Crystal Kay (クリスタル・ケイ) is undeniably one of the leading ladies that shook the Japanese music scene in the early 2000s, charting top hits after hit with her soothing and vibrant R&B vocals. Debuting in 1999 at the bright, young age of 13, she was one of the first biracial music artists to gain national recognition. Her breakthrough album, “Almost Seventeen” in 2002, debuted at #2 on the Oricon charts and sold over 400,000 copies to date – an amazing feat for any person, let alone a teenager who was still figuring out her identity, navigating the music industry, all while juggling to complete her homework on time.
For those who grew up with J-pop, it’s become something of a shared-emotional experience as soon as the iconic lyrics, “この町で / Kono machi de…,” and melody of “Boyfriend -part II-” drops, stopping folks in their tracks and eliciting a wave of nostalgia. As an anime fan, leisurely passing by a karaoke room at an anime convention floor, you can’t help but instantly recognize the iconic and power vocals of “Motherland” from Full Metal Alchemist (2003) and “Konna ni Chikaku de…” from Nodame Cantabile (2007) being belt out from the speakers. At a time where physical album sales, primarily distributed in Japan, indicated an artist’s success and digital sales (a la MP3s) were in its infancy, it is surprising how far Kay’s music traveled and was able to resonate with fans in the West, transcending barriers, simply through word of mouth, on forums, and via anime. Crystal Kay has undoubtedly cemented her lasting influence in the industry and as an international icon.
NEW SINGLE, “THAT GIRL”
Crystal Kay has collaborated with many artists throughout her career, but none is as synonymous with her sound and style than m-flo. The top-charting single, “Ex-Boyfriend,” in 2001 was one of the first of many collaborations with m-flo, including “REEWIND! / I Like It,” and more. Celebrating her 25th anniversary since debut, Crystal Kay is back again with the new single “That Girl” produced by m-flo’s ☆Taku Takahashi!
BRIDGING THE EAST & WEST
Crystal Kay has had an illustrious career, not just as a singer, but also in acting and voice over roles. It’s fair to say that she’s always known she would be an entertainer. Music is in her blood. Her musical parents inspired her interest in jazz, motown, R&B, rock, and pop. Born in Yokohama, Japan to a Korean mother and African-American father, her unique cultural background and upbringing on a naval base lent to her unique outlook and sound. Not just a Japanese-music artist, but an international one at that, streaming in 178 countries last year alone via Spotify Unwrapped, Kay hopes to continue to be a bridge between the East and the West.
This J-pop queen is now a Los Angeles-transplant and she’s branching out. Last year, the songstress performed an intimate acoustic set at two sold out venues, with hopefully, more tours on the way.
Check out our exclusive interview here as she reflects on career, cultural identity, and what’s to come:
Music runs in the family. How did that influence your style and your career in music? When you first started as a professional music artist at 13, did you think you would still be doing music now?
With my mother being a singer before I was born and my father being a bassist in a band, I was always surrounded by music. We would constantly be going to shows and I’d be listening to whatever my parents were. Their musical taste was quite eclectic too. Mom loved “black music” and both of my parents had quite a vinyl collection that included Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Maze, Earth Wind and Fire, and The Stylistics to name a few.
As I got a little older, I started listening to TLC, Mariah Carey, Brandy, Monica, Aaliyah, and all the R&B and Top 40 pop music that were dominating the charts.
I definitely grew up in the MTV era and was captivated by Michael and Janet’s visuals and choreography. All these different styles have shaped and influenced my artistry as a musician in various ways. Sometimes I would incorporate a western pop and R&B sound, along with mixing in English in my predominantly Japanese lyrics. I always had the world in mind when making my music and want anyone to be able to bop along to my songs, even if there is a language barrier. I also love to dance (probably thanks to Michael and Janet!). I feel like a great entertainer is someone who can sing, dance, and put on a great performance.
When I started as a professional artist at the age of 13, I did believe that I would still be doing music now. I have often wondered (at least once or twice a year) what else I could be doing aside from music and every time I draw a blank. I know I’ll be doing music until my last breath!
You have such a unique background, growing up in Japan as a Korean-African American on a military base. You’ve spoken a lot about identity in previous interviews. Thinking back over the years, has that conversation about identity and ethnicity changed? And do you have any advice for biracial artists entering the industry today?
I think I am more aware and accepting of my uniqueness as I’ve gotten older. I feel very privileged to have experienced life on the naval base in Yokohama, Japan. The community is very tight knit, warm, and diverse. Growing up here gave me the unique ability to understand different cultures even though I have only ever lived in Japan. I was able to experience American culture within the base, Japanese culture in Japan, and the Korean culture through my mother (and her family). I think I’m still on my journey to understand my identity as I breakout more internationally. I am becoming more comfortable in my skin and embracing what makes me, me! I’d say my advice is to find whatever it is that you are confident in that no one else can do like you; just hone in on that to really magnify your light and share it with the world! Being biracial is a superpower, kind of like a tamatebako, a treasure box. You are influenced by multiple cultures, and it comes out in such beautiful ways, whether it’s your look, your voice, your moves, anything! The more confident and comfortable you are with yourself, the more people will gravitate toward your light.
