CHAGOCORO, the tea-themed multi-media project for cultural inspiration, is delighted to welcome the uniquely talented musical artist UA as our guest for this special feature. Widely known and loved for her most famous works, including “Jonetsu,” released just one year after her debut, UA’s oeuvre remains as fresh and timeless as ever, finding popularity across the spectrum of multiple generations. Her latest EP, “Are U Romantic?”, is her take on today’s pop music and has drawn high acclaim from a wide range of listeners.
The single “Binetsu,” released in advance of the rest of the EP, was written by MahiToThePeople, front man of punk band GEZAN, who have garnered tremendous popularity as innovative musical pioneers. Seen by fans as an homage to “Jonetsu,” this brilliant new song inspired great excitement among UA’s fans for her new work. Its unforgettable music video, produced by MahiToThePeople himself, has also been widely praised.
Released in full on May 25th, “Are U Romantic” contains six tracks. In addition to MahiToThePeople, other eminent figures in the world of Japanese music are also involved, including Takashi Nagazumi of Hanaregumi fame, Shigeru Kishida of Kururi, Kj of Dragon Ash, JQ of Nulbarich, and Kaho Nakamura. The album showcases UA’s versatility and comprehensive range in her interpretations of tracks written from eclectic viewpoints.
Perhaps the most idiosyncratic track of all is “Ocha,” whose title simply means “tea.”
Has the word “tea” ever had such a dramatic artistic impact? How did she come up with such a direct expression of her love for tea, and why such a simple title? What role does tea play in UA’s own life, and what kinds of tea inspire her?
While posing these questions over the course of our interview, we also had UA try a range of Japanese teas and asked her to develop her own tea blend.
“I am thinking of how much romanticism we can imbue into our everyday lives”
The music for “Ocha” was written by Takashi Nagazumi (Hanaregumi), while UA herself wrote the lyrics. Good friends in their personal lives, this collaborative effort was based, according to UA, on the theme of the everyday.
UA: Until now, much of my work has been centered on motifs such as prayer; I have rarely sung about everyday life. With the overarching theme of the EP being my own take on what “pop” is, though, I said to Takashi that I wanted the song he and I created to be down-to-earth and allow a look at the way we live our everyday lives. He was on board with this from the very beginning; the first demo he sent me was given the title “Ochazuke” (a simple Japanese dish made by pouring green tea, dashi, or hot water over cooked rice). I knew immediately, without even asking him, that this track was his concept of the everyday, the ordinary, and the comfortable. For my part, I couldn’t quite come up with a story for the lyrics that fit with the idea of “ochazuke” – I guess I haven’t quite lived enough for that yet! When I switched the central conceit to tea instead, I suddenly found the image I wanted to express through this song expanding exponentially in my mind.
The free and easy melody created by Nagazumi based on the almost mundane concept of “ochazuke” was taken by UA and converted into the neo-pop brilliance of “Ocha.” According to UA, this stunning arrangement owes much to the key word “romantic,” also found within the album’s title.
UA: I was quite aggressive with the arrangement, and Takashi was delighted by how I had reimagined his melody. To my mind, human beings cannot survive within the constraints of reality alone. Some may decry it as escaping into fantasy or fiction, but I’ve always thought we need to construct stories to live our lives. As the album’s title suggests, I also believe that we are romantic creatures at our core. And it is this very romanticism which has allowed us to develop our civilizations and flourish culturally. So when I speak of the everyday, I do not mean it in a realistic or dull way at all; I am thinking, rather, of how much romanticism we can imbue into our everyday lives. For me, tea is one item that fits this concept perfectly.
Through her music, UA asks us if we are also living our lives romantically. The fact that she can inject this message into her music is a testament to her unique ability.
For those of us living in the modern world of nonstop real-time information, I felt like I finally understood the message behind the words “time for tea” in the chorus.
Time for tea. Caffeine bitterer than coffee. It’s no joke to say I’m obsessed.
