This interview was published to coincide with the official release of Ueda Reina’s first album Empathy. She talks about how the album was inspired by emotions she shared with the characters she’s portrayed as a voice actress and how she approached the song-making process as someone who used to dislike singing. She also gives her thoughts about the lyrics she wrote for the new songs and her working relationship with the production staff.
Feel free to contact me (@jbtenmatay) for any corrections, clarifications, and edits. Notes are in [square brackets]. Song titles will be written in their original and romaji forms (except for katakana) at first mention, lyrics are in romaji — both translated when appropriate. Youtube embeds were part of the original article. Spotify embeds have been added for convenience.
Used to Hate Singing
— Listening to your debut mini-album RefRain (Released December 2016), I felt a light and soothing mood to your music and I was wondering if that’s a style you’ve settled on.
Ueda Reina (UR): I’ve never really been fond of singing… If anything, you could even say that I hate it.
— You don’t say?
UR: So when I was offered the opportunity to debut as a singer, it took me almost a year to say anything; that’s how uncertain of it I was. I also didn’t know much about music at the time, so during RefRain’s production I let the staff take the reins while I discover my tastes and preferences during the process.
— Which resulted into that mini-album…
UR: It turned out that way organically. Actually, it took ten months to get the concept down. (laughs) We would go back and forth in our meetings about what I might like, what I might not. I’ve always loved acting and it’s something I want to keep doing so I wanted my singing to incorporate a kind of acting where I can express my feelings without compromise.
— Is that why you also wrote the lyrics? In RefRain, the songs were co-written by you and Matsui Youhei-san.
UR: That’s right. The composition was mainly handled by someone else, and I was responsible for the lyrics. Matsui-san would write the lyrics first before passing it over to me, where I’d end up rewriting about 60-70 percent of it to suit the mood I wanted and the words tell exactly what I intended to convey.
— And here I thought Matsui-san was the one revising the lyrics you wrote but it was actually the other way around.
UR: Exactly. At first, I wasn’t used to putting my feelings to words so starting from scratch was impossible. Thanks to Matsui-san laying down the groundwork, it allowed me to bring something to completion.
— In Empathy, you wrote the lyrics for アイオライト (iolite) and Campanula on your own. I assume that means you’re capable of doing that now.
UR: I was able to pull it off for this but it was really difficult. It really drove home how much of a professional Matsui-san is. Even now, there’s still a part of me that’s wondering if the words I wrote actually meant what I was trying to convey.
— I think that level of consideration is important when you want to express something.
UR: You’re right. I did the best I could, in spite of my worries. That much I’m certain.
Singing with Empathy
— As for the rest of the songs that were written by various lyricists, were there any particular requests that you wanted them to follow?
UR: There was. I sang all the songs in this album sharing some aspect of the characters I’ve portrayed so far as a voice actress. So I initially made a list detailing which aspect I empathize with in a character for a given work and sent it to them. We would then discuss what they meant, tweaking the nuance of the lyrics they’ve already written as a result.
— That’s an interesting process.
UR: All my characters have an aspect that I connect with, or empathize with, or there’s something in them that drew me to choose the role in the first place. That connection is very important to my acting; each one builds off another. However, since I really set my mind on drawing from that connection, it was tough trying to not sing as if I’m doing a character song.
[To differentiate, character songs (or image songs) reveal or express some aspect of a given character. While it is technically sung by their voice actor, it is the “character” singing, hence the credit and focus goes to the character.]
— So this sense of empathy is what led to the name of the album.
UR: Yes, exactly. While RefRain is an introduction to who I am as a person, Empathy was inspired by my hope that those who listen to it might learn empathy or, perhaps, motivate them to consider or involve themselves with the people around them. In order to do that, I thought of lending some help from my characters, whom I empathize with.
— Does that mean the emotions Empathy is trying to communicate are those you might never experience if you weren’t a voice actress?
UR: It’s probably more accurate to say that I wouldn’t have realized what those emotions are. Though I’ve always had them but being a voice actress allowed me to recognize how enchanting they truly are.
A World of Color, From Winter to Spring
— Going back to the overall tone of the album, the cover art also reflects that.
