Kiyomi (meaning pure beauty) is a Japanese American singer/songwriter living in NY who was born into a very musical family. She has had an immense passion for singing and music ever since she can remember, and has pursued it her whole life. Her education in Classical Voice at NYU, and Composition at SUNY Purchase has helped in her songwriting, however she mostly uses her ear and inspirations that come through her to write her music. Her lyrics come straight from her life experiences which are constantly being recorded in her 23 journals (and counting).
Kiyomi has performed all across the US, including performances for foreign ambassadors and members of the UN. She’s also has had the opportunity to perform in Japan and Korea. In 2008, Kiyomi released her EP “A Part of Me”, and currently her newest release is “Child In Me”.
My music is my heart and when I sing, that is what I’m giving you. I see beauty and magic in everyday reality, so I enjoy telling stories with my lyrics, incorporating them with acoustic, live instruments, and plenty of vocal harmonies. My music combines the two most important things I strive for – love and music. I write from what I have experienced and the emotions that are present. I feel that although our experiences may differ, we are all the same in what we feel, so hopefully I can reach a place in you that we all share.
Thanks for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start by having you tell us of your journey and influences.
Thank you for having me. I have loved to sing ever since I can remember. I’ve always had a strong pull towards music, a strong emotional tie. I think some of it is innate, and some of it is the way it filled me up when I was a child. Because of the experiences I went through, I grew up with a lot of fears and sadness within me. Through music I was able to feel whole and peaceful, something I so much needed. I studied classical voice and composition in college (along with music ed for practical purposes!), and I realized that I really wanted to express myself, share my stories through singing. Recently I was able to accomplish my lifelong goal, creating an album telling all of my stories. My influences are my stories. Everyone has stories, and I feel that we can all benefit and connect through them. I think it’s a gift you can give the world, your stories. Because we all go through different things, but as humans we are all the same in the ways that we feel, our emotions, our yearning to create something in order to find our place in this world.
I enjoyed reading your very revealing blog. I was taken by you writing that your feelings of inadequacies get in the way of your creativity. I think many singer/songwriters feel that way. Your music speaks volumes in opposition. Can you expand a little on that thought?
First of all, I want to thank you for saying that my music speaks volumes in opposition! It’s very nice to hear.
Ok, my initial reaction to this question was squeamish…because of the way my blog was described as “revealing”. But I have to think about this and realize that as an artist, I think the best works come from being willing to share parts of yourself that you may be more comfortable masking. Which I think can be unfortunate because so many of us have masks that we must present to the world in order to be viewed as “normal”, or to hide sadness or fears. This happens to be the beauty of a child, one who hasn’t learned this yet, but who will most likely learn too soon. I happen to have a tendency towards masking most emotions I feel, my song “Little Girl Smiling” is about this. I learned to do this as a child in order to protect myself. So it is challenging to reveal myself completely because of the vulnerabilities it brings out. However I realize that in the end, sharing my true stories ends up being the most beneficial. I know that I am most affected by art that reveals human nature/experiences to the core, and I want my art to be that way as well. And I benefit as well because the creation process leaves me feeling whole if I express myself honestly. Through acknowledging all that is in me (without judgment!), celebrating it, and letting it go. I’d say it’s pretty worth it for a little feeling of squeamish.
On the subject of my “feelings of inadequacy”, it’s hard to feel inadequate while I am creating. But creating is a constant daily effort, and even if I happen to create something one day, the next day is a brand new day where I haven’t done anything yet. It can be almost torturous when artists don’t create, although I’m a big believer in taking breaks and enjoying life. The biggest thing (out of many things!) that can stop me from creating is feeling like what I do won’t matter or get heard, so what’s the point? Also, there’s the feeling of having finished creating something and thinking ok, now what can I do with it, how do I share it with the world? It’s so hard to get your music heard, and I was coming from this place when I wrote that blog.
What does inspire you as a songwriter? As a performer?
