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Saeko's Saeko Kitamae: "… if a foreigner visits the immigration and says, "I want to stay in Germany to make heavy metal"... I assume most officials would be like "wtf"…"

Interview with Saeko Kitamae from Saeko
by Lior "Steinmetal" Stein at 22 August 2021, 9:44 PM

Whether music or not, it is tough being a foreigner, even in countries where people let you feel as if you were back home. There is a lot of excitement sure, to be independent, on one's own will. However, it could be also a bumpy ride, a journey with plenty of obstacles that aren't that easy to overcome. Nonetheless, perseverance, motivation and conviction are only several of means in order to survive. The Japanese artist, Saeko, could have gone even bigger than she was in her last trip in Europe, coming from Japan strong and on top. After misfortunes along the way, she found what it takes to return, hopefully back to her rightful place in music and maybe beyond. With the coming of their new album, "Holy Are We Alone", a circle was completed and extended over a great conversation with Steinmetal

Hello Saeko, it is amazing to have you for this conversation for Metal Temple online Magazine, how have you been doing?

Hello. I'm happy to have this opportunity with Metal Temple, too. Thank you!!

First, it was great for me to hear the news that you are back at making music, as if the journey two decades ago never really stopped abruptly. Nonetheless, let’s go back a bit, prior to your return to action, and back in Germany. What really went wrong after “Life”? Was the reason too great to overcome, eventually ceasing your next waypoint in Metal?

To make it short, a few things happened businesswise in Germany and I couldn't figure it out myself in those days (2006), so there was no way but to stop my music activity. When I stopped my music activity, my residence permit expired (I was allowed to stay in Germany only on the condition that I work for a German production/label). So, I had to fly back to Japan. But in Japan, no Japanese lawyer knew how to rescue me from what happened outside of Japan. No wonder… there had been no Japanese who had done such a thing.

Besides music, bureaucratic and legal matters, miscommunication, and different business customs between cultures… Many hurdles were there to overcome to continue the international level. Anyway, all Japanese lawyers threw away my matters, but I kept on studying and examining matters by myself for about 10 years until I solved them with a German lawyer in 2017. Call it tenacity. Anyway, I'm happy that I finally made a comeback.

By the way, the hardest battle I had this time (2019) was also with the German Foreign Department. I had to turn in so many letters, certificates, and a thick business plan to convince them to get a residence permit. It's understandable. But, if a foreigner visits the immigration and says, "I want to stay in Germany to make heavy metal" … I assume most officials would be like "wtf", haha. Anyway, I'm at the starting line now, and let's see how things will develop. Life taught me a lesson. Now I´m going to face the future.

Even though you were far from Europe, back in Japan, have you perhaps tried breathing life into your musical venture with local musicians? Maybe even starting a new musical foundation in Japan to keep the spirit alive?

Not really. You must understand that I was already at a near-top level in the domestic metal scene of those days before flying to Germany in 2002. I already appeared on metal radio programs broadcasted by Captain Wada in 1999 or 2000, already rejected offers from the Japanese labels etc.. But after moving to Germany, I achieved much more, playing at Wacken Open Air, touring with Doro & Blaze Bayley etc… I was on the way to what I'd long aimed for. Yes, I was finally on the way, but then, I had to stop due to the above-mentioned reasons.

When I flew back to Japan in 2006, most Japanese regarded it as a "triumphant return". They expected me to take pride in my achievement in Europe to be more successful in Japan. But no, it was a defeat to me. I was aiming for more. My dream was crushed before accomplishment. Although the defeat was beyond my power, for they were brought by non-musical problems as I explained above. Nonetheless, it was a defeat to me. So, I didn't want to sing for some years. It's like not wanting to meet your ex who betrayed your love and trust

