J-pop singer-songwriters Miliyah Kato and Leo Ieiri sat down with Billboard Japan for its Women in Music interview series featuring female players in the Japanese entertainment industry. The WIM initiative in Japan launched in 2022 to honor artists, producers and executives who have made significant contributions to music and inspired other women through their work. The first 30 conversations in this series were published in Japan last year as a “Billboard Japan Presents” collection by writer Rio Hirai, who moderates this conversation between the two popular artists.
Ieiri and Kato are both set to perform at Billboard Japan’s Women In Music Vol. 2 concert on Feb. 8, along with the Tokyo Philharmonic Billboard Classics Orchestra led by Yukari Saito as conductor. While the styles of the two singers vary greatly, they share a common ground in the way they both delve deeply into their inner selves to sublimate what’s there into their music. In this conversation, Ieiri and Kato got to know each other better ahead of their upcoming WIM concert as they opened up about their mindsets on songwriting and their respective careers.
Tell us how you felt when you were asked to perform at Billboard Japan’s Women in Music Vol. 2 concert, and what you have in store for the show.
Miliyah Kato: The purpose of this concert, women’s empowerment, is something I’ve always valued like a mission throughout my career. I was happy to be tapped to do it and could immediately imagine the way I’d feel when I stood on that stage. It’ll be my first time performing with an orchestra at Tokyo Dome City Hall, and performing with Ms. Ieiri is also special, so I think we’ll be able to add further breadth to our show.
Leo Ieiri: This is actually our first time meeting each other, but when I heard that my collaborator would be Miliyah san, I was surprised and so happy at the same time. I went to an all-girls school and all of my classmates at the time loved your songs. I never thought I’d have an opportunity to work with you and am so honored.
Miliyah: I guess you’re a bit younger than me? I recognized you as an artist with a fresh, wonderful voice, and I think we share something in common in that we both create songs by digging into our personal sides. I feel close to people who can share their dark sides like that.
Leo: Thank you so much. After all, it’s pretty much a given that the experience of falling in love or having feelings for someone could end up hurting you, right? When my soul was still childish, I couldn’t stand that hurt and songs would be born from there. As I’ve gotten older and gone through more experiences, I’ve come to understand that loving someone includes that hurt. I want to convey such changes in a woman’s mindset and growth through my songs.
I listened to your song “Aitai” in my school days, and when I listen to it again as an adult, it sounds so fresh and I can tell that it describes a different state of mind compared to the lyrics you write now. A female artist who has built her own history like that is so great.
Miliyah: Thank you. I made my debut in my teens and spent my 20s and 30s as a singer, and feel that my songs reflect the way I live my life and how I spend my days. I don’t think I’m great just because I’ve been doing this for a long time, but I’ve been able to do this for so long because of the people who listen to my music, and that’s something to be very thankful for. So I want to show my gratitude by creating places where people can have fun, like concerts.
Ms. Kato, you mentioned that the empowerment of women has been like a mission in your career. Have you always felt this way?
Miliyah: I became a singer by singing about things that were bothering me. My third single, “Dear Lonely Girl,” came out when I was 16. I was in high school at the time, and I hated grownups. [Laughs] I hated being judged so much, but I didn’t understand myself, either, and felt kind of lonely. When I sang about how I felt with bleached blonde hair, it turned out a lot of girls around me could relate. It felt like people noticed my existence, and I realized, “This is what I should sing about,” and felt it was my mission to encourage women through my songs. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
Leo: That’s so cool. I’ve never really been too aware of empowering women before. I’ve always thought that there’s an infinite number of identities other than female and male, and that there’s no gender difference in how a person feels. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I became aware of my female identity in a new way. I think it was during what they call the “quarter-life crisis,” when I was trying to figure out how I should live from then on. More of my friends were getting married or having kids, so the awareness came naturally. But I think the melodies that come from such shifting emotions and casual daily life resonate with people the most, so I want to keep singing songs like that.
Miliyah: Now that I’m in my 30s, I think my way of thinking has changed so much that it’s hard to believe. Women in particular go through ups and downs because of the changes in their hormones or life stages. But if you stop and look back on your life, I’m sure you’ll see you did your best during each decade. I faced myself seriously from moment to moment and the results are evident in my music.
