[Interview] Natalie – Artists’ Music Resumes #32: Tracing Saito Soma’s Roots

Published: 2020/12/28
Original URL: https://natalie.mu/music/column/410376

The Yamanashi boy who yearned for Tokyo became an artist after numerous encounters

An elementary schooler who belted out PornoGraffiti in the bath

I’m told that I had a frail body as a baby, but from kindergarten up until elementary school, I was an active kid. Even though recess was only twenty minutes long, I’d still shout “Let’s play dodgeball!” and run outside—that’s the kind of boy I was. On the other hand, that was also when I started to enjoy reading books. My grandparents lived with my family, and my grandmother was an avid reader with a wall full of bookshelves. She had all sorts of literature, and I loved illustrated reference books. I was the type of kid who’d take out the Encyclopedia Britannica to read. Perhaps I still am, but at any rate, I already had both an outgoing and an introverted side back then.

In fifth grade, my mother had to move away by herself because of work. My father would drive us to her house which was about an hour away. In the car we listened to the artists my parents liked: the Beatles, the Carpenters, Matsutoya Yumi-san, etc. In sixth grade, I made my own cassette tape. I really loved Spitz and PornoGraffiti at the time—in fact, there are a lot of PornoGraffiti songs that I can still sing from memory. I think the first one I heard was “Melissa,” the opening theme for Full Metal Alchemist, and then I went back and listened to all of their previous songs. I love their first album Romantist Egoist so much. I feel like I’m still influenced by the slightly cynical tone of (Shindo) Haruichi-san’s lyrics.

Also, there’s something I really want to say *laughs*—in elementary school, I was the type who sung properly during choir. My school took it relatively seriously. There were times when the teacher had to go, “Boys, sing properly!” but in general, the class worked together during choir. I already liked singing back then, and I was always singing in the bath too. Now that I think about it, our neighbour must’ve heard me singing PornoGraffiti a lot *laughs*. But as a kid, I was never told that I had a “nice voice.” My prepubescent voice was really high, but I hit puberty early and thought, “_____-kun is singing the solo part with a really good voice, but I can’t do it because my voice is too hoarse…” It felt like the end of the world *laughs*. As an aside, I learned piano from elementary school until middle school, but I can’t play it at all now. In middle school after I started my band, I’d arrange songs with my piano teacher. Thinking about it now, those were strange times. *laughs*

A friend who introduced him to the world of Kinniku Shojo-tai and Marilyn Manson

In my first year of middle school, I made friends with a classmate who was really knowledgeable about underground music because of his parents. I said I wanted to try listening to Western music, and he made a crazy MiniDisc for me with everything from Marilyn Manson to Kinniku Shojo-tai on it. I hadn’t listened to that kind of music at all before, but I easily came to love it. I listened to Kinniku Shojo-tai’s “Ikujinashi” every night before going to sleep *laughs*. I later formed a band with that friend, and I’d bike for 20-30 minutes to his house every day, bringing my gear with me. His parents were in the Nagomu era (an indie music label), so they had tons of rare things like Hadaka no Rallizes (Les Rallizes Dénudés), Totsuzen Danbooru, etc. At the time, I thought of that friend’s house as a secret base; a treasure trove. Every day I went there, I learned about a new world. Thinking about it now, it was an amazing experience.

If I hadn’t met that classmate, I might not have chosen the path of a voice actor. I think it wasn’t just my taste in literature and music that was different, but my way of thinking and feeling. In my first year of high school, there was a period of time when I didn’t want to go to school. That was when I discovered anime and wanted to become a voice actor. It was probably also when the sense of distance I felt towards that world was formed.

Then my friend introduced me to wonderful songs from older generations, while I continued to explore the music of the current generation. Those were my two focal points in middle school. It was the so-called Japanese guitar rock era, and I loved ELLEGARDEN, ART-SCHOOL, and, since I was from Yamanashi, Fujifabric. ART-SCHOOL might’ve been the one that made the deepest impression on me. I can’t explain it in words, but a lot of their songs really influenced me, and I feel like I’m following their style of references and cutting up lyrics. Then came the rock ‘n’ roll revival era, and from there I loved the Libertines, Bloc Party, and Mystery Jets. I read the liner notes from the Libertines’ first album so many times that I can still recite them from memory. In my third year of middle school, my tastes aligned with my friend’s again. We lent Arcade Fire’s Funeral back and forth, going “Paper jackets are where it’s at!” *laughs* I guess we were trying to seem cultured.