You performed at Anime Expo’s OTAQUEST LIVE event back in 2018 and have performed several anime theme songs. Many fans were introduced to your music through those songs. How do those projects usually come about? How does the preparations for a song that will be used in anime, movie, or drama differ from your regular music?
These projects come about in different ways. Some will be through a competition the label suggests to the TV producers. Other times, a producer can specifically request for me to sing and or create a theme song for them. I don’t feel there is a difference in preparing for songs used in an anime, movie or drama because I’m not usually molding myself for the project. There are adjustments for lyrics or the theme to match the characters of the project. For example, it was a rare and a fun experience having Pikachu sing and talk throughout my special edition collaboration for my single “One” which was the theme song for the Pokémon movie.
Aside from singing, you’ve also ventured into other performance mediums such as stage plays, movies, and voice acting. What triggered your interest in branching out? Do you have a preference?
I’ve always loved entertaining people from all angles. Movement, singing, and acting are all interconnected and forms of expression. As a child, I recall always wanting to share stories and play characters, but there wasn’t really anyone like me on the Japanese screen or just roles in general for people like me which I think is why it never came to fruition. But now with streaming and the growth of diversity, there’s so much more opportunities out there and I’m ready to grab them. I want to realize my full potential and be the bridge between the East and the West. I’m not sure I have a preference in terms of performance mediums as I feel I’m still new to the acting side, but I would love to do more film and TV!
This is just crazy 😧
— Crystal Kay (@CKAY26) November 30, 2023
You recently posted a screenshot of your Spotify for Artist’s 2023 Wrapped summary, which revealed that your music has been streamed in 178 countries. The top five countries were Japan, United States, Taiwan, Canada, and Indonesia. Were you surprised by these results? Has the thought of ever being considered as an international music artist versus a Japanese artist crossed your mind?
It was certainly a pleasant surprise as it really indicates the change of times and technology. Nowadays, it’s so easy for anyone to be exposed to music from around the world thanks to YouTube and streaming platforms. It was only a decade or so ago that it would cost an arm and a leg to get access to international music – that is if it was available at all.
Seeing all the love and support from all over the world is heartwarming.
It makes me want to go and do shows in those countries! And wow – I never thought really thought of that. From now on, I’ll call myself an international music artist!
Social media platforms and streaming services have played no small part in bridging Asian pop-culture to other parts of the world. As one of the early artists that helped to break barriers and contribute to that, what are your impressions of being an Asian artist in today’s music industry? How has the Internet changed your profession and/or the way you engage with fans?
I think Asian artists are in a very good position today! The world is becoming more familiar and open to Asian artists and music. It’s nice to see the growth in interest – it makes me want to root for us even harder because there is such a variety of Asian artists in the styles and sounds they have to offer to the world.
The internet has definitely changed my profession as it has expanded my listeners and exposed me and my music to the world in such an immense way. It has also helped open the labels minds from the very square sales and numbers driven approach to releasing music. The internet has also enabled me to interact with my fans in real time and form a bond with them no matter where they are in the world.
How has it been like going back and forth from LA to Japan? Having lived in New York for several years, is there a reason why you chose to make your second-home base LA versus NYC (or any other city)?
I’m still at the beginning of it all, but it has been nice to see the differences both culturally and industry wise between Japan and the US. It also motivates me to expose myself more so I can grow my fanbase in the US, which is something I have wanted to do from the beginning. I chose LA as it’s one of the largest entertainment hubs in the world, and because I am interested in venturing into acting.
one of my fav moments singing “Kirakuni” produced by @officialjamandlewis at my acoustic show at Ziggy in September 🙌🏾when u dnt need background coz THE CROWD
— Crystal Kay (@CKAY26) November 25, 2023
You’ve recently had an intimate performance at the Hotel Ziggy and Stowaway in Los Angeles earlier this year. What was your experience performing in LA, and can we anticipate more shows or tours in the US?
I loved every moment of it. I can’t believe both shows sold out with such short notice too! I was so happy to actually see and meet my US fans in the flesh. I’m grateful that so many people know my music and it really motivated me to do shows in the US. So yes, be on the lookout for a Crystal Kay tour soon. We’re currently working on it!
Can fans look forward to any upcoming releases in the near future?
Yes! I have a new single coming out on January 29th called “That Girl” and it’s produced by Taku Takahashi from M-Flo!
As you reflect on your illustrious 25-year career, what advice would you offer your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to stay true to my bubbly pure self, keep up my good grades and work ethic because it really is to your advantage. Don’t worry so much about what people think or say. Embrace and be proud of your biracial goodness! Live in the now and enjoy the present. And learn Korean!
Universal Music Profile: https://www.universal-music.co.jp/crystal-kay/
X (formerly Twitter): https://twitter.com/CKAY26