Most artists would not give up a dazzling J-Pop career to seek deeper truth in their music, but Christina Higa, or AYAKO, is not like most artists. Just over four years ago she boldly left her coveted position in the Japanese girl group Avex Rising Angels (元は、プロジェクト名 or ARA) to move to LA and find her own sound as a solo artist.
Last week the Japanese-American performer released her new music video for her debut single, “You Are the Damned,” wherein she combines colorful elements of dream and reality to visually complement this ethereal lo-fi R&B ballad. The song, that is difficult to confine to a single genre, celebrates the dualistic intricacies of her own dynamic personality and heritage. “It’s about not judging yourself and embracing all sides of your own personality,” says Higa. We see this throughout the chorus as she plays with contrasting symbols singing, “Oh you dance an unusual dance / You are the lady, you are the tramp / Break the rules just cos you can, / You are the heavens, you are the damned”
This theme of divergent ideas unifying is interspersed across her set, wardrobe, and in the video’s filmography. In this theatrical feature directed by Paige Strabala, there is a moment where we realize that the AYAKO, who opened the video wrapped in leather straps and chains in an intimate pastel-lit bedroom setting, is now pictured before a new, darker background setting featuring a stage. The antiqued lens that the camera has switched to complements AYAKO, now standing alone in the spotlight in her mother’s vintage dress. From the lyrics to the imagery, she says, “I wanted to express these contrasting ideas of being a woman” that is “feminine and weird and glam and edgy” all at the same time. Styled like a classic mid-century entertainer in her mother’s dress, the moment of climax comes at the ¾ mark with an explosion of glitter that shatters the antique aesthetic to crystal-clear vision. The glitter “represents how I feel when I’m making music” says Higa, “realizing that this is what I want to do and knowing that I can.”
Growing up in Japan “I was obsessed with American music and culture” says Higa, who attended an American International school. She was also exposed to American culture firsthand over summers spent in her father’s native Hawaii. “We loved the food, TV, and music,” she says, citing “Ashanti, Alicia Keys” and especially, “Christina Aguilera” as her favorite singers growing up. “I was obsessed with [Christina Aguilera],” laughingly explaining that they share both the same name and stature; petite frames with big voices. The nod to the 2000’s era of hip-hop and R&B is immediately felt at “You Are The Damned”’s first kick of the 808 drums. Our attention isn’t truly commanded though, until AYAKO’s decadent voice breaks through. Oozing with sweet femininity and fierce range in the likes of R&B greats like Cassie and the aforementioned “Dirty” pop star, only this time with a modern flare. We later realize that it’s contemporary take is rooted in her implementation of electronic undertones.
AYAKO began collaborating on the project with her producer friend SEROW about a year ago after he showed her the perfect piano chord progression. “We have a very strong organic chemistry when we make music,” she says. But Higa’s ability to incorporate a complex array of sonar can be traced back to her earliest experiences of music in Japan when she would improvise with her brother who played jazz piano. She explains that in doing so, she was able to “train her ears to understand complex melodies.” For help editing the film, she reached out to SK Ogha, a USC alum from Japan, as well as colorist Adam Scott.
This creation is all the more meaningful though, because of how far AYAKO has come over the past few years. Two years before moving to LA, she was undergoing intense training in a hugely popular J-Pop group signed to Avex, the biggest entertainment conglomerate in Japan. After a year of various mega auditions, she finally was selected at the age of 16 to join the Avex Rising Angels (now called FAKY), a made-for-fame girl group of five. Japan’s booming J-pop empire uses a homogenous formula to groom young, attractive Asian talent into machines of mainstream pop excellence. Intense training teaches the groups impeccable dance routines that they are expected to deliver with flawless execution and equally pristine vocal harmony. Although the industry is highly lucrative, it has been criticized for isolating its own talent, sometimes even contributing to youth suicides in its worst cases. And let’s be honest, this is no far stretch from what we know here in the US, with our Hollywood talent mill commodifying youth, beauty, and fantasy. Ultimately, “I felt like I wasn’t being heard,” says Higa, who promptly quit the band at the age of 18 in pursuit of another dream of hers, attending college in the states.
Although she was initially unsure about the music industry, it did not take long before she was surrounded and inspired by the young creatives amongst her at USC’s famed Thornton School of Music. “It was my friends [in LA] pursuing the arts that ultimately made me realize that it was possible” to build a career in music.” She goes on to explain, “I finally realized that when I’m writing, I am filled will this passion that actually pulls me out of my insecurities and channels it into something good and that I love.” It is through this honest and emotional cathartic process that AYAKO unapologetically debuts her new solo sound in “You Are The Damned.”
Check out the music video here: