Iwasaki Hiromi “Tsutsumi Kyohei Singles & Favorites” Interview (2021)

Here is a recently published interview with Iwasaki Hiromi. A celebrated singer with a career spanning over 45 years, among her many accomplishments there is one that is especially relevant to this post: of all the artists that legendary songwriter Tsutsumi Kyohei ever wrote for, she went on to receive the largest amount of his compositions. Especially through the mid-70’s to the early 80’s, these two made some amazing music together.

If you want to know more about Tsutsumi Kyohei, please see this profile and interview that I translated a short while ago. But now, here’s Iwasaki Hiromi.

(Note: this translation omits the final four questions of the interview as they were more about Iwasaki’s plans for the upcoming months and not about Tsutsumi.)

Interview & text: Hamaguchi Hideki (Japanese text: one, two, three)
English translation: Henkka
Iwasaki Hiromi on the web: website, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube

Note: You can buy Tsutsumi Kyohei Singles & Favorites from CDJapan.

Hit After Hit as the Embodiment of “Kyohei Disco”
Iwasaki Hiromi in the 1970’s

Iwasaki Hiromi made her entrance to the world of entertainment through audition program “Star Tanjou!” (Nippon TV) on 25 April 1975. Her debut single, “Duet,” was written by Aku Yu and composed by Tsutsumi Kyohei. Going on to release numerous hits as she became one of the representative pop singers of Japan, Iwasaki celebrated her 45th anniversary in the industry last year.

However, in October of that same year, she received the news that Tsutsumi, her former mentor, had passed away. A year later on 20 October, Iwasaki is releasing a two-disc anthology of songs written for her by Tsutsumi. In this interview we asked her about her relationship with this extraordinary hit maker, and about her thoughts in regards to the works they produced together.

In the first part of this long, three-part interview, we will be giving you stories from the 1970’s when Iwasaki Hiromi first met Tsutsumi Kyohei.

— Thanks to the great number of compositions he wrote for you, this new release, Tsutsumi Kyohei Singles & Favorites, is really something only you could have released. Now, a year after his passing, who was he to you — this composer by the name of Tsutsumi Kyohei?

Iwasaki Hiromi: Along with Matsuda Toshi who taught me how to sing in junior high school and Aku Yu who wrote me so many lyrics, he is one of the three benefactors whom I owe for creating “Iwasaki Hiromi the singer.” Last year when I got the news of his passing, my mind just went blank. The tears wouldn’t stop. I was out for work at the time, but I was in so much shock I couldn’t manage to do anything.

— I would like to start by asking how you first met this benefactor of yours. Had you already heard of the name “Tsutsumi Kyohei” before you became a singer?

Iwasaki: Of course. Even before my debut whenever there was a song I loved and I went to check it in a song book, I would always see him listed there in the credits. “Composition: Tsutsumi Kyohei.” I loved the music of Minami Saori, Kobayashi Asami, and Go Hiromi, and he was writing most of their songs at that time.

— So when you heard that your debut song, “Duet,” was to be composed by Tsutsumi…

Iwasaki: I was overjoyed! I loved Aku Yu’s lyrics, too, so knowing that my debut would be written by that pair, I just thought, “How lucky am I?” I had no idea what Tsutsumi was like since he never appeared much in the media. Getting to finally meet him, he was very stylish, wearing a double-breasted jacket. He was very gentle in demeanor, speaking in honorific language even to me.

— Do you remember when your first meeting was?

Iwasaki: I think it was for when we decided on the key for my debut song. He was very polite in how he taught it to me. I still fondly remember how he played on the piano all the parts written in the sheet music, and at first I was so overwhelmed by his playing that I didn’t know when I should start singing.

— Was he also there for the recording?

Iwasaki: Yes. My debut song was recorded in Nishiwaseda at the Avaco Studio, and both he and Aku were present. I came to the studio first thing in the morning, and I got to see everything from them choosing the drum tone, to the recording of the rhythm section, horns, strings…

I was watching how every sound was added, and so even now when I listen to the backing track of “Duet” I can recall each individual instrument being recorded. It was my first time in recording… It had such an impact on me being able to see the intensity of those live performances up-close.

— Did Tsutsumi say anything to you when you were recording your vocals?

Iwasaki: “You’re about to become a singer, and you’re going to have all kinds of people praising you especially for your high-register vocals. But know that your true strength is actually your mid-range. Never forget that.” Those words are something I’ve always kept in mind to this day. Although to be honest that was my first time hearing the term “mid-range.” (laughs)

But now I do like my own mid-range vocals, and I believe it’s because of those words of encouragement I received from him that time.

Another thing he said to me was: “Your sense of rhythm isn’t the best. You should listen to lots of rhythmical music and study it carefully.” I loved Michael Jackson and had been listening to him since I was young, so I was a bit shocked being told that. He’s taught me about just how uncompromising professionals have to be.

— While your debut was arranged by Hamada Mitsuo, your second single “Romance” (1975) up until “Omoide no Ki no Shita de” (1977) — seven single A-sides in a row — were all both composed and arranged by Tsutsumi.

Iwasaki: His arrangements sound like Western music. They’re just so stylish and cool. Whenever I was appearing on music shows back in those days, the band would always be practicing my songs in rehearsal all the way leading up to showtime. That just goes to show how high-level the compositions must have been. I did feel proud knowing the songs I was receiving were of that caliber.

— All of Tsutsumi’s compositions to you are just excellent — even the B-sides and album songs are of such high quality they might as well have been A-sides.

Iwasaki: I was moved every time I heard what I was to be doing next. “I’ve been given yet another wonderful song!”

Prior to “Romance” and its B-side “Watashitachi” being released, there was a difference of opinion among the staff as to which one should be the A-side. Tsutsumi himself felt that the lyrics of “Romance” were too sexy for a girl of 16, favoring “Watashitachi” instead. But ultimately it was “Romance” that ended up on the A-side.

By the way, in the last phrase of “Romance” when I sing that “seki wo tatanaide~,” that was actually meant to be a different melody than what you hear on the recording. I just sang it how I remembered it, but when Tsutsumi heard it he went, “It sounds okay like that, too.” It was only him saying so which made me realize that I’d been singing it wrong. (laughs)

— In the 2011 BS Premium program “Unrivaled Hit Maker: Composer Tsutsumi Kyohei,” Tsutsumi spoke as follows: “If it had been “Watashitachi” instead of “Romance” chosen for her second single, I do think she would’ve been ready earlier to sing songs like “Shishuuki” or “Seibotachi no Lullaby.” But “Romance” became a hit and so it was decided that she should go in that pop route for a while. In my opinion this delayed the emergence of Iwasaki’s true ability as a vocalist.”

Iwasaki: I was watching that program and I became emotional realizing just how much he thought of me… Me being who I am today is all thanks to Tsutsumi and Aku for the many songs they wrote for me. I have nothing but gratitude for those two.

— Your growth as a vocalist must have been a top priority for both of them. Aku’s lyrics gradually became more mature, relative to your age, and Tsutsumi’s songs also became increasingly sophisticated. Did you have a sense of that happening yourself?

Iwasaki: In those days I was constantly recording something so I was just frantically trying to get through whatever song I was singing that day. I may have been too preoccupied to even notice something like that.

Although when we were recording my sixth single, “Kiri no Meguriai,” I started crying due to not being able to sing it properly. Up until that point he had almost never had to coach me on my singing, but with the first lines of that song he insisted that I wasn’t allowed to have the preceding sounds help me; that I just had to “jump right in.” I was struggling to do that so much that I started crying out of frustration.

— Beginning with the number one singles “Romance” and “Sentimental,” all of your singles henceforth became hits as well. As you were recording them, were there any songs in particular that made you think they were going to be major hits?

Iwasaki: No, I could never tell. But the lyrics where I used male language, like “Mister Puzzle” and “The Man,” I just felt so fired-up singing songs like that. I guess I must’ve still been the same girl I was in fifth grade when I wrote a poem entitled “I Want to Be a Boy.” (laughs)

— Makes sense. (laughs) Pandora no Kobako, the album featuring “Mister Puzzle,” was the pinnacle of Tsutsumi’s disco style. The compositions were all Tsutsumi, and even the arrangements on all but one of the songs were his work.

Iwasaki: It makes me think about how cherished I was when I read the words “Composition: Tsutsumi Kyohei” printed next to every song. Despite how busy he was, he sacrificed his time for me, to be able to work on that album.

Actually, just recently the comedy duo Dienoji have been hyping up my 70’s disco songs on YouTube. “These days you don’t have to buy CD’s — you can listen to these albums on Apple Music or Spotify. We want the young generation today to hear Iwasaki Hiromi’s disco songs! You’ll see just how awesome she is!”

Back in those days my songs were being played in disco clubs right alongside Western music, so I’d be happy if more young people today knew how I was singing cool songs like that, too.

— Even contemporary singer-songwriter Machi Akari is a fan of yours to the extent that she has been quoted as saying, “I want them to play my favorite Hirorin song, “Mirai,” at my funeral!” Surely the songs from that era must resonate with the younger generation, too.

Iwasaki: For the young people today, their image of “Iwasaki Hiromi” probably consists of imitation talent Korokke’s mimicry of me. (laughs) Or me from the time I was singing “Seibotachi no Lullaby.” I don’t think most anyone knows about the “Iwasaki Hiromi” that was singing cool soul music, so it makes me glad to hear from people like that. By the way, I’ve also put in Dienoji’s favorite song “Biyaku” on this new Tsutsumi Kyohei Singles & Favorites album.

— Since you mentioned Korokke… You actually did away with “Cinderella Honeymoon” for a while there, but recently you’ve started performing it once more.

Iwasaki: Yes. It’s no longer quite as reminiscent of Korokke. (laughs) I suppose recently it’s been known more as Takahashi Maasa’s favorite karaoke song. Actually, both my sons like that song, too. They have been telling me, “You oughta keep doing that one.” The nerve of those little…! (laughs)

From Idol to Adult Pop Diva
Iwasaki Hiromi in the 1980’s

After her debut in 1975, with the help of one Tsutsumi Kyohei-penned disco kayou hit after the other, Iwasaki Hiromi quickly became a top idol. But while her 14th single “Cinderella Honeymoon” (1978) could be described as the culmination of said style, beginning with her next single, “Sayonara no Banka,” she would be changing genres with each successive song, showing listeners yet new sides of herself.

In the second part of this interview, we asked Iwasaki about her development into an adult pop singer in her twenties, and the role that her main composer, Tsutsumi, played in that transformation.

— You turned 20 right after releasing “Sayonara no Banka,” and from there you went from your early rhythmical disco sound to the folky “Haru Oboro,” the AOR kayou of “Joyuu,” and the French pop-esque “Shinju no Period,” becoming a singer of many different types of music. How did you feel about this shift in style?

Iwasaki: When it came to things like the direction of my music or the songwriter choices, that was all decided by Iida Hisahiko, my musical director at the time. I just concentrated on singing the songs that were given to me. But looking back on it now, those were really some mature songs I was singing back then.

Actually, on my debut song “Duet” there’s a line that goes, “if you’re going to kiss me then steal it from me quickly” (“kuchizuke suru no nara subayaku nusunde“), and when we were recording the song I was so embarrassed to sing the line that I sort of glossed over it. I was 16 years old! (laughs) But then Sasai Kazuomi, my recording director back then, went: “It only sounds more embarrassing if you sing it like that.

Ever since then, I never thought too deeply about the meaning behind the lyrics and just focused on keeping the rhythm. Similarly, I was 21 when I did “Joyuu” but I still wasn’t thinking about the worldview of the lyrics when I sang it.

— I was listening to the song in real time when it came out and you sure didn’t come across that way. It was more like… “Wow! Iwasaki Hiromi’s freaking incredible!(laughs) Marking the beginning of the 1980’s was “Slow na Ai ga Ii wa” with Tsutsumi’s trademark sound of that period, including multi-colored melodies and a complex song structure.

Iwasaki: It takes some real technique to sing that song. That was a tough one for me. I almost never felt nervous doing music shows, but singing “Slow na Ai ga Ii wa” was always a challenge.

— I see. I’m surprised to hear that — it didn’t look like you were struggling. After “Slow na Ai ga Ii wa” and “Joyuu,” in the summer of that year you also released WISH, another album comprised entirely of Tsutsumi compositions.

Iwasaki: That was my first time recording overseas. Me, Tsutsumi, and lyricist Hashimoto Atsushi flew to Los Angeles for around ten days of recording. Tsutsumi turned 40 just as we were there, so we all got him a cake and celebrated his birthday together. One of the songs, “Wishes,” is memorable to me because we recorded it live with just me on vocals and Tsutsumi on piano.

— Live! So you had to get it in one continuous take.

Iwasaki: I must’ve sounded so nervous. After the first take Hashimoto went, “That was great, but it sounds like I’m listening to a hymn. It’s like I’m supposed to be sitting up straight just to listen to it! Why don’t we all have some wine and do another take?” It was my first time ever having alcohol while singing — I only had one glass and my heart was racing. (laughs) But it did lead to a relaxed recording session.

By the way, this past May I appeared on a TV show called “Jinsei, Uta ga Aru” where they did a feature on Hashimoto Atsushi, and so I got to see him again for the first time in a long while. In fact, I asked him, “Could this be the first time for us two to be in the same room together since the recording of WISH?!,” and he said, “Yep, you’re right.” It had been 41 years since we last saw each other.

— Huh! So that kind of thing can happen even though you’d both been working in the same industry all this time. So then was the picture used on the cover of Tsutsumi Kyohei Singles & Favorites taken during the recording of WISH?

Iwasaki: Yes. It was taken by cameraman Muto Tadashi. You don’t see me wearing exposed shoulder tops very often! And the wine glass is perfectly in frame, too. (laughs) It’s a different shot from the one that was used in the lyrics sheet of WISH. As it was previously unpublished, I didn’t even knew this shot of us together existed.

— It’s a great cover. In 1983, three years after that album, you released Shiteki Kuukan, an album which has been seeing a resurgence in popularity thanks to the recent city pop boom. Of the ten songs included, seven were composed by Tsutsumi and the other three by then still up-and-coming Tamaki Koji.

Iwasaki: I selected the song “Ikigai” from that album for this project. It’s a very grown-up kind of song and it was already a favorite of mine back then, but I feel like nowadays I have a better understanding of just what makes one’s singing good. Like I was saying, back then it’s like I was just singing the words as they appeared in my mind’s teleprompter.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become able to sing in a way that really stretches my imagination. That’s why I still love singing, I think.

— “Mikan no Shouzou,” released in 1984, was your 10th anniversary single, and it brought back the duo of Aku Yu writing the lyrics and Tsutsumi Kyohei composing the music. It’s the sort of challenging song that only you could have sung.

Iwasaki: That is such a difficult song. (laughs strainedly) I think I sang it maybe once on the “Yoru no Hit Studio” TV show, but otherwise I’ve hardly ever sung it live. Even EVE’s backing vocals on it are incredible.

— Reading the booklet of Tsutsumi Kyohei Singles & Favorites, there is a statement from Ozawa Seiji, Victor’s production manager at the time. He says: “Kyohei knew Iwasaki could sing whatever he threw at her, so in some ways he was almost using her as his experimental guinea pig.” Songs like “Slow na Ai ga Ii wa” and “Mikan no Shouzou” might fall into that kind of category.

Iwasaki: With those types of songs, I recommend that listeners specifically check out the audio from back then. I was probably singing those songs better then than I do now. (laughs)

— Tsutsumi would always be the one writing your songs at the turning points of your career. He did so once again for your 25th anniversary in 1999 with “Yurusanai.”

Iwasaki: That’s such a good song. It was the first time in a while that he’d written a song for me, and I remember thinking to myself when I first received it, “He really understands better than anyone how to write songs that fit my tone color.” This song is the favorite of my eldest son, and I personally really like it, too. But I always have to really practice it in order to be able to sing it.

— We’ve talked about individual releases, but now I’d like to ask you about the 1980’s music scene in general. Unlike the kind of kayou kyoku music composed by professional songwriters that was mainstream in the 1970’s, the 1980’s instead saw the rise of singer-songwriters and bands, really driving the kayou kyoku writers and singers into a corner. Did you yourself feel this change in the direction things were going?

Iwasaki: See, in my case, I left my production company in 1984 and went independent, and yet I’ve always managed to keep releasing records and CD’s even after that happened. Even if a single of mine didn’t make it into the top 10 or such, to this day it has never been a concern that I wouldn’t be able to keep doing what I do.

