Monday, July 16, 2012

The Story of an English-Teaching Singer-Songwriter in Japan

 

 In September of 2009, I came to Tokyo to become a musician.

Well no, I couldn't say that this was 100% true. I also came to explore a country and culture I'd been interested in for years, apply my Japanese language skills, find myself, explore, dream, develop...
But just to simplify, let's say the main goal was to become a musician. 
That certainly was the largest driving point at the time, when I graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Cognitive Science at age 20, and flew over to work in a foreign country for the first time a few months after turning 21. I was still dizzy with how fast things were proceeding. But giddy with the knowledge that I was the one who had made this happen - all simply because I wanted it so much.

I'm often asked this by people who have seen my videos on Youtube or know a little about my story - How did you get to Japan, and how did you make this music thing happen?
Some parts of the story were a bit tough for me to explain, so I have been purposefully vague about giving answers in the past.
But now, almost 3 years later, I thought it was high time to write about it.

 

Before flying over to Japan, before even graduating college, I searched for jobs specifically in Tokyo, where I knew I needed to be for my musical activities. I made a promise with myself that I would first find a full-time job and be able to support myself financially, before hopping over and starting to pursue music. Although I received rejections, I was very lucky to land one offer with an English-teaching company located in central Tokyo that agreed to sponsor my work visa. Elated, I made all my preparation; the wait until departure was agonizingly slow. But before I knew it, I was waving my goodbyes and had already arrived at Narita Airport, lugging my two suitcases and a guitar through the glass doors. Alone.

I left behind everything I knew in California. This was a step I had prepared myself to take. My wonderful and supportive friends from high school and college, my family who were still slightly reeling from shock and wondering why, the food, the beautiful California weather and nature, the place that was my comfort zone. I left behind all of it, took a deep breath, and took the step that whisked me across the ocean, 5000 miles away. Of course I was nervous and scared. I even cried one night on that first week, wondering what the hell I was doing and if I was gonna make it. But pretty soon, things started to change for me, and change rapidly.

 

 First of all, I had absolutely no time to be moping and missing home. As a matter of fact, no time even for jet lag. After arriving in Tokyo in the evening, I was taking the crowded commuter train and finding my way to my new company the very next morning. After a couple of all-day trainings, I was immediately set to teach at an elementary school that same week on Friday - four classes of over 30 students each. I was absolutely petrified. And on top of all that, I was still living out of a small hotel room for the whole first week, not being able to find and finally move into an apartment until that weekend.

Teaching in Japan was a whole new experience - my company had the style where it sent their teachers all around Tokyo and surrounding areas to teach on-location. That meant I was constantly traveling to elementary schools, junior high schools, and also businesses, teaching English to all ages from kids to manager-level businesspeople. I would often take the train to two or three different locations in a day, sometimes waking up around 6:30 am and getting back home at 10 or 11 pm. Some days were easier, where I had just a few classes at a certain time and could have the rest of the day off. But there was also a lot of preparation and lesson-planning to do outside of classes, and overall, I was extremely busy until I started to get more of a feel for English-teaching about six or seven months in. 
The good thing about that job was that I was literally forced to get familiar with the different stations around Tokyo and all the different train lines within a very short span of time. Also, I learned how to talk to just about any kind of person, and I had some pretty rewarding experiences with some students. 

 

 On the other hand, music was keeping me very busy as well. Through my Youtube videos and Japanese blog, I had connected with a few contacts before coming to Tokyo, and they were kindly willing to help me move forward in my music activities in Japan. Therefore, I found myself rushing to music-related meetings after work, playing shows at nights and on weekends, and focusing my free time on writing new songs. The shows were amazing - I found that I loved singing live to people, and I was always so amazed and grateful that people who knew me from my videos and blog showed up to cheer me on at those shows. Talking with these supporters gave me a great deal of courage and a sense of purpose. 
Also starting to show up at my shows were people from the Japanese music and entertainment industry. I was starstruck - some of these companies and staff worked with really big artists! After some meetings with prospective music companies and industry people, I accepted an offer from a label within one of the largest music companies in Japan. The plan was for me to start being "developed" by that label and grow to the level of eventually having major CD releases; it didn't mean that I was signed and could start living off music only. So during this time, I continued working full-time at my English-teaching job.

