Interview: Tokyo’s Rei Gets Closer to Global Superstardom with ‘Rei (INTL Edition)’

To give you some context, Tokyo’s Rei is my favourite Japanese artist of all time. She was one of the first acts I covered when I started writing about Japanese music and I’d been in love with her music ever since. So, saying this interview might go down as one of my favourite memories in life might be an understatement.

Taking up the guitar at the age of 4, Rei’s love for the instrument blossomed at a young age and has remained a core part of her brand since (you can find her on all social media as @guita_rei). 

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That same love made the guitar her most “comfortable communication tool”. One that helps her bilingualism stand out through her music, as you can find her seamlessly weaving between English and Japanese on a majority of her songs.

Her latest release – REI (International Edition) is a re-recording of her stellar debut album but entirely in English. A decision she made to highlight how she finds fun in manipulating the sounds and meanings of the English language into music that can captivate her listeners. 

Read on below for my full conversation with Rei, listen to REI (Intl Edition) here and follow her on Instagram here.

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*This interview has been slightly edited for clarity

Turntable Thoughts:

Tell me about yourself.

Rei:

I’m a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Japan, Tokyo. I’ve been playing the guitar since I was 4 while living in New York, which was where my musical journey began.

After I came back to Japan, I went to an International School. Then at age 9 or 10, I started a rock band in school. Up until then, I always wanted to be a guitarist but when I started playing contemporary music like rock, blues and jazz, it got me into singing. 

Fast forward a few years, I released my first CD debut in 2015. It was an EP with 7 songs in it called BLU. Since then I released around 8 CDs, with my latest album being HONEY, which dropped last November.

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Turntable Thoughts:

You mentioned you started guitar at 4. A super young age! What made you decide to learn it?

Rei:

I wasn’t comfortable speaking Japanese at 4 years old, cause I couldn’t really communicate with people. Then I moved to the States and had to learn a new language, which made me feel even more disconnected from the outside world. Eventually I became more confident in speaking, but it felt like the words I say and my ‘heart’ had a…distance between them. 

That was when I started guitar. It’s my best friend! Always by my side wherever I go. Whenever I’m lonely, I talk to it; when I’m happy, I talk to it. 

Because I wasn’t fluent in Japanese or English, music became a 3rd language which ended up being my most comfortable communication tool. The guitar is my wifi. [laughs] It connects to people around me. 


Turntable Thoughts:

You just released the International Version of your debut album – REI. Could you tell me more about what that album means to you?

Rei:

Well, it’s…wonderful! I still can’t believe I’m releasing an album from an overseas record label. Verve Forecast Records is from New York and since that’s where my musical journey started, it felt like me going back to my roots. 

Also, before I decided to sing in Japanese, it had always been my dream to debut in the States. However, I began learning about the beauty of the Japanese language and decided to debut in Japan before I did America. So now this feels like a dream come true. Like my career coming full circle.

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Turntable Thoughts:

Since REI has this very ‘happy’ aesthetic and sound to it, do you think that it’s the best introduction to new listeners for you as an artist?

Rei:

I can’t really say a definite ‘yes’ to that question cause I want my listeners to decide. Though I still think it’s a very good representation of myself because I have been very influenced by a lot of musical genres; which made blues, rock and jazz a signature sound in my music.  

On the other hand, I’ve also been influenced by J-Pop, classical music and album-oriented rock (AOR). I really wanted to incorporate those into REI because I consider myself to be a colourful and very international person. 

Turntable Thoughts:

You once mentioned in an interview a while back that wanted the listener to feel happy listening to REI, what made you decide on that?

Rei:

[laughs] Okay, so this seems like a very ordinary thing to say…so get ready. 

I think that making yourself happy should be the first priority in life. A lot of people probably know this deep down but it’s really hard to put it into action. You have work, relationships and your reputation…a lot of things to consider. It gets in the way of making yourself happy.

I’ve seen a lot of people I respect that are happy, which makes the people around them happy too. I believe you shouldn’t mix those up. You don’t make someone happy to make yourself happy. You are your first priority. So I wanted listeners to hear my music and feel a bit better about themselves.

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Turntable Thoughts:

The original version of REI was in Japanese with some English mixed in, what pushed you to re-record everything in English for this release?

Rei:

I’m still not the best at speaking in English or even the most comfortable, but for me, English is closer to my heart than Japanese is. I usually write my lyrics in English first then translate some parts, or all of it, into Japanese.

So, It was really natural for me to go back and sing it in English.

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Turntable Thoughts:

Has it always been easier for you to navigate between the two languages instead of just focusing on one?

Rei:

It depends on the day. This morning I knew I was going to talk to you so I woke up like “Oh, I feel like an English speaker today!” [laughs] My thoughts would be in English. Then sometimes everything is in Japanese.

Language is obviously a huge factor when writing songs and I really wanted to cherish the fact that I’m bilingual. There are two elements in language – meaning and sound. I wanted to present a good balance between the two and how fun it can be when playing with both elements. 


Turntable Thoughts:

Do you have a favourite song on REI? Personally, mine is “My Name Is Rei” cause that the first song from yours I ever heard.

Rei:

There are so many variations to the songs I recorded for this album so it’s hard to decide… Let’s make it “PLANETS” for today cause there’s a really long guitar solo at the end, and I really like the fantasy-themed lyrics.


Turntable Thoughts:

Speaking of guitar solos, your entire brand is about guitars. Do you have that one favourite guitar in your life?

Rei:

This is also hard to decide. [laughs] When I make an album, I always have a ‘theme’ guitar. I’m in the season of the Telecaster right now. That’s why I’ve been using the Thinline Telecaster in my recent music videos. 

I guess I like guitars with character. Even if it’s a normal Stratocaster, I’d like it to have some uniqueness to it. 

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Turntable Thoughts:

What kind of uniqueness do you mean?

Rei:

Obviously, it has to look good! Also, guitarists who I really respect like Beck, Johnny Winter, St. Vincent, Toro Y Moi and Bruno Major all have their signature tone. Like when Santana plays, you can tell right away it’s Santana! I really want to have that uniqueness to my guitar tone. 


Turntable Thoughts:

What sort of guitars did you use for HONEY?

Rei: 

Actually, I didn’t use that many guitars for that album as I usually do. Probably around 3 or 4 – a Strat, Tele and a Martin for the acoustic parts.

Turntable Thoughts:

If that’s not a lot, then what’s your usual amount?

Rei:

Well, I had a gig last month on Valentine’s Day and I ended up using 5, I think? I always start off saying I wanna use just 1, but then I just start changing guitars for each song. [laughs]

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Turntable Thoughts:

What are your plans for the future?

Rei:

My dream is to play a solo concert in Shea Stadium which was where the Beatles performed in the 60s, which made me decide on becoming a superstar in music. That’s my final goal.

Before I do that, I would really like to go on a world tour. Last year, I couldn’t go overseas and play because of the pandemic. There were no music festivals or solo concerts and we couldn’t plan anything. That’s the main goal for now.

Posted by

Based in Melbourne and Malaysia. Jensen is a part-time journalist and full-time music fan.

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