By Sheila Burt (Toyama-ken, 20010-12) for JQ magazine. Sheila recently returned to America after living in Japan for three years (two years in Namerikawa with JET and one year at a private school in Ehime-ken). She is currently looking for a job and welcomes all leads. View more of her work at www.sheilaburt.com.
The first time Tokyo-based musician Nelson Babin-Coy visited Japan, he was a 15-year-old high school student from the suburbs of L.A. who knew next to nothing about Japan. Interested in learning more about Japanese music during his stay in Gunma Prefecture, he started listening to what other teenagers his age were into, including the idol group Morning Musume. Yet when he first heard one of the band’s songs, he cringed a bit. “I wasn’t disgusted, but I was like, ‘This is music in Japan?’,” he laughs.
Thankfully, his host sister introduced him to the Battle Royale theme song by Dragon Ash, and he was hooked. The two weeks Babin-Coy spent in Gunma were enough to give him a new dream to follow. He wanted to live in Japan, though he had yet to figure out the how and what to do.
“I love Japanese music and lyrics,” he says. “I think Japanese artists are more artistic in the way they form their stories.”
Now 28, Babin-Coy is a rising singer-songwriter who primarily sings in Japanese and works with several native artists trying to break into the Western market. He has toured the mainland three times with his band, nothing ever lasts (currently on hiatus).
As a consummate entertainment professional, he currently co-hosts two TV shows about music and movies and is also an actor on an NHK English program in addition to his work as a translator, narrator and radio personality. On top of that, he helps Japanese bands write in English, taking great care to match the Japanese melody with the translated English lyrics.
Babin-Coy’s journey to Japan had a traditional start (teaching English), yet his steady rise in forging a music career in Japan is possible to meeting the right people, social media and traditional hard work.
As a university student, Babin-Coy studied Japanese at UC Berkeley as well as at Keio University, and he eventually passed the JLPT N1 exam while still in school. In order to secure a work visa to Japan after graduation, he applied for a job teaching English with Berlitz.
But two weeks before his departure, a friend offered him a temporary position driving a Japanese film crew around L.A. Babin-Coy quickly made friends with the crew and a few months after arriving in Tokyo, he visited them again. As the crew knew of Babin-Coy’s Japanese ability, he was offered a job doing narration and translation work for a TV show. He soon had enough freelance gigs that he could quit his teaching job.
“I was incredibly blessed with what people I met,” he says. “I just kind of fell in, so I was so lucky.”
Although Babin-Coy sings in a mix of Japanese and English and has the unique niche of being proficient in both languages, trying to find his place in the Japanese market has had its challenges.
“The Japanese market is a very unique market; it’s very closed,” he explains. “It is kind of frustrating when I try to introduce Western ideals in my music or introduce how I feel live music should be enjoyed at gigs or live venues. It’s frustrating to kind of introduce these opinions, like that music shouldn’t be something you listen to quietly. If you want to dance, dance. If you want to move, move. It’s just sometimes frustrating to perform, coming from my views as a Southern California artist.”
Many producers give Babin-Coy their take on how he should sound in order to appeal to a specific market, but Babin-Coy says he prefers to write music on his own terms, even if that means sacrificing the chance to sign with a major label.
“I like to create music for the sake of creating music,” he says. “I would get all these opinions, all they think about is aiming to a Japanese audience. I try to stay away from the marketing standpoint, for better or for worse.”
The Japanese music industry’s stiff copyright laws and dominance sometimes prevents many independent artists from ever getting heard and making a living (Babin-Coy’s original YouTube page, featuring dozens of cover songs and originals, was first erased due to copyright infringement). But Babin-Coy looks to Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa area, a few stops from Shibuya, for inspiration. There, he sees artists and musicians like himself following their passions in a way that feels most right to them.
He occasionally plays solo gigs around Tokyo, most recently at Shibuya’s LOOP annex, a small acoustic venue, and he plans to release a solo record in the spring if possible. In the meantime, many of his fans can listen to videos on YouTube, which often features covers of Japanese songs, as well as his website. The positive comments, Babin-Coy says, keep him from pondering a career change.
Artistically, he looks to Jason Mraz for inspiration and a handful of Japanese artists. As long as he continues to make progress in the Japanese entertainment industry, Babin-Coy plans to stay in Japan for the foreseeable future. He advises those in Japan who want to look into jobs beyond teaching English in Japan to keep an open mind.
“Go out and meet people; say yes to any opportunity where you get to try something new,” he says. “It’s better to regret something you did rather than something you chose not to do. If you have a plan, it’s about networking. It’s about who you know and who will connect you to the right people. It’s really about connecting with people outside of the office, outside of the job.”