She was a shooting star in the early 2000s. A performance on the holy ground of Wacken. On tour with the German Metal Queen Doro Pesch. Both as Asia’s first female metal singer. She was appropriately nicknamed the Japanese Metal Queen. We are talking about Saeko Kitamae. She released two albums at that time. Thirteen years is a long time. That’s how long it was quiet around SAEKO. Now she dares a new beginning. Her album “Holy Are We Alone” was released in August. She launched a successful crowdfunding campaign for it. And she chose Germany as her adopted country. So there was plenty to talk about for an interview.
Hello Saeko. I’m Rainer and I write for Keep on Rocking and the Metalheads Forever Magazine. Thank you very much for letting me do this interview with you. How are you?
Thank you, Rainer, for giving me this opportunity. I’m fine and happy!
I don’t think many fans can remember back thirteen years. Please introduce yourself briefly.
I agree. By the way, when I launched a crowdfunding campaign, it was 13 years since the last album, but now it’s actually 15 years since the last album due to the delay by COVID. I’m sorry for that. Anyway, I’m Saeko Kitamae, who released two albums worldwide from Germany in 2004 and 2006. In the first album, Herman Frank guested, by the way. Back then, my manager was Lars Ratz (ex. Metalium), who sadly passed away this April. Actually, Lars sang male choir on the new album, and it’s not only him who worked for both the past and the new albums of mine. Michael Ehré also worked for my 1st and 2nd albums. V. Santura who mixed and mastered the new album was also the engineer of my 2nd album. And the graphic designer of the booklet and artwork of the new album was the Japanese bassist who played the bass for both the 1st and 2nd albums. She also played at Wacken Open Air 2005 with me. Anway, I have been playing this kind of music and I was very happy to make a new album again with them after so many years (check the pic below from 16 years ago, with Michael and V. Santura). Well, it’s not easy to introduce myself “briefly”, but I hope this is ok?!
Why did you end your career as a musician so abruptly? And what have you done in the past years?
Let me put it this way, a few things happened businesswise, and I couldn’t figure it out myself in those days (2006). I was working in Hamburg and didn’t know much about the German music industry. So, I had no idea and there seemed to be no other 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. And that was the end. In Japan, there was a time I tried to figure it out by visiting lawyers in Japan, but 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. So, it took me more than 10 years to figure it out and solve it. It was really hard. Looking back, there was a time I almost gave up solving it and tried to forget about music. Actually, for about 4 years since 2006, whenever I took a microphone in my hand, tears came up and I couldn’t sing. And I tried to do something else, for example, becoming an international journalist or a linguist. I actually obtained a Master’s degree from Leiden University in 2009. Those days I often asked the Sky why I was still alive. Anyway, I don’t live in the past and life taught me a lesson. Now I’m facing the future, which is great, isn’t it?
I know you wrote a song for the victims of the big earthquake in Japan in 2011. And in 2017 you released a special CD/DVD. But both were not Metal. When did you decide to return to the rock/metal business? And why?
I tell you; I have never ever played anything other than metal. These songs were ballads, but if you say all ballads are not metal, hey, what do you mean by metal? Anyway, the concept of metal is that it’s not the mainstream. It’s not commercialism. I don’t sell my soul to the marketing strategy. Anyway, the benefit song for the earthquake victims was made during the time I gave up going back to play music myself (due to the legal/business/cross-cultural-bureaucratic troubles I mentioned above). Oh, it was tough, but I had to survive anyhow, and I started my own small business in the Netherlands to help musicians, offering services such as writing English & Japanese lyrics, giving vocal directions to singers, making top-lines (vocal melodies on song), recording guide vocals etc. One day, one of my clients who was working in the kingdom of Bhutan contacted me, saying, “A local radio station wants to play a song to encourage the Japanese earthquake victims. Please write good lyrics to my music, and find a good singer to record it to be played on Bhutanese radio station.” The budget was very low and I couldn’t find anyone who sings that song for free … so, I thought, “well, why not me?” I expected no decent recordings with such a budget, but when I contacted Lars Ratz, he said he’d record me for free. Also, the engineer Miquel A. Rituart, who is also the engineer of the latest Metalium song (a tribute song to Lars) , agreed to work for free. Simultaneously, a number of people from different countries (mainly the students of Leiden University) also volunteered to record their message in their own language to encourage the Japanese victims. Anyway, you may not remember, but that big earthquake destroyed Japan so badly that everyone seemed to want to help Japanese victims anyhow back then. So, I got an idea to sell the song online and donate all the profits to the victims, for I always wanted to help someone with the power of music. It was my main motivation to start singing metal; With SAEKO and other bands I played in the past, I always wanted to reach and encourage listeners with my music. This deepest wish of mine was thrown away in 2006. And I didn’t want to fail this time. I had to prove myself that music can save someone. The more we sell the song, the more money we can donate to victims. So, I did my best to spread the song. After all, several Japanese newspapers covered the stories and it sold well. So, we were able to donate more than €7.000,00 to the earthquake orphans (see the table below). I was finally able to feel my music was not “useless”. If I remember correctly, this was the first time I sang since 2006. Can you understand this feeling? It was beautiful and I cried with joy. By the way, the picture below is me giving the donation to the Iwate Prefectural government. Here’s the video of the song: https://youtu.be/uHjrml71zC0.