Well, as I’ve said, life inspires me as a songwriter. My main purpose for writing is to share, express, and connect. As a performer, I am inspired by the awesome impact music can have on people, even if they are strangers. A performance can shake someone to the core, transport people to another time in their lives, cause carefully hidden emotions to be revealed, and so much more. It is most satisfying to do a performance and be able to get to the core of people like that. It’s how I know I like to be impacted as a listener, and how I like to impact as a performer.
You mentioned that you make agreements with a higher world. I like that. Explain the how and why of that if you would.
It’s a matter of making an agreement within to get something done, towards something greater than myself. That way I feel a stronger push to accomplish whatever it is I’ve put my mind to. My journal is almost sacred to me and that’s where I can jot down whatever it is I’m trying to do. Writing it down makes it more concrete, and not just a passing thought.
When I read your blog it seemed to me that you are extremely goal acclimated, a good thing for a songwriter/singer unless it becomes debilitating. It goes with some personality types, a trait I share with you. You reveal that drive in your writings. So much of being an artist is the antithesis of that. What do you do in preparation in order to write a song, or perform?
Actually, I TRY to be goal-oriented, haha! I’m actually somewhat of a free spirit that doesn’t like to be tied down, although I also do have a side of me that appreciates structure. I’ve found that artists do receive inspiration sometimes, myself included, where you suddenly have an idea and you want to bring it to life, or sometimes dreaming of ideas (I’ve dreamt songs before). However, I’ve realized that you can’t rely on inspiration alone or very little will get done! I’ve learned that creating first, will bring about the inspiration. Also, ideas are just ideas, bringing them to life in the form of a song, book, or art piece is a whole other story. Past the idea, discipline is needed most of the time. I think that most successful artists need to have goals of some sort in order to get where they want to be.
Before I write, I take out my journal first, and scribble out anything that may be on my mind. Sometimes songs will come from that. Other times I’ll look back on what I’ve already written and see songs in that. And other times I’ll have a melody in my head and the song will start there. I have to get in a certain mindset, a calm one, so that I can hear what’s trying to come out. Yoga helps a lot in the calming process. And baths, I love baths!
Before performing, I similarly need to be in a calm place. Deep breathing helps, and preparing days before the performance is what I usually do. I try to get into the right mindset, which to me is one of trying to offer to the audience, trying to give them something through the performance. If I have that mentality, it usually helps with nerves. Also I start warming up my voice a week before up until I sing, and I have the humidifier going constantly!
I agree that a songwriter/performer/artist is about bringing beauty into the world and to touch others in some way. What compels you to do what you do?
Well honestly besides the reasons I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t really have a choice. No matter how many times I’m discouraged or fall on my face, I somehow always get back up and keep doing music. I can’t control it, I just have to do it! Sometimes I wish I didn’t have such a burning desire because it would be so much easier, but in the end I realize I should be grateful, and I am.
Let’s chat about your music. Tell us about the making of your newest album ‘Child in Me’ Introduce us to the players.
The album is a series of stories made into song, of my life in chronological order. It took a very long time to record, and when writing the songs are included, it’s a huge chunk of time out of my life! I feel like I gave up a part of my soul for it, lol! But it’s been a lifelong dream to create the album and I’m happy that I finally did it.
I was very fortunate to work with all the talented players in my album. Tim Thorne is the drummer for a lot of the tracks, he is someone I’ve worked with since the beginning. He’s gigged with me and even helped me arrange a couple of the songs with his musical ear. Rich Berta is a very talented guitar player who plays bass (and sings!), he is in most of my tracks. Kurt Coble is the violin player and string arranger for all of the string tracks, he is an amazing talent. He was my professor in college, and he also plays for “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway. Ron Negro came in at the last second to do drums for “Child In Me” and “Why”, I felt something extra was needed. He was able to give them more life, and he plays on Broadway sometimes as well, as the drummer for “Rock of Ages”. There were also other studio musicians who were hired that I didn’t know previously, and they added great things to the album too. I did all the piano/keyboard work, main vocals and background vocals, except for a background vocal track done by Rich Berta, and my mother.
