Saeko is back and how: launching a new album after finally settling in Europe and working hard to get the dream all worked out (despite COVID-19). It must have been hard, so we decided to give Saeko a little push in the back with this interview and give you all a chance to get to know her and discover the why, how, with whom ...
Saeko: tell us a bit on how you got into music?
I grew up in a musical family. My mom was a very good singer, and she sang to me just after she found out she got pregnant. She also played music, mainly classical music, as part of prenatal training as well. I had a pic of me with a diaper, playing with a toy piano, singing with a microphone and headphones. Actually, my mom said I started singing to music before learning to speak. So, music has always been in my blood since the time I was born. No, since even before I was born, haha. And I came across hard rock/heavy metal music at 14. And I understood I was born to do this music. And I vowed I'll play heavy metal around the world. Since then, this vow has stayed with me all the time.
What bands inspired you?
Actually, I'm more inspired by non-music than music, such as life-stories, novels, philosophies etc. But I'm deeply influenced by the bands I grew up listening to. For example, Helloween, Queensryche, Europe, Doro, Pretty Maids, Gamma Ray, Megadeth etc.
I saw you for the first time at the MFVF in Wieze (with a cold/flu), but you managed to get my attention. How do you look back at it?
To tell the truth, I feel very sorry for the audience at the festival. I really must apologise because I did the worst performance ever. I usually don't make this kind of excuse even if my performance is not good, for I believe it's not fair for the audience who pay the same fees for other shows. However, I really need to apologise for this. The thing is ... back then, I was living in NL, not so far from the festival site. But, just about 10 days before the festival, my mom got a serious brain stroke and fell into a critical condition in Japan. So, I hastily flew back to Japan. She was in intensive care, and didn't move at all, so I spent my days by her side, sleeping on the couch every night. Then, I got a cold and a sore throat. Then, to make it worse, just a few days before the festival date, the band wrote to me saying they completely forgot to prepare my song. I was told to sing another song, instead. I'd never sung that song in my life, and it was impossible ... I mean, I had no time to prepare. As it wasn't my fault, I asked the band to prepare my song as originally planned, but they said there's no time to prepare (which meant I had no time to prepare, either) ... but, in the end, I accepted. My condition was already bad, but I felt it's riskier to sing a song I'd never sung at a big festival. So, I practiced with my bad throat, and my voice went dead. In such a situation, maybe I should have canceled the show. But I felt it's too late back then ... My appearance was already widely announced ... so, I got on an airplane, hoping my voice would get better by the time I arrived in Belgium. But no ... with all fatigue, it got just worse. So, when I appeared on stage, my voice was completely dead. Actually, after the stage, I cried ... coz I felt bad, I felt sorry for the audience. I blamed myself for not keeping my vocal condition by sleeping at my mom's side for several nights. However, my mom's life was so important. Anyway, I flew back to Japan after the show to be with her and she survived.
You left Japan definitly for Germany. Was it that hard in Japan? What made you get out of there?
It's a very long story ... I can't explain all complicated things in this interview, but I published a short essay in Japanese here, for example: 日欧ヘヴィメタル業界を比べて思うこと｜Saeko / 世界の架け橋になりたいヘヴィメタル歌手｜note
I know you can't read Japanese, but you may be able to imagine there's some very deep reasons behind it if you see the essay. In short, the Japanese music industry functions very differently from the music industry in European countries. I don't say which is better or worse. Some musicians may work better in the Japanese industry and some in the non-Japanese industry. Anyway, a musician like me can never work well in the Japanese music industry structure. The same thing is true for the academic world. The kind of researchers who will get highly evaluated in Europe can usually have no chance in Japan: What the Japanese society expects is almost the opposite to that of Europe. I can't explain more than that in this short interview. I hope you understand.
How hard is it to learn German? How is your life in Germany?
I was working in Hamburg from 2003 to 2006, so I already spoke some German. Still, I had to brush it up this time, and of course, it's not perfect. But I assume my German is good enough to survive in the daily situations, such as shopping or ordering food etc. Still, communication with Foreign Department or Tax Office in German is very hard for me, for their topics are much more complicated than the daily life situations. As for life in general ... Well, before COVID broke out, I was planning to do many things, go out, visit shows etc. But I can't do much due to COVID. I'm living in a small village in Southern Germany and there's not much to do, actually. So, I'm mostly locked in a small room, working. I hope COVID will come to an end soon.
Was it hard to get everybody aligned? How did you find them all? Can you introduce the band members?
In the last half of 2017, I started looking for members. And, yes, it was hard. Well, it wouldn't have been hard for me to form a band in Japan with Japanese friend musicians. I know many great musicians in Japan. However, I had to make a come-back with the same standard as before (I mean, the time I worked in Hamburg, with Lars Ratz, Michael Ehre (both Metalium back then), Herman Frank etc.). Back then, my CDs were released worldwide. In Germany, my life-sized boards (the one you can see below) were in many CD stores. I was also the first female Asian musician who performed at Wacken Open Air, touring with the metal queen Doro. To do something similar, I had to form a band with an international line-up as before. Anyway, it took me 2 years only to find the first member, Guido Benedetti. I met him in early 2019 when he came to Japan on his Trick Or Treat tour. Chatting backstage, I found he was in the crowd when I played at Wacken Open Air 2005, and he said he liked what I did. And of course I liked what he had done very much, too. His style seemed perfect for SAEKO as well. As our musical taste and musical philosophy also turned out to be very similar, I later explained my plan to him. That's how he became the first member for the return of SAEKO. Soon, we made the first demo song together, "Brazil: Splinters Of The Sun", and I contacted Michael Ehre, who was a very important part of SAEKO (2003-2006). I knew he was, both as a musician and a person, wonderful, great and trustworthy. After Michael agreed, I contacted Alessandro Sala. I knew him because I worked for the Japanese bonus track of Rhapsody Of Fire earlier. Both Michael and Alessandro were the top on my list for the drummer and the bassist, and I was super happy when both of them agreed.
You recorded your album during COVID-19, how did you manage to do it and stay safe and healthy?
To be honest, it was very depressing. I got the residence permit in Germany at the end of 2019. Soon after that, I launched a crowdfunding campaign and was planning to do a lot ... then, suddenly, the COVID broke out. Being locked in my small room for many months, I thought of going back to Japan, but there was a risk that I wouldn't be able to come back to Germany. So, I stayed and did what I could. Anyhow, I survived, haha.
You also had a lot of special guests on the album, can you introduce them a bit more and tell us why you choose them especially?
You know Lars Ratz, who sadly passed away in April, right? He was both my manager and producer in my Hamburg days: He was the most important part of my past production. And, while working with V. Santura (one of the producers, mixing & mastering engineer for the coming album, also known from: TRIPTYKON, DARK FORTRESS, BARREN EARTH, OBSCURA a.o) at Woodshed studio, we remembered our Hamburg days, as V. Santura also mixed my 2nd album in 2005. Back then, V. Santura, me and Lars Ratz were often alone, working in the studio. So, we felt like inviting Lars again and called him. It was very nice to have Lars on my album again, but I couldn't believe that he passed away just after recording his part.
As for Derek Sherinian ... Well, everyone knows him as a great keyboard player. Anyway, we originally wanted to have a guest guitar player for the song "Russia: Heroes" to play solos together with Guido. Because it's a song about everyone ... about many people ... and it was already decided that Lars would sing in the song, so it made sense to have one more guest. However, we didn't want to make it sound like a guitar battle. And we decided to have a keyboard player. Derek Sherinian was the first keyboard player who came to my mind. So, I asked all members of SAEKO if they liked my idea, and all agreed, of course. And we are very happy how it turned out.
Guilherme De Siervi is a singer of a Brazilian Progressive Metal band, Vikram. He's my friend. As I answered earlier, "Brazil: Splinters Of The Sun" was the first song I made with Guido. And when we listened to all songs in a row at the very last stage at Woodshed Studio, I felt this song was not Brazilian enough, compared with other songs. So, I called Guilherme and asked for ideas to make it sound a bit more Brazilian. Then, he sent me percussion & additional guitar ideas, and we used the parts we liked. We're happy how it turned out, of course.
One of the guests was your former manager, who departed way too early. Was it hard to go on afterwards or was it a sign to finish it in the best possible way and thank him like this for all his hard work? Have you already found a new manager?
It was more than sad. I cried for several days. He was my manager only till 2006, but he meant so much to me. And it's not easy to write all my feelings in this short interview. So, can you possibly read my memorial writing on
Dear my most beloved metal-brother, Lars Ratz (Metalium)｜Saeko / 世界の架け橋になりたいヘヴィメタル歌手｜note?
If you read it, you'll understand how special he was to me and what musical philosophy we shared together. It was more than making our music successful. We had our ideals. Anyway, I'm very sure this is not the end with him. I know I'll meet him again in the next life. And after him, I have no manager.
Except for the first and the last track every song is guided by a country, why? What was the idea behind it? How did you get the short stories from people from all over the world?
This album is the story of a spirit that reincarnates around the world. The first track and the last track are about beyond this world with the spirit without a body. All other songs are about his/her life in different countries. As for the stories, I interviewed one person from each country. So, all songs are based on the real life story of a person from that country. You can find the information about the interviewee in the booklet. By the way, this concept of the reincarnating spirit has connections with the past two albums as I'm always writing about the same theme, the eternal truth of spirits. For example, my 1st album (2004) was titled "Above Heaven Below Heaven''. When it's combined with the title of the coming album, it becomes "Above Heaven Below Heaven, Holy Are We Alone".
Non-Asian people may not recognise, but someone from Asia will surely notice that this is an alteration of the famous phrase by Bhudda: "Above Heaven Below Heaven, Holy Am I Alone". Also, listeners of my 2nd album "Life" will notice that the first track of the coming album overlaps the ending of the 2nd album. The 2nd album finished predicting my death and rebirth: "Don't cry, soon I will meet you again, please remember me ...", which is the opening of the coming album. And it continues, "Now the time has come, I'll be back, To meet you again". This opening has a double meaning:1. The story is continuing, 2. SAEKO is finally back to long-time fans. Lyrically, there are several deep stories going on simultaneously. Many more things are buried in the booklet as well. So, if you love philosophy, you might enjoy not only music, but also the texts as well. Anyway, 1st, 2nd, and the coming 3rd albums are made on the same theme. The 1st album was METAPHYSICAL, which described the eternal truth in the OTHER WORLD. The 2nd album was PHYSICAL, which described the personal truth in THIS WORLD, based on my real life. ... and the new album reveals how these two different worlds, METAPHYSICAL and PHYSICAL worlds make the universe together.
Why did you choose those countries and why not other countries?
Upon choosing countries, I tried to be well-balanced. I mean, I didn't want to write only about certain regions of the world. The number of the songs was limited, so I had to give up some countries, which was a pity. For example, I think it would have been more balanced if I could choose one country from Africa. Besides that, the choice depended on whether I found an interviewee from that country or not. As I wanted to write the song based on a real life story, I had to find someone from that region/country.
Am I right and di you use as much as possible local instruments for each country?
Yes. I tried to depict the atmosphere of each country by sound. Sometimes I borrowed local folk songs or classical songs as well. For example, "Haru No Umi" for Japan, "Drunken Sailor" for UK, "Queen Of The Night (Aria)" for Germany, "Aloha ʻOe" for Hawaii (USA) and "The Song of the Volga Boatmen" for Russia. Actually, I also used Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" theme, changing it into the major key, but no one but our production team seems to notice it, haha.
Who are your heroes (referring to the Russia track)?
The crowdfunding backers, who helped us to make this album possible!! But you expect a more specific answer, such as my most favourite singers, right? As a singer, Michael Kiske and Doro Pesch have been my heroes (heroines).
