For a long time now, Japanese City Pop has seemed to remain an oddly hidden world. Fans in the know devoured the sheen of the charming, hopeful sound, but even among the most devout music listeners, it remained largely unearthed.

All that is rapidly changing. It's hard to put a finger on why all this occurring now, exactly. Perhaps the ever growing popularity of K-pop has savvy music listeners looking for a more mature alternative, perhaps folk have simply finally caught on. Whatever the reason, it's about time y'all got in on the fun.

Emerging during a time of economic bliss in Japan, a generation of young adults suddenly found themselves with disposable incomes and free time they wanted to enjoy. With J-pop at the time largely marketed towards kids, they asked a simple question: why isn't pop meant for us?

It led to a unique moment in which adults, rather than teenagers, dictated what was popular in music. Informed by glossy Western hits of the time, as well as sounds from all around the world, artists willing to experiment within a pop format were rewarded with often overnight popularity. City pop burned bright, and fell into obscurity nearly as quickly, but its echoes continue in Japanese music to this very day.

Celebrating the bright history of the genre, Light in the Attic has released a new compilation, Pacific Breeze, rejoicing in recapturing a blissful era gone by.

Among the artists featured is the underrated, ever charming, Nanako (or Nanaco) Sato. Having released four albums at the peak of City Pop's reign, in the late 70's, she's perfectly poised to offer memories and perspective on a particularly unique period in world pop history. What's more, she has quite the life story, going from an Olympic hopeful to city pop favorite, to working with the likes of Patti Smith's daughter, Jesse Paris Smith, in more recent years.

Entirely lacking any conceit, proving to be deeply modest, Sato was thrilled to reminisce, and as she warmed to conversing in a second language throughout our conversation, she only grew more insightful. Read on for some honest warmth.

*****

So...I was told you were going to interview me?

Yep, that's right!

Yes! Ok.

[I mention the various spellings of her name when changed to English, hoping to write about her in whatever way she prefers]

Yes. My spelling for my name was read at the beginning, when I started singing on my debut, was N-a-n-a-k-o, a very common Japanese name, for the end to finish with k-o, at some point, at some time, I changed the spelling into N-a-n-a-c-o. But I am the same, ok? [Laughs]

So, first of all, this compilation is city pop, and a lot of foreigners don't necessarily know what that is, so how would you define city pop?

About Japanese pop? I see. I see. Somebody named it as "city pop", which I really don't know, but somehow, that is common, and city pop, at that time, let's say, like, the music was more about arrangement, I think. More something emotional and feeling, and stuff like that. So, people named it as city pop, I imagine. But at the time, when the music came out, nobody called it as city pop. It was much later that people named it. Or some people say like AOR, some people say mellow city pop, even put mellow at the beginning. Something more like fusion, kind of smoothness, which makes you feel like something has happened in a city kind of way, I think.

You tend to hear that at that time in Japan that pop was more marketed towards kids, and due to the economic boom that young adults were growing rapidly successful, and wanted catchy music meant for them, rather than the J-pop prevalent prior.

That I don't know...to me it's more a different kind of music, somebody capitalized on this, but it was different from the pop on TV at the time, city pop was just different, I think.

What do you think makes it special?

Hmm...it's more the music itself and the arrangements. Yep.

There are of course long term fans of the genre in America and the UK, but I think there's been a recent boom of people discovering the music, what do you think it is about the current moment that's bringing city pop back into vogue?

[Laughs] It's very interesting, I don't know why. Maybe before it was more about what music you knew and you found, and now things like this compilation are helping people find the music and the sound. I imagine it just feels new.

I don't think Western listeners can imagine the culture at the time, can you describe a bit of the experience?