Leo: That’s so true. I’m 29 now, and I’ve been looking really forward to hitting my thirties, and hearing you say that just now makes me feel more strongly about it. I’ve included parts of myself that are embarrassing and weak in my songwriting, and as I grow older, I sometimes look back on the things I made in the past and wonder why I was thinking that way at the time. But they prove I’ve been opening the door to my heart and making music seriously. I sometimes sing songs written by other people, which is also really fun, but I’m set on continuing to write my own lyrics as well.
We women accumulate personas, don’t we? To marry or not, to have kids or not… there are so many paths and so many roles that we’re forced to take on. How we maintain our identity in the midst of all that is important. Looking at your Instagram, I’m struck by how energetic you are. You work out stoically, yet you also enjoy shaved ice and whatnot as a treat for yourself. It helps me see that people who keep moving ahead have two sides, taking time to be strict and easy with themselves as needed.
Miliyah: Oh wow, you’ve checked out my account? [Laughs] Yes, I think being up for a challenge in life is definitely more interesting. There are people who want to pursue beauty, and there are people who want to live a simple life without luxuries, and it doesn’t matter what you take on as a challenge.
I say I want to empower people, but that desire might make me unwittingly use strong words and that could make the recipient think they need to achieve something big. But that’s not what I really want to get across. I think living is also about how much you end up liking yourself over the course of your life. We all have our own hang-ups and it’s impossible to force yourself to keep working hard all the time. But everyone is equally capable of taking on a challenge. If you keep challenging yourself, no matter how small, I think you’ll come to like yourself even more than you do now.
Like you said, women experience changes in their environment and their sensibilities depending on the stages in their lives. Is there anything you both value in order to continue your singing career for a long time and in a healthy way?
Miliyah: Well, I think what I value is the sense of trying to be strong, even if I can’t always be strong. As a solo artist, I’m the only one who bears the brunt, but behind the scenes I’m being supported by my staff and fans. So in order to be the kind of person that everyone wants to follow, I want to stay strong, cheerful, and energetic. I can stay strong even when things make me nervous because I never forget that.
Leo: I think all human beings are actually weak. Men and women are equal in mind, but their bodies are inevitably built differently. So the inclinations stemming from those differences led to women being forced in the home, into weaker positions at certain points in history. When you find yourself in such positions, it’s up to you to choose whether you live your life feeling sorry for yourself, or thrive because you don’t want people to feel sorry for you. I think Ms. Kato is a really strong person who believed in herself and walked with a sense of mission no matter what position she found herself in.
There was a time when I thought I wasn’t cut out for a career in music and wanted to quit. At that time, I helped out at a nursery school, partly because I like picture books. But when I spent some time in another field, I was able to look at my own situation objectively. I realized I liked to sing after all and returned. I don’t know if I’m suited for it or not, but I couldn’t pretend that I don’t love it.
Hearing that you felt conflicted like that even though you’re so successful comes as a surprise. What advice would you both give yourself when you were just getting started in your career? In particular, Ms. Kato, you debuted when you were just 16. What did worry about back then?
Miliyah: In the first year of my career, I was like 100 times bolder than I am now. [Laughs] Lacking experience and ability, I was bold out of ignorance. But if I could speak to myself from back then, I’d probably say, “You don’t have to worry so much.” Unlike today, social media wasn’t as widespread, and maybe things were easier in that sense, but even while being bold, there was a part of me that worried about people’s reactions and thought maybe I’d get in trouble. So I’d tell younger me to just go all out.
Leo: Well, I was desperate to find a way to protect my worldview. I was even afraid of things that people said to me out of kindness, because I felt like they were dismissing who I was. Now I truly want people to tell me what they think because I know that stimulation from the outside is what expands my own world.
But because of that time I spent protecting myself like that, I enjoy meeting people later on in life. You don’t have to try to be so mature, and if you’re afraid, it’s OK to protect yourself. I’d like to say to myself at that time, “If something bad happens to you, try to understand what it is you don’t like about it and let your feelings out.”
—This interview by Rio Hirai (SOW SWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan
Powered by Billboard.