Arama! Japan recently conducted an email interview with noted songwriter / producer Steven Lee. He’s an American that has worked with a plethora of acts in the Asian music scene, including including KAT-TUN, Hey! Say! JUMP, V6, Arashi, Namie Amuro, Kis-My-Ft2, and Sexy Zone. He was asked about many things, including how he got started in the industry, what it was like working with certain acts, and how JPop and KPop are similar and different. Check out the full interview after the jump!
When did you first get started in music?
I started playing piano when I was five, and wrote music since I was in middle school. Music has always been a part of my life.
How did you know you were talented?
I wrote my very first original song when I was 6th grade. When it was done, I played to my mother, but she didn’t believe I wrote it because she thought the song was too good to be written by all myself. (laugh) Then I realized maybe I can be a musician in the future, but I had never thought I was talented. I just loved what I was doing back then and enjoyed it.
What made you want to get involved in the music industry?
I always enjoyed listening to music and wished to live with it all the time. I could never think of my life without music. I’m very happy with my job.
How / when did you start getting involved in the Asian music industry?
When I was 17, I entered an audition program called “Star Search” in Los Angeles, and won it as a music producer. Then I started working in a recording studio in Hollywood named Studio 56, where numerous acts like Elvis Presley, Christina Aguilera, and Snoop recorded their numerous hit albums. I produced many demo songs for artists I loved, then I met a record producer Joey Carbone, who was working with big Japanese artists. He loved my demo songs and connected me to Japanese record companies.
You’re American, so why not work in the American industry more?
I personally love American music, and listen to American radio all the time, especially when I’m driving. I just wish I have enough time to write or produce for America, but my schedule is always fully booked with projects from Asia. It’s very hard to do both at the same time.
What was it like working with KAT-TUN?
KAT-TUN is very special group for me because “NEVER AGAIN”, written in 2002, was my big debut song in Japan. I was a baby songwriter back then, and KAT-TUN was also a pretty unknown group in the Johnny’s Junior circle. Luckily, this song was used as one of the main songs back then, promoted in their national tour, then the group gradually became huge. Their debut album sold over a half million in the first week of its release, and was even ranked #1 on the World Chart, beating Prince’s “3121” album. I have written and produced more than 10 songs for KAT-TUN and they’re still my favorite. And I’m a big fan of their musical style.
Working with my childhood’s super star is always super exciting. I can say, Namie Amuro is one of the best from the artists I’ve worked with. When I was working on her songs, I was in the studio in Los Angeles and vocals were recorded in Japan separately. I have worked with several big artists who come to the studio, record a few lead vocals, then leave. Sometimes they expect me to show them a “miracle” to make them sound good with backup singers. Namie Amuro was not one of them. She was very passionate, her vocals were recorded very professionally all by herself, including all the backing harmonies & dubs. She kept recording again and again until everything sounded perfect. As a result, a song like “Supernatural Love” ended up with more than 100 vocal tracks, and I had so much fun mixing it.
Do you cater your work to the image of the acts or is there already an idea / request from the company and you just work on that?
I think it’s 50/50. Normally, I freely produce music, but sometimes record companies & publishers give me the song’s directions and references depending on the projects. Songs in Japan are very seasonal (i.e. emotional songs are popular for the spring season [graduation / sakura], and they usually want energetic & happy songs for summer [beach & parties]). When there is a tie-up with a TV drama, movie, anime or CM, then the songs must follow its image, of course.
You’re known for making Johnny’s songs that have a more crossover sound. What goes into this?
I have produced and/or wrote over 70 songs for Johnny’s acts since 2003, but making songs for them is still tricky and I usually spend a long time to write just 1 song. Japan is a huge karaoke based market, so melody is always of #1 importance. Unlike Japan, America is more into club scenes, so the track production tend to be more important than melody in my opinion, with less chord progressions, less melodic moves. Usually when I write a JPop song, I write the melody and chords first, in a very Asian way, just with a piano or a guitar, before I start working on its production. Then I make its track in a more Western way, based on its melody.
A lot of idol songs have like 2 or 3 composers plus an arranger (for example, your 2 Arashi songs, “Tell me why” and “the Deep End”, are like this). So how does this work? Do you compose the song together or not? Does the final arrangement change the original song completely?
Yes, when there is a co-writer, 90% of the time it means we work together from the start. Sometimes, companies like a song I made, but want to change its backing track production to make it to fit more to their artist (such as change the vocal keys, add a dance section for the dance break in a live performance, etc.). Most of time, I make these changes as well, but sometimes labels uses their house arranger/producer because it’s easier for them to hire and record with session players.
Would you say you have a signature style?
Universal. Not too Asian, not too American…? (laugh)
Is there a difference between working with a male act and a female one?
Not very different on the songwriting, but vocal directing is very different. For me, directing a male singer is much easier because I can guide sing and let them follow.
What is your opinion on Japanese music and what do you find unique about it?
I personally believe trends change all the time, but a good melody lasts forever. Japanese music is all about good melodies and it never blocks me from choosing many different chord progressions / options. This is impossible in America nowadays because many people in music industry think more chords make songs sound dated.
Do you think the Japanese music industry could appeal to a broader audience if it opened up to foreign listeners?
Yes, and I already think it does. Many Japanese bands, such as B’z, successfully toured in Europe and America already, and I heard it’s getting bigger all the time. Music is a powerful language that everyone can understand no matter where you are.
Since you work in both the Japanese and Korean music industries, what are the similarities and differences between the two?
Korean and Japanese songs are both very melody based. But it’s hard to say they’re similar because of their history I think. Japan accepted Western culture earlier compared to Korea, so much of their music has elements from the 70s and 80s, including funk, jazz and rock. I thnk this is one reason that makes Japanese music very strong and unique. It shines when these elements meet today’s music. Unlike Japan, the Korean music scene (or KPop) grew up fast from the 90s. So I can say Korea is more club & dance based.
Also, which is the more lucrative one for you?
I love both equally.
Is there a difference between making a song for a Japanese act, making a song for a Korean act, and making a song for a Korean act in Japanese?
Not always, but yes it is different most time. As I mentioned above, I try to spend more time on the melodies when I write for a Japanese act to make it more karaoke friendly. But when I write for a Korean act, I think about the group’s image at the same time, and their dance performance since most of acts I work with are groups. Putting dance breaks in the song is also a important part in the song making process.
If you could work with someone that you haven’t already worked with, who would it be? What about them makes you excited to work with them?
I want to try one good record with Japanese old rock bands such as X JAPAN. Japan has so many talented bands known worldwide, but as a songwriter / producer, it’s very hard to work with a band because most of them do their own music.
Is there a song that you’re especially proud of in terms of the final result?
“No More Pain” by KAT-TUN.
What are you currently working on?
I was busy working on (KPop act) SS301’s new album recently. I also had 2 songs on the new Sexy Zone album. A.B.C-Z and Kis-My-Ft2 are releasing their new singles this month too.