As for the special DVD/CD … it’s released in 2017. As I said above, all Japanese lawyers threw away my problems from the past (2003-2006). Still, I kept on studying and examining matters by myself for about 10 years and solved them with a German lawyer in 2017. You call it tenacity. When the problems were solved at last in 2017, I felt, “now I’m free to resume SAEKO! Let’s look for members!” I had to prove that I can still sing to find members. That single was released for that purpose. I wanted to make songs with the best quality. So, I asked one of my good friends, a Japanese jazz pianist & composer who received awards in the international jazz festivals, to arrange my old songs and play it with me. I asked Alessandro Del Vecchio to record & produce my vocals as well. And I’m very satisfied with the songs. Please check the beautiful video, too: https://youtu.be/4re7GdYKN1E.
For the recording of “Holy Are We Alone” you returned to Europe, especially to Germany. How did this decision come about?
So, I started looking for members. Yet, building a band from scratch was not easy. I searched all over the world for about 2 years until I met Guido Benedetti in 2019 in Japan. Well, it wouldn’t have been difficult for me to form a band “in Japan with Japanese friend musicians”. I know many great musicians in Japan. However, I had to make a come-back with the same standard as before (I mean, as the time I worked in Hamburg, with Lars Ratz, Michael Ehre (both Metalium back then), Herman Frank etc.). Back then, my CDs were released worldwide. In Germany, my life-sized boards (the one you can see below) were placed in many CD stores. I was also the first female Asian musician who performed at Wacken Open Air, touring with the metal queen Doro. My personal philosophy says if I can’t make something better than the past, better not to do it. Anyway, to do something on that level, I had to form a band with an international line-up as before. So, when Guido agreed to work with me and even to reveal this plan to the public in the summer of 2019, I felt it’s time to move on. Until then, I wasn’t even sure where I should relocate myself. Europe, North America or South America? I was ready to relocate anywhere for my music. It all depended where I would find the members. Anyway, the main partner for SAEKO was now officially stated as Guido, so it was clear to me that I had to move to Europe. As Guido lives in North Italy, Southern Germany, North Italy or Switzerland seemed to be the place … Japan was obviously too far. In fact, it would have been the best if I could relocate to North Italy … but I speak no Italian. I have never lived there, either. So, after all, I decided to relocate to southern Germany.
With Michael Ehre, Guido Benedetti and Alessandro Sala you were able to win renowned musicians for the recordings. How did you choose them?
As I said above, I had been looking for a guitarist for about 2 years when I met Guido in Japan. Anyway, in early 2019, I met him when he came to Japan on his Trick Or Treat tour. Chatting backstage, I found he was in the crowd when I played at Wacken Open Air 2005. He said he liked what I did, and I liked what he’d been doing, too. Their show was great, and he’s a great guitarist. Anyway, from the very beginning, we found many things in common. Later, not only our musical taste, but also our music philosophy turned out to be very similar. So I felt, “He must be the very guitarist I’ve been looking for!”, and asked him to be on board. And he agreed. I was very happy! Coz I had been looking for a guitarist for 2 years!!!!
Soon, we made the first demo song together, “Brazil: Splinters Of The Sun”, and I contacted Michael Ehre. I knew he was, both as a musician and as a person, wonderful, great and trustworthy. After Michael agreed, I contacted Alessandro Sala. I knew him because I worked on the Japanese bonus track of Rhapsody Of Fire earlier. Both Michael and Alessandro were the top on my list for the drummer and the bassist, and I was super happy when both of them agreed.
Was it difficult to get the three of them excited about your new project?
Not really. They’ve been all very cooperative and helpful since the very beginning, and I appreciate it a lot. Guido liked my songs from the very beginning. And Michael … We worked together from 2003 to 2006, so he knew how it would be with me more or less. And he also knew some of my hardships, so he seemed to be happy that I was making a comeback. And Alessandro … soon after he agreed, we launched a crowdfunding campaign (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/saeko/japanese-metal-queen-ready-to-make-a-comeback-after-13-years) , which quickly gathered ¥2,004,625 (about €15,000.00), so I assume he also understood what it means. Anyway, I didn’t need to do anything special to make them cooperative. They are always very kind and helpful.
In the booklet you and Guido are listed as composers. How did the song writing for the new album go? It certainly wasn’t easy because of Corona?
Actually, the songwriting was not difficult. To be honest, compared with the problems I had, I mean, the problems, for which I had to spend over 10 years trying to solve, or obtaining the residence permit in Germany, all these non-musical hurdles for me to get over … compared with them, I’d say the songwriting is nothing hard. It was just fun for me. Yes, it was pure fun. And I assume Guido enjoyed working on the songs as well. That’s why there’s a good vibe in our songs. We both had fun from our hearts!!
