Maia Hirasawa on letting go of control, electronic pop music influences and running parallel careers: Interview

In 2007 Maia Hirasawa took Sweden by storm when she released her debut album “Though, I’m Just Me” which won her an award for best new artist at the P3 Guld Awards in 2008. After her second album a year later she left Sweden for time-off and a well-needed break in Japan, but after releasing the EP “Boom” she drew accolades from Japanese media and gained a huge fanbase across Japan.

With cultural connections in both Sweden and Japan, Hirasawa embarked on an artistic journey built on parallel careers, one in Sweden and one in Japan, and has ever since been writing music for two music markets. In 2017 she released her first full album in Swedish, “Vacker och Ful”, and in May this year the world saw the release of her second album in Swedish, a record where she for the first time handed over the creative control to other producers and left her sonic home turf for a few songs to work with electronic music producers.

As the pandemic struck the world the whole music scene was shut down and tours had to be canceled, but Hirasawa found her way back on stage and has just started to play 50-shows [the allowed capacity in Sweden]. When she stopped by Partille Arena we sat down with her and chat about the hard work of meeting expectations on two music markets and letting go of the control on her latest album “Bättre”. 

After discussing healthy riders, keeping snacks off the menu, we started off in what affects the whole scene the most at the moment: the pandemic and its impact on music life.

”Corona gave me some needed time-off”

It must be a desperate situation for many artists today when covid-19 has deprived you of the opportunity to perform live. How do you handle it?
It has been hard for many reasons, but I’m lucky to be versatile and can do other things, maybe not a full compensation canceled shows, but I don’t sit in a corner and do nothing. But for all those artists that build their careers on live performances it’s a really tough situation.

My first reaction when the whole scene closed down was “Wow! What is happening? What happens now?” but not long after I started to write new music bot to me and clients I work with; I write music for commercials and many other things as well. But that type of work was put on a hold after a while and I just felt I was about to hit rock-bottom. Luckily those types of jobs have returned again and I have a few things to do at the moment. What’s really great though is that I can spend lots of time in the studio.

But I don’t have any panic yet because it hasn’t been going on that long, I just lost a bit of speed in August because I thought it was going to be back to normal after the summer, and that didn’t happen. It made me feel a bit low. But I was in a very creative period already before the outbreak but didn’t have time to make use of it. In a way covid-19 gave me a much-needed time-out, creative time that I can spend in the studio instead.

I didn’t have any major tours planned either, just two shorter visits to Japan, not something that would keep me on the road for two or three months.

But being creative isn’t easy, creativity doesn’t pop up just because I have time for it. It’s not hidden in a secret place, waiting to be unlocked because I decide to write music. It happens that I’m completely lost and can’t do anything at all.

You have a very unique position as an artist because of your cultural roots in both Sweden and Japan, and you are established in the scene in both countries. But isn’t it stressful to work as much as you do both in Japan and Sweden trying to satisfy people’s expectations in different scenes?
It can drive me crazy at times. In the beginning I wanted to keep the careers in Sweden and Japan apart and have two different careers, especially when I lived in Japan. It was just too much going on in Japan, and at the time I thought “I can’t release this in Sweden because I would get confused”, and I had to work quite much. But when I tried to do it as one career and don’t have these parallel roles, it didn’t turn out well either. I just had to accept that I have to work double (laugh), and have parallel careers. I’ve learned what works out in Japan and in Sweden and don’t mix it if it doesn’t feel right.

Today I write quite much music in Swedish but translates most of it to English and Japanese, and I don’t feel that I have to write new songs for the Japanese market. But it is very interesting to see what works out in Sweden and in Japan, it can very different at times.

I remember you once said that there are huge pressure and lots of stress to be a Japanese artist. You are expected to release a record every year at least, but in that interview you pointed out that it wouldn’t work out for you because you can’t be creative with such pressure. But when you consider how much you have released and add your work with commercials and soundtrack music, it’s not far from what the Japanese market wants from you anyway.
(laugh) Just after I had my breakthrough in Japan I realized how much you had to work to stay in the scene, and how much they wanted me to work, and for me it was like “No, that’s not for me, bye”. I moved back to Sweden and claimed that I had to do stuff at home as well, and I always have it as an argument when they want me to work too much in Japan, like “I have to tour in Sweden the whole next month, bye bye”.

I do work very hard and maybe a bit too much at times, but the Japanese music industry wants me to work even harder. It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s just too much work for me. That’s the reason I look on the bright side with this whole pandemic situation and the lockdown of the music scene, it gives me much needed time off.

Letting go of control on “Bättre”

Having controlled all aspects of the music production process, Maia Hirasawa wanted a change and brought in music producers that would “leave their mark” on the songs. And a mark they left. Working with producers from iconic electronic act Den Svenska Björnstammen and bitpop heroes 047, Hirasawa left her comfort zone of acoustic pop music and brought in electronic sounds and beats for the first time.

“Bättre” is also her second album in Swedish, and there’s a reason for it: it’s easier to reach out to people emotionally when they understand the cultural context of the lyrics.