“I guess there’s still a child in me
And the child in me still remembers
I’d only ever known to breathe, just enough to be ok
The emptiness keeps coming back”
‘Child in Me’ is a very powerful piece, how personal is this song?
This song is very personal, but again, it’s also about things that all of us can relate to. The personal story behind it is that one day I was driving in my car and I started to cry and I didn’t know why. I realized that I was suddenly emotionally and mentally transported back to my childhood. I was surprised because I thought I was over my issues that stemmed from it but I apparently wasn’t. “I guess there’s still a child in me, and the child in me still remembers.” I was on my own, emotionally since I was about a month old. I had caretakers but they were people I’d get attached to for a short period, but would be replaced by someone else and the cycle would repeat. So as you can see, I grew up with many fear and sadness issues. “I’d only ever known to breathe, just enough to be ok”, all I knew was the life I’d been living and I just kind of lived in my physical body without really feeling. I was reunited with my family maybe around age 6-9? I don’t quite remember a lot from that period of my life. Somewhere during all that I remember a babysitter I was attached to bringing me somewhere new and I was terrified of letting go of her hand because I felt I wouldn’t see her again. I didn’t. And when I first saw my parents, they were indeed strangers. However, before I was 10, I was able to live with my family again and my parents have taken care of me and my siblings better than I could ask for ever since. During the song I sing, “Did I run to you? Yes I did”, I was able to come to a point where I trusted my parents to go to them during a very difficult period in my life, and I view that as healing having taken place. Although I’ve had time to work through my hardships, sometimes I’ll still find myself gripped by fear, sadness, or feelings of emptiness more than an average person would feel. But then again, who’s average?
I think that we always have a child in us no matter our age. This could mean that our childhoods sometimes never leave us, and it also means that we are always children in a sense that we are always learning. “I am but a child in a world with much yet to be revealed”. The world has so much to offer, so many lessons to present to us so we can grow, and that makes a child-like quality in someone something that can be cherished, if that someone is brave or aware enough to be so. “With my heart out and in comfort I will be filled with the years”. By letting myself be vulnerable and chipping away at the mask I so carefully built to hide myself, I will become whole, “and then the child in me can be at ease”.
I wrote the piano part to sound empty, using sixths and octaves, and the strings and other instruments were able to bring a dramatic feel to the song. Also, it may be hard to tell if you don’t listen carefully, but my mother is singing some operatic background vocals in the song. I thought it appropriate to have a parent in the song somehow, as it’s about my childhood, and my mother can sing so she was the likely candidate. I bring back the song in “Child In Me Reprise”, the 12th track in my album. The melody of this one is actually the original melody I wrote for the song before it was rearranged.
“So I ask why this comfort I feel in tears?” I’d always felt home in sadness because that was the primary feeling I felt, but I can honestly say that I have learned to let happiness in and it’s no longer scary, unfamiliar territory. I can say that I’ve learned to smile, and not just smile to mask what’s really in me, but really genuinely smile.
Your formal musical training is evident in your strong, crisp, and clear vocals and in the dynamic musicianship and arrangements. The lyrics I think come from somewhere else. Tell us about Kiyomi the lyricist.
I’ve always had a great interest in keeping a journal. I started when I was 12 and have been keeping one ever since. I like being able to express myself somewhere, it helps me to cope with life a lot of times. I like having a blank page in front of me, knowing I can write anything on it, with no one to judge me, with no guidelines, just being free to do whatever I want to do. And the benefits from journaling are boundless. It can be spiritual, keeping me on the right track. You can figure so many answers out just by writing, what decisions to make, what steps to take to get to your goal, what about your character you need to work on. My lyrics stem from my journal most of the time because if I’m experiencing or feeling something, it usually ends up in my journal. I’ve also been a bookworm ever since I can remember. When I was little I remember going to the library all the time, checking out stacks of books and reading right when I got home from school. It was (and still is) very exciting to me, books! Whenever I go into a bookstore my mood changes, I become happy, and full of wonder. There’s just something about shelves and shelves of books, which are actually records in many forms, of people’s life experiences. Just like songs it’s about life, and if it’s not apparent up front, then at the very core you’ll find that it is.
