NYVC Singer Spotlight: Erika Matsuo
Posted Monday, March 7th 2022 by Kacey Velazquez
NYVC's Kacey Velazquez had the honor of speaking with New York-based, Japanese jazz vocalist Erika Matsuo about her artistic journey...
Hi Erika! Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? Where are you currently based?
I’m currently based in New York and I have lived here for 22 years. I grew up in Miyama, a small town in Fukuoka prefecture, Japan.
What types of music have influenced you the most in your music career?
I would say, Jazz and Brazilian Music. I grew up listening to Japanese pop music, but when I became a teenager, I started to listen to Acid Jazz and Club Jazz, with groups like Incognito and Jamiroquai. At that point, I decided to study jazz seriously.
Since moving to New York, I have been singing jazz, Brazilian (MPB), an original song with special arrangements.
You have performed at many esteemed venues in NYC and now call it home. What led you to New York?
When I moved to New York in 2000, I could not speak any English and did not have a trained voice. I started playing piano when I was five years old, but my parents did not want me to be a musician. I wanted to study at a professional music school, but they wanted me to attend college. Since I was not able to change their minds, I decided to go to college to learn English literature in Nagasaki, where I met a great pianist who used to live in New York (he was touring in Japan).
In my mind, I was still planning to go to music school after graduating from college, and this special encounter with this pianist from NY changed my life completely! By then, I had a demo tape and gave it to him. After listening to it, he encouraged me to head to NY and invited me to join his jazz band as a vocalist. He told me that I should study jazz with "the best in NY." In 1997, after I graduated from college, I left Nagasaki for New York where I joined his band. I lived there for four months until I ran out of money, then headed back to Japan and worked hard, determined to return and study music in New York.
It took three years, but I was finally able to return in 2000 and study jazz at The City College of New York, where I graduated in 2003. I have lived in New York for 22 years.
I've performed at the Blue Note NY, Jazz at Kitano, BB King, Gotham Hall, Rockwood Music Hall, and many other places in NYC.
I began my career by making a demo CD that I dropped off at restaurants. It was a great experience and I learned so much from those restaurant gigs, like how to grab all those customers' attention even with all the background noise during my performances.
I've had a chance to perform in really terrific venues, while meeting the constant challenge of packing the place in order to keep the gigs. I'm especially proud that I've been performing at the legendary Blue Note and Jazz at Kitano every year since 2009.
Tell us about your experiences with music in Japan...
I started touring Japan in 2005. I did not know anybody related to music and musicians at the time, but a Japanese guitarist who used to live here in NY invited me to sing on his tour in Japan for two weeks. I began my career as a singer in NY, so it was difficult starting from nothing in Japan. I made a loss in the beginning. Nobody knew me, so booking clubs and musicians were hard. There were definitely tears, but I refused to give up. Since then, I am happy to report that I have built a reputation and audience for myself that I am very proud and grateful for.
Now I perform in more than 80 venues every year and tour Japan twice annually. I have many radio and media appearances there. I love talking on the radio and TV to entertain people. I also started singing jingles for TV commercials, which I enjoy, as well. I am so glad that I remained determined and persistent throughout my career. I believe it is most important to stay focused, while remaining patient and aware that success takes time and hard work.
You have released six albums so far. That's amazing! What advice would you give to other artists who want to release music?
Thank you so much. I released the sixth album, Here and Now, last September and the Christmas single in December 2021.
I believe the most important thing is to stay focused until you complete your album. Be patient and don't rush the process. Also, do not be a perfectionist or you will never get anything done and you may never release your album.
Once you stop in the middle of the production you lose your excitement and momentum, so you should remain steady and unwavering until you release your album. You also have to listen to yourself a lot which is a difficult process physically, mentally, and spiritually. It feels like you are staring at your flaws in the mirror, and I sometimes "beat myself up" thinking that I cannot really sing. I have to work hard not to be so critical of myself.
