Her massive discography also features dynamic vocal duets with American vocal greats Peabo Bryson, Michael Franks, Philip Bailey and Johnny Gill. Anri has been a huge concert attraction in Hawaii since performing there for the first time in the late 80s, and would often fly the California-based musicians to the islands for recording sessions.
One of Anri’s most popular American-influenced albums is 1988’s million selling #1 dance-driven Boogie Woogie Mainland, which had a major Earth, Wind & Fire influence and included performances by many of EWF’s backing musicians. “I felt that the American musicians had certain unique funkiness that would work perfectly,” she says. “Having them work with me was exciting and part of my overall desire to always be original in everything I do and not mimic other artists just because they’re popular.” This project helped the singer pioneer the movement of bringing distinctly American dance music and performance styles to Japan. Her arena concerts in the late 80s in support of this album incorporated dancers and a horn section for the first time. At first, people were shocked and surprised at the difference from the typical concert presentation, but Anri succeeded in launching a trend that has since become a Japanese live performance trademark. In the 80s when she held auditions to hire dancers for her shows, there were very few to choose from, but now 300-400 routinely show up; thanks to her influence, Japan now recognizes the joyful expression and artistic importance of modern dance.
Ritenour observes, “One thing you can say about her is that her career has been long and innovative and she has pioneered so many different musical and performance styles. Before she came along, Japanese music or J-pop didn’t have all of the American and British influences it has now. She’s really been a wonderful ambassador for her home culture.”
Anri grew up in a very strict and proper family environment, but found a way of releasing her deepest emotions playing the piano. Finding her self-expression by playing middle of the road pop songs, mellow inspirational music and orchestral music, she also began developing her voice and singing along to songs by some of her favorite Japanese artists and American based heroines like Olivia Newton-John, Karen Carpenter, Minnie Riperton and Joni Mitchell. One day, a family friend who was a prominent TV director heard her and asked if she would like to be a professional singer.
“I was only 16 years old, and I didn’t have the confidence at the time,” she recalls, “but I thought it might be fun to try. He eventually hooked me up with different production people and a record company. They gave me songs to choose from and I had many favorites, but I picked a few of them, did a demo and this led to my recording of ‘Olivia wo Kikinagara.’ This became one of my most famous songs and I still sing it in concert. Shortly after that, on my one month summer holiday from school, I visited Los Angeles and had the incredible experience of recording at A&M Records. It was the most amazing thing to meet Karen Carpenter who was recording in another room and to walk down the hall and see Minnie Riperton.”
Celebrating her 30th Anniversary as a recording artist in 2008, Anri is gearing up for a big national Japanese tour, a new album on Universal Records and a major environmental concert that has been close to her heart. “Thirty years is a long time to be writing, recording and performing,” she says, “but I’m still as excited to make music now as I was when I was a teenager just starting out. I’ve always enjoyed doing new things that turned out to be successful and being able to look around, discover what I felt that the Japanese culture needed, and then start something fresh that nobody else had done. It hasn’t always been an easy process, but there is so much to gain from taking the chance. I still am so moved when I’m performing my concerts and see the fans out there in such high spirits, sometimes crying tears of happiness, singing along to my songs and sometimes even knowing the lyrics better than I do myself. To me, there is nothing better than bringing my heart to the audience and touching them in such a joyful way.”
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