 

 Less than six months since my arrival in Tokyo, and I was already making plans with a label - there was great excitement in the air. I continued to perform at live houses, write songs, make videos, and go to meetings. (The music industry meetings were conducted all in Japanese, and more than once I found myself frustrated at my lack of ability to express properly or put power into my ideas... but that's another story.)
At first, I thought that all was going well with the music company - I had a goal that seemed just within reach. This was it. I was going to become a major artist, and my dreams were going to come true.
Unfortunately, a few factors came into play that again, changed things completely.

First of all, I was finding it hard to balance full-time work and music at the same time. I went into the agreement with the music label with the understanding that within a few months, I would be able to stop teaching English and focus on music full-time. However, this was not to be the case. As the weeks and months flew past, I was still working at both things as hard as ever, and starting to get exhausted. Even after some wonderful experiences at recording studios and the release of an indies mini-album, I was met with slow communication and vague responses. 
I was told that the sales of my CD did not match up with the number of subscribers on Youtube, although promotion had been left almost completely up to me alone. I was told that I should check with the staff before uploading any of my music or videos, and remove all the free mp3s I had up for download. I was given suggestions for music styles that completely weren't me but I didn't know how to refuse, and I was even advised to try changing my looks - wear more makeup, remove my glasses. Now I know that this is the standard, but at the time, I felt baffled, like my wings were getting torn off and I was being laden with one heavy chain after the next. Finally, when I was told that I would have to shut down my Youtube account after going major with them (and uh.. when would that be?), I had hit the last straw in my haystack.

While all this was going on, students from the classes I was teaching were starting to recognize me. A businessman waited until after class and whispered, "Aren't you the one on Youtube?"  When I first walked into a school class to introduce myself, a few times kids would shout out, "You play guitar on those videos, don't you!" The toughest one was at a junior high school I was assigned to for several days each week, where word spread like wildfire throughout the school about my singing videos. At first I had been flattered, but this time, I felt the control slipping while I tried to teach, I felt attention wander, I heard the snickers and shouts of "Youtube!" and "guitar!" from the class troublemakers. I was mortified. I'm not the type who can laugh along and joke with those kids, like some stereotyped English teachers; I'm much too serious and introverted in reality, and wished so badly to separate my English-teaching work from my music. I still did my best with teaching, but to be honest, I started to dread going to the school. And after explaining all these worries to the music company, I was still met with no resolutions.


 

Finally, after a long period of agonizing, wondering if I was just chickening out, wondering if I would regret, wondering wondering... 
I decided to sever ties with the music label. I had my reservations - so many people out there were trying their hardest to become professional musicians, and here I was going to pass up a chance most would die for - for what? For my freedom? My pride?
The answer was already in my heart, really. For my goal had been to "become an artist" at first, but after arriving here, after dipping into the business itself, I learned many things about the music industry. Not that it's necessarily "bad", and I do greatly admire those who work hard to progress and succeed in music. But I learned that I was searching for an empty dream, aiming at perhaps not the right goal itself, because if I wanted to become an artist, then maybe I already was one, and could be anytime I wanted, just by myself. I found that to me, music could only be something of the heart, of the soul - it was too hard for me to think of it from the business-only perspective, of cold facts and numbers and sales, of changing myself and who I am for what the industry *thought* was the right way. If I change, and I do all the time, I have to believe in it.

This is why, for a while there has been quite a gap in my music activities. Since ending things with the label, I have made changes that I do believe in, searched within myself, changed jobs (I'm no longer teaching English), and really started paying attention to what captures me. My music tastes and perception have changed greatly since then, as well as my self-perception and views on the world, on people, on life. I am slowing down and gradually discovering who I am.

And I am happier than I have ever been.

 

 The moral of this story is not that I have given up on music forever.
Because actually, there is still no ending in sight. In fact, I feel that this is just the beginning. I still sing and write songs. I'm also exploring and developing my interests in other areas, such as reading and writing, photography, fashion, and just enjoying life. Eventually, I want to somehow connect everything and bring it out into the world - or maybe, it's already starting to happen.

The above was just the short version of the story, and there were also other details involved in the process. But hopefully this has given you an idea of what has affected and changed me in the last few years since coming to Japan, and set the background for the story that continues to unfold in this blog. I hope you'll be here with me for the journey.

The sun is now rising in Tokyo, and it's one of the most beautiful skies I've ever seen.


♥ 
Lisa