Chara: truly unique pop music

CharaFORGET JPOP, disco, singer/songwriters, bubblegum, romantic or any of the thousands of classifications which writers like to use to group pop music. As anyone who likes a band or a singer knows, you either like them or you don’t like them: sometimes you love them (or hate them).  Chara has been one of my favourite pop artists for some time, though I discovered her at first as an actress in some great films by Shunji Iwai.  I prefer her later albums to her earlier ones, which are more pop oriented. But I can happily put on a stack of her CDs and listen to her all day. The voice is pretty unusual, a bit like a preteen doll on steroids, but she’s a really good singer; the arrangements are superb and the bands behind her some of the best players I’ve heard; she covers virtually every style in pop music; her lyrics, I’m told by those who understand Japanese, are literate and frequently striking; and she remains, always and completely, absolutely original and unique. She’s well represented on Youtube. Here is some information about her.

Chara is one of the most interesting female songwriters/vocalists/instrumentalists working in Japan: her music has stood outside the two main trends of her country’s pop music scene. Neither Jpop nor club pop or Jindies rock, Chara’s style remains her own.

One of the things that defines Chara’s music is her singing voice. It is often described as sweet and whispering like a child’s, yet forceful and sincere. Despite her very distinctive singing voice, Chara considers herself a musician first and foremost; proficient with instruments such as the piano, drums, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, synthesizer and tambourine. There are common themes to a lot of her songs, including motherhood, innocence, love, beauty, melancholy,and cheerfulness.

It is hard to define Chara’s music as any one genre; Chara often incorporates a number of different styles into her music, resulting in music that ranges from light pop numbers to dark and stirring pieces. In her early career the African-American funk element was quite apparent, but after the birth of her children her life and music took a new focus, allowing her to write what is considered some of her best music.

Born in Kawaguchi-shi, Saitama county on January 13, 1968, Chara gained her nickname from an elementary school teacher when she was eight. Since then, she has been identified so closely as Chara that friends don’t even know her real name, Miwa Satō (佐藤美和 Satō Miwa). Before she could even talk, Chara was playing around on a toy piano, a habit that finally prompted her parents to buy her piano lessons when she was four. In junior high school, she became obsessed with the movie American Graffiti and borrowed her style from the retro-1950s chic of the film, going so far as to form an American-style cheerleading squad in a country not known for such things. In the meantime, she was growing up a child of ’80s music, mostly the New Romantic scene, playing keyboards in the school band, and working on her vocals.

In 1990, at age 22, she sent off a demo tape to CBS/Sony and got a contract with Epic records. After recording for a year, she debuted in a live appearance at the famous Tokyo club Quattro in September, 1991, followed by a single “Heaven” and an album, Sweet, in November. A cult following soon led to a standing room only return to club Quattro at the end of the year. Chara’s popularity and media profile spread. Her second album, Soul Kiss, appeared in 1992, her third, Violet Blue, in 1993, and her fourth, Happy Toy, in 1994.

In 1995, she gave birth to her first child, a baby girl she named Sumire. 1996 was a big year for Chara. She starred in Shunji Iwai’s film Swallowtail Butterfly (she had previously appeared in the Iwai film Picnic). In both films she worked with Tadanobu Asano, whom she married later that year. Swallowtail went on to win her a Best Actress award at the Japanese Academy awards and spin off a soundtrack album by the film’s imaginary group The 99 1/2, with Chara on vocals. Chara followed up on this with a wildly popular album, Junior Sweet. With production from Towa Tei and Ashley Ingram, the album went on to be a million seller, one of the best-sellers of 1997. In 1999, she released her follow-up, Strange Fruits, and gave birth to her second child, a boy she named Himi. Madrigal was released in 2001 with two tracks co-written by Japanese American James Iha of The Smashing Pumpkins.

Chara left EPIC/Sony Records, after producing 13 successful full length albums with them, to become an independent artist in 2005. She continued to produce music with Starchild Productions but she’s only released one album during that time, and then decided to go back to the world of major labels by signing a contract with Universal Music. She has since released three singles, which culminated in the release of a studio album entitled UNION on February 28th, 2007. The album debuted at #4 on the Weekly Oricon Sales Charts the following week.

Chara’s recent singles have charted in the Oricon Top 50, while they have also been in the Top 10 most downloaded on I-Tunes Japan with ‘Trophy’ reaching #1. (adapted from articles on wikipedia and allmusic.com)

ALBUMS
Sweet [1991.11.01]
Soul Kiss [1992.09.01]
Violet Blue [1993.09.09]
Happy Toy [1994.10.10]
Baby Baby Baby (Chara the Best) [1995.10.10]
Montage [1996.09.16] (Yen Town Band)
Junior Sweet [1997.09.21]
Strange Fruits [1999.03.17]
Live 97-99 MOOD [2000.03.08]
Caramel Milk (The Best of Chara) [2000.11.01]
Madrigal (マドリガル) [1999.03.17]
Yokae Mae (夜明けまえ Before the Dawn) [2003.03.19]
A Scenery Like Me [2004.02.18]
Something Blue [2005.08.31]
UNION [2007.02.28]
Sugar Hunter:Collection Of Love Songs [2007.09.05]
Honey [2008]

SINGLES
Heaven (1991)
Sweet (1991)
No Toy (Re-Mix) (1992)
大きな地震がきたって (Ooki na Jishin ga Kitatte) (1992)
愛の自爆装置 (Ai no Jibakusouchi) (1992)
無人島に私をもっていって・・・ (Mujintou ni Watashi wo Motte Itte…) (1993)
シャーロットの贈り物(Charlotte no Okurimono)/PRIVATE BEACH (1993)
恋をした (Koi wo Shita) (1993)
Gifted Child (1993)
罪深く愛してよ (Tsumi Fukaku Aishite Yo) (1994)
あたしなんで抱きしめたいんだろう? (Atashi Nande Dakishimetai n Darou?) (1994)
Tiny Tiny Tiny (1995)
The Singles Re-Mixed (1995)
Swallowtail Butterfly ~あいのうた~ (1996) (Yen Town Band)
チャラのブギーシューズ (Chara no Boogie Shoes) (1996)
やさしい気持ち (Yasashii Kimochi) (1997)
タイムマシーン (Time Machine) (1997)
ミルク (Milk) (1997)
DUCA (1998)
光と私 (Hikari to Watashi) (1998)
70%-夕暮れのうた (70%–Yuugure no Uta) (1999)
愛の火 3つ オレンジ (Ai no hi 3tsu orange) (1999) (Chara + Yuki)
月と甘い涙 (Tsuki to Amai Namida) (2000)
大切をきずくもの (Taisetsu wo Kizukumono) (2000)
レモンキャンディ (Lemon Candy) (2001)
スカート (Skirt) (2001) (featuring James Iha)
ボクにうつして Boku ni Utsushite (2001)
初恋 (Hatsukoi) (2002)
みえるわ (Mieru Wa) (2003)
世界 (Sekai) (2006)
Crazy for you (2006)
FANTASY (2007)
Cherry Cherry (2007)
ボクのことを知って (Boku no koto wo shitte) (2007)
Love to Live by (2007) (collaboration with [m-flo])
TROPHY (2008)

VIDEO/DVD
Kiss (1993)
Chara’s Clip 1991-1997 (1997)
Chara (1997)
Chara’s Clips 1997-2001 (2001)
Skirt (Short Film) (2001)

FILMOGRAPHY
Picnic (1994)
Swallowtail Butterfly (1996)

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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