Also, in my second year of middle school, I had another friend who I made through PornoGraffiti. We sent each other lyrics that we wrote. He was an absolute genius, and his lyrics were amazing. I have all of them saved on the cellphone I used back then, which is at my parents’ house. I think he’s still influencing me to this day.

The lingering influence from Good Dog Happy Men

I got my information from music magazines and, since my house got internet when I was in elementary school, from online as well. It was still the age of dial-up, so it was a struggle *laughs*. I still remember there was a band called The World/Inferno Friendship Society that I saw in a magazine in middle school. I listened to their music on Myspace and it was really good. Their CDs weren’t sold in Japan, though, so they could only be bought on Amazon. I wanted to listen to The World/Inferno Friendship Society so badly that I made a big presentation to my parents *laughs*. “The era is coming where you’ll be able to shop from home!” I still treasure that CD I bought. The song “Only Anarchists are Pretty” is amazing—it’s so upbeat that playing it on a holiday morning gets me finishing my cleaning in a flash. Please listen to it.

I think a lot of the songs we played in my middle school band were quite unique. They didn’t follow the usual A-melody→B-melody→chorus structure, and the parts were acoustic guitar, bass, melodica, and vocals. Our biggest influence at the time was the band Good Dog Happy Men. I’ll never forget that magazine interview I read with their vocalist, Monden Masaaki-san. For some reason it left a big impression on me, and I asked my internet-savvy friend to research the band for me *laughs*. From there I listened to BURGER NUDS’ discography (note: Monden’s previous band). Good Dog Happy Men’s “Most beautiful in the world” is a true masterpiece. I’m heavily influenced by Monden-san’s characteristic wordplay and cynical atmosphere, and how even when he sings about realistic things, he expresses them in a fantastical way. Also, in high school, I really liked a band called Hana no You ni, which had an accordion and a trombone. I wanted to do something like that, and wished my own band could have a violin and accordion too. But my other band members were like, “What in the world?” *laughs* I think Good Dog Happy Men and Hana no You ni would’ve been more successful in the current music scene.

Since I lived in a rural area, in high school I really looked forward to the one or two times a year that I could go to Shimokitazawa’s Highline Records. I couldn’t attend many concerts either, but I did go to see Good Dog Happy Men. I also went with my friends to a joint concert in Yamanashi with ART-SCHOOL, POLYSICS, and a Yamanashi band called “the court.” Those experiences remain in my heart to this day. I feel that those influences are still everywhere in the songs I write now.

If it’s only enjoyable for yourself, it won’t get across to others

Before I learned about the voice acting profession in my first year of high school, I wanted to become a writer or a musician in the future. But during the period when I didn’t go to school, I discovered anime. My simple longing to be “someone on the creation side of anime” led me to take 81 Produce’s audition when I was 17. I didn’t have a clear vision at all; I just instinctively jumped at what had saved me. I moved to Tokyo when I started university and began attending training school at the same time, but I couldn’t keep up with both of them well, so I asked the agency to let me focus on university for the time being. Later when I was a third year, I attended training school for a year, and when I became a fourth year, I began voice acting for real.

I occasionally wrote music when I was in university, though I had no intention of showing it to anyone. But I’d say that listening to music, reading books, and acting had become more important to me. Tokyo had always been like an illusion to me, so after moving there, for a while I was really excited about all of the things I could do and the places I could visit *laughs*. It was so much fun that I thought, “I don’t want to graduate!” At university there were a lot of people who were knowledgeable about all sorts of things, not just music. The things I learned from the people I met then also formed the basis for quite a lot of my current interests and tastes.

Fairly soon after I began voice acting, I had an opportunity to do a vocal recording for work. I had a habit of immediately getting carried away, which hasn’t changed *laughs*. Since I liked singing, I thought I could do a pretty good job, but I ended up not singing well at all. Of course I didn’t—if you sing in a way that’s only fun and pleasant for yourself, it won’t come across well. I gave it everything I had, but was forced to face the harsh reality that simply liking something isn’t enough to succeed at it professionally. It’s a recurring situation in the voice acting industry.