Easiest thing for me back then was to form a band with domestic musicians and keep on playing music. In fact, many wanted it. But doing so didn't solve any problems I faced in Germany. To solve them, I had to rather do something else, for most problems back then seemed to have resulted from language/cultural/economic barriers. As my heart was already set on the next goal–making the necessary budget or learning law, cross-cultural communication to continue my activity in Germany–, I felt it's like a betrayal to sing on. Because I'd been telling the listeners to follow their hearts. So, I declared my position to stop music with a very long explanation on my website. Obviously, to keep on singing and to stay famous were much easier

Anyway, on purpose, I disappeared from the scene to keep the spirit "follow your heart" alive and move forward to solve the matters anyhow. Many people looked for me for some years

It took long enough, with reasons understood of course, but something jump started your efforts and led you back to Germany, continuing the course that began years earlier. What motivated you to gather all your energy and patience and simply head forward in full force?

It took me more than 10 years to solve the matter. When things got cleared in 2017, I thought of trying again. Also, it was my mom's wish, who got a brain stroke and became so weak. Due to the aftereffects, she couldn't speak well. Still, on her bed, she kept on telling me, "Solve the matters and do it again. Sing again, Saeko". She kept on saying so.

You have a new album coming out, the main reason we are here, titled “Holy Are We Alone”, I must say that it ended up being a little cryptic, yet interesting to find out more. Prior to our dwelling into the record, and since it is a sequel no less, perhaps you can shed some light, in short, regarding the stories that take place on the first two albums?

Well, the story of the album, the reincarnating spirit, goes back to 1st and 2nd albums as I'm always writing about the same theme, the eternal truth of spirits. My 1st album (2004) was titled "Above Heaven Below Heaven''. Combined with the title of the coming album, it becomes "Above Heaven Below Heaven, Holy Are We Alone". Non-Asian people may not recognize it, but someone from Asia will perhaps notice that this is an alteration of the famous phrase by Bhudda: "Above Heaven Below Heaven, Holy Am I Alone". As for the meaning of the original phrase, there are several interpretations, and I want to leave the interpretation to each listener.

Now, about the connection with the 2nd album. The very ending song of the 2nd album, "Eternal Destiny", overlaps the opening of the coming album. The song, "Eternal Destiny", finished with my death, predicting my rebirth after death: "It's time to leave, Don't cry, soon I will meet you again, please remember me …". This is the beginning of the coming album, followed by: "Now the time has come, I'll be back, To meet you again. Do you still remember me?" This opening suggests the story continues. But it's also the voice of SAEKO to long-time fans: "SAEKO is finally back to you. Do you still remember SAEKO?" Also, check what the inlay says, "Let us re-member", not "remember". There are many hidden messages, connecting each other

Actually, the ending of the coming album overlaps with the opening of the 1st album as well. "Above Heaven Below Heaven We Alone Exist" is what I said in the opening of the 1st album. So, everything symbolizes the "Circle of Life". Unfortunately, this interview is too short to explain everything

How does “Holy Are We Alone” continue the main story? Who, or what, is the main protagonist? Are there any antagonists that try to make it hard for the spirit, or element, to experience the times and places that it visits?

1st, 2nd, and the coming 3rd albums describe the eternal truth of our spirits from a different point of view. 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 make the universe together. In other words, the coming album is the crossover of fiction (the abstract beyond Time) and non-fiction (the concrete in Time)

But I assume the crossover of these two worlds already started at the end of the 2nd album, actually. The 2nd album was made fully based on reality, on my life, except for the ending part. The ending part (my death) was fiction as I was still alive. Anyway, that album ended with my death and a prediction of rebirth. But was it really fiction? In fact, I got caught up in troubles and eventually had to stop my music activity for 15 years, and I'm coming back now. Don't you think it was a death and rebirth as a musician? "Please remember me" makes perfect sense now

Anyway, in the upcoming album, the protagonist is supposed to be me (as the story continues and I revive from the death depicted in the 2nd album). However, since "Above Heaven Below Heaven We Alone Exist", in other words, there are only ourselves, I could be someone else. Thus, all the life stories depicted in the coming album, which were written based on real persons in these countries (I interviewed one person for each country) could be a life story of mine. … I'm sorry. I may sound more enigmatic now. Coz the story is very complicated

What does this spirit's journey symbolize? How do the cultures involve in the record attribute to the story? What is the measure of their influence that makes them integral for the listener to comprehend?

The spirit's journey symbolizes reincarnation, eternal life. As I said above, the point here is the crossover of fiction and non-fiction. These life stories are non-fiction, as I wrote them after interviewing one person from each country. At the same time, they are a part of this fiction story, "Circle Of Life". But is it really fiction?

To be less enigmatic, I may explain more details of the background story of each song, but it takes too long. I have deep thoughts behind all the songs, hahah

Anyway, "Holy Are We Alone" means we are the holy ones. It's not about money, status, appearance … it's not even about GOD who exists outside of us The most holy being. It's us

What are the answers that this spirit is trying to find? Is there a chance that this journey, the quest for answers, is in a way yours? If so, what are you searching for?

It is about something holy resides in our hearts. And who/what is this? God? If so, are we God ourselves? In short, that is perhaps the ultimate question.

Actually, my former manager Lars Ratz had a very similar belief, and I felt he was trying to depict the similar idea as a story of Metalian (Metal God). Metalium's third album, "Hero Nation", for example, is about a spirit that reincarnates in the heroes around the world. The difference is that, in my album, the spirit reincarnates in the real people on earth. Because, I want to go one step further to ask the listeners, "is it all fiction? Are you God or not?"

And your questions suggest you already got the point!! You thought the protagonist and I were searching for the same answer(s)


Even though I am a die-hard Metalhead, in particular when it comes to Traditional Metal, it appeared to me, rather fast into the listening, that diversity fits you like a glove, being dynamic is part of you and the music that yourself and your peers in the band created. What can you tell in regard to how the band progressed in its music in contrast to the earlier efforts?

You mean, how did we come up with new ideas to be a "game changer" of the conventional "power metal"? If so, thank you very much … I mean, a "game changer" is such a wonderful compliment that it makes me blush, really. But how did we do it? Well, I don't know. I mean, the main composers, me, and Guido Benedetti, are both big fans of great power metal bands besides bands in other genres. And we just wrote songs without "thoughts".

When I compose, I try to be as empty as possible, like in a Zen meditation. And I asked Guido to work on our music in the same way. I told him to think about nothing (about style or marketing strategy or whatever). I already knew he was a great guitarist, so I just asked him to play as he really wished, to be himself, the truest of him. And this is the result. Naturally written power metal with lots of influences in us

Generally, in your perspective, what is the musical approach on this record and the main factors that made it a sort of a game changer when it comes to melodic Metal?

As I said, we just did what we wanted to do without any "thoughts". That's really all. But I'll tell you. It's very hard to think of "nothing". Coz most musicians, when they work on new material, try to make it successful. But then, you are already thinking about success. Or, at least, they hope to write an impressive song. But again, you are thinking something. It's so hard to put your heart into music without any "thoughts". I was very lucky to find Guido, who could compose and play music purely from his heart as I do.

As a songwriter, you created wonders on the first two records, and no doubt that “Holy Are We Alone” is a prime achievement. How would you say that this album developed you as a songwriter?

Yes, my songwriting must have developed, but it's also due to hard work by Guido Benedetti.

