Clive Hacker spoke with Lee Tatlock about throwing spaghetti at the wall, only working with those she trusts, the intricacies of working in a Japanese pop career, how relocating helped her gain perspective and the innate value of distance.
My friend said “It’s all about throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.” I felt that was a great way to articulate my entire career up to now.
So, you’re British, and after living in Japan for nine years as a singer in a major Japanese pop group, you suddenly decide to quit and move back to the West. What was the catalyst?
It was a lot of things. My career was always moving forward and I had plenty of work. My band, Neko Punch, had played some big shows in Japan, like Sendai Rock, Moshi Moshi Nippon and Sunset Live Fukuoka. It was okay… but I was neither overly keen on the music or image. I couldn’t quit because I think I’d become dependent on it and worried about what I would lose if I dropped it all. So, I was just basically going along for the ride and not really for the music.
Then, I was introduced to Beck backstage at Fuji Rock. I’m a huge fan, so I was super excited to meet him, but unfortunately, the whole experience was soured. I didn’t really want to share anything with him about the music I was making in Japan. I just knew the music wasn’t the best I could do. So, I really didn’t want to talk about it. I was kind of frustrated by that and the next day I started writing new songs which became Cream with a K.
When you were a child did you dream of becoming a Japanese pop singer? What triggered this, and how was it brought to manifestation?
Yes I did. I was 14 years old when I definitely decided to become a Japanese pop singer… and that seemed a completely okay and feasible career choice. I learned Japanese and how to record and mix my own demos and went to Tokyo alone at 18 to pick up some modeling work while I worked on my Japanese and also my songcraft. I am a huge fan of a famous Japanese producer called Takeshi Kobayashi, and at 19, I met him at an afterparty. A couple of weeks later, I got my first record deal with his company.
You have played some huge shows in Tokyo. What would you say the formula is to become “big” in Japan?
I would say it’s the same as any other industry — you just need one thing that will change your career overnight. For Neko Punch, we won the Grand Prize of the EMI Revolution Rock competition, and after that, we were totally hyped. We were on the iTunes top 5 chart and stuff. My friend Misha Janette, who’s a popular fashion stylist in Tokyo, said “It’s all about throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.” I felt that was a great way to articulate my entire career up to now.
I feel a lot more aware of my environment, the people and my surroundings. I think there’s a lot more gratification when you see that the seeds you’ve sown are actually growing.
As Cream with a K, you write, play, produce and mix your music and even style and make your own music videos. Do you have a team? What is your creative process?
I can manage a lot by myself and I think I work best alone, but I realized recently that nothing truly “great” can be achieved with just one person. And working on your own, there will always be a compromise somewhere.
Music videos are a good example. I think Kurt Cobain always said he had problems with music videos. Working in groups can open up so many new ideas and possibilities, but I’ve also had problems with communication and ego clashes. So now I only work with small teams of people that I trust and who are aligned with my vision. There’s too much politics sometimes and it just ruins workflow. I try to be the “hub” of the team so to speak, so everyone else is connected more or less through me and the team is fresh. Then, we can just concentrate on creation and ideas.
Is writing a formulaic process for you or is it something metaphysical?
I think that recently pop music has become more formulaic… and don’t get me wrong, I think that can be okay. In fact, I think J-pop has mastered the formula to the point that they can get their audience to listen and stay focused right to the end of a four-minute song. Amazing. Although, for me, the idea of “formulaic music” is really an oxymoron. I don’t have a good knowledge of musical theory and I’m more of a intuitive writer. Recently, I think of it more as though music happens through you, rather than from you, and you capture something through the filter of your imagination. Most of the time, after I’ve finished a song, I can’t even remember how I wrote it. Music is the only thing that makes me feel like I’m using my time well.
Going from a major label artist to an indie artist… some people may think that’s a bold decision. What are your thoughts?
I love being an indie artist. I feel a lot more aware of my environment, the people and my surroundings. I think when I was in a major label, there was so much going on that I was unaware of… things just materialize from nothing. As an indie artist, I think there’s a lot more gratification when you see that the seeds you’ve sown are actually growing. At the end of the day, it’s all about the spaghetti analogy.
You’re in Tokyo right now to release a Japanese edition of your debut album on CD at Tower Records. Language not being a barrier, what’s it like to have that kind of freedom to live, work and create in Japan?
I love Tokyo for so many reasons and I’m lucky enough to have a core fanbase here, as well as friends and connections who support me and my art unconditionally. I have been in Japan since a teenager and throughout all my adult years so I’m now actually most comfortable in Tokyo. But Tokyo is a bubble — I just didn’t want to get trapped in that comfort. Although I’m grateful to Tokyo, I think I’ve grown so much since leaving the scene and getting some distance.
You recorded your LP in Los Angeles with Servant Records. After working with Japanese producers for the past eight or nine years, what was it like working with musicians and producers in the West for the first time?
Japanese people generally have a great work ethic; you can definitely expect to get something clean, chiseled out and beautiful. It’s a lot harder to get something raw-sounding, though. Working in LA with my producer at Servant Records was a lot of fun. It was closer to what I imagine making a record in the ’90s was like. I wanted to remake my demos to be more analog, so we basically played and experimented with every piece of gear available to us in the studio. We then decided what resonated with us best through trial and error. My producer would do the first mix and I’d do the second mix… and then usually we would end up meeting somewhere halfway. It was a long process which I don’t think many modern day producers would have been up for, and it was nothing like any of my studio experiences when working in J-pop.
On the other hand, I did have some problems working with musicians, as they don’t have the same work ethic as in Japan. They tend to be slow to get going, don’t show up at rehearsals with the songs learnt, or sometimes they don’t even show up. Pretty shocking for me. Most of all, lack of professionalism really drives me crazy.
Finally, what does Cream with a K have planned for the future?
As you mentioned, I’m releasing a pre-release of my LP on CD exclusively in Tokyo next month and playing some shows. We are also planning the release of my lead single, then working up to the international release of the album on all the platforms during the summer. So yeah, I’m predicting plenty more creative endeavors to come. I’m very much looking forward to it.
Curated by: Clive Hacker
Conducted by: Email
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: April 20, 2018
Total questions: 9
Word count: 1135
Reading time: Five minutes
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