I would want to be praised for my good points because people get better by being praised. I would have loved to hear others’ experiences, as it’s good to be personal. Keep listening to my music without saying anything. That’s all. This point is most important.
As a part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing SENRI OE.
Jazz pianist SENRI OE releases his seventh studio jazz album, LETTER TO N.Y., via PND/Sony Masterworks. Composed and produced by Senri completely in quarantine, the 11-track album, Letter to N.Y., is a special homage expressing Senri’s full love for New York City, that captures the eclectic array of the Big Apple’s musical energies.
As a pop Japanese superstar for two decades (80’s and 90’s), Senri Oe did a complete turnabout on his career by deciding that he wanted to focus on what was important in his life — his first love — jazz. Senri left Japan and his legion of pop fans and headed to New York to study at the School of Jazz at The New School, and then launched his jazz recording career with his PND Records debut Boys Mature Slow in 2013. The release was followed by a variety of ensemble and solo albums, culminating in his solo piano debut, Boys & Girls (2018) and Hmmm (2019), a trio session with drummer Ari Hoenig and bassist Matt Clohesy which hit the Top 40 on JAZZWEEK, and #24 on the Roots Radio Jazz’ Top 50 chart. Senri’s other albums include the full big band with Spooky Hotel (2013), Collective Scribble (2015) and Answer July (2016), which featured jazz vocal greats Sheila Jordan, Theo Bleckmann, Becca Stevens and Lauren Kinhan of the Grammy-winning vocal ensemble New York Voices.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
My father was a newspaper journalist, and my mother had a love for music. I started playing classical piano at the age of three and immediately started composing. My first time composing was by accident, as I forgot the song in the middle of the recital, and I helplessly improvised it. I listened to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again,” and aimed to become a singer-songwriter at 12. At the age of 15, I listened to Bill Evans and discovered jazz, but it was too complicated for me at the time, so I gave it up. I then made my debut as a pop singer at the age of 23.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
As I have always loved music, I really enjoyed writing songs, so I concentrated on writing and became a pop star in Japan before I knew it. But I had jazz in my heart for such a long time — it was inevitable that I would go to college to study jazz in New York at the age of 47. I’m asked why I gave up my fame and fortune to change my career path, but I didn’t set out to. I realized that life only comes around only one time, and I wanted to learn and play jazz music. That’s what it comes down to.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There were times I had different jobs — an actor, a moderator, a book writer….each time, I wondered whether or not I could do it, but I tried things out when I found them interesting. I thought that if I can’t do it, then I could quit and that it would be ridiculous to regret not trying it. By doing so, I could have a different perspective, so you could hear that experience in my music. At first glance, the key to the goal is hidden in a different direction from the goal. By acting as an actor, I had the opportunity to be recognized by the public as a singer.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
During a concert at Yokohama Stadium, fireworks went up in the middle of the show at the peak of excitement. The trigger was to jump with a signal, that I would swing my arm down, but just before the jump, I realized that I was right by the fireworks. I knew immediately what would happen if I flew, but I had no choice. I covered my ears with my hands, but I flew a few meters and fainted (true story). I couldn’t hear for a while on stage, but the audience misunderstood it, because I was so excited and writhing with a euphoric look on the big screen. I was fluttering around the floor, but people thought that was it was exciting. At the time, I learned that entertainment might be something humorous. That’s why I learned that even if I work seriously, I have to have an objective perspective.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
During the pandemic, I connected the music software on my computer and the Casio keyboard to make home-recorded jazz all by myself. I was able to make the most innovative jazz in the least jazz-y way. Making a meal to survive with limited ingredients in the fridge, I applied that idea to music. You can immerse yourself in music while relaxing as much as you like, 24 hours a day, wherever you like. I couldn’t actually meet people or travel, but I imagined I was recording with Miles Davis in the ’70s as if I was in a session with him.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
The music, movies and television we make reflect our culture. People are basically different, and that is why we are attracted to each other and quarrel with each other. The first important reason for diversity would be the ability to provide an opportunity to think with lyrics in music, we can plant seeds of imagination in our hearts. The second is to increase the freshness of the work. The third is to always be accepted by different layers. These three have become three-way and makes the culture more attractive. For example, by leaving Japan and coming to the United States, I was able to appreciate more the good parts of Japan.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1). I would want to be praised for my good points because people get better by being praised.
2). I would have loved to hear others’ experiences, as it’s good to be personal.
3). I would want you to simply tell me the task with kindness.
4). I would love for you to call out to me to go out for lunch.
5.) Keep listening to my music without saying anything. That’s all. This point is most important.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
If you do what you do, simply accept the results. Always see what is in front of you as an experience for your next success, not as a result.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
How about inventing a short, healthy exercise that men and women of all ages can sing and dance to? I wake up by doing this exercise every morning. Even when there is something frustrating when this melody comes to mind, people can naturally laugh and relax…and one day, this exercise will bring love and peace to the world.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There was once a president of the management office who had given me advice like my father when I started singing. He helped me when I was mentally ill at the age of 25. When I said, ”I’ll probably die,” he said to me, “people don’t die easily.” Still, when he persistently asked, “What would you do if I died?” he said, “at that time, it was a Buddha.” The meaning is “that’s it. Those words have always been in my heart. When it’s hard, if you die, then it’s over, that’s all. Nothing is as simple and strong as this. When I left for America, he was the only one who advised me repeatedly, saying, “think again.” He was really worried about me and my future. But when I returned to Japan at the Tokyo Jazz Festival, he hugged me with a big smile and said, “Look, it’s exactly what I said.” “What?” I said. He was like Buddha himself.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Don’t refuse what comes, don’t chase what goes away. Don’t expect too much from people. Then when someone does something small and good, it will make you happy.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
The Pope. I’m baptized and basically Catholic. First, I would want to know what kind of breakfast he chooses, and I would want to share the story of the reality behind the world and the stories of children who believe in the future. I also want to hear what kind of music he really likes.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Thank you so much!