Let me think. I'm not a big star or anything, so I can't tell you a spectacular story. Promotional things, at that time, you had to go to many, many cities, or local small towns, with the record company promoters, visiting record stores, to say, 'Hello, I am Nanako,' and shake hands. That kind of way to promote our music. Now, people don't do this kind of thing anymore, but it was fun traveling everywhere in Japan. Also...what can I think of. Not really any big things. [Laughs] At that time, this music industry is before moving into CDs, people really more enjoyed lots of music, now people don't really buy music, in my case, we working two albums in one year, that kind of speed. Many, many records were produced at that time, which means people enjoyed more music, rather than now, I think. Now it's more, of course it's different, the Internet and all these things, people are still enjoying a lot, but people don't have so much eager[ness] to really pay for music. But at the time we were more like, how do you say, happy with all this culture and also economy things, and everything was more 'upper' than now.

Did you tour, did you perform a lot in concerts?

Concerts, it would be small or whatever, but I did a lot. The company made up the band, and so my, support band, we played a lot, but only in Japan. Touring was only for promotion for my solo albums. The most intersting thing was seeing other musicians, great musicians, like Haruomi Hosono. Oh, I'll tell you! I remember now. At that time, it was after my solo album, but at the time, there was a cafe, like a bar, restuarant, and cafe, all kind of mixed, but it was the spot in Tokyo, the cafe bar. It was called the Cul-de-Sac, meaning dead end, people gathered there every night, all kinds of people, the musicians of the time, it was a very creative gathering, to be together and create, it was like a cultural saloon. An unknown musical scene, I think. Sadly, it [does not] exist anymore.

So, what were you listening to then? What inspired you? More Japanese or Western music?

Oh, honestly, when I became a singer, it was really by chance. I never thought I'd like to be a singer or anything. [Laughs] I got into this contest, which my university organized, it was kind of a big contest. Some other universities, only female singers, contest. I had to join this contest, because our university was organizing it, so all the music circle, they had to, how do you say, put the girls for illuminate [sic]. So I was there, and I got a prize for writing lyrics. Then many record company people were there for scouting, so I became a singer, that was the way. Beforehand, I really didn't listen to music. I was more into gymnastic[s], to be an Olypmic gymnast. All of a sudden, I started doing bits of music, because of my boyfriend's influence at that time. I became a singer. So, I was not really, I didn't know many musicians at that time. After I became a singer, because of musicians, and my boyfriend, and so on, they gave me lots of music to listen to. And I really started enjoying music. So, what is an influence to my music...is difficult, but in many interviews, I was asked, and I realized after some point, it was my mother's voice. My mother was so beautiful, I mean, her voice was so beautiful, I always listened to her music, even just talking, it was an influence, my mother's voice.

When you first started, did you miss gymnastics, or did you fall for music right away?

Yes, straight away, I loved music so much. I really started digging all this kind of music.

So when you started discovering things, who were your favorites?

Joni Mitchell.

Why did you like her the best?

Just I thought, so beautiful, and so cool, and also Carole King and all these beautiful female singers, I loved them. Many. Yeah. I took a picture with Joni a long time ago in Japan.

What was it like recording at the time? Were you in the studio with the band, or did they record and you'd lay your vocals later? What was the process like?

So, for my first solo records, my debut album and all this, it was just amazing. For me, everything was brand new. 'Wow!' I was fascinated, I was, at the time, on Japan Columbia Records, and they had a great studio there. All this, how do you say, professionals gathered, and arranger, Yuji Ohno, he's a really amazing composer and arranger, and also pianist. And just once, or twice, they'd rehearse, and they started recording. Around them, I had to give them a guide book, or recording, at the same time. Then they changed my vocals again, overdubbing, on these tracks. But it was a really gorgeous studio, all analogue tapes, and really beautiful things.

How did you choose the sounds for your records, talking with your producers, or you'd have an idea, or how did that work?

At that time, at least on my [earliest] solo albums, I had no idea about musical record arrangements, or producing, I didn't know anything. So I just was happy singing, so basically this record company director, he picked up this arranger, Yuji Ohno, and we talked about the feeling of the record, and I was just listening to [him], and the music came out. And later I [took more control] and told them about my feeling and images for each song, but basically, all things with arrangements, they produced.

