Text: 荒川のぞみ(LINE) / Photo: 飯本貴子 / Movie: 江草直人 /Edit: 前田将博(LINE)
Original link : https://article.me/post/62b812ea8b1e522178c25cc6
"These are so old, it's frightening... Oh no ! I'm now lost in my emotions ! (laughs) "
Looking at the CD on the table while smiling shyly, she recalls those days when she was in elementary school.
"I was in primary school back then. My hairstyle and even the hairdresser I went to were specified by the agency..."
In 2002, she was choosen among 30000 kids to become "Hello! Project Kids", and ℃-ute was formed in 2005. The group disbanded in 2017, and she continued as a solo artist.
With overwhelming singing ability, powerful singing voice, and her double tooth peeking through her dazzling smile, she's known as "the Idol admired by other Idols". But behind this, she also experienced frustration not to be chosen, steady work to proudly introduces herself, and even difficult times which made her think she wanted to quit the group.
This year marks 20 years since she joined Hello! Project. How did Airi Suzuki overcome these challenges along the songs she was performing ?
Singing "Why can't we be lovers?" at the age of 9
The first song "of her own" she ever received was "FIRST KISS" by the unit Aa! in 2003.
"I had only performed as a back-up dancer before, but being allowed to hold the microphone and sing on stage was a completely different feeling. But I was only 9 years old at the time, so I had no idea what I was singing about (laughs) I asked my mom what the lyrics meant, but she said she couldn't explain it to me properly (laughs)
Tsunku♂-san directed my recording, but I can clearly remember what he said. Everything was presented to me as a 'sort of audition', so I was desperate to give good results anyway."
The singing parts were not decided in advance. The members sang the full song during the recording session, and their parts were decided after their individual voices had been assembled. They repeatedly listened to the demo song sung by Tsunku♂ and tried to master the Hello! Project style.
The back-up dancers were chosen from among Hello! Project Kids and the auditions were all based on merit. Even if they were successful in becoming back-up dancers, they were left behind after rehearsals and were not allowed to return home until they learned to dance well.
"Aa! weren't that active after 'FIRST KISS', so after that I was always a backdancer as Hello! Project Kids. It always felt like I was constantly shaken off. In the meantime, 8 of the 15 Hello! Project Kids were formed to become Berryz Kobo."
After Berryz Kobo's debut was decided, the seven remaining members who were not selected, including Airi Suzuki, were bitten by frustration.
When Berryz Kobo was first formed, it was suggested that it would be a group with members rotation, in which all Hello! Project Kids would participate. Hoping "I might be able to become a Berryz one day", she watched the stage from the backstages and practiced the dance moves desperately so that she could replace a member at any time. In the end, the member rotation system never happened, but in 2005, the remaining Hello! Project Kids finally got their chance.
Going across the country with sketchbook in hand
On June 11, 2005, a decision was made to form ℃-ute with seven Hello! Project Kids, and in January 2006, another member joined the group and ℃-ute began its journey as an eight-member group.
However, in contrast to Berryz Kobo, which made its major debut in a big way, ℃-ute started out as an indies group. Their live performance at shopping malls across the country, which could be called the starting point of ℃-ute, started with four songs: "Massara Blue Jeans," "Soku Dakishimete," "Ooki na Ai de Motenashite" and "Wakkyanai (Z)".
"We'd go around introducing ourselves, sketchbooks in hand with our names written on them. Since we were touring shopping malls, there were many people in front of us and behind us who didn't know us.
Since I was a little girl, I subconsciously learned about how to get people to stop and look at me."
After steady activities, ℃-ute made their long-awaited major label debut with "Sakura Chirari," but the most memorable song for them was "Wakkyanai (Z)," which was released as their fourth indie single.
"Of course I love our major label debut song as well, but 'Wakkyanai (Z)' is the one that really sticks in my mind. It was actually the first ℃-ute song we received, so I remember the first time I performed it.
A ℃-ute slot was added to the setlist of Hello! Project concerts, in which I had been participating as a back-up dancer until then, and when we performed 'Wakkyanai (Z)', I felt that I could finally carry the group's name on my back. Various feelings overflowed, and I still cry when I hear the intro of the song."
"We will never lose". This desire to compete with other Hello! Project Kids who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them has turned into a unifying force for ℃-ute. It was the moment when the frustration of not being selected finally paid off.
