New York City is the holy grail of international and American music subculture. For every odd stare you may encounter in other American cities for simply being who you are and liking what you like, there is an embrace waiting for you in the city that truly never sleeps; everyone’s just too damn busy being themselves. As an embracer of multiethnic communities, New York is famous for propelling forward the greatest music movements in history, including hip hop (which just celebrated its 47th anniversary, hats off to DJ Kool Herc) and the blues and jazz age of the Harlem Renaissance (shout out to Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk for paving the way). I guess you could say it’s one of the few destinations in the world where you must come as you are to carve out a quality of life.

It’s no surprise then, that veteran J-Pop star Shihori would risk it all to be included in a lifestyle so many can only dream of living. Born in Nagoya, Japan with hearing loss in her left ear, Shihori embarked on a music career at the age of two. With great discipline and devotion, the classical pianist continued on to become one of Japan’s most successful songwriters for anime. She is certified gold in her home country, having worked with the anime industry’s Yoko Kanno (“Ghost in the Shell”) and Kohei Tanaka (“One Piece”). There are more popular songs to credit than one can count. Let’s just say that Shihori (Shihori means “Wabi-Sabi,” or sense of beauty in imperfection) is highly visible in her field, and what she does she does extremely well.

Despite all adversity, Shihori manages to retain an unrelenting shine she is passionate about spreading to others; the philanthropic singer is donating all of the Bandcamp proceeds from her latest single, “Perfect Imperfection,” to the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization that helps victims of sexual abuse, child abuse, and domestic violence. As if her illustrious recording doesn’t already tell the story of her hard-earned emotion, I spoke with Shihori in cross-cultural conversation about what life in the Big Apple has been like for her so far, what inspired the songwriting behind “Perfect Imperfection,” how recording music is different for someone with a disability, and much more. Her answers may be what inspires you to kickstart your new beginning or finally reach your happy ending.

Q: “Perfect Imperfection” is a beautiful song with a really important message. Can you tell me a little more about the inspiration behind it and what the recording process was like for you (and Dibs, who you worked with)?
A: For many years, I’ve told the message “love who you are” through many different types of songs. I think it’s because I, myself, had many difficulties in being myself in my life mainly because of monoculture, and the experiences of fixing my appearance by surgery and hormone shots. I’ve been believing the existence of SOUL over materialistic things. Labeling people by superficial appearance felt like nonsense. But I figured many people are suffering from being labeled into certain small boxes. Many of my fans cried while I was singing about those messages. Then I thought this may be my mission in this life. That’s why He gave me those disabilities, environments, and circumstances to empower people later on!

The recording process was harder than usual because of the coronavirus pandemic. I couldn’t have studio sessions, record vocals… it delayed a lot. But I found Dibs, a music producer on Soundbetter, and his music sounded so good, and his sound matched this song! I sent my demo, which I roughly made with midi, then he immediately understood what I wanted. The process went so easy and quick to get to this shape, but amazingly he expanded the powerful atmosphere even further than I expected. This was a totally happy experience working with him.

Q: I am amazed at your abilities despite your deafness. I read that you do not see deafness as a disability but as a gift. Are you treated differently in the world because of this disability?

A: The difficult part of my disability is that it is too subtle to be recognized. I look almost ordinal, so many times people around me misunderstood and thought I was ignoring them, which was untrue. I just didn’t hear at all, so they felt uncomfortable, and I didn’t know how to deal with it when I was very young. But I eventually learned that almost everybody would be willing to help me if I tell them things like, “Hey, I can’t hear from my left side, can you be on my right side?” or “this seat is the best for me! Can I sit there?” Then I am totally ordinal.

Q: Do you feel that more people should view people with disabilities in this light?

A: I don’t think people should do so necessarily, cause you can’t know those difficulties really unless those people with disabilities are around you, and also perspective or needs with disabilities are so different for each person. But one thing I think is good to know is that disabilities are not unfortunate nor disadvantageous.  I used to feel very weird when my mom often told me I was miserable and she was so sorry to give birth to me like in this “lacking” way. I like who I am and I am satisfied with myself, I am not miserable. I now know she was suffering from the sense of guilt that her daughter had multiple disabilities, which might be her fault, but I don’t think so.

