Interviewed by Hisa
Written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nelson Babin-Coy (USA)
(He’s been in Japan since 2005)
Nelson is an American singer-songwriter who writes songs in Japanese and sings in Japanese. He started studying Japanese and playing music kind of late, when he was mid-teen. But he speaks Japanese like a native Japanese speaker. Also he is making a bid for a debut in the major Japanese music scene this year instead of taking a big, big risk.
*Interview in Sangenjaya, Setagaya-ku
Don’t touch my mustache!
I came here about almost seven years ago when I was 15. There’s a thing called “Sister City Program”and my hometown, Burbank, California, had an exchange program withOta, Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo.
Gunma was a very countryside but people were great. So I really enjoyed my host family. A lot of friends that I made were very, very nice. It was just a really comfortable and relaxing experience.
I didn’t have any knowledge of the Japanese language at all at that time. The language was very difficult so we used English phrases that sound like Japanese. For example, “Do-itashi-mashite” (You’re welcome) we say as “Don’t touch my mustache!”. We say it really fast and it sounds like “Do-itashi-mashite“.
I was born again in Japan.
I was very excited to come back to Japan. When I went back to America, I started saying Japanese and everyday I was planning to come back to Japan. When I stayed with my host family, I felt like I was a part of a family.
I’m an only child. My parents didn’t get married so it was always my mom and me. So there was no really family feeling for me. That’s fine because I had a great time and I had a good childhood.
But when I came to Japan, with a host family, mom, dad, two sisters and a brother, and I was another brother, another son. That was an amazing feeling to feel a part of a family. That was a feeling that I’ve never had. So that was very impressive, very emotional, I guess. I was born again in Japan.
My first performance.
My first place where I played music for the first time is Japan. When I came to Gunma for the exchange program, we had a “Sayonara Party”, where all the students had to go on stage and show off a talent for all the host families. There were 200 or 300 people. At that time, I had no talent. But I just received a guitar from my dad so I played a guitar. However I played it very, very bad.
At the Sayonara Party, the first time ever I sang in front of people. It was terrible but after I finished singing, everyone clapped. Everyone really enjoyed my performance. That moment of feeling, appreciation, was amazing.
I had never felt it before. I really wanted to feel it again. Even though I sang in English, they understood what I was saying. I realized, “Music is one language”. That will be translated anywhere in the world. And after that I felt I really wanted to be a musician.
I got shocked by J-POP.
The very first musician I heard was “Morning Musume“. When I saw them, there were so many mid-teen girls and they were not very good singers. So I was very surprised and I wondered why that was popular. So when I first came, I didn’t like Japanese music.
But actually the first Japanese artist I really enjoyed was “Dragon Ash“, the Japanese hip-hop group. I felt it was very cool because it’s both a kind of rap and pop, mixture of many different styles. I thought that kind of music was not in the US, very unique to Japan at that time.
Once I started learning Japanese and understanding words, I really got into Mr.Children. That’s my favorite band. I went to Karaoke when I came back to Japan one time, my friend sang one of their songs. When I saw their lyrics, I learned they sing very good things. The lyrics were really deep. That’s when I really got into writing Japanese music.
Find a reason why you are studying the language in order to get better.
Japanese is a very difficult language but I wanted to speak it. If you want to speak something, it’s very easy because it’s fun. I wanted to speak Japanese right away. So in that sense, I enjoyed learning Japanese so it became good very fast.
I came here for the first time when I was 15 but I didn’t take classes until 18. I studied by myself for three years. I bought books, I read things on the internet. But at the same time, I had many Japanese friends in Los Angeles. I asked them to speak only Japanese. My ears got used to it within a few months. I could pick out the words.
Then I learned it by speaking. I became fluent in conversation before the classes. In that way, also by singing in Japanese. My pronunciation was not really good because I was more about reading, I was just speaking. So I surrounded myself in Japanese culture. I had many Japanese friends, I listened Japanese music, I watched Japanese TV. Even though I didn’t understand the language, as time went on, it slowly started hitting me.
I just immersed myself in the language. And once I got to a college, I wanted to major in Japanese. It was just making me sure that I enjoyed it. I got a really good grade because I had fun. It’s really important to find something you like about the language. You’ve got to find a reason why you are studying the language in order to get better.
Overcome images, overcome boundaries.
I have two characters. When I’m in America, I’m very American. But when I’m in Japan, I’m very Japanese. But to me, honestly, the Japanese version of me is more natural. When I’m in Japan, I feel much more natural than when I’m in the US.
If I’m talking to a Japanese person in Japanese, obviously I don’t look Japanese. But 30 minutes after we start talking, he/she feels like, “You’re an American, right? I totally forgot.” I feel so good about it because I feel I’ve overcome images. I’ve overcome country boundaries.
That’s something that I really treasure and I want to spread that feeling more in Japan. Americans are not Americans, Japanese are not just Japanese. So my big dream for the future is to go around the world and sing in many different languages. And I want to make people feel, “This guy isn’t any different from me even though he is American.” That’s my ultimate goal in the future.
As for lyrics, there’s always an idea of “peace”. One of my common things is just showing that we’re not different from each other no matter where you’re from. We’re all the same human beings. That’s the common thing.
So I want to visit many other places. I want to know more people, I want to visit more places and understand what human is.
I’m not trying to be an international superstar.
If you really want to make it big in the world, you should go to Los Angeles, Hollywood or New York. But right now I’m not trying to be an international superstar. I’m just trying to do what I want to do and it’s singing in Japanese.