My first leading role in an anime was in 2014. Considering that I received the 81 audition award in 2008, I feel like the agency waited a very long time for me to realize my potential. I couldn’t act well at all at first; I received a lot of criticism and even had my role changed on the spot… It was only natural, though, because I lacked ability. I was also naïve, hiding behind the fact that I was a student. In the second half of my third year of university, I resolved to become a voice actor, and from there, all I could do was focus on building experience. But while you’re acting, there are moments when you feel a tight grip on your heart. “Just now, I said those words based on feeling instead of logic.” “Oh, that really felt like a dialogue.” I got addicted to those moments. Even though I originally decided to become a voice actor on a whim, I grew to love it more and more as I kept going.

How the voice actor Saito Soma awakened as an artist

When I received the offer for an artist debut, I was attracted to the words “We’d like you to incorporate forms of vocal expression aside from singing.” I still wanted voice acting to be my core focus, so those words made me think, “Maybe this team will allow me to keep voice acting as my central focus while being a singer.” The team members are actually completely different now than they were before, but either way I’m glad I took the leap back then.

Artist photo at time of debut single Fish Story

My debut single, Fish Story, was released in 2017. It was composed by Oishi Masayoshi-san. I asked my label, “I know this is unreasonable, but could you ask Oishi Masayoshi-san?” and he actually accepted. I loved the groovy atmosphere of Oishi-san’s songs, and at the time I was fixed on this being the music of “the voice actor Saito Soma,” so I wanted the song to be something people would have fun listening to. Oishi-san included all of my requests and my detailed concept for the lyrics, which I’m truly grateful for.

デビューシングル「フィッシュストーリー」リリース記念イベントの様子。(Photo by yoshiaki nakamura)
The Fish Story release event

My third single Date was when I met my current producer, Kuroda-san. Ever since then, although my music is credited to Saito Soma, this team feels like a real band to me. In my 2019 release my blue vacation, there’s a song called “Paper Tigers.” For this song, Kuroda-san and the arranger Saku-san came over to my place and we had a jam session to create a song that uses a lot of major chords, since I didn’t have one yet. The three of us came up with the song in about an hour of guitar-playing *laughs*. And during the recording, we all discussed what would sound stylish for the harmony. We’re close in age, we grew up listening to the same music, and they’re kind and accepting of me. I really think it’s a great team.

When I had my first concert in 2019, it was my first time singing an entire concert by myself, so I wasn’t sure if my throat would hold up. But once it was over, I realized that I had a ton of fun. I don’t know how to express the greatness of concerts in words, but at any rate, I felt it even more strongly after that. I wanted to write more songs with this band—this team—in mind. So while the concert was fun, it was also an important experience that greatly influenced the way I wrote music afterwards.

His enthusiasm for making music is at an all-time high

When people ask me, “Who’s your favourite musician?” I answer with Elliott Smith, but that’s actually a really tough question *laughs*. I really like songs that say “you’re not alone,” and they do give me courage, but I prefer songs that say “it’s okay to be alone,” accepting isolation as-is. When I look at Elliott Smith’s life, lyrics, and world views, I can’t say he only sings about positive messages, but his music touched me when I was a teenager, and it still touches me when I listen to it now, just in a different way because of how I’ve changed. I really love his voice too, and he makes me think, “Maybe this is what you get when you pursue something to the end.”

There aren’t really any artists I aspire to be like, although there are definitely many who I like and respect… They say that habits in youth continue through life, so maybe I still subconsciously want to be different from everyone else *laughs*. In the past, a certain actor senpai said to me, “Even if you’re imitating someone else, anything expressed through your own filter becomes your own expression,” and I’ve taken that to heart. It’s said that the word “manabu” (to learn) comes from the word “maneru” (to imitate). Creating something from nothing may be difficult, but taking the things you’ve encountered in the past, connecting them bit by bit, and outputting the result is what makes it “yours.” I want to be able to create things like that. That said, I’m truly grateful for the amazing people who take the songs I write and make them into amazing pieces. If my music career can continue like this forever, that’s enough for me to be happy.

Lately I’ve been thinking that lyrics are a fascinating form of expression. I generally compose melodies with the awareness that I’m creating something that will have lyrics, but it’s still incredibly enthralling when I add the words, giving meaning to the song for the first time. Outside of my artist career I write compositions about topics I like and express myself through voice acting, and maybe both of those are involved in writing and singing lyrics. Right now, I feel like my enthusiasm towards my music is at an all-time high. It’s still early, but I’m already thinking about what approach I’ll be able to take after my second album… Will it be more introspective, or will it be wildly upbeat? I think either way would work. I’m really excited to see what creations lie beyond this resume.

Official Playlist: 12 Songs that Shaped Saito Soma
(Don’t ask me why there are only 11 tracks)