Lisa Furukawa Interview, MechaCon III

Lafayette, Louisiana, USA. August 3rd – 5th 2007.
Reporter(s): Drake

Lisa,for the past two years, has been kind enough to grace MechaCon with her phenomenal singing abilities: first at a private concert for the opening ceremonies at MechaCon 2.0, and then an open concert at MechaCon 3.0. At both performances, Ms. Furukawa swept the audiences off their feet. On the final day of MechaCon 3.0, I was able to interview Lisa Furukawa at her table in the Artist Alley.

First of all I’d like to thank you for an excellent performance at the concert last night, and the one I attended last year at MechaCon 2.0 at the opening ceremonies. It was truly phenomenal, and I think those present last night would agree with me on that.

How do you feel when you are on stage performing in front of your fans? 

Grateful, happy, honored, excited, nervous. [giggles] It’s just really amazing to have opportunities to perform. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small venue with a few friends or a large convention. Every time I have the opportunity to share the music I am really excited and grateful. It means a lot.

Are there any methods you use to warm up with before each performance you do? 

I used to do vocal warm ups. I think if I have to do a morning concert, then yes, I do need to do some vocal warm ups, but generally, I think the most I try to do now is relax an hour before the concert. Try to focus and think about what songs I am going to be playing and try not to be to nervous.

What inspired your intense passion to sing? 

Oh thank you! Actually I’ve always loved singing, but I started voices lessons my last couple years of college. At that time I had a really really small shy voice. I was really scared of my voice. I didn’t want anyone to hear it. But I loved to sing. I really credit my vocal teacher for helping me get over my shyness. She looked at me one day and said “Lisa, it’s time for you to become a woman now.” I thought “Oh no!” [laughs] She helped me a lot. I think when the music moves you. Then you kind of forget the techniques it becomes about getting the song across to the audience. I think that is more important, then the feeling of the song.

Who or what inspired your original songs?

Uhm, that’s a complicated one. Because it changes, it’s different for different songs, and sometimes I get inspired by stories, or I see, or things I hear about. They are not necessarily all personal experiences. Like Pearl Diver, was inspired by a National Geographic Special on Japanese pearl divers, and I was really inspired by that. Somehow that story turned into a little Celtic jig with Buddhist themes. It was kind of different. The song “Stone Buddhas” was inspired by seeing the little stone Buddha statues in Japan as a child in the mountain and thinking about Japanese folktales. Sometimes I write goofy love songs, or sometimes they are personal songs where I think they are kind of therapeutic. Therapeutic songs to write, maybe, that things are working out your feelings, and you can get it out in a song, it makes things better. If it helps someone else or if other people can empathize with that then I am really happy with that.

Where did you initially learn to sing and play the piano?

Well, I started piano lessons at the age of three in Tokyo. My dad took me to lessons, when I was a really bad student. I had no attention span, even though I loved music. I never practiced. It probably wasn’t until I was about twelve that I had a really great teacher, who was almost ninety years old, who helped me a lot with learning to play the piano, then I took it seriously. I majored in music in college. So I was a classical musician at first. The song writing came later as an adult, I started to write songs. Music has been part of my life. All my life, I’ve been surrounded by musical families.

Do you ever feel nervous during a performance?

Every time! Every single time! But I think – I told my students this – the more you perform, the more you learn to channel that nervous energy into excitement. But yeah I always get butterflies and I worry about things. But then when you’re out on stage and people are enjoying it, it goes away.

How does it feel to perform to an audience where the majority can not understand Japanese? 

Well, I think playing at an anime convention is a really unique experience in America; because already, the audience is really receptive about learning about Japanese culture, and they are also receptive to hearing songs in Japanese. When I first started performing my songs, I used to play in every type of venue, cafes, clubs, bars, art galleries. I’d be somewhere in the middle of North Carolina playing at a bar. There would be truck drivers there saying “What’s she talking about in that Japanese… Chinese…” But, you know it’s just this audience is a very special audience at a convention. I think there are a lot of people that surprisingly understand Japanese, and I’m always amazed by that. They always sing along in Japanese.

From the songs you’ve translated to date, which was your favorite one?

Hm, I have to say “Winter” by Tori Amos. Translating that into Japanese was very special because my father is Japanese and the song is about a relationship between a father and daughter. So, personally it was very meaningful to me. But I loved translating “Tennessee Waltz” into Japanese and “Country Roads”, the John Denver song that was really fun too. I enjoy doing State Songs, and translating them. It inspires me.

I noticed during a few songs last night, namely “The Last Unicorn,” that you were going between Japanese and English a fair bit, how difficult is it to shift languages during a song?

It is not too hard. I think when I started singing songs in both languages. I started to feel more like me. When I first started learning to speak, I learned Japanese and English at the same time. My dad talked to me in Japanese and my mom talked to me in English. Even though I originally started singing in English, and writing songs in English when I began singing and writing songs in Japanese, I just felt like I could express myself more. I felt more creative. It’s a good thing. It’s not too hard.

Outside of your performances for conventions like MechaCon, have you performed in any other settings?

Yes. I’ve performed at a lot of different types of venues like cafes, clubs, art galleries, as well as cultural events. One of my favorite cultural events to perform at is Japan Fest in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s a lot of fun, and I think for different of type of venues, it’s a nice challenge to tailor the performance to that event, for that venue. Like if I’m playing for an art gallery, I’m going to probably blend in more to the background and play quieter music. At a cultural event I might do more traditional Japanese songs.

Do you normally perform solo, or have you played in groups? 

Now I perform solo primarily. But for about three years I performed with a small band, with Deborah Shields who played cello, John Metcalf played percussion, and I loved it. We saw each other twice a week and rehearsed, and played together. In a lot of ways they were like my musical family. We bounced ideas off each other a lot. It was a lot of fun. Deborah has gone on to teach in Kentucky. John has gone onto play in some pretty popular jam bands in North Carolina. So [our] group split up, but I’m still looking forward to collaborating with other people in the future.

Was it always your dream to become a singer?

I don’t know. My dreams keep changing, and they’ve always changed growing up too. I think I used to want to be an architect, a geneticist, they always change you know. I think singing and playing the piano that’s really a natural part of my life. There is no question that I love music. I think I’m always going to be doing music. But, yeah new dreams pop up all the time. It’s a lot of fun.

What kind of schooling did you go through to become a professional singer and pianist? 

Well I have a degree from UNC-Chapel Hill in music. My focus was piano. I studied voice with a really great vocal teacher that I love dearly. But I think pretty much just by doing it, just getting out there and writing songs, and playing and performing. Just doing really is what brought me here. I’m always grateful for every opportunity.

Was it difficult?

Well, I think there are a lot of challenges. I went to a state university. They had a pretty heavy curriculum in all different subjects. I was a double major with Asian Studies and music. So I was trying to juggle a lot of different things, practicing piano three to four hours a day, then study for everything else. I think it was great for what I needed to do. It was a great education. Asian Studies was really important to me too because I wanted to learn more about Japanese history and culture. I’m kinda a nerd.

How difficult was it working in the music industry?

It really hasn’t been that difficult, I think I have been very fortunate to have had a lot of support from friends and family. I know that not all my musical friends have that. I feel really fortunate to be able to come to a convention and come to perform. There are times when you book gigs at smaller venues, and you’re not sure if people will come. It’s not always glamorous. I don’t know if it ever is. [laughs] I think as long anything you do if you’re driven by your passion and your joy and all the right reasons that help you feel grounded. Things don’t really have to be difficult.

What goes through your mind when you performing on stage?

Well definitely the song I’m performing hopefully. Hopefully I’m not thinking about what I had for dinner. [laughs] Sometimes I think about the emotion of the song, it depends, sometimes I’m thinking about how to balance one song into the next song. Sometimes I’m thinking about the people who have requested songs, and I hope its meaningful to them. Or sometimes I’ll think about a past experience or something that initiated songs. It just really depends.

Outside of music, what are some of your other activities?

I love to dance, even though I am very bad at it. So I like to go dancing. I love gardening, that’s a big love for me. I could spend all day in my garden. Just planting and weeding and spacing out. I really enjoy teaching a lot. I teach piano students, and I taught chorus camps all summer. That was just so fun, I worked with seven to ten year olds, and we got to sing a bunch of fun songs. It was great!