UR: During RefRain’s production, the cover designer told me that it was inspired by their impression of me when we chatted, like that of snow. So it took on a winter theme since that’s the season that comes to mind when you think of something white and ephemeral. For Empathy, I wanted to turn that into spring. If I ever get to do more albums, I’d love to make the next one summer, then fall.
— That sounds like a great concept.
UR: Regardless, as the follow-up to RefRain, I wanted Empathy to be visually captivating. I’ve also been feeling more optimistic as an artist so I want its music to reflect that season and be a bit more colorful.
— I noticed that iolite, あまい夢 (amai yume), and ティーカップ (teacup) have African-American influences such as R&B (Rhythm and Blues) and disco that wasn’t in RefRain.
UR: Actually, this was originally supposed to be a five-song mini-album; these songs you just mentioned weren’t even in the initial plans. But my manager happened to recommend to me a light R&B song and I ended up liking it. Given the theme of the album, “From Winter to Spring,” I figured adding more rhythmical songs would fit.
Empathy doesn’t just relate to emotions, it also relates to the body. It got me wanting to include songs everyone could bop to, so I contacted the director and asked for three more songs to be made. (laughs)
— I think that’s a good call.
UR: I also thought that while the album had already been decided with songs I wanted to make and the song order arranged as such, these three had to be there to add more color to it. That’s how we ended up having them made in such short notice.
— So just like the line in iolite, irozuke sekai (TL: a world of color), these opening songs serve a role.
UR: That’s the idea. To be honest, it still hasn’t sunk in that the album’s done and I don’t feel confident that it’s as best it could be. You could say I’m still uneasy about it, if it’s really okay to release it as it is…
— It’s a fine album. If anything, I like it.
UR: Hmm… Maybe if all sorts of people express that they like it, I might finally be able to feel the same. Like right now, that one “like” got me to like it a bit more.
“Perhaps by voice is getting in the way of the song”
— Let’s talk about iolite, which was composed and arranged by Kai Takahashi (LUCKY TAPES). As you’ve mentioned, the lyrics you wrote make it sound bright and optimistic but I feel like it’s referring to someone who isn’t really that.
UR: You got it. I really wanted it to be lighthearted but there’s always been a part of me that you might call gloomy, timid, or fearful, which came across in the lyrics; as pop songs go, it’s relatively dark. That said, it came about because I’ve gone through tough and painful times where I had to just grit through it, and I think that’s an important sentiment to communicate.
— There’s a swing to the melody, which suits your voice really well.
UR: Really? I’ve always wondered if my voice just gets in the way of the song.
— Definitely not. (laughs) Why do you think so?
UR: It feels as if my voice, just like my lyrics, has a way of bringing down the mood of the song. It feels off once paired it with the lively instrumentals… or something like that. The more I’ve thought about it, it’s probably because I’m new to the genre, so I can’t be sure. So when the director says it’s good, I believe it…
— It really fits. I think those vocals are the actual hook of the song.
UR: I’m glad to hear that!
— The self-deprecating nuance you put on the second half of the verse, where it sounds like you’re questioning yourself, is fantastic.
UR: Things like that just come to me; it’s the same when I write lyrics. It’s like my true self somehow reaching out to express itself.
— What inspired the title?
UR: I was looking for something that changes color when seen at different angles. Because if you take the lyrics literally, it sounds pretty depressing but if approached from another angle, it’s actually about realizing how many people are there to support you. That’s quite like the sentiment I have, why I’ll never stop being a voice actress, which inspired me to choose iolite out of all the potential ones I’ve listed.
It’s okay to be anxious
— Let’s talk about the next song, amai yume, which was written and composed by ORESAMA. I like the catchy disco-pop feel as well the natural singing voice you used here.
UR: The recording and mixdown process for this song went relatively smooth. That said, this was probably the one I felt most anxious of until we actually recorded the master. The demo I did somehow sounded off so I adjusted my singing and emotional approach to suit the song until I got it just right by the time we did the final recording.
[トラックダウン (lit. Trackdown or tl. Mixdown) is a process where the vocalist of the song records a demo track first, which will be used as reference for the instrumentals. The vocals will then get re-recorded then mixed in and re-balanced for the final master.]
