‘Song monster’ Aya Shimazu transcends genres

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Aya Shimazu sings heartily.

Aya Shimazu is known to many by her nickname, “Uta-Kaiju,” meaning “song monster.” The talented enka singer often appears on TV wearing a kimono while singing covers of technically challenging songs by popular rock bands, such as King Gnu and Official Hige Dandism.

Shimazu is an exceptionally versatile singer. When singing enka — Japanese ballads — she enthralls the audience with her powerful, impassioned singing; when singing pop numbers, her crystalline tones sound brightly.

“Ever since making my debut, I’ve wanted to be the type of vocalist who can take on challenges in various genres,” Shimazu said. “I’m happy that I now get attention from young people who don’t even listen to enka.”

Shimazu’s ability to cross genres is exemplified by her 2010 cover album “Singer.” The disk’s opening track is Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” from the film “The Bodyguard,” which Shimazu delivers with gusto. She also takes on songs made famous by male singers. Though she may start such songs by crooning softly, she delivers the main hooks with surprising power.

The album was a great success and a number of similar releases have followed, each garnering great acclaim. Her seventh cover album was released last year.

In recent years, pop songs often feature a wide vocal range, key changes, shifting rhythms and complex melodies. “Songs by young people give me a lot of inspiration,” Shimazu said. “The lyrics have a lot of words and some of the melodies are so fast and finely subdivided that it’s difficult to know where to draw breath.”

Shimazu is known for taking on difficult requests as part of TV music shows. “I think I’m pretty quick at learning songs by heart,” she said. “I have my mother to thank for that.”

Strict lessons

Shimazu was born on March 28, 1971, in Kumamoto Prefecture. Her mother, Kumiko, loved singing, and Shimazu grew up listening to songs by Saburo Kitajima and other popular enka singers. From an early age, she took part in TV music shows and local competitions. By the age of 6, she had already won more than 100 competitions. Many organizers would not allow her to reenter these events because she was just too strong a contender. However, a local TV station producer created a special segment for her during a Saturday variety program where she would sing songs requested by viewers.

Shimazu says her success is down to her mother’s strict training regime: If the young Shimazu was unable to memorize the lyrics of a song in 15 minutes, her mother would lock her in the toilet.

“Of course, I couldn’t manage it at first,” Shimazu recalled with a laugh. “But gradually, I became able to do it out of fear.”

Even though her mother was enthusiastic about her daughter’s singing, she did not allow her to accept talent scout offers — which began coming in after she entered junior high school — telling her she had to wait until she was older.

“I was still a kid, and I thought I wouldn’t get too many chances,” Shimazu said. Despite opposition from her parents, Shimazu moved to Tokyo and made her professional debut when she was 15. However, she did not have any hit songs, no matter how hard she worked on her publicity campaigns.

When she was 19, she quit her management agency over artistic differences. But having left the agency before her contract had expired, she had to work as a company employee for about one year. “I was worried about whether I’d be able to make a second debut as a singer,” Shimazu said. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to sing anymore. It was the most anxious I ever felt.”

Major decision

Around the time her singing career was on hold, Shimazu made a major decision — she discarded all of her singing-related trophies and awards. She reasoned: “I might have [gone on to] become happy to be pampered and treated like an important person. I threw away [my prizes] to ‘reset’ myself. It was very refreshing and I felt as though something changed inside me.”

Around that time she met a voice trainer who was fluent in English. “That teacher helped me come up with the style of singing in English that I have to this day,” Shimazu said.

By the time she relaunched her career, Shimazu was more mature, artistically and emotionally. In 2001, she appeared in NHK’s Red and White Year-end Song Festival for the first time. It would take her 14 years to make a second appearance on the show, but by then, she had already established herself as an incomparable cover-song master. Shimazu credits her success to her mother, who now serves as president of her management office.

“My mother is my producer and my biggest fan. When I’m feeling nervous before a TV shoot, she tells me to do this or that, and we end up quarrelling, which is our routine,” she confided with a smile.

“My mother is the one who gathers information on songs that are popular among young people. She was a homemaker in a small town who dared to jump into an industry she knew nothing about in a big city. I think she must have experienced a lot of setbacks.”

The cover of Shimazu’s latest single “Hana toshite Hito toshite”

Shimazu remains fond of her enka roots. “It reaches deep inside my heart,” she said. “Songs by singers like Mr. Saburo Kitajima fill me with energy, giving me the power to move into the next day. I think the songs cheer people up — there’s no end to enka.”

Looking ahead

Shimazu’s latest single is “Hana toshite Hito toshite” (As a flower, as a person) on the Teichiku Records label. The song seems geared toward people who feel anxious and harbor uncertainty about the future. Shimazu sings the song cleanly and placidly, without the kobushi trills that are characteristic of enka.

“I think this song is about an important theme,” she enthused. “I want to get close to the people who listen to the song. I sang it with a mindset of looking ahead and walking forward.”

Shimazu has experienced various ups and downs. As a result, her love for others is evident in her singing.

“There are many veteran singers who deserve respect,” she said. “I’m still not much of a person. But it would be great if things I grew up on and the lessons I’ve learned in my 50 years allow me to deliver something special to you, the listeners.”