“God, can you hear me?
Help me understand what’s going on
It’ll be alright in the end, I know
But it’s hard to see that right now”
‘A Part of Me’ the lyrics are simple, but are carried by a terrific vocal and harmonies and a powerful musical arrangement. When you wrote this song did you envision the final result?
I feel like simple, sometimes, can be most effective. It’s the way you say things. Which is where the phrase “less is more” comes from, probably. The song came from just simply stating how I was feeling at the moment. Of course first words came pouring out in my journal, and I condensed and revised until they fit into a song, but it was just honest, genuine feelings I was going through. I still feel like the first line of the song is a bit cliché (“on my tear stained pillow, I can hardly breathe”), and I tried to come up with something that was less so, but I couldn’t because that is honestly what was going on when I wrote it. And who hasn’t been in that exact situation before? ;) It’s cliché for a reason! As apparent through the lyrics, it’s about a breakup which most everyone goes through at some point in their lives. I feel in that way most can relate to it and many songs have the same theme, but hey, it’s a part of life. It’s about how you know it was for the best and there will be a time where you can laugh again, but you just can’t run away from the pain it brings about.
Sometimes certain songs just come to me without much effort, like a wonderful source is just giving me something. This was one of those songs. The melody and arrangement and lyrics just came right out and I was able to complete it fairly quickly. It was like it was almost waiting to be brought to life, waiting for me to just sit down and put a little effort into creating it.
“But then I find I have to question a contemplating mind
What would a world be without some fears, some tears, and my dear
A dusty heart trying to keep beating in a gray world, it’d be
All of this going on inside me’s got me going kinda crazy”
‘Blue Eyes’ this one of my favorites and I got me in a surprising way. It has the feel of a jazz nightclub in the 40’s. Your vocal is a treat in its tone and presence. I can’t help but think you really enjoy performing in this jazzy genre. Give us a little workshop on this song from inception to finished cut.
This song came about when I was at SUNY Purchase and my professor gave me a wacky chord and told me to write a song revolving around it. It’s the first piano chord that you hear in the song. “Blue Eyes” is what I came up with. I didn’t intend it to be jazzy in the beginning. The drums and bass contribute a great deal to the feel of the song, and yes I do enjoy singing in this genre, although I’m not formally trained in it. I knew from the beginning that I wanted a great drum part to it where I could sing phrases without an accompanying instrument, just a beat. The lyrics are about being afraid of letting a possible love in, but realizing that without “some fears, some tears, and my dear”, my heart would be “dusty” and unused, and my world gray. It’s about giving the unknown a chance, just so you can possibly live a full life instead of playing it safe all the time. Although there are great risks involved when living fully, it’s better than not feeling at all.
‘Flustered’ was playful with country coloration. Cool vocal backup. The lyrical alliteration was fun and a little tongue in cheek. What was your intention for this song?
Honestly I had no intention of making this song sound country! I’ve surprisingly heard it described that way a lot, though. I think the way the violin is played contributes to the country feel greatly, and also maybe the way I pronounce the words. It’s actually the first “real” song I wrote ever, and in classical voice you are trained to elongate vowels and open them up, and that ended up making the vocal part sound country, I guess! The background vocals I meant to be dissonant at times during the chorus, I thought it was nontraditional, cool little touch. I also made the bass line a little funkier there too, and again nontraditional. As for what my intention for the song was, I don’t often have an intention, I just feel, and write. The song is about a friendship where you don’t quite know if it’s something more or not. It’s about being confused and not quite knowing what your heart is telling you. It’s about relationships that may always be something a little more than just friendship.
‘My Place’ is a nice singer/songwriter piece. The conversational quality of the lyrics makes it incredibly listenable. Tell us about this song.