— So that’s how it came to be.
UR: My singing drew inspiration from the sentiment one might feel when they have people around them they admire, people who lift their spirits just by seeing them yet are satisfied just watching from afar, believing that they’ll never be a part of their lives. I wanted to express that whimsical feeling of contended longing.
— Listening to your explanation made me wonder if this is about how certain characters in certain anime feel.
UR: Yes, that’s it. I think it might be fun letting your imagination wander with that in mind.
— Next is Falling, the interlude between amai yume and teacup. I think it’s really effective how it sampled your voice to create an ambience.
UR: Ah, thank you. Falling and Another were intended to bridge the songs before and after them, though it was Ishikawa Tomohisa-san who just went ahead and made them…
— What do you mean by that? (laughs)
UR: That’s probably a bad way to put it. (laughs) I meant he did most of it himself and it turned out really well. Falling’s tone is… something along the lines of Alice in Wonderland, where the singer spirals downward from amai yume to teacup, getting lost in their worries, unable to get out of it.
— teacup certainly has that R&B influence but compared the other two, it has a slightly different feel to it.
UR: teacup’s composer, Hirokawa Keiichi-san (MONACA), was present during most of pre-production. He advised me that it’s okay to feel uneasy since that’s the nature of the song, a bit swingy and unstable, so I don’t really have to match my singing to the rhythm. (laughs)
— That’s quite a technical direction to go with.
UR: I agonized over how to pull it off before we recorded the master. I wanted to go for a brooding emotion akin to how one secludes themselves out of worry, but that style might be a little too slow for the rhythm. I also had trouble figuring out who this song was meant for—should it sound like a monologue, or is there a friend listening?
In the end, the song alternated between both modes: For the monologue, it’s about venting out all your frustrations, worries, you name it. For the other, it’s like you’re doing it to gain sympathy from your friend.
— It seems like that style requires a level of skill that voice actors possess.
UR: I gave it my all. When I record, I use every part of my body to sing. Jumping between modes was tough but I was mostly satisfied with the result.
You’re never alone
— Let’s move on to the fifth song of the album, いつか、また。(itsuka, mata.). As a rock ballad, it’s quite a sharp shift in tone.
UR: The idea is to have moments in the song where I sound as if I’m speaking instead of just singing. And as with all of the songs, it’s drawing from an emotion I empathize with in a character, though if I were to describe it in one word, I’d be “immature.”
There’s a line that goes “omoidoori janai mono nante iranai“ (TL: I don’t care about things that don’t go my way). It sounds conceited and unreasonable, but I’ve personally gone through moments like that, where you know it’s wrong but you can’t help but feel that way.
— Your voice took on a vividly raw rendition starting from ”watashi dame de, zuruku de, kizutsukeru no ni doushite” of the latter portion until the end.
UR: I’m glad you noticed. (laughs) That entire section was kept as is, basically without any processing so it wouldn’t take out the nuance of the tone, where it sounded like I didn’t want to sing anymore.
— I can’t help but imagine the supposed singer of the song is aware that good things are persistently trying to get into their life, yet they’re unwilling to open up even though they should.
UR: Right. Staying that way wouldn’t be good so… in a way, they’re reluctantly considering it. In that perspective, teacup and itsuka, mata. are connected. They’re both about secluding yourself from the outside world.
— In that case, the next song, きみどり (kimidori / TL: yellow-green), is a step away from it as a lighthearted ballad.
UR: It’s about wishing to see the sun and savoring its warmth, so to speak. In teacup and itsuka, mata., it seemed as if you’re alone and terrified, but in reality there are people around you; that if you just stepped out, you’ll catch the warmth of the sun… however faint it may be.
However, during recording, expressing the nuance of your eyes failing to adjust as you suddenly move to a bright place was hard to pin down. Even when I listen to it now, it’s as if they’ve finally adjusted at the end, and I feel a little bad since I think it goes against the spirit of the song. (laughs)
— I think presenting human weakness is a good touch. There’s this line, “kimi ga kureta watashi no ao” [TL: The blue you’ve given me]… I suppose the person was originally yellow and was given some blue to become “yellow-green” as the song’s namesake?