Are you’re an anime fan?

Oh yeah, I am. I watched a lot of anime as a kid in Tokyo growing up. A lot of older things like,Doraemon and Astro Boy, things like that. When I first started playing at anime conventions, I didn’t really know a lot of anime that American kids watched. So since I started playing at conventions, I think I’ve become more of an anime fan, because I’ve learned about more titles. I love Fruits Basket and Ghost in the Shell. I’m always learning about new things. My favorite thing right now is Hikaru no Go, I think it’s a great series. I stopped about ten episodes to the end; I just couldn’t bear to watch all of it. I didn’t want it to be over. [laughs].

Do you play any video games?

My favorite video game is Katamari [Damacy]! I have both games. When it comes out on Wii, I think I’m going to have to get a Wii for it. And also Super Mario [Brothers] and Yoshi, I like the cute games. They make me happy!

What’s your favorite food(s)?

Sushi! Sushi is my absolute favorite. I get really excited and happy, when I have good sushi. I cook a lot. I cook Japanese curry, and lot of stir fry and stuff. I love Indian food. A good samosa is one of my favorite things!

Heh, I can agree there, what is your favorite music genre or music artist?

Classical music is always going to be very dear to me. But I listen to a lot of female vocalists. I love Bjork and Tori Amos. I get inspired by Nine Inch Nails, who work with electronica. Push the boundaries a little bit, anything with honest soul and feeling. I’ve been kind of in a soulful jazzy kind of mood lately, listening to Nina Simone and Billy Holiday, Stevey Wonder, a lot of more soulful kind of singers.

What is your favorite song (Japanese and American)? 

That’s a hard one for me. I would have to say, Japanese songs, a lot of folk songs and children songs that I heard as child. Those will probably always be my favorite songs. Like “Aka Tombo” (Red Dragonfly). It’s a really simple, but beautiful song. I think that will always be my favorite Japanese folksong. I don’t know if I can pin down a song in English. That would be too hard I think. I listen to so many different things, and it changes though right now my favorite is probably Bjork covering Joni Mitchell. She does this song called the “Boho Dance”. I had to put it on my car stereo on repeat, because I loved it so much. It made me happy to listen to.

Have you ever performed outside of America or plan to? 

I’ve performed in Canada a couple of times at conventions. That’s been a lot of fun. You know…[translating] ‘Oh Canada’ into Japanese…kinda crazy [giggles]. I’d like to perform in Japan at some point, but I haven’t yet. That’s on the list, and Europe is on the list.

What was the most embarrassing memory you have?

Oh my goodness! I don’t know I’m embarrassed constantly on a daily basis. I think that comes with the territory of being Japanese. I don’t know, that’s too hard, I get embarrassed a lot. I’d have to think about that one. Honestly. Oh! I was embarrassed yesterday, when there was a line after the Japanese Panel. I was signing autographs. There are two lines, I was turning from one line to the next line, and I think I turned to the wrong line, and then there a girl that was upset and left. So I felt bad. I don’t know I’m bad at remembering funny moments.

Did you enjoy your stay with MechaCon and experiencing the South Louisiana culture and foods?

I did! I think I love being in the south. People at this convention, and generally of Louisiana are just warm, down to Earth people. It makes me happy to be around that. And yeah I think I love Cajun cooking a little bit tooooo much! But yes gumbo is great and I love seafood. So it was great.

Will you come back next year for a third MechaCon Concert?

I think that’s up to MechaCon, but anytime they want to invite me I would love to come back.

I’ll talk to Jon and Peter for you. 

Lastly, for all those aspiring artists out there, what advice can you give them to help them along with their careers?
I think following your passion, following what you love to do, what is meaningful to you, what brings you joy. I think it’s different for different people. It’s not just about training or talent. You have to be driven by the want to do something; to do it. I think with artists. You don’t get paid a lot to be an artist in any field; whether it’s acting or music or anything. I think initially, you have to just want to do it so badly, and enjoy it; that there is no other choice. If you’re following your heart, that’s where all the good things come from.