So for me, the best place is Tokyo. I want to be an example for people who want to learn foreign languages. I’m telling them they can do it if they work on it hard enough. That’s not much what I’m saying in my lyrics but also what I’m saying with my action.
I sing in Japanese because I love the language.
Since then, I’ve been writing music for six or seven years. And I’m in Tokyo. I want to be a musician in Tokyo because I want to write and sing in Japanese.
I think it’s very difficult to sing in a foreign language in America.
Why I sing in Japanese is because I love the language. I think the words are very poetic. Emotions are put in one word or one small phrase.
In English, everyone says things very straight. They say, “I love you” straight out. But in Japan, they don’t say like that. They talk about trees, weather, a lot of images. Those images mean something so you have to think. It’s very beautiful.
Same thing, when I studied Japanese ancient literature such as “Kokin-shu” or “Man’yo-shu”, I was very moved by all those images. Just an image of the cherry blossom in the spring time can make people feel so many things. So I’ve really enjoyed Japanese lyrics. That’s why I write in Japanese.
Lyrics are more important than sound.
I think lyrics are more important than sound. Because no matter how good a singer is or bad a singer is, if what he/she is singing about is good, it’ll touch you. So personally I think that lyrics make good music. What make songs last and be very popular for a long time and influential are the lyrics.
Realistically, I do not think Japanese artists would overcome European or American artists because of the language barrier. English is right now like the world’s language. So even if Japanese people don’t understand English, they think it’s cool to listen to it.
But opposite doesn’t happen. If American people like the music but lyrics are Japanese, they won’t listen to it because they don’t understand what it’s saying. In that way, American people are very closed-minded. So I think it will be very difficult if Japanese artists want to go to America, sing in Japanese and become popular.
But personally, I think Japanese lyrics are incredibly way above American lyrics or English lyrics.
“You’re a terrible singer.”
Honestly, when I first came to Tokyo, I expected to learn Japanese and be an international business person. But as time went on, I got more serious into music. I really wanted to be a musician. So when I first came here to just study abroad and I went to Keio University. Then I got scouted by an independent label. I felt like, “I’m a rock star!”.
But the first thing he told me is, “You’re a terrible singer.” That was a big shock because I thought I could really do it. At that point, that was when I gave up my dream of being a musician because I thought my voice wasn’t good enough. Actually so many people are better than me.
Before I came to Tokyo, I was really thinking that I would be able to make it. I speak Japanese, I write Japanese, I sing in Japanese. I thought it would be very unique. But obviously it’s not true. But after I started doing my YouTube project (it’s called “Nel’s one chorus series“on YouTube), I realized I have many fans. So I still have hopes to be successful in this field.
Taking the bet.
This year (2008) is the year to prove myself. I guess this year is my challenge. My fight this year because I have a visa for one year. And unfortunately there’s no way I can continue working as an English teacher and do music at the same time. It’s too difficult. I can not balance the two. So I need to focus on one or the other.
For me, I want to be a musician. So in a few months, I plan to stop teaching English and focus 100% on music. Unfortunately, there’s no 100% guarantee I’ll be successful. So if I’m not successful then I cannot have a visa, I’ll have to go back to America in November. So my plan for this year, I’ll just try as hard as I can and impress people with my music. And hopefully, get a deal.
The wall between professional and amateur doesn’t matter.
The wall between a good amateur musician and a professional musician is very, very high. Because being a professional musician means you’re perfect. So I think it’s very, very high and it’s also very, very competitive. Because I started to sing when I was 15. It’s only been six or seven years at most and I’ve never taken lessons. So obviously I’m behind. I’m definitely not in any shape to be a professional musician, singing somebody’s songs.
But as a singer-songwriter, I think that professional and amateur, the wall, does not matter. Because it’s all about the music and how you can affect people.
And I think there’re a lot of fan of my YouTube project. It shows I have talent or something that affects people. They let me know how my voice or songs really affect them. They really enjoy them. Sometimes they told me they cried after listening to my songs. And obviously when I hear thing like that, I feel I can make someone cry or feel very strongly. Then something’s there. So I think singer-songwriters are all how hard you work. The fan base, I guess.
Honestly, I guess it’ll take many years for me to be a professional singer or a guitar player, or a song writer. But if I keep trying hard, I have the fan base and I can break down that wall and keep going my way but at the same time, be successful.
I can do it, so you can do it.
My goal in Japan is to show people, “if you try hard enough, you can achieve anything” That’s my ultimate goal. And right now I still do music because I think being in the entertainment industry, being out there, showing that I wasn’t born in Japan and I didn’t live here when I was young but I started studying Japanese when I was 16. To show that I’ve been able to achieve so many things in short time. I want to be a role model for many people. I want people to feel, “If you can do it, I can do it.”
Nelson’s band “nothing ever lasts”
What is Tokyo to you?
It’s a place where the Japanese “Nel” can be himself.
And it’s a place where I can do anything. I mean I feel that I have the opportunities to achieve my goal. At the same time, be close enough to my host family in Gunma and friends that I can live a very, very full life.
Tokyo lets me be who I am. And I want to keep Japan as my home because I think Japan is the place where I was reborn.
His blog (Only in Japanese): http://ameblo.jp/otononagare/
nothing ever lasts’ website (Only in Japanese): http://nothingeverlasts.com/
“Nel’s One Chorus Series: http://jp.youtube.com/user/nothingeverlasts