However, you will grow immensely by listening to your own voice. It may be hard to do so in the beginning, but it's the quickest way to learn. Try to be as objective as possible throughout this journey. One of my greatest lessons in producing CDs is that you must ultimately "let go" and move forward. Do not seek perfection or you will never release your album.
Creating your own experiences and opportunities is so important. You can learn from them all, especially when things do not go as expected. There are no mistakes in life and everything is a lesson -- a learning process.
If you want to release your own music, you should plan in advance. The first step, of course, is to choose or compose your songs. It also helps to record all your ideas, for example as a voice memo on your cellphone, and then develop them before you go into the studio.
Keep in mind that when you mix and master, you can be judgmental, but too much editing and pitch perfection ruins the actual human quality and, therefore, the beauty of connection and possibly your vocal sound
Making an album is like keeping a diary -- you give to the world what you have at that moment. Though I may hear immaturity in my vocal performances of the past, I did my best and that was what I had to express at the time. When I listen to those recordings, I am grateful that they take me back to those memories, like a treasured snapshot.
I prioritize the most important things in my life. I set all else aside, investing my money and energies toward making music and performing. I've been touring all these years while also ensuring that I release a new album every year and a half for my loyal audience.
I always have a deadline, as well. I make it a point to finish each new album before the tour starts. It is a lot of work to produce your own CD while also organizing the entire tour overseas.
You are a recent graduate of our Voice Teacher Training. Congratulations! What inspired you to take that step in your career?
Thank you! I live in New York so I was able to take the Vocal Teacher Training class in person. The pandemic ended up being the ideal time for me to study and grow. It was the best course I have ever taken in my life! Justin is an amazing teacher, a fabulous vocalist, and incredibly open-minded.
There are different vocal training programs for specific singing methods, but what I love about Justin and NYVC is that there is no method. Instead, I gained a wealth of knowledge about the vocal function and the possibilities of the human voice which allows me to see the full picture.
My favorite part of the process was designing my own vocal exercises. The course inspired and enabled me to find my own unique way of teaching as a jazz vocalist. It is simply an amazing experience. Now I understand the results and benefits of all the vocal exercises and I can customize them for each of my students. I've learned how to solve so many singing problems when I teach.
When I would tour and perform for many days straight, I used to experience problems such as a tired or hoarse voice, but now I know how to sing through these issues while restoring my voice faster with all the approaches I've been taught.
As stated before, singing and teaching are journeys for a lifetime, so I will keep learning and growing, and this wonderful course has provided me with extraordinary tools to work with. I learned so much and am enjoying teaching even more than ever. Thank you, Justin and NYVC with all my heart!
What can we expect from you in 2022?
I am focusing on composing this year. Eventually, I would like to release an album with all my own originals.
My fans have been waiting for a Christmas album so I also want to fulfill that wish this year. Hopefully, I will be able to tour Japan, as well, and I would love to perform in Europe, too. All the tour dates were canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic and since then I have not been touring.
The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed me to rest for a time and reassess myself. It’s been an extended opportunity to practice, compose, and learn new technology to perform and connect in the virtual world. All that takes time that I don’t normally have when I am busy performing, recording and touring. I have been able to take courses with brilliant teachers and deepen my practice on a level that I actually never experienced before.
It’s very important for artists to keep on growing and evolving. It never stops. At a time when we have suffered so much loss and pain across the globe, I count my blessings to be an artist, even though it also comes with a price tag. I can get through the day, because music still connects me to people, even in isolation, and I hope and feel that I can contribute some beautiful moments to other people during this difficult time. Our interview is a perfect example of that. Thank you, Justin, for all your inspiration, insights and for yet another wonderful opportunity.
Kacey Velazquez is a seasoned vocal coach, songwriter, and recording artist from New York City. Kacey has been involved in the arts her whole life, getting her start in musical theatre. When she was just thirteen years old, she began songwriting, recording, and performing her original music at acclaimed venues in New York City including The Bitter End, 54 Below, The Cutting Room, The Astor Room, and the St. George Theatre.
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