When you released “Vacker och Ful” it was the start of you writing full albums in Swedish, and most of what you have released since 2017 has been in Swedish. “Bättre” that was released in May is your second album in Swedish, third if you consider the Christmas record you released last year. What made you start to write music in Swedish ten years into your career?
It wasn’t anything new to me when I wrote “Vacker och Ful”. When I was about 22 and started to write music – jazz music – it was all in Swedish. But when I started writing pop songs on guitar it just happened to be natural to do it in English, it wasn’t anything I planned. In fact, I wanted my third record to be in Swedish but it didn’t fit with where I was in my career in Japan at the time, and I wrote it in English.

I’ve always liked to express what I want to say with my music in Swedish, especially in Sweden, it feels natural to do it here. But just to point it out, I’m back to write in English again.

The language doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that I don’t need to decide what language I will use next because I want to choose at the moment it’s happening, and then the result will always be a mix of languages.

You also reach another level of intimacy with your audience when you write music in the local language as you do in Sweden and Japan.
One of the reasons I write songs in Swedish is that I know that people listen more to the lyrics and you reach out on an emotional level that’s not really possible when not doing it in the local language. It’s the same reason I write or translates my music to Japanese for that market; you remove all filters between you and your audience when people feel that they understand the context of the music. I always talk a lot between songs on stage and tell people stories about the songs or share thoughts about something that will connect to the song I’m about to play. It’s not to force anyone to listen to the lyrics, people experience music in many different ways, but it’s about giving people a context.

It’s also special for me to play songs live because I’m reminded about things in the past, memories surface again. It’s just as important as it is for people to understand my music. I really need this type of self-seeking reminders as well.

What’s really interesting with ”Bättre” is your collaborations with producers from 047 and Den Svenska Björnstammen. That’s something completely different for you, going from acoustic pop music to use electronic pop music producers. How did it come about?
I worked with Jonas Svennem [Swedish pianist] on “Vacker och Ful” which was a super acoustic record with lots of string instruments and I wanted something different this time. I realized a few years ago that I like a change in music between albums and that’s what this is, a change from acoustic pop music. But “Bättre” isn’t a straightforward electronic pop record, it’s kind of a mix of everything I do.

On previous records I’ve done most of the production myself and just brought someone in to help me out during the process, but this time I felt that I wanted to try to work with people who made their mark on my music because I was interested in what would happen with the songs and myself.

When I was looking for producers I found out that they actually reached out to me a while ago but I didn’t get back to them, and I emailed “Sorry I didn’t get back to you last time, but maybe you want to try something out now”. And then they did something amazing with the songs! That’s how it all started.

It was a great feeling to just let go of the control and let other people work with their creativity and write the type of music they’re really good at.

But isn’t it a bit frightening to hand over the control of the creative process? You’ve had complete control over it your whole career?
They have been great to work with and very responsive to what works out for me. I remember that I was a bit lost at the beginning of our collaboration and had this thought “Is this really me? Is this what I want to do?”, but people around told me “It’s your music, your lyrics, your voice – it’s still you”. That made me understand that I really don’t have to care about what type of music it is. For me it doesn’t matter whether the music is electronic or acoustic, it’s what I’m trying to say with it that matters.

You also have to understand that we built this whole collaboration on me loving what they do with my songs, not specifically that they produce electronic music. However, the beats are amazing and they’re just awesome on electronic sounds. That made it a whole lot better.

As you said the record is kind of a mix of genres but have you considered making a completely electronic pop album in the future after trying out a few songs now?
Maybe not because the type of songs I write at the moment suggests that it will be kind of a mix in the future as well because I work with quite different types of producers. The next single will be an acoustic song again. I just let it happen as it turns up.

Even if I love the electronic songs I’ve discovered it’s hard to play them live, especially if you want it to sound like on record. I don’t want to use backing tracks on stage and that makes it a minor problem live. But I’ll play them tonight in acoustic versions.

You had to cancel your two mini-tours to Japan and a few other shows during the spring, and let’s say that the pandemic still stops everyone from playing live next year, some festivals already announced that they may have to cancel 2021 as well, how will you handle such a situation? Are you continuing on your 50-audience shows or will you focus on studio work?
No, please say it won’t happen, I can’t imagine another year without touring. It would be so sad.

In fact, I was at my first gig last weekend since it all shut down in March, and I just felt “God! This is how it should be, live music is so special”. To feel music while watching it live is something extra. Although I’ve seen quite many great live streams and realize that many artists and bands are very creative to find ways to make it work out, I would probably try to do more 50-shows next year if this continues. Of course you need to make it work out financially, but I don’t have a problem to tour on my own, it’s quite nice to play solo as well.

There’s nothing bad about doing small intimate shows. I realized that when I played at Slussen recently I do it as much for myself as for the audience. It’s not until you’re on stage that you understand how important it is to do live shows.

But to be honest, I haven’t reflected much on the future because I’m not in panic mode yet, my brain hasn’t alarmed me (laugh). I’m just happy to see people coming out for these small intimate shows and that venues and organizers book me.

Photographer: Björn Vallin
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About J.N.

Music researcher with an unhealthy passion for music and music festivals. Former studio owner, semi-functional drummer and with a fairly good collection of old analogue synthesizers from the 70's. Indie rock, post rock, electronic/industrial and drum & bass (kind of a mix, yeah?) are usual stuff in my playlists but everything that sounds good will fit in.