" The SHOCK incident" The first time she expressed to the company she wanted to quit
(...) After a string of member departures and graduations, ℃-ute, which was supposed to continue as an eight members group, stood on stage at Yomiuri Land as five members.
Before the live, we made a surprise announcement that we would change our members color. At the handshake session after, many told me 'Pink doesn't suit you' and 'Why are you the only one singing ?'. It was a tough day for me."
She was in pain even before going on stage that day. During the recording of "SHOCK!" she couldn't stop coughing and had to redo the song several times. Worried about the words from the dance teacher, "Because Suzuki at the center isn't shining, ℃ -ute isn't shining at all", she consulted with Ai Takahashi.
The relationship between her, who was in her third year of junior high school and in the midst of puberty, and the members sometimes became strained. It was also at this time that she first expressed her opinion to the company, saying, "If this continues that way, I'd rather quit".
"At the time, it was a real "shock" in many ways (laughs)"
"When we became a 5 members group, the dance teacher told me 'You make the group look bad because you're not shining' and I really couldn't understand why I was doing that anymore. As it was a Hello! Project live rehearsal, I ran to the senior I admired, Ai Takahashi's dressing room to talk with her. If I had to name one of the turning point in my 20 years career, it'd definitely be one."
With her usual carefree smile, Airi Suzuki continues to talk. I wonder how long it took for her to be able to look back on those days with a smile.
"I was still very young, but I got over it all and was able to sing this song as ℃-ute during our last live, so I don't have any regrets. I am glad that I am able to talk about that period of my life like this."
The song that had everyone buzzing at rehearsal
Despite their intense dance performance, ℃-ute's singing voice is unwavering, and their image as a group that sings and dances has become firmly established since they became a five-member group.
Airi Suzuki recalls that the song that first gave this impression of the group might have been "Dance de Bakoon!", released in 2010. Surprisingly, it was during the rehearsal that the members foresaw the future direction of the group.
"We had Hello! Project concerts twice a year, where we get to hear new songs from other groups, so the rehearsal space felt like a presentation of latest songs by everyone. When we were rehearsing Dance de Bakoon!, we start the song showing our backs, and when we turned over during the intro, everyone was buzzing. It felt like something new and exciting."
"A God has come down at Budokan" The song that made her own way
On the other hand, Airi Suzuki was also a member of the "Buono!" unit formed with Momoko Tsugunaga and Miyabi Natsuyaki. The turning point for Buono!, which sang "Hatsukoi Cider", a song that would later have a profound impact on the idol scene, was the 2012 "Yubimatsuri", which brought together a large number of idols.
"I have never missed a live because I was sick, but I have rhinitis and catch colds easily. At the time of the Yubimatsuri live, I got sick about a week before the event and had to go to the concert with an intravenous drip. I couldn't sing properly at all during the rehearsals, and the first part of the first song we had to perform, 'Hatsukoi Cider', was mine, so I stood on stage wishing the god of rock to come down !"
"And God really came down for the day of the show !", Airi Suzuki recalls with an enthusiasm as if it happened just the other day. "I really thought 'I'm really glad I've worked so hard, thank you God!'".
Her voice, which had not come out at all during rehearsals, echoed through the Nippon Budokan, and the audience cheered for them, shaking the venue. After that miraculous live performance, "Hatsukoi Cider" made its own way as a song, and other idol groups began to cover it as well.
"It got to the point that when I sang 'Hatsukoi Cider' as a solo artist a few years later, people said, 'Oh, Airi Suzuki is covering that song as well !'. That made me very happy. (laughs) Since Momochi has retired from show business, there'll be no more opportunities to sing it as Buono!, so I am very happy that the song alone will continue to be loved.
I also feel bad to sing songs from my group days by myself. Love for songs is heavy (laughs) There are definitely song parts that have meaning because a particular member sang them, and I don't want to ruin fans' dreams."
"I have a stubborn obession and want the debut or disband songs only to be performed by the members."
The "empty" self that remains
In June 2017, ℃-ute disbanded, much to the regret of many fans. One month before that, in May, Airi Suzuki had their last live with Buono!. Two months earlier, in March, she graduated from college, and all that she had accumulated came to an end at the same time.
A sense of emptiness overcame Airi Suzuki, who had been running for 15 years since she was 8 years old, with no time to stop.
"I thought, 'Oh, I'm empty. There were members who started activities immediately after the disband, but I was the only one not doing anything. Except Instagram (laughs) I was worried that the world would forget about me."