Anyway, first I'll talk about myself. When I composed for two earlier albums, I didn't elaborate much on the instrumental parts, as I preferred to leave freedom to each musician. Later, however, I felt it was actually not so nice to leave so much freedom … so, this time I wrote the instrumental parts more in detail, including melodic solos (catchy ones and not the real solos, of course). Also, software. I composed with CuBase before, but this time with Logic, which was easier for me to use. That's one thing

The second thing is Guido's hard work. He didn't arrange only the guitar parts. He made so much effort to arrange my composition, even working on each track of my keyboards separately. Some songs had 20 tracks (or more?!) with different sounds. It's really a lot of work!! He even wrote to me, "I bought a KONTAKT plug-in for more sounds for synths and orchestration". And of course, he made great guitar arrangements. Then, he even polished rhythms, bass lines and so many other things at his studio. It meant a lot. I couldn't have done these things myself; you know. And then, these drum and bass line ideas were even more polished by Michael Ehre and Alessandro Sala later. And every time it got better and better. So, it's not only my songwriting's development, but everyone's involvement made the songs powerful!

Anyway, Guido and I worked on one song at a time. The first three songs, "Japan: In My Dream", "UK: Never Say Never" and "Brazil: Splinters Of The Sun" were composed before (or around the time) I met Guido. But after working together for these songs, I wrote "Syria: Music, My Love", and it was the moment I felt some magic between us … hard to say by words … like we understood how to complement each other?! The next I wrote was, "Germany: Rebellion Mission", and I remember Guido called me, saying "Impressed. Your songwriting is getting better and better!" Well, I was also impressed by his work

Once again, as if time never passed, you collaborated with some of the finest European Metal musicians, including the ever so busy drummer, Michael Ehre and Rhapsody Of Fire’s Alessandro Sala. Was it that easy to get them back on the wagon, in particular Mr. Ehre?

Michael Ehre is such a great, trustworthy person and musician. Although I stopped working with him in 2006, we have been friends, and he's been helpful.

When Guido agreed to work with me and finished arranging the first song, I asked myself who my dream drummer for the next album would be. It was Michael. But he seemed super busy with The Unity, Primal Fear, Gamma Ray etc. So, I felt hope was very dim, close to zero. … But why not? It wouldn't harm even if he said "No". With such an attitude, I asked him. Then, he agreed!! Although he could not guarantee that we would go on tour together, I was still very happy

After that, I contacted Alessandro Sala, who was the bassist that also came to my mind on the question, "who is my dream bassist"? I knew him already because I worked for the Japanese bonus track of Rhapsody Of Fire in early 2019. I was also in charge of their Japan tour later in the same year. And he also agreed. So, this is really a dream-line-up for me.

How did your band help you maintain your musical vision on “Holy Are We Alone”?

Michael already worked with me, and I knew he'd help me in that sense. My former manager Lars' belief was that artists should do what they believe. So, Lars and Michael have always tried to maintain my vision. But actually, if he plays what he really wants to do, it always fits my vision, or exceeds my vision. So, there's nothing special for him to do to maintain my vision. He just needs to play as he is. Anyway, Michael said to me, "This is your album, and the album should satisfy you fully. Do not compromise." It was very encouraging

With Guido and Alessandro, it was the first time for me to work together, but I asked them to be on board because I felt they were very respectful towards me in the first place. Of course, it's not the only reason. The most important was their experience, sense, techniques, talent as a musician, but nothing can work without respect. I also have respect towards them, so it worked very well as Michael. Sometimes our conversation was like, "So, how do you want me to play here?" "I want you to play what you want to play". Nice, isn't it?

Also, V. Santura, one of the producers besides me and Guido as well as the mixing/mastering engineer, knew me well as we worked together for the 2nd album. He somehow understands my vision in my head even before I explain it to him. It's like magic. Anyway, I was calling him "my wish-master" in his studio, as he can make any wishes of mine come true

I believe that one of the album’s finest exports is yourself singing in different languages, not merely Japanese, German or English. Now that is something special I’d tell you that. Was it in the books that this album is going to be multilingual? How did you manage Hawiian and Sanskrit?

Well, what I sang in Sanskrit is the most famous phrase from "Heart Sutra". I can't speak Sanskrit, but I was able to imitate the pronunciation. Hawaiian as well. In the future, I want to try more languages … I have a linguistic background, so it's interesting.

In regards to channeling emotion in a different language, I wonder how were you able to reach those powerful moments? I bet that it wasn’t that easy.