This song is about unrequited love. It’s about how fear overtakes sometimes and you run away from things that might make you happy. But even happy changes are still changes, and change can be scary in any form. When I wrote this I was very sad because it was an ending to a possibility and I was realizing the pain of that. It’s also about going to “my place”, a place where I’m not dominated by fears, a place where I’m happy, a place where I LET myself be happy. It’s a place of feeling completely at peace. I wrote it longing to find and be in this “place”.
I think Rich (Berta) did a great job in this song. He did a few tracks of guitar, and it turned out so beautiful and really added so much to the song.
You really mixed it up in terms of genres. In what genre do you feel more comfortable in as an artist? Do you think it is important to be known for a specific genre?
I don’t usually intend to write in a specific genre, it makes itself known during. And also, one can make a song into any genre, really. Just by changing up or adding a beat, the instrumentation, the way it’s sung… The drums and bass line contribute a lot. For example I could do “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and add a reggae beat to it, or do it with just piano or guitar and make it singer/songwriter-y, or make it sound jazzy with a jazz trio. I personally like to sing ballads the most. I like slower, beautiful music the best, with maybe a tinge of sadness. I think there is beauty in sadness and it touches something deep in people. Even true, ecstatic happiness has a hint of sadness in it, if you think about it.
All your songs feel very personal – and you Blog reveals a contemplative and maybe a bit conflicted person. Do you use songwriting as a cathartic tool? Or do the songs just come to you separate form life situations?
Songwriting is a very cathartic tool. As is journaling, a part of my songwriting process. It always feels so right afterwards, after creating something and letting everything in me go.
I think people who think too much are always a bit conflicted, haha. My songs have so far been about personal experiences, but I’m thinking about playing around with my imagination and creating storylines or themes to songs, or writing from another’s point of view. I think that would be interesting.
What has to be in a Kiyomi song?
It has to be genuine. Not that it has to be based on real facts or anything, but it has to come from the right mindset and heart. I love to include different kinds of background vocals. I love beautiful music, so prefer to try to make it that way. I like to have some sort of story or positive message. Even if the song is sad or angry or whatnot, I like to leave the listener with some kind of hope, if not in the lyrics then in the music. For example the last song, “Child In Me Reprise” would have ended in a minor (sad) chord if I had gone with the flow of the music. But I didn’t want the song, and more importantly the album to end on that note, so I decided to make it into a major (happy) chord, to end on a note of hope. And the lyrics have a hopeful air to them so I thought it appropriate.
Here are the uncomfortable questions and ones I will always ask of myself and those talented others I have the privilege of chatting with. How do you see yourself as a songwriter? As a performer?
Well if I answer this honestly, I feel like I’m never quite “there”. I feel like I could always do something better. Which is true, I guess. I’m constantly growing and learning more about writing and performing. It’s hard to feel completely “there” when there’s always going to be someone (many people!) who wrote a better song, or has a better voice. But in the end, I can feel satisfied that I can be the best version of Kiyomi, and I’ll constantly strive for that, after all, I am the only Kiyomi that is me out there ;) And I can say that I am proud of my album, I truly feel I did the best I could with it, and coming from a perfectionist like myself, that is saying a lot. Or maybe I have learned to let myself be happy a little.
Is there anything you want your fans and future fans to know about you?
I think so much (maybe too much! ;)) of me is revealed in my music and blogs already. But maybe I want to add that I believe in keeping our world green and beautiful so I hope we can all do what we can to keep it that way!
What’s coming up on the horizon?
I’ve thought about another album, but this one took so much out of me that I feel like I need a break with that for now. I will enjoy “Child In Me” a little while longer. And I have always wanted to write a book, this has been strong in me these days. Maybe that may come about? I would absolutely love to have one of my songs in a movie, that would be a dream come true!
Thank you Kiyomi, for a wonderful interview.
“Child in Me”
1. Child In Me
2. Little Girl Smiling
4. My Place
5. A Part of Me
6. And One Day You’ll Know
7. Mysterious You
9. Blue Eyes
10. What Do You Do?
11. Back To My Soul
12. Child In Me Reprise
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