An American Boy Lost in Japan

Alex York "American Boy"We first introduced you to the very unique Alex York back in August and we saw an incredible response in terms of tweets and shares, so we thought we’d bring you more of the good stuff with an exclusive interview of the man himself.

As a refresher, Alex York is an American born Japanese culture aficionado, who writes and sings in both English and Japanese to a dedicated and incredibly active cross-cultural fan base. He recently released two videos, “Change,” which was dedicated to Japan’s recovery after the earthquake, and “American Boy,” a more upbeat video that illustrates his love of the country and the culture — from the perspective of an all-American boy.

Without further ado, everyone… ALEX YORK!

Alex, you’re a born and bred New Yorker, yet you’re fluent in Japanese, you studied Japanese literature and your website is entirely bilingual. Where did your passion for Japanese culture — and music — stem from?

At an early age, I always remember being fascinated with Japanese culture: from tea ceremony and origami, to the exoticism of Japanese food, to video games and the fabled bullet train. I enjoyed a section of class when I was about six years old in the first grade about Japanese culture, and it had a huge impact on me. People always told me the language was too difficult, and there weren’t classes in school; so, I didn’t start learning in earnest until high school, when I ran into an old friend who speaks Japanese and taught me the fundamentals of the language. That led to a couple years of self-study and ultimately to majoring in Japanese literature in college.

Clearly, you understand the importance of social media in today’s world (the first blog post we wrote on you was among our most shared on both Facebook and Twitter!). How do you juggle Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. with your day-to-day life as a musician? What key lessons have you learned that you could share with us?

Thanks for the kind words, and I’m delighted there was a good response to the blog. The most important thing I found is actually to do interesting things in reality and then to share them in a compelling way online. Otherwise, there’s a danger of just ending up with trivial confessions about what you had for lunch today or a weather report (although those can be interesting in the right context too). I’d always rather have compelling content posted at selected times, rather than just a nonstop stream. Such stream-of-consciousness updates also take a lot of time and energy from reality and making music.

You just released a new music video for your single “American Boy.” Almost entirely in Japanese, listening to the song from the perspective of an English-speaker who doesn’t understand the lyrics is an interesting experience, particularly due to the title. What did you mean to achieve with the song, and please, tell us, what are you saying?

A friend of mine, hilarious comedian and actor Robert Rubinsky, once said I’m like an American boy lost in Japan and I should write a song about it. I’m very grateful to him, as that set things rolling and helped me create the song: a tour across Japan, the places I love, and my misadventures as a foreigner in a very different culture. It’s definitely tongue-in-cheek, but at the base of the song, I hope my love for Japan comes through. Happily, I’ve heard from listeners and Japanese media that it does.

You also directed the music video. What was that like? Do you always direct your music videos? Did you have a specific vision you wanted to communicate in this particular one?

“American Boy,” while definitely not a Kubrick or Bruckheimer masterpiece, I think accomplished what I intended for the song’s video. That is, I wanted to convey fantasies of America and Japan through a hyperactive collage of bright colors, big personalities, and photogenic food. The indoor scenes are a trippy U.S.O. show, and the outdoor scenes are meant to be a pastiche of cartoony urban landscapes and cheesy retro Americana. I am indebted to the Japan Society and the 5Pointz complex, including a mural by Japanese graffiti artist Shiro, for providing shooting locations that emphasized this vision.

Regarding the process, the video was my first experience handling other actors and multiple sets, and I edited the video myself on my laptop. Choreographer Elana Jaroff perfectly captured the kitschy 60s and bubblegum booty dancing in the movements of the American Girls. My friend and photographer/videographer Ash Fox did an awesome job realizing the visuals through the lens of her camera, which made things a lot easier in post-production. Shika-san the Deer also contributed a key performance, for which I am very grateful.

Ultimately, I always write my songs with a strong visual component lurking, so I hope to direct more videos in the future. It’s a lot of fun.

Here are some quick-fire questions for you: 

favorite motto: “ichi-go ichi-e” (“one time, one meeting); sort of like “carpe diem” but refers to making the most of meetings with people, specifically
activity of choice when not making music: walking across New York City, discovering interesting food
social media no-no: airing dirty laundry
first album you owned: a best of David Bowie compilation — that or No Doubt Tragic Kingdom
time and place in history you’d visit if you could: Cleopatra’s big entry into Ancient Rome (looked like a pretty badass parade, although things didn’t seem to go too hot for her after that)

Thanks for checking in with us Alex! We look forward to whatever kitschy, colorful, addictive music and music videos you’ll cook up for us next.

In the meantime, now that you know all the ins and outs of the video, check out Alex York in “American Boy” below (and if you want to know what our boy is singing, just click on the “show annotations” button):

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