UR: Ah, I guess that’s one equally correct way to interpret it.
— What’s your interpretation?
UR: Actually, the original title wasn’t kimidori because I requested to change that particular line in that section. The first draft was very lighthearted, like you’re soaring up to the sky; it’s wondrous, uplifting and hopeful. However, I wanted the lyrics to be more down to earth and project an image of connection: that because there are people around you willing to extend a helping hand and pull you forward, you can keep going.
— I see.
UR: So for me, that line is an expression of imparting positivity to someone who doesn’t possess it, bringing about a new self. So in a way, we reached the pretty much the same conclusion. (laughs)
Pain That Comes After Singing
— Since we’ve already mentioned Another as an ambient insert like Falling, our next song is aquarium, which has an atmospheric electronica vibe to it.
UR: The song is rooted in feelings of inferiority. Imagine comparing yourself to your complete opposite and feeling down because of how much better you think they are; to you, they’re as bright as the sun. For that other person, though, they think of you the exact same way. Once you’ve realized that connection, you begin to understand that all your efforts actually have meaning in spite of what you feel.
So while the singer is struggling at the bottom of an ocean, slowly but surely they’re heading up to the surface as they gaze to that bright object above them. That sets it apart from itsuka, mata., where it’s about paralysis caused by hopelessness.
— This song in particular really exhibits the emotional capacity of your voice.
UR: Thank you. I remember feeling sore all over after singing that. (laughs)
— You were moving around while singing?
UR: It’s like my entire body was reverberating. When we were recording the demo track, they said my voice was trembling but felt just right for its emotional impact. That eventually became a trait of the song, especially the end of the final chorus as it expresses a feeling of struggle.
— I think it’s a good decision. The unnatural aspect of a vocal track could have even added more impetus to the voice. Next is 旋律の糸 (senritsu no ito). It’s quite a somber ballad with the piano as its sole accompaniment.
UR: It’s a song about being unable to give up even though you’ve completely lost hope, by which I mean you already feel that there’s no point in anything, that you could just fade away, but you wonder why it hasn’t happened yet.
— So this line about being reborn has a hopeful meaning to it?
UR: Not at all. You can’t give up so you can’t start over even if you want to.
“Thank you,” instead of “sorry”
— Next is a song you wrote the lyrics to, Campanula. It’s a very soothing piano ballad and a stark contrast from the melancholic senritsu no ito.
UR: Thank you. The song highlights how valuable it is when a character in a given work says something like “I’d like to say thank you instead of sorry.” I wrote the lyrics hoping that it encourages people to be more open to express gratitude and to cherish the people around them.
— The lyrics are gentle and unassuming.
UR: A flowerbed came to mind as I was writing it, but not the extravagant type, rather a more simple one. It makes for a more realistic, intimate, and humble song. In fact, Campanula is named after a flower that signifies “gratitude.”
— And finally to wrap up the album on a pleasant note, Walk on your side, which sounds like a simple pop song.
UR: The songs we’ve discussed so far dove into themes I empathize with. This one is more about expressing my personal ideals. It was made with the sentiment and a reminder that one should cherish the people they feel grateful to and whose presence alone encourages them.
— I can’t help but feel that both Campanula and Walk on your side’s lyrics are directed to a “you.”
UR: It does. As I may have alluded to before, RefRain puts a deep emphasis on expressing oneself. Empathy, on the other hand, assumes that you’re facing someone who’s listening. So I wanted the lyrics to establish a connection with that person.
— Speaking of which, you’ll be facing quite a lot of people in your solo concert in July.
UR: I feel anxious about it.
— You do?
UR: It has to do with me being a pessimist and originally not being fond of singing. Here I thought I’d never do an actual live concert…
[As of May 29, 2020, this concert has been officially postponed due to COVID-19]
— Oh, don’t say that. (laughs)
UR: (laughs) But really, I never dreamed of doing it. But just like how winter turns to spring, I’m kind of looking forward to it. I made an album about empathy so I think it would be great to show how that changes people. I want to be near them so I can tell them that I want to cherish the people around me. So rather than holding a concert just to sing, I’m striving to build a warm environment like that.