Singer/songwriter, actress, occasional travel columnist and the young foreign lady speaking flawless Japanese on the Trivago commercials, Natalie Emmons is a young lady in demand who Weekender wanted to hear more about. So we decided to meet up for a chat at a trendy coffee shop in Shibuya.
By Matthew Hernon
How did you get started in the entertainment industry in Japan?
I saw an audition for Universal Studios Japan in the Backstage West newsletter. I was doing musical theater in the States at the time, but that was a constant struggle. I already had an interest in Japan at that stage so I knew it was something I had to try. I actually auditioned as a dancer who could sing as I had less confidence in the latter. It was a really long process with an in-depth interview at the end. I guess they must have liked what they saw as I was given the chance to come here.
What were your first impressions of the country?
In my first two weeks I got lost in downtown Osaka and a lady took 15-20 minutes out of her time to make sure I got to my destination safely. At that point I knew I would be OK in Japan. Everything was just so cute and there seemed to be the right amount of everything, no excesses. I felt at home right away. It was also great performing live here. I was covering people like Namie Amuro and getting really good feedback.
Aside from the singing what other kind of work did you do in those early days?
Well I got some offers for commercials but a lot of the time I didn’t know whether they were legit or not. I got emails saying things like ‘I’m a director, come for dinner?’ There were some genuine proposals such as the laundry detergent brand Bold, but they ended up giving that role to Miranda Kerr. Not a bad person to lose out to! As well as the singing and acting I also started a travel blog and I ended up penning a few articles for the Kansai Scene magazines about my experiences.
I’ve read some of your stories abroad including getting robbed by an 80-year-old kleptomaniac. What about here in Japan, have any strange things happened?
There was one time when I was walking around a quiet area in Osaka and this lady accosted me and my boyfriend in the street. She just said come and have dinner, took our arms and walked us to her house. We went there and a whole family was just sitting there, like they were waiting for us. It was surreal, but at the same time a lot of fun. Another time was when a lady suddenly started pulling my hair on the Yamanote Line during rush hour. Then I realized that a hook from her blouse had got caught and she was frantically trying to get it out so she could exit the train. Finally she managed it, blushed and then rushed out just as the doors were closing.
Your first big break came on the show Nodo-jiman Za! World, the same show that helped launch Chris Hart‘s career. Has he given you any advice?
Yes he has supported me and other foreign artists a lot. I think in the same situation many people wouldn’t be prepared to help as they would see it as aiding a competitor, but his attitude is different. He wants to see the market open up to more foreign acts. I know I can call him any time and he will give me good advice because he knows so much about the industry.
The Trivago commercial has received quite a lot of attention. How did that job come about?
Well the artistic producer was a British guy who had previously worked in Japan as an English teacher. He thought it would be a good idea for their commercial in Japan to have someone who looked different, but also sounded the part. I know a lot of foreigners who can speak Japanese well, but it sounded like they were having a really hard time finding a trained actress so Universal put me forward. I’d never heard of Trivago, because at the time they hadn’t started advertising in Japan, so I did a little research and then sent a video audition. Apparently they really liked what they heard. It’s been great for my career and my dad’s so proud. He shows off the video to everyone he sees. Some people have asked me if it’s dubbed (laughs).
It does sound very native-like. How did you learn to speak so well?
I think as a singer you ears are versed to hearing pitch and intonation. That made it easier for me. I was never really interested in studying from a textbook so I would learn by speaking to friends, going to karaoke, watching movies, especially Ghibli ones, and TV shows. I got sucked into dramas like Hana Yori Dango and people said that as a result of that I spoke like a tomboy.
You clearly love Japan. What have been some of your favorite experiences in this country?
Hiking in Yakushima was definitely one. They say you shouldn’t do that alone, but I thought it was worth the challenge because I love being at one with nature. It was a very healing experience. Another was staying at a hippie resort in Northern Okinawa. All the guests stay in yurts, they have a cafe in a tree house and every night people gather in the bar where they can play instruments and get to know each other. When you order a mojito you can pick up the fresh mint yourself from the garden! I’m also a big fan of Takarazuka … so visiting [the] Takarazuka Revue was very inspiring for me. I think it is something that can empower females all over the world.
Is there anything that annoys you about Japan?
It frustrates me that there is such an obsession with age here. Girls often have to lie about how old they are to be able to audition for idol groups or other entertainment jobs. Other things would include the humidity in the Summer and the fact that there isn’t much access to organic food. Also I wish people would sometimes think more outside of the box, especially in the music industry. It’s harder than ever to sell songs but still some bosses think there is only one path you can go down, whereas I think you have to try and take a different route occasionally.
Looking forward, what are your hopes for the future?
I want to try and find a middle ground for my music. My English sound is kind of synth pop, while my Japanese songs sound a bit like [the band] Perfume. I’ve been told that my next single – which is out in October – is a bit like a what you would hear from Angela Aki. I’m looking forward to seeing the reaction to it. I’ve also got more commercials coming up for Trivago and I also just did one for Speed Learning. It’s an exciting time.
Natalie’s new single, “到着口,” is out on December 5.
Main Image: © Jason Haidar