As you were talking about the pace of the music, I know you did your debut, Sweet Singin', and its follow up, Funny Walkin', in the same year in 1977, so, how fast were you writing, would it be a few songs a day, or what was that pace like?

Oh. [Laughs] Most of my solo albums, I was with my boyfriend, he's called Motoharu Sano, he's now a big star here, and we wrote together. I wrote very fast. I still [didn't] know anything about scores and codes, and I just [sang]. I think people found codes on guitar or piano, that is the way how I made music.

So you recorded those two in one year, and then the next year you had Pillow Talk, and Kissing Fish the year after that. You talked about the feeling in the music, how did it change as you moved forward? Did it keep the same energy, or a new mood?

Definitely different, because at the beginning I didn't know anything about the music business, only my boyfriend, then, I started meeting more people, more musicians, and picking up more influence, meanwhile I listened to more music. It was all growing exciting and different in such a way.

Do you think you should choose a favorite from your albums at the time?

I think it would have to be towards the beginning, with Funny Walkin', it was the most, my favorite one. But I like all of them, now. [Laughs]

I might like Kissing Fish the best, I don't know why, but I always come back to it.

Oh, it's more sophisticated in a way, no?

I hadn't thought of it in those terms, it's just so purely enjoyable. They all are!

Oh, thank you so much.

What is the title [of Kissing Fish], what does it mean?

I picked the titles, Kissing Fish was something I really liked, this image. I used to have some tropical fish at home, at my family home, but a fish itself is kind of kissing all the time, more than an actual fish, this image [created] by the Kissing Fish name, it was so romantic, so I picked the name.

How about Funny Walkin'?

Oh, just, you know, very naughty, but lovely, sexy girls, they walk kind of, tipsy, all kinds of funny walking, but they are all lovely. [Laughs]

So, why are your memories of Funny Walkin' the best?

Because it was just the beginning, and everything was new. I waltzed into this unknown world, almost. So that's why it's very joyful in my memory.

After the 70's, you didn't make music for quite a long time, what made you come back to music?

That's interesting. I [became] a photographer, and moved to Paris, then came back again. At the time I was in a taxi, I think, or, I don't know how, I was riding in a car, but anyway, I heard, I listened to, Harvest Moon of Neil Young, and this...I, I was almost like, everything opened up. I couldn't stop crying. That's when music touched me again. So much. Especially as a photographer, everything you like into deep, deep inside, and also living outside, to live in Paris, I had, how do you say, I closed, somehow, about my feelings. Because I can't really speak French like a French native. So, somehow, all this feeling which was closed in opened, and I started singing, all of a sudden, I couldn't stop then. I always loved Neil Young, and he was amazing when I first heard Harvest Moon.

So, if I can ask you, what made you decide to stop recording solo music after Kissing Fish?

Well, after that, I made a band called Spy. Because of this, big name musician, and very super talented musician called Kazuhiko Kato, he told me, 'Your voice is good for this kind of Japanese wave-punk, it's more soft for recording.' At that time, I had...I used different instruments, and listened to a lot of punk music, so I wanted to try. So, I did this album, but it was not really my kind, I realized, after doing one album. And somebody at that time, my friend, told me, "Let's go on a trip and you take pictures," I wanted to do something that I could do by myself, so I moved into taking pictures, and I [became] so happy, doing this every day, night and day. So I became a photographer after that. It [was] nothing against music.

What do you think has changed the most in Japan since the heyday of city pop?

Oh, it's so different. First of all, the recording system, the time of gorgeous tapes, and recording in these [lavish] studios, you can't do it anymore. People can make music at home and everything. But it's a difficult time, because people don't buy music, actually. How to survive based on music? It's very difficult. That's why people want to make more real music, I think.

So are you thinking of recording anything soon?

Yeah, I've been doing a lot! Actually, last year I released two albums.