You know why I can’t stop tuning in to you like a tea caffeine. It’s so unfair – that taste & smack. I don’t mean it as a joke. There is no one truth. (Lyrics quoted from “Ocha”)
“Time spent drinking tea is also a time to love yourself”
UA tells us that she has begun to favor Japanese teas such as ryokucha (green tea), hojicha (roasted green tea), and bancha (coarse tea) in the past year or two. A frequent drinker of tea on a daily basis, she had even drunk hojicha on the morning of our interview.
UA: I know that I’ve been drawn to tea quite late in life, but I find myself constantly amazed at how profound the world of tea is. I used to love coffee, but I’ve recently switched to tea, and now, of course, I’ve written this song. I say “more than coffee” in the lyrics, and that’s kind of a joke, a fiction, like all stories, but in a way it reflects my own life and how I feel. I’m living in Canada now, but when I’m in Tokyo it feels like the very flow of time is different. It’s like the very system at the heart of each place is embedded in the fabric of time. Of course, I chose to be a singer, and I’ve joined that world of my own volition, but there are times when I feel my grasp on who I am is quite tenuous. As an entirely separate entity from the self that is part of the capitalist world, I believe it’s sometimes necessary to have some moments outside of that world. But it’s not that easy to do without help. I’ve come to realize at my age that people need little rituals, little techniques to train themselves to remember to take themselves outside of that flow of time. To me, time spent drinking tea is also, in that respect, a time to love yourself for who you really are. And with such a wide variety of teas to choose from, it’s an opportunity to evaluate why you made that choice. Whether or not the tea you’re drinking uses agricultural chemicals, for example – these sorts of issues make you think of your connection with the Earth; interactions with tea are an opportunity to consider how you interact with the environment in which you live. That may sound a little overblown, but it really does serve as a way to escape from the strictures of the world inside your head. To brew yourself a pot of tea, to close your eyes and to savor it… it feels like a moment of total self-oblivion. Originally, of course, tea comes to us from a world of Zen, and tea rooms are designed with that in mind, as a place to control your breathing and achieve peace. Despite being such a cozy and friendly thing, tea has a remarkable ability to be appreciated from a wide variety of different angles, in a cultural, historical, and spiritual sense.
UA’s passion when talking about tea makes you realize that her line, “It’s no joke to say I’m obsessed” is the absolute truth. We will hear more about her deep connection with tea in the second half of the interview.
When the interview continues, we will ask UA to taste a number of different brews provided by Ocha no Tomizawa, a tea producer from Kumamoto Prefecture, and watch what happens when she tries her hand at her own original blend.
UA Musician, born in Osaka. Her stage name, UA, derives from the Swahili for “flower.” Since her debut in 1995, her unique appearance and stunning voice have attracted the attention of music lovers. A string of hits including “Jonetsu,” “Kanashimi Johnny”, and “Milk Tea” have made her one of Japan’s most well-known female vocalists. She has also participated as a guest vocalist on a number of tracks written by other artists, and in 2020 marked the 25th anniversary of the launch of her career. As an actress, she has appeared in Woman of Water (her first lead role, in 2002), Big Man Japan (2007), and Eatrip (2009). This multi-talented artist left the big city behind in 2005, and since then, she has lived an agricultural existence in the countryside. Currently based in Canada, she released the EP “Are U Romantic?” on May 25th of 2022, her first new album for six years. The album explores the current state of pop and neo-pop in 2022, and is planned to be accompanied by a tour of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka (see her official website for more details). Official website “Are U Romantic?” product page(purchase and streaming) instagram.com/ua_japonesiansinger_official twitter.com/UA__KA
Kenji Tomizawa Fourth-generation proprietor of Ocha no Tomizawa, cultivators, producers and sellers of tea, based in Mashiki Town in Kumamoto Prefecture. Operating the region’s only remaining tea garden after the Kumamoto earthquakes of 2016, Tomizawa remains firmly committed to innovative tea cultivation to bring the beauty of Kumamoto tea to the world. ochanotomizawa.co.jp