Most of the songs are assigned to a country. How did you make the selection?
As this album has a concept story with a spirit reincarnating around the world, I had to write on different countries. Upon choosing countries, I tried to be well-balanced; I didn’t want to write only about certain regions of the world. The number of the songs was limited, so I had to give up some countries, which was a pity. For example, I think it would have been more balanced if I could choose one country from Africa. Besides that, the choice depended on whether I found an interviewee from that country or not. As I wanted to write the song based on a real life story, I had to find someone from that region/country.
The lyrics were written by you. What are they about? Is there a concept behind them or a common thread that runs through the album?
This album is the story of a spirit that reincarnates around the world. The first and the last track are about beyond this world with the spirit without a body. All other songs are about his/her life on earth in different countries. To write these songs, I interviewed one person from each country. So, all songs are based on the real life story of a person from that country. You can find the information of the interviewee in the booklet.
By the way, this concept of the reincarnating spirit has connections with the past two albums as I’m always writing about the same theme, the eternal truth of spirits. For example, my 1st album (2004) was titled “Above Heaven Below Heaven”. When it’s combined with the title of the coming album, it becomes “Above Heaven Below Heaven, Holy Are We Alone”. Someone from Asia will surely notice that this is an alteration of the famous phrase by Bhudda: “Above Heaven Below Heaven, Holy Am I Alone”. Also, listeners of my 2nd album “Life” will notice that the first track of the coming album overlaps the ending of the 2nd album, “Eternal Destiny”, which finished predicting my death and rebirth: “Don’t cry, soon I will meet you again, please remember me …”. This is the opening of the new album, followed by “Now the time has come, I’ll be back, To meet you again”. This opening has a double meaning:1. The story is continuing, 2. SAEKO is finally back to long-time fans. Lyrically, there are several deep stories going on simultaneously. Many more things are buried in the booklet. So, if you love philosophy, you might enjoy not only music, but also the texts.
Anyway, 1st, 2nd, and the coming 3rd albums are made on the same theme. 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, METAPHYSICAL and PHYSICAL worlds make the universe together.
Are you satisfied with the album? How were the reactions from fans and press?
Satisfied with the album? Yes and no. And it’s always like that. I’m satisfied because I did my best. Also, I’m satisfied with what others did during the production. So, I know this is the very best album I could release to come back at this point. However, a few months have already passed since the production was done. So, I start to see something I didn’t notice back then. Now I feel … oh, I could have done this and that etc. In that sense, I’m always not fully satisfied with my albums, which is good because it makes me go further. And I’m happy about the reaction from fans and press, of course. They seem to like it, and I appreciate it.
The album was financed via a crowdfunding campaign. The set goal was clearly surpassed (about 125% of the goal contribution). What was your reaction to this result?
It was launched with an “all or nothing (keeps nothing unless the goal is achieved)” model. So, it had to surpass the goal, no matter what. So, I was very relieved when it reached the goal. By the way, most backers were from Japan, which is understandable. But I was surprised that so many supported from the US. I didn’t expect this as I have never performed in the US. One day I would like to perform there.
What I’m particularly interested in as a fan, is SAEKO only a studio project? Or will there also be concerts after all the pandemic restrictions?
No, of course not. If it’s only a studio project, why am I relocating myself to Europe? Michael may not be able to play concerts together, but I hope to do some shows. The biggest hurdle is COVID, though. This pandemic broke out soon after I obtained the residence permit in Germany. So, I had to change my plan. My original plan before COVID outbreak was that I make connections with people in the industry during the album production, which is usually possible by visiting shows & festivals. However, due to COVID, there have been almost no events in Germany, so I am still alone in that sense. Anyway, I must make it even if it’s very hard … especially when all members live apart, it costs more to organise anything, and I don’t have much of a budget as I just started to make it back. Anyway, I must 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 either in Germany or Switzerland. Let’s see.
Do you have further plans for the future? New songs, maybe a new album?
As I said above, in my opinion, we must make some shows before that. Last time (2003-2006), I toured with Doro and Blaze Bayley. And actually in 2006, when I had to give up everything, another big tour with a very well-known German heavy metal band was about to happen, but I had to stop. I was so mad at the situation. To give up there. So, with this second try, I must make it. It may be hard to see the future under this COVID pandemic, but let’s hope for the best.
Thank you again for this interview. Would you like to say something to the fans at the end?
Thank you very much for reading till the end. I appreciate your interest in me and your support. I really mean it. Coz I’m a very unique musician, coming from Japan all alone without any manager, booking agency etc. Without your support, nothing is possible. I’ll do my best to set up shows, first in Europe. It may take more time than usual as I need to go step by step from scratch, but it will happen. Thank you!!!
Saeko Kitamae – Vocals, Keys
Guido Benedetti – Guitars, Keys
Alessandro Sala – Bass
Michael Ehre – Drums