On the first day of Weekend One at Coachella this year (April 15-17), J-pop superstar Hikaru Utada surprised fans by announcing they would be performing the next day in 88rising’s Head in the Clouds Forever showcase. The event would be streamed live on YouTube, meaning fans around the world who couldn’t make it to the festival grounds could tune in to witness the Japanese-American hitmaker’s special set online. The following is a report by Billboard Japan of Hikaru Utada’s first-ever Coachella performance, along with excerpts from an interview they gave immediately after their performance.
I was one of the lucky ones who got to see the show on-site, and moved forward to a position next to the runway where I could see Hikaru Utada with the naked eye. Having attended numerous gigs and festivals in the U.S., I can safely say that I’d never seen such a large gathering of Asian people in one place before, and it was an unfamiliar sight. The LGBTQ crowd was also prominent at the performance of another artist I saw on the first day of the festival, which to me felt like the wave of a new era signifying the younger generation’s inclusive attitude toward racial and sexual diversity.
88rising, a U.S.-based platform led by Sean Miyashiro that promotes Asian culture around the world, presented Head in the Clouds Forever on the main stage at Coachella. It was a historic moment, as a record label had never curated this stage before, and it was perhaps Goldenvoice’s respect for diversity that made it possible. In fact, this year’s lineup included artists from Mongolia, Belgium, Italy, Brazil, Latin America and many other countries.
I was secretly worried that the 88rising artists might feel a bit like underdogs that day, since Billie Eilish was billed as the headliner on the main stage. But Indonesian rapper Warren Hue kicked off the showcase with a majestic performance accompanied by a dozen dancers, hyping up the crowd closer to the stage. Next up were Thailand’s Milli, with a signature style of melodious rap; BIBI from South Korea, whose English and Korean lyrics over catchy pop rhythms left a feel-good sensation; NIKI from Indonesia, who performed her beautiful songs with a 15-member symphony orchestra and contemporary dancers; and on to Rich Brian, also hailing from Indonesia. Each performed an average of four songs in a medley, and the performances proceeded at a brisk pace.
As the sun went down and the magic-hour sky displayed a mixture of blue and pink hues, Hikaru Utada appeared onstage at last and made their Coachella debut with the Kingdom Hearts theme “Simple and Clean,” which suddenly begins with the chorus.
Looking back after the show, they shared: “It was over in a flash. It felt amazing, it really felt amazing. And I had no idea what to expect because I don’t know how many of the people in the crowd would know about me or be excited to see me at all. And for the first festival experience to be the main stage of Coachella, and, what happened tonight was amazing. The crowd was so engaged with me and they were so there and, you know, warm for me and they gave me so much energy.” As they noted, the audience filled the moment of silence after the lyrics “It’s hard to let it go” with warm cheers.
Though they seemed to be having some difficulty singing at first, they quickly recovered to give a nostalgia-inducing performance of “First Love.” From the low notes at the beginning leading up to the chorus, their graceful singing naturally brought back memories for those of us who’d listened to their first album by the same name over and over again in the late ’90s. During the third song, “Face My Fears,” about 10 dancers appeared onstage bringing additional excitement to the show. Hikaru Utada then seated themselves on the stairs in the center of the stage, surrounded by the dancers, and dropped a smooth rendition of their record-breaking 1998 debut single “Automatic,” which didn’t sound a day older than when it was first released.
With nine artists composing an 80-minute set, the amount of time each artist has obviously becomes limited. Hikaru Utada explained their reasons for choosing these songs for their Coachella segment: “Sean said he was listening to me at the same time that the first album came out and that it was a special time of his life, that [the songs] represent a special time of his life,” they shared. “So he’s definitely, you know, [thinking] ‘Automatic’ and ‘First Love,’ all this stuff. Like everyone around them, the team, everyone wants to hear those and ‘Simple and Clean.’ ‘Clean’ seemed like a no-brainer. So I said, ‘OK, those three.’ And then there wasn’t much time for that many other songs, but ‘Face My Fears’ felt like a good, you know, crowd-arousing song. It is in my last album, so I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Chinese superstar Jackson Wang took the stage after Hikaru Utada and showed off his impeccable dance moves, and after he collaborated on a number with Hue and Brian, Hikaru Utada returned to premiere their new song “T,” accompanying themselves on the keyboard. This new track is included in the Head in the Clouds Forever Compilation, and Hikaru Utada revealed the recording process while gushing about their young collaborator in the interview: “I stayed up all night doing that, I rewrote most of the lyrics. I was told the song has to be mastered within two days for it to be ready to be released today,” they explain. “Then we went in the studio, recorded the next day with Warren Hue. He’s incredible. He could be my son, seriously! He’s 19. He’s amazing. He put down his part after I did mine. We mixed it the next day. It was mastered that evening. It was so last minute, but I think it turned out to be a great song.”
Hikaru Utada also went into detail about why they chose to work with 88rising: “It’s mainly Sean and the passion that he spoke to me with,” they said. “I haven’t really been in touch with my Asian fans directly outside of Japan…and even the Asian American people who are familiar with me, I didn’t know that there was so much support. I just didn’t have any opportunities to really know about it. It was such a revelation to me and it felt so amazing too…for me also to come to get in touch with my Asian American side.”
After Hikaru Utada’s performance of “T,” CL from South Korea performed three songs, and the final highlight of the event was when 2NE1 reunited for the first time in seven years to perform “I Am the Best.”
Coachella’s YouTube livestreams have become an annual tradition, and it’s now easier than ever for artists to connect with audiences around the world by performing at the festival. When asked about how connecting with global fans inspires them, Hikaru Utada spoke about how they grappled with their identity for a long time.
“When I was here [in the U.S.], I always felt a bit awkward… I didn’t really grow up feeling very conscious of my race because I grew up mostly in international schools where we were all from like 80 different countries in the world. I’ve always just felt like a human being. I just always wished it was simpler. Like just that we could have just like, not think about that so much,” they shared. “But it is an important part of our identity and in some ways I kind of missed out on building my identity as an Asian person. So weirdly, finally, I feel like I’m getting in touch with that. And with things like social media and online interaction with fans, I’m aware, I get so much reaction from non-Japanese fans. I really feel the buildup when I do anything online.”