I’ve hardly ever thought about how any given song of mine is going to do sales-wise. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I’m not sure…

— It’s true that you’ve always maintained a steady pace of releases even after you went independent.

Iwasaki: Even on my current label, Teichiku Records, I’ve kept releasing singles or albums pretty much on a yearly basis, so I really do feel fortunate.

— While other songwriters-by-trade who flourished in the 1970’s were having less and less hits as time went on, Tsutsumi’s reign as a hit maker continued even in the 1980’s.

Iwasaki: Yes. His songwriting was very diverse. There was this record wholesaler back in those days who would come to the Shibuya Public Hall to sell imported records, and Noguchi Goro once bought some records from them that were actually meant for Tsutsumi. He was all, “Come on, he’ll never find out!(laughs)

Tsutsumi made an effort to listen to what was popular overseas before everyone else heard it, and he used those references in his songwriting. That might be one of the reasons that made him able to continue writing hits.

— Did you two ever discuss Western music? About the artists you were following and such?

Iwasaki: It was totally common for him to come into the recording sessions, so during the breaks we would often talk about things like that. One time I told him how I liked the song “Best of My Love” by the Emotions, and he said, “If you get the chance, you should go see those girls live. They’re great!” Hearing him say that, I just felt a deep respect for him — he was obviously studying all things music by habit.

Also, I still remember how he once cited the Barbra Streisand & Donna Summer duet “No More Tears” as an example to me. “You have that classic singing style, so you’d be doing Barbra’s part. If you got someone with a totally different kind of voice to sing that song with you, it’d make for a really lovely duet.”

— One can surmise the affection he had for you just from his words. It must be why he wrote such a multitude of songs for you.

Unparalleled Songstress
Iwasaki Hiromi Still Flourishing Today

Tsutsumi Kyohei wrote 74 original songs for Iwasaki Hiromi. This master composer, who throughout his career was always fixated on writing hits, gave 18 single A-sides to Iwasaki — more than any other female vocalist. That must show just how much she stimulated his creativity.

As if in response to his affection, a “Tsutsumi Kyohei Hit Medley” has become a regular feature of Iwasaki’s concerts. In 2019, she released the Tsutsumi Kyohei Tribute cover album as the eighth part in her Dear Friends series. Furthermore, she released Tsutsumi Kyohei Singles & Favorites on 20 October this year. On 24 November, she will be releasing a duet with another Tsutsumi pupil, Goro Noguchi, entitled “Suki da Nante Ienakatta,” and the two have also announced joint concerts. She continues to maintain a busy schedule.

In this final part of the interview, we asked Iwasaki about her recent years and about the future.

— In 2019, you released the album Dear Friends VIII ~Tsutsumi Kyohei Tribute~ with its varied 10-song tracklist spanning from 1970’s “Ame ga Yandara” (originally by Asaoka Yukiji) to 1994’s “Ningyo” (originally by NOKKO). On the same album you also covered your own song, “Koibitotachi.”

Iwasaki: Some of those Tsutsumi melodies were ones I’d loved even before my own debut, so I had a lot of fun struggling with the song choices. But what really made me happy was receiving feedback from Tsutsumi himself on the album.

Iida Hisahiko, my recording director at the time, spoke to Tsutsumi on the phone about it. He thanked me, saying he was happy how the arrangements remained mostly unchanged from the originals, adding: “You made the songs your own with your singing. I’m very pleased. I want to send the album to some friends — please mail me 20 copies if you would.”

— You must have been happy to receive his message. He passed away the following year, so in a way I’m glad you made it in time for him to hear the album. I’ve heard that he was physically unwell in his later years. Did you get to talk to him at all in recent years?

Iwasaki: The last time I saw him was at a gym in Aoyama. It must have been… maybe 10 years ago or so? He was doing some stretching when I saw him and quickly went to say hello. But then these young staff people from the gym said to me, “Oh, are you an acquaintance of Mr. Watanabe?”

— Right, because his real name is Watanabe Eikichi.