German was actually very difficult. It's from Mozart's "Queen of the Night (aria)" and the notes were very high. It's really hard to pronounce the words clearly on those high notes. Some opera singers don't pronounce them clearly, either. So, I thought it's ok even if the pronunciation was not clear. But V. Santura said the pronunciation must be clearer: it had to sound German. As he is German and he would feel strange if it didn't sound German. So, we recorded many times until he said, "Yes".

Since it has been a Covid-19 period, and the pandemic has yet to be concluded, what can you tell in regards to the challenges of making this new record? Were there pressure points that it felt that there was a chance that it would be heavily delayed?

Originally, I was planning to mix the album with Guido and his engineer Eddy Cavazza in Italy, but due to COVID, I couldn't move from Germany. So, we had to wait and see the situation for a couple of months with no avail, which delayed our production. So, I changed the plan to work with V. Santura in Germany. The only sad thing was Guido couldn't come to Germany.

As Guido & I worked mostly at an early stage while me & V. Santura at a later stage, producers are credited as me, Guido and V. Santura. Yet, due to COVID, we three could not work together. If three of us had worked together, the album might have been even better. So, next time I really want to work with Guido and V. Santura together in the studio

I know that it is a bit of a headache question, yet it would be great if you can discuss one of the tracks. It was hard for me to pick since the songs are overall excellent.

I'll pick up "Japan: In My Dream". This song is about my mom, who got a brain-stroke some years ago. She survived, but eventually lost nearly all the moving ability of her body. For the first few years after the brain-stroke, I took care of her for nearly 24 hours, hoping she would get better, but she just got worse. Eventually, she even lost her ability to speak. That's what the chorus 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 make music in Germany, leaving her behind in such a state. But she asked me to sing and make a come-back to the international scene. So, this is her wish.

Musically, I used one of the Japanese scales (similar to the Pentatonic scale) to make it sound Japanese. At the end of the song, you can also hear one of Japan's most popular songs, "Haruno Umi'', played by two Japanese musicians, Shimashima-P and Byakuran. By the way, time signatures of this song change several times, but people may not notice as they change so naturally. I'm very satisfied with how Guido arranged the song

Lyrically, it's about two different worlds: The reality, in which she cannot move, mostly depicted in minor key, and the dream world, in which she can move, mostly depicted in major key. These two worlds were depicted following what she told me (well, it was very hard to understand her, though). One day she woke up and said, "I was able to run and move as I wished. I was so happy …. but I woke up and realized that it was just a dream"

By the way, she was a great singer, but gave up her dream to sing around the world before her marriage. So, my singing is also her dream. When I left Japan for Germany in 2019, I wasn't sure how long she would survive. Now I'm happy that I made it in time. And she's still very fine. I hope she will hear one more album or even more in the future. Anyway, therefore the album had to open with this song, dedicated to my mom

With Saeko back in the fold, will it return to being a full-time live band as well? If so, what are your plans for the album’s promotion for the remainder of the year or even 2022?

Yes, that's what I want to do. As I said earlier, Michael Ehre might not be able to tour together. But who knows? I definitely want to play live, anyway.

But it's not easy. Especially when all members are living apart, I need more budget than usual to do anything. But again, who knows? Almost all I have done was difficult. Some of them were "near impossible". Yet, I always found a way. So, there must be a way, and I will 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

But it'll probably take a bit more time. So, for the time being, please enjoy the latest video:



Saeko, it was a pleasure for me to have such an interesting artist as yourself, you made something different within the realm of Metal and I salute you. Well done. All the best

Thank you for the interview. I am a 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.

Actually, at this very moment, I'm shipping the rewards to my crowdfunding backers all over the world, and I must apologize to you that I couldn't write you back quickly. But I really, really appreciate all your existences, who help me in any way. Thank you!!!!

Not to worry, I thank you for your time and attention to every detail, cheers


 



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