Surfing YouTube videos can be like the early days of surfing the Internet. Following links to random Web pages is a leap of faith, a trust in kismet, that what you're about to see is both somehow related to what you were seeking in the first place, and hopefully entertaining.
In the midst of one of my YouTube forays, following related videos then backing up and taking another path to other videos, I came across one of my favorite songs of all time, "Ue O Muite Arukou" by Kyu Sakamoto, the Japanese pop star who had a worldwide #1 hit with the song in 1963.
You probably know the song better by the name put on it by its American label, "Sukiyaki." It's been covered in English by a number of artists, most notably Taste of Honey in the '80s and the Viet pop singer Trish Thuy Trang more recently. She sings both English and Japanese in her version. (See Sakamoto's, Taste of Honey's and Tran's video versions below. They're all available on YouTube.)
From there, I clicked to a cover version of the song by a hapa musician named Kina Grannis and was pleasantly surprised by the sweet, cool, understated quality of her version of the song -- which she sings in the original Japanese -- as well as the scope and depth of her talent on other videos. Here's the video:
Grannis is from Southern California, and won a songwriting contest sponsored by Doritos with the catchy song, "Message from Your Heart," which was aired during the Super Bowl in February. The contest led to a deal with Interscope Records.
Meiko, a one-quarter Japanese American, or "quapa," from Georgia by way of Los Angeles, is at the vanguard of the new folk music. At least, that's the category where you'll find her on iTunes. She strums and picks an acoustic guitar, so she fits the folksinger/troubadour image.
But her music isn't based on the traditional "folk" music of the 1960s folk boom. Meiko's the latest in a long line of singer-songwriters who came out of that earlier folk boom. Starting with the likes of Bob Dylan, and peers and disciples from Tom Rush and Eric Andersen to Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, singer-songwriters have skirted the edges of the rock-pop mainstream, playing their own music instead of traditional songs, with acoustic instruments as their foundation.
Their subject matter is mostly introspective and personal (hence, anti-pop by design) but when it clicks commercially, singer-songwriter music, like alternative rock, can hit the sweet spot and rise up the pop charts.
It's a style of music that in recent years has become quieter and quieter, almost a whisper instead of the declamatory protest music of, say, early Phil Ochs, or Peter, Paul and Mary, in the '60s, or the folk and country-rock of the '70s. The new folk music can be mopey (then again, weren't Jackson Browne's songs mopey too?).
And, it's become a signature style of television soundtracks. Although many shows now, from "Bones" to the "CSI" franchise, feature this type of music, I think of "Gray's Anatomy" first and foremost when I hear the new folk. The genre fits perfectly with the introspective spoken narration that closes each episode of "Gray's."
"Boys with Girlfriends," one of the best songs from Meiko's first full-length recording, "Meiko," was featured on "Gray's Anatomy on November 20. Once you know the song, you'll chuckle at how perfect it is for the romantic tensions that are at the heart of the series: "I know better not to be friends with boys with girlfriends," Meiko sings.
Boys With Girlfriends - Music Video
Meiko has a handful of equally terrific songs, the kind that get in your head and bounce around like a superball, keeping you humming for days. She's perfected the new folk sound, a dreamy, world-weary singing style that's colored with just a hint of a husky rasp. But it's her way of fitting words and phrases into cadences that stretch and contract to conform to her lilting sense of melody that stay with you.
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