Iwasaki: When they said that, I went, “What are you saying?! This man you know as “Mr. Watanabe” is actually Tsutsumi Kyohei — the man basically carrying the entire Japanese pop world on his shoulders!” They all had a shocked looked on their faces. Tsutsumi was kind of shyly smiling to himself, but deep down inside I bet he was thinking, “This girl hasn’t changed a bit…” (laughs)

— On April 25, 2020, a year after the release of Dear Friends VIII ~Tsutsumi Kyohei Tribute~, you established the official Iwasaki Hiromi YouTube channel.

Iwasaki: I was actually scheduled to do a 45th anniversary concert on that date, but it was cancelled because of COVID. But since I still wanted to do something special on that date I decided to start my YouTube channel. In the last year and a half because I haven’t been able to do concerts very much, I’ve mostly used the channel to post old live videos.

— In your busy periods you were doing perhaps around 50 concerts a year, but COVID has forced you to cancel or postpone most of your recent shows.

Iwasaki: Yes, especially last year (2020) it feels like I hardly did anything. I did manage to complete my tour (“Mousugu 45shuunen! Iwasaki Hiromi Concert Tour ~Nokoshitai Hana ni Tsuite~“) in February, but ever since then it’s been “stay-at-home” for me. I did a two-day acoustic concert at the Cotton Club this past August, but it’d been such a long time since my last show that I had a fever the day before because I was so nervous. (laughs)

Something I’ve realized during this time is just how strongly I feel about singing. Before now I’d always sang like it was only obvious, but I now realize that it’s not — it’s pretty much a miracle to be able to sing. What with the lockdowns and all, I really understood just how much I love singing. I like to think of that as one positive thing I’ve gotten out of all this.

— You did your first big concert in ten months last December at the Osaka Festival Hall. Reading through the setlist it consisted mostly of songs composed by Tsutsumi, who passed away in October.

Iwasaki: Yes. The first half especially was all Tsutsumi numbers. It was really just a coincidence though. I also sang The Three Degrees’ “Nigai Namida” as a duet with my little sister (Iwasaki Yoshimi). I consider it as me paying my respects to him by continuing to sing his songs even in the future.

— Around that same time, Miyamoto Hiroji covered your song “Romance” to much acclaim. How did you feel about his cover?

Iwasaki: The first time I saw it on TV, I was just touched. Like, “It’s possible to do this song in such a rock kind of way?!” I also got to hear his cover album — I love how careful he is about his Japanese pronunciation. It gave me the opportunity to re-examine my own singing.

— This past year you’ve gradually started performing live again. In April, you performed at the Tsutsumi tribute concert held at the Kokusai Forum.

Iwasaki: The first day of that tribute concert (April 17th) was on the same date as my own concert, so I only took part on the second day (April 18th). It was just filled with nothing but hits, so I kind of wished I could’ve instead been there in the audience to be able to see it myself. (laughs)

I sang “Romance” and “Cinderella Honeymoon,” and the band was just outstanding. What with Funayama Motoki conducting and all the incredible performing musicians and the AMAZONS’ backing vocals, I could not have been more thrilled.

I’m sure sensei himself was delighted as he watched us from heaven.

— You personally oversaw and chose the songs for this latest release, Tsutsumi Kyohei Singles & Favorites, right?

Iwasaki: Right. It’s two discs, with the first one consisting of 18 single A-sides and the second one of 19 non-A-side songs as selected by me. The bonus DVD on the limited edition also includes my 1983 performance of “Tsutsumi Kyohei Medley (Sentimental~Mirai~Fantasy~Watashitachi),” so I hope everyone gets to see that.

— With Tsutsumi’s compositions all being such masterpieces, you must have really struggled with the song selection.

Iwasaki: Oh, did I ever! (laughs) With so many songs to choose from I mainly selected ones that I had special memories of, as well as ones with a sound that you wouldn’t expect to hear from me today. I don’t think it would be possible for me to recreate those songs today even if I tried, so that is something I’m eager to convey to listeners who might not know what I sounded like in those days.

— In selecting the songs you must have had to spend a lot of time going back and re-listening to your past material. Did the process of doing so lead you to any newfound realizations?

Iwasaki: I noticed how there was no hesitation in my singing. Even though I hardly got the lyrics at all, I just sang them seeming almost as if I understood them perfectly. It’s pretty incredible, if I may say so myself. Ahahaha.

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