[We talk for some time about the regrettable disconnect between releases in Japan and awareness in Western circles, with her recent albums not being represented on seemingly in the know music sites such as Discogs and RateYourMusic]

After that, I met this guy called Mark Bingham in New Orleans, and I made an album with him. This album is called Sisters on the Riverbed, I made this album, and after I made more, I'll give you the links and things like that, and I did a cover of Twiggy Twiggy, and last year I released an [EP] which was recorded with Jesse Paris Smith.

[We talk yet more about Japanese music's need for the spotlight in the West, Nanako: "Let's talk about Japanese pop, then!"]

What current or newer artists do you like?

Jan and Naomi. A Japanese band, they're so interesting. Their album, called Fracture, that is their last 80's style album, it's very much super sophisticated, mellow music.

So, I know you worked with Moonriders. How did you first meet them?

Oh, I see. At that time, when I made Pillow Talk, just before that I met them. I met them because we worked together on music for a Japanese TV commercial, they did lots of TV music at that time, and they asked me to sing for it, and that's how I met [them]. Much, much [earlier], I heard their first album in some cafe, and was fascinated.

What was it like recording with them?

Well, amazing. Especially, they asked me to write words that they made into music, that was very much fun. They gave me loads of influence about music. Especially English ones. XTC and all this kind of music of that time.

If you could work with anyone next, who would you like to record with?

I'd like to work with Moonriders again. And also this two member boy band, Camera et Styro they're geniuses. And Sasumo Sada [probable misspelling, seeking clarification], the best guitarist of 'Love is the Drug', and...yeah. What I like to do is, I'd like to pick up some songs from my old solo albums and record them again in a new sense.

[Partly joking, I urge her to work with Meitei, we discuss his music, she seems more than intrigued]

Since you talk about marketing, the album covers for your early albums, did you have a say, or did the label simply choose?

At that time, with my solo albums, I didn't say *anything*. [Laughs] My management people, they just decided. I didn't say anything. But now, I will never have this kind of things, having things suggested and just do it, but at the time everything was like that. Maybe they just thought about commercial stuff, commercial images.

Do you like them?

It's difficult to say. From the second album, the photographer was the same one. The first time, we shot the cover in the studio, and it was...how do you say, a collaboration, in a way, with some magazine. It was not only for the album cover, it was for like a Playboy type thing, a Japanese male magazine, that was not...quite happy for me. I [wasn't] naked or anything, but this I didn't like. But the photographer was a great photographer, and I met him, and later on we became friends, he actually taught me to put the film in cameras, and dark room work, and everything, so I really appreciated it, and he's one of my best friends now. I don't know if I love this picture itself, but people like it, so I think it's ok. [Laughs]

I think all your 70's albums are around 10 songs, did you record a lot of songs and pick the best of the bunch, or go in and record those specific songs?

We didn't make [that many] songs. Maybe 12 or 13, and they'd pick 10, that kind of stuff. We weren't a manufactured machine or anything, my boyfriend and I at the time, we made lots of songs, of our daily life, but that was enough to put together a record, to make an album, we weren't forced to make music like a machine, we just had so much fun [making] music, spending our time to make another one. Kissing Fish was different. Because I never had a big, big hit, at that time, so the label and management were really wondering, 'What is the best way to sell Nanako', and that kind of thing, so they brought in this big name composer, and they wrote songs, and it was more kind of organized.

Did you enjoy that process, or did it feel more difficult?

Nothing really hard. We are not machines, so everything [came] naturally, I think. I never felt stress or anything. I just sang as before, and enjoyed meeting with all these musicians for Kissing Fish, it was fun. I felt freedom, I've never felt any pressure for my music in my life.

If you recorded 13 songs and use 10, what happened to the unused tracks? You should make an EP of your 'lost' songs!

I don't remember these songs anymore. [Laughs] I don't remember now, I don't have [them]. I think they were not recorded, only we made, just written. But, you know what? Many people, they'd like to hear more with Motoharu Sano, so maybe we should do it.

Just as a parting thought, you should know people all around the world are still enjoying and discovering your music, don't ever worry about the search for a 'big hit', you've done something special.

[Emotionally] Oh, thank you. How nice to hear that. Thank you so much.