Can you pick out one song from the album and tell the complete story of this song: the idea behind, the writing and crafting …
I'll pick up "Japan: In My Dream". This song is about my mom, who got a brain-stroke as I answered in the earlier question. She survived back then, but eventually lost nearly all the moving ability of her body. I took care of her for nearly 24 hours, for the first few years after the brain stroke, hoping she would get better. However, she just got worse. Eventually, she even lost her ability to speak. That's exactly what the chorus of the song is about: "Can I feel? Can I speak? One last time? I still have time before I die, I keep asking why. Can't feel, Can't speak, even one last time! Though I have time, all entwined. Don't ask me why!" You may think I'm too cold-hearted to do music in Germany, leaving a mom behind in that state. But this is her wish. On her bed, she asked me to sing to make a come-back to the international scene. It seemed her only wish towards me. She was a great singer, but gave up her dream to sing around the world before her marriage. So, this is not only my dream, but also her dream. In 2019, she got really worse and had to move out of our house to be taken care of at a special care home. That's when I decided to leave Japan to try to make it in Europe. I wasn't sure how long she would survive, and I had to make it before it became too late. Now I'm very happy that I made it in time. Last week, I sent the music video of this song to a care-worker at the care-home she is staying at. Now, you know why the album had to open with this song, dedicated to my mom.
You contributed to a lot of bands in the past? Who left the greatest impressions on you?
You mean the guest appearance? Then, of course, Metalium. You must listen to the duet, "Find Out", by Henning Basse and me. Vocals were recorded by Lars Ratz and it was so fun. I don't think I'll find any one who could record my vocals better than him. He was so good at capturing the most emotional moments of a singer. Unfortunately, I didn't ask him to record my vocals for the new album. But, as I wrote, it was fun to work with him again after many years. And I was thinking of asking him to record my vocals in the future again. Then, he passed away. It's really sad that I won't be able to work with him anymore.
Besides this song, I also enjoyed working with Vikram. I sang a duet with them for the Japanese bonus track. You can hear the song on my YouTube Channel:
It's a super cool song. So, check it, please.
Will you contribute to more albums of other bands in the near future? Can you drop some names if yes? And tell us a bit more about it?
I guested as one of the singers in the debut album of Division Dark: https://divisiondark.com
I don't think I'm allowed to reveal much yet, but many great singers are singing in this album. I'm very honoured to be one of them. Please check them and watch out their news.
Also, I recorded a duet as the Japanese bonus track of the upcoming album of Supernova Plasmajets. I enjoyed working with them so much. All the members were so kind to me, and Jennifer Crush is such a talented singer. The song won't be perhaps hearable anywhere outside Japan, but I hope that I can do something with them in the future again.
What will the future bring? Will you be able to go on tour soon? Do we get one more video?
We've just released the 2nd music video for the pre-release single, "Japan: In My Dream". Please check it!
As for a tour, it's not easy to plan under this COVID situation ... especially when all members are living apart. As I just started to make it back, I do not have much budget, either. But I want to play LIVE, and I must start from what I can do, step by step, to make it bigger later. As the first step, I'm talking with Guido to hold acoustic live shows ... hopefully in Germany. Let's see.
I also thought of another video ... but I want to put more energy into making live shows come true. As I said, I have no manager or no booking agent. So, I have to do many things by myself, and I feel I shouldn't try to do too many things at the same time. I go step by step. When I don't have enough budget, I might launch another crowdfunding campaign. So, please make more things come true with us together.
Something to close this interview? A message to the fans?
Thank you very much for your time to read this interview till the end. I am a very unique musician. Coming from Japan all alone, I have no manager, no booking agency, nearly no budget ... so, many things are possible only with the support of my listeners. So, I really, really appreciate your existence. I know that a few of my fans have been following me since 2006, checking on me all the time. I'm moved by their long time faith. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I'll tell you now. "Our journey continues ... Now it's time to break the spell!!!
In Memory of Lars: