In 2021, aspiring musicians and artists have a variety of outlets at their disposal — home studios, SoundCloud, streaming services, YouTube and more. At first glance, it might seem like the barriers to success have fallen. However, listeners also find themselves with a wider range of options. How can they discover new talent? Who should they be looking out for? The most important thing, by far, is to trust in one’s own sensibilities. Another effective approach is to look at who other artists have their eyes on.
In this interview, we’ll be introducing LMYK, who released her second song just last year. It would be fair to call her a complete newcomer. LMYK, whose father is German and whose mother is Japanese, is a singer-songwriter from Osaka. She began making music while attending university in New York. In 2020, she debuted with “Unity,” the theme song of the Japanese-dubbed version of the film The Legend of Hei. In 2021, her song “0 (zero)” was used as the ending theme for the TV anime The Case Study of Vanitas. If the name “LMYK” rings a bell for you, you just might be a die-hard anime fan. Before we go any further, have a listen to LMYK’s singing voice. Her ephemeral soprano voice has a unique suppleness and clarity that draws the listener in.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who make up the world-famous production team Jam & Lewis, were some of the first to be captivated by LMYK’s voice. They debuted in 1981 as members of The Time, close Prince associates. In 1985, they produced Janet Jackson’s album Control, and ever since then they have been legendary producers, working on the frontlines of the music industry. They first met LMYK in 2016. In a four-way Zoom interview with Billboard Japan, LMYK, Jam, and Lewis talked about how they came together. “I was introduced to them through the father of one of my classmates,” says LMYK. “He was involved in the music business in Japan and the U.S., and I was making music while going to university in New York. He shared my video with Jimmy and Terry.”
Lewis recalls, “It was my favorite meeting, ever. We set up the meeting in the outdoor seating of a hotel restaurant in SoHo. LMYK came down complete with a guitar, so I asked her to play and sing. When she sat down and started, it just blew me away. It was the most beautiful voice that I had heard in a long time. At that time, she was learning a lot on guitar, but she had a good feel for the guitar as well. The songs that she wrote were even more impressive than her performance.”
It’s startling to hear that LMYK only started thinking about making music her career after she’d received an offer. Now, four years on, her singles “Unity” and “0 (zero)” clearly show how far she has come along. For example, “0 (zero)” has a unique song structure; it starts as a midtempo song and then speeds up. “I think it ended up like midtempo into uptempo because of our collaborative work,” says LMYK. “When I wrote the song, it was an ambient, midtempo song. The Case Study of Vanitas is about vampires in 19th-century Paris, so in creating the song, we thought about that setting.”
Another of her strengths can be seen in the fact that there has been a Japanese version and an English version right from the start. LMYK discussed how she pens lyrics in the two languages. “It depends on the song. This song was in Japanese first, so I had to fit English words to Japanese rhythm. I kind of look at it as making a kimono out of lace. The concept of the kimono is already there, but you’re using another language to make it. Writing the lyrics in both languages was a struggle at first — it wasn’t easy. But as I did it, I started to get the hang of it. I started to realize what I wanted to depict, the scene I wanted to paint. As that became clearer, I found the words and expressions I wanted to use. So it’s not really a translation of the Japanese song.”
Jam adds, “‘0 (zero)’ comes on very quiet, but then it takes you through all the emotions. LMYK not only plays guitar, but she also plays keyboard, and there’s something very special about that talent.”
LMYK is a versatile and talented artist involved in everything from writing lyrics and composing songs to making tracks. When asked about how she makes her music, she explains, “Recently, I have been using the keyboard and composing in Logic. I used to make everything using an acoustic guitar, but recently I find that synthesizers inspire me. I came to the point where I wanted to explore different outlets through the sounds I use.”
Here, the conversation turned to how the sounds of songs change depending on the instruments that were used when writing them. Jam explains, “Different instruments give you different chords, so it changes the mood and texture. Some people play instruments themselves when they write songs, but when they go into the studio, they want other people to play for them on the recording sessions. LMYK is a great instrumentalist, so she plays the instruments herself.” Lewis continues, “I always encourage her to play by herself, whether it’s the keyboard or the guitar. She plays so uniquely, especially the guitar. She can also produce herself, using Logic, and she’s just getting better and better.”
The allure of LMYK’s vocals lies in her soft, breathy voice, which shares something in common with Janet Jackson, the late Aaliyah, Brandy or Jhené Aiko. Her speaking voice, likewise, is beautiful. “I listen to and love all of those artists, and they’ve really influenced me,” LMYK says. We also asked Jam & Lewis about the appeal of Janet Jackson’s vocals. “There are two types of singers: the ones you listen to, and the ones you sing along with. Janet is a singer you want to sing along with, because she sings melodies so beautifully that she’s inviting you to sing with her. LMYK has that same quality. She writes and sings beautiful melodies that make you want to sing along. Another thing she has in common with Janet is that Janet does all of her own vocals, both lead vocals and background vocals, and stacks her own harmonies. LMYK is also great at stacking the harmonies. When you hear the vocals on her songs, it’s 100% her singing.”
The latest news from Jam & Lewis is their July 2021 release of Jam & Lewis Volume 1. For this album, they were joined by a cast of musical titans including Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Usher, Charlie Wilson and Boyz II Men. Astonishingly, this is their first-ever album as “Jam & Lewis.” We asked when they started working on the album, to which Lewis replied, “Thirty-five years ago. We were working with Janet Jackson on Control, and when we thought we were done with it and could start on our own album, the A&R person, John McClain, said, ‘We need one more song.’ So we gave Janet ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately,’ which we had written for our own album. It was the song that launched her career, and ended our own,” Lewis laughs. “We’ve been writing and producing ever since then.” According to Jam, their impetus for working on the new album was a major event. “Three years ago, we were chosen, along with Babyface, to be in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. When they asked us what we would like to do, we said we wanted to finish our album and we wanted to do a song with Babyface. So we made that happen.”
LMYK is currently working on her own debut album. We asked her how far along she was. “Most of the songs are still in the demo stage, but I’ve got a good idea of which songs to work on for the album. Terry and Jimmy will also be involved, of course, and I look forward to releasing it next year.” We’ll close with what LMYK says is the greatest advice she received from her stellar mentors, Jam & Lewis. “They always remind me to be myself, to be natural, and to believe in what I do naturally.” Sometimes, new artists are upstaged when they work with big names, but after hearing LMYK’s two songs and talking with her for 40 minutes, it was clear that this wouldn’t be the case this time. Keep your eyes and ears open for LMYK and her first two songs, “Unity” and “0 (zero).”
This interview by Minako Ikeshiro first appeared on Billboard Japan.