In the six months leading up to her solo debut, there were many things she had to do, but she says she sometimes lost sight of herself in the midst of all the preparations.
"When I was an idol, I thought about how to output the music I was given. But after I became a solo artist, I was asked, 'What do you want to do, Airi?'
It was the first time I was told such a thing, and I didn't know what to answer. Even if I started these activities because I love singing so much, I didn't know what to do anymore ! I was so shocked when realizing that, that I repeatedly asked myself if I was doing the right thing and if I should continue."
"A miscellaneous taste"
"I didn't want my first album to be a traditional one and I wanted it to have a miscellaneous taste to it, so I opened various drawers and tried many things."
While challenging herself with singing while dancing, which she had not been able to do during her idol days, she received an offer to perform a duet with Masayuki Suzuki, which she had never imagined herself doing.
"I was really surprised when I got the offer and thought 'Are you sure I'll be fine ?'. But I really wanted to take the chance. I didn't have time to think about which drawer to open or which singing voice was truly mine, so I just decided to give it my all, everything that I could right in the moment."
"There was a time when I was confused about which singing voice was truly mine. That was the moment my duet with Martin was decided. As I sang with my all, I felt like the gear I was wearing since my idols day, which I had unconsciously tried not to use since going solo, exploded. That made me realize again that it wasn't the 'idol me', but the true me."
"I was able to admit to myself that I had worked hard as an idol for 15 years, and the duet with Martin made me realize again that this was the right thing for me to do."
Tears overflowing at first experience
This year marked the fourth anniversary of her solo debut, but in 2020, she was forced to limit her activities due to the pandemic, and in April of that year, to cancel her Yokohama Arena concert.
"There were a lot of people who became introverted in this period. As for me, it was the first time I experienced the loss of a job that was planned, and I was so depressed that I couldn't help but burst into tears. But the pandemic made me also change the way I think about music."
The music video "Easy To Smile," released three months after the arena concert was canceled was one of the reason for it. The music video, with the message "Let's all laugh freely and be ourselves," was composed of videos of her everyday life, and received comments from fans such as "It gaves me courage during these tough times" and "The song was cheerful, but it brought tears to my eyes."
"When I was in elementary school, I wrote in my profile that I wanted to be a singer who could inspire and move people, but that was something I came up with after discussing it with my parents. After the pandemic I realized that I was old enough to really let those words come from my heart.
I want to give power to people who are having a hard time, and if there is someone who is thinking about not wanting to live anymore, then I want to be the one who makes that person want to try to live just one more day. Even if it's just through music, I want to sing so that I can convey my power through it."
With the thought, "To give power, I can't lie to my fans or to myself," she took on the challenge of being more honest with herself for her first CD single in two years and nine months, "Heart wa Oteage".
"I now have a clear reason for continuing to stand out in the public eye, and I've come full circle to be able to perform songs that have an idolized feel, such as 'Heart wa Oteage'. I realized that the fundamental thing about me is that I want to do what makes people happy."
"If there is someone who is thinking about not wanting to live
anymore, then I want to be the one who makes that person want to try to
live just one more day. Here's the reason why I have to keep doing these activities. That's also why I also became able to carry these idol-like songs like 'Heart wa Oteage'".
The "what do you want to be?" question she never wanted to be asked
Airi Suzuki is a courageous artist who entered the world of music at the age of 8 and has faced many challenges head-on. She's now able to answer the question I most hated to be asked during the period when she was losing sight of myself, "what kind of artist do you want to be?".
"I want to be a 'fragment' that makes people want to live tomorrow as hard as they can. Fans are giving a moment of their life be able to come to my concerts. It's because they give me power that I'm able to give it back to them. I want to keep being in this industry, no matter what kind of activities I do, as long as I can continue to send power with that kind of mindset."
"Since I went solo, I wasn't able to answer questions like 'What kind of song do you want to sing ?', 'What kind of artist you'd like to be ?'. To be frank, I didn't know at all, so these questions were the ones I hated being asked. At first, I wanted to stop singing. I went to the staff to tell them everything I'd like to try. But they only told me 'No, Suzuki has to sing and dance', and asked me to rethink my decision. I cried so hard, thinking they didn't listen to me at all, but at that time, a lot of fans also sent me comments saying they didn't want me to stop singing. I thought that as long as these people were there, I couldn't stop music. That made think I wanted to be a fragment in their life that makes them want to live tomorrow as hard as possible, and that I'd like to transmit this feeling through my songs."