One day, when I had a concert in a shopping mall during last year’s Japan tour, one family, which had a small girl with partial deafness, came to see me. The parents asked me for advice about their daughter’s life after my show. She didn’t speak at all, which is super similar to my own childhood, and I immediately sensed they were the same as my parents and I. I told them, “Believe me! You don’t have to feel guilty nor sorry for her. Don’t worry about her future! She has some special mission or unique talent. There will be some inconvenience, but just tell her friends to help her with positivity, then everybody’s going to help her! Just look forward to what she will create in the future!”
Q: In specifically speaking about the music industry and your career, how is recording music different for you than an artist with all of their hearing?
A: Usually the engineer pans each instrument, and some of them pan the recorded tracks to the left, but I don’t hear the whole picture. Then I can’t notice why it sounds weird. So I need to ask them not to pan and put everything center. The most interesting discovery I noticed is that many singers usually pan the click to the left. This means they seem to be listening to the rhythm by the left ear and listening to the pitch or melody by the right ear (I can’t know if the click panned to the totally right side though).

I’ve done a lot of studio singer work in Japan, and I saw a lot of this: “Hey, I don’t hear the click,” “Really? It’s on!” “No, I hear nothing!” “Ahhh I found it’s panned to the left!!”, so many times! Also I had been wondering why many singers often listen to the music by just the right ear when I watched TV shows, then I asked about the director and engineer one day and they told me, “Listening by one side of the ear works for getting correct pitch.”  I see now and that makes sense! People listen to the pitch by the right ear and the rhythm by the left ear! And the reason why I have perfect pitch may be because I’ve been hearing everything by my right ear!

Q: What other obstacles have you had to overcome in your music career once you moved to America?

The first challenge was skill in delivering lyrics. I wasn’t good at recognizing the lyrics as a language because of my ears, which is good at pitch (right), but not good at language (left). Many people told me my singing was very good, but they didn’t hear the lyrics. I wondered how to resolve this, so I started a part-time job as a telephone operator to train myself to listen to conversations as a language. This was super hard…but I got the skill through this hard training.

The second challenge was the difficulty [in creating the music]. I tend to create a very complexed and lyrical melody with philosophical lyrics. When I was young, industry people often told me that my music was too difficult…for listeners, too mature, and didn’t match my age and character. So I learned…to make my music easier and much more simple. Funnily, Japanese pop music trends changed to more complicated melodies around a decade ago, and I became a popular songwriter because of my difficult pop songs at some point. I appreciate…that I can now write simple songs as well and this skill adds some pop impressions even in super complex songs.

Q: Can you tell me what the move was like from Japan to New York and was it a bit of a culture shock for you?

A: One of the happiest differences is that New York people love uniqueness and freedom. I used to be scolded when I talked to strangers on the street or started singing all of a sudden [in Japan], but people here react very positively. Some people smile back at me and dance together; a cafe staff gave me one more extra chocolate croissant because of it! I encountered so many kind and funny people. It was an unbelievably happy thing for me.
People here are very generous toward failure. As it is known, common rules in Japan are very strict and punctual. You’re gonna be criticized if you are five minutes late. There are so many strict manners and rules you have to follow, so I was shocked when on the second day in New York, I was supposed to meet new friends I just met on my first day at the promised time, and nobody came. A while later, one guy came…An hour later, another girl showed up, and a few hours later, other guys finally showed up. I found out people here tend to prefer the presence of individuals that respect others’ decisions, and this was very shocking but also impressive in a way to think about their quality of life.

Q: You’ve had a successful decade-long J-Pop career in Japan. What are your goals for the US in terms of your music?

A: I have the ambition to establish my unique music style by combining the good parts of what I’ve done in Japan and what I’ve been learning in the US [in order] to be on the Billboard top 40. I am super honored to become a courageous musician.

Bandcamp (Pre-order) for “Perfect Imperfection” the album can be found here

Connect With Shihori: Website | Facebook | Instagram | Spotify | Bandcamp | YouTube

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