Eye to Ai

By on March 29, 2010

American Idol commences its ninth season, and the usual suspects are back in full swing: The hopeful (and hopeless) singers, the notoriously frank judging panel, and Ryan Seacrest’s Colgate grin. And each year, the hit karaoke concourse enters Japanese TV sets preceded by introductions from various hosts, which have included radio celebrity Chris Peppler and J-pop girl-group AKB48.

This year, taking the stage as Idol’s new navigator is Japanese songstress Ai. It’s easy to see why; her vivid persona was evident within seconds of meeting her and promises to liven up those pre-show segments.

Currently sporting blue hair and eyes, the 28-year-old R’n’B singer has garnered much success and adoration in the Japanese music scene. In her eleventh year in the business, she has had countless chart-toppers, danced in a Janet Jackson music video, and recorded with international superstars like Trey Songz. However, when asked how she’d introduce herself to Japan newcomers, she chuckles, “I’m a normal person, like everybody else, who loves to sing.”

Ai – née Ai Uemura – was born in Los Angeles and grew up both there and in her Japanese hometown of Kagoshima, moving back and forth per her father’s work. Born to a Japanese father and a half-Japanese, half-Italian-American mother; Ai has always been surrounded with both cultures – which is evident in her western-influenced music – even in the countryside. 

“In Tokyo, there are lots of foreign people; but in Kagoshima, there is no one from other countries. If you see a foreigner [there], kids would point and go, ‘Gaijin! Gaijin!‘.” The culture barrier proved hardest for Ai’s mother, though. “She couldn’t speak any Japanese. She didn’t have anybody except my dad, but my daddy had to work all the time. And my sister and I – we were trouble, always fighting. I know she had a hard time raising us in Kagoshima.”


Growing up, Ai’s household was a musical one, which prompted her to develop her musical affinity at a young age. “I’ve liked singing since I was three or four, ’cause my dad would play the guitar. My mom was a tap dance teacher, and she used to play Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross. That kind of music was [around] all the time.” And currently, her iPod is busy spinning Alicia Keys, Ne-Yo, Lady GaGa – and Michael Jackson (“Still!”). As such, she plans to record for foreign audiences someday. “I would love to,” she gushes. “I’d like the world to understand what I’m saying and see what kind of singer I am.”

While her talent has always been evident, Ai’s success as a singer came as a surprise to her. “I thought I was gonna be a makeup artist or kindergarten teacher, but after I sang at a wedding [in Los Angeles], someone from a recording company asked if I wanted to be a singer. I said ‘If I can, yeah!'” While Ai was ready to seize the opportunity, her mother insisted that she finish high school first. “I thought, ‘Why do I have to go to high school if I’m going to sing? I don’t need geometry and psychology for singing.’ That’s what I thought back then – but [I knew that] if I didn’t listen to my mom, then something bad might happen to me.”

And it appears that her mother indeed knew best, given the success that ensued. Hit records, and now a stint on American Idol, which she says she has been a fan of since season one.

“There are no programs like that in Japan. It’s fun! The judges – you want to know what they’re gonna say.” And the show hits her on a more personal level, too. “I’m a singer too, so … it gets me back to where I started [from]. When you remember that, you feel more thankful for what you have – the people who’ve helped you, the tough things you’ve been through.”

It’s a family show, which just might make her a star in family entertainment, an idea which Ai likes, as family is important to her. “When I talk about family, it makes me want to cry,” she says, almost sniffling. “My sister, my dad, and my mom; my grandma, my cousins – everyone’s so nice to me. In junior high school, I got in trouble and had an attitude sometimes, but my parents went through all that and still loved me. When I grew up, I loved them back.”

“I’m happy with my life, and I love my parents and my sister. I got lots of good memories. That’s why it makes me cry,” she chuckles.

Ai’s best-of album, Best Ai: Re-born Edition, and new live DVD, Viva A.I. Japan Tour, is out now.

About Martin Leroux