Ginger Root’s Cameron Lew Wants His New EP To Feature Urban Pop As Familiar As It Is Fresh: NPR



JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Japanese music from the 1970s and 1980s seems to be having a moment in the West right now. Take The Weeknd’s latest album, which samples Tomoko Aran’s 1983 track, “Midnight Pretenders.”

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “MIDNIGHT PRETENDERS”)

TOMOKO ARAN: (Singing) Midnight Suitors.

SUMMERS: Then there’s Harry Styles’ new album, ‘Harry’s House’, the title of which pays homage to one of the most famous musicians of the time, Haruomi Hosono.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “SPORTS MEN”)

HARUOMI HOSONO: (Singing) I’ll be a good sportsman, I’ll be a good sportsman. I will be athletic.

SUMMERS: And if you’re on TikTok, you can’t miss the snippets of Japanese songs that appear as soundtracks on people’s videos, like Meiko Nakahara’s 1982 track “Fantasy.”

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “FANTASY”)

MEIKO NAKAHARA: (Singing in Japanese).

SUMMERS: Urban pop, as the genre is sometimes called, was an airy, highly polished style of Japanese pop that drew inspiration from American genres like yacht rock, disco, and funk. But the way it has filtered west sometimes seems hollow to musician Cameron Lew.

CAMERON LEW: When you hear the songs on TikTok or see, like, fan edits of anything, I feel like there’s definitely something lost with the shallowness (ph) of just use the song or remix the song – or a great example is, like, just put a screenshot or a GIF of, like, an anime character from, like, 2001, like, on, like, a song by Mariya Takeuchi. Like, it doesn’t make any sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF GINGER ROOT SONG, “LONELINESS”)

SUMMERS: Lew performs as Ginger Root. And on songs like “Loneliness,” he says he’s trying to present a sharper portrayal of 1980s Japan and urban pop through his own lens.

LEW: Basically, I’m just doing my own interpretation of a remix of Japanese music that interpreted American music from the 70s. So absolutely, the cycle is complete. But I think with that, it feels both familiar and brand new.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “LONELINESS”)

GINGER ROOT: (Singing) What the seasons bring. You said it works when these kids sing. Oh wait. It’s only half past twelve. Stay tuned…

LEW: And, yeah, I’m not Japanese American. I am Chinese American. And, yes, I’m 26, and I definitely wasn’t alive in the 70s and 80s. But there’s a rich history that I really wanted to make sure I respected. And I think that’s why people in Asia have been very receptive to it – because they can say that, as corny as it sounds, it’s kind of like my love letter to the culture.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE SONG, “LONELINESS”)

GINGER ROOT: (Singing) Loneliness. Say goodbye.

SUMMERS: Ginger Root’s new EP is called “Nisemono,” and I asked him to explain the meaning of the title.

LEW: Nisemono roughly translates from Japanese to forgery or fraud. The whole premise of the EP is that – what if Ginger Root was tricked into writing a bunch of songs for a fake rising Japanese idol from 1983? And so I created this whole fake idol of this artist in Japan, and pretended to write songs for her. And then she quits. And then basically I become the idol because she unexpectedly leaves the spotlight because of the stress of being, you know, an idol. And a deeper connotation with the album is kind of this idea of ​​impostor syndrome and how to grow with it, how to deal with it, and hopefully how to overcome it, which I’m still learning to do.

SUMMERS: Okay, there’s so much to unpack here. How did you come up with this idea for this whole concept for the EP? It goes so deep.

LEW: I’ve been a big fan of Japanese music since high school. The first Japanese band I discovered was Yellow Magic Orchestra.

(SOUND FROM A TV SHOW, “SOUL TRAIN”)

DON CORNELIUS: The Orchestra of Yellow Magic.

(APPLAUSE)

LEW: It was a YouTube clip of them performing “Tighten Up” on “Soul Train,” and I was totally intrigued by that point.

(SOUND FROM A TV SHOW, “SOUL TRAIN”)

YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA: Hi everyone. We are YMO from Tokyo, Japan. We do not do tourism. We Dance. You understand. Yeah yeah. We are the No.1 dance group in Tokyo. Ah.

LEW: I always wanted to learn Japanese, so I started learning by – purely by immersion. I didn’t go to class. I didn’t use manuals at all. I just watched a bunch of YouTube. And, yeah, I was finding all these interview clips from all these shows from that time period, like the late 70s, early 80s.

(SOUND FROM A TV SHOW, “SOUL TRAIN”)

CORNELIUS: In case you people out there in TV country are wondering what’s going on – I haven’t a clue.

(LAUGH)

LEW: And so after watching I don’t even know how many thousands of hours of YouTube VHS rips, I’ve come to this. And I think that subconsciously influenced this whole idea of ​​the EP and how it happened.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF SONG, “HOLY HELL”)

GINGER ROOT: With two new flavors just in time for summer, nothing beats fresh ginger.

SUMMERS: On your EP, there’s a song called “Holy Hell”.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF SONG, “HOLY HELL”)

GINGER ROOT: (singing) If I knew how, I’d tell you all the time. Talk about…

SUMMERS: And the video for that track is part music video and part commercial for ginger ale, cleaning spray, disposable cameras. What are you nodding your head at?

LEW: I think it’s funny because back then, in Japan in the 70s and 80s, there weren’t, like, music videos. And so, by default, a lot of people associate late night TV commercials or performances with some kind of visuals associated with city pop music. I know a lot of idols and groups that would debut as a commercial song – like a jingle or whatever. And so I kind of wanted to give a nod to the craziness of, like, advertising at the time and how distinct the visuals are and how funny each frame is of those ads.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF SONG, “HOLY HELL”)

GINGER ROOT: (Singing) Don’t forget to count all the things. Well, are we finished? Tell me again. No matter what our hearts bring, it’s over. It’s over, I think. It’s finish. It’s over, I think.

SUMMERS: You have a tour in Japan this winter, and this is the very first. And I know you’ve also recorded versions of your hit songs, like “Loretta”, in Japanese.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “LORETTA”)

GINGER ROOT: (Song in Japanese).

SUMMERS: Has your music started to gain recognition in Japan?

LEW: It’s really funny that you bring it up because, you know, I was talking to my manager and, like – you know, just like an American indie band, usually the next step is Europe and then Asia. It looks like we’ve just bypassed Europe, and Asia has kind of exploded in a way that I never imagined. And that’s a very important market for me, being a Chinese American. And so I’m very excited to go. It was really fun to use my Japanese catch-up skills to, for example, talk with the listeners there and get them so excited. And I’m very nervous, but very excited, and I can’t wait until January to get here.

(SOUNDTRACK FROM THE SONG, “LORETTA”)

GINGER ROOT: (Song in Japanese).

SUMMERS: Cameron Lew stars as Ginger Root. His new EP, “Nisemono”, is out this month. Cameron, thank you so much for talking to us.

LEW: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure – very, very happy to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF GINGER ROOT SONG, “LORETTA”)

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