Joey Carbone’s list of achievements is certainly quite impressive – composer, music producer, arranger, keyboardist, vocalist, adviser to Avex Music Publishing and Sony Music Entertainment, vice principal of Jikei Gakuen.
Born in Brooklyn, Carbone has been coming to Japan for 30 years. During that time, he has composed or produced more than 1,000 songs recorded by Japanese singers such as SMAP, Morning Musume, Arashi, Kat-Tun, Hiromi Go, Akiko Wada, Crystal Kay and many more. In the States, Carbone has played keyboards for Kiki Dee & Elton John, Rick James, The Righteous Brothers, Eric Carmen, Rod Stewart, Cher, Air Supply, Andy Gibb, Bette Midler and others. He was the music director and theme composer for nine years for the hit television series “Star Search,” and arranged, produced, conducted and played piano for then-budding performers Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Alanis Morisette, Leanne Rimes, Justin Timberlake and others.
He has more than 100 Platinum and Gold record awards. And those are only some of his achievements. These days, the energetic and affable Carbone spends about half his time in Japan and half in LA. Japan Today editor Chris Betros catches up with him during a recent visit to Tokyo.
At what age did you realize that you were musical?
I started playing the piano when I was 5. I had an ear for music and was learning songs by myself. When I was 13, my best friend Richie Zito was playing guitar and I would hang out with him and sing. He had a few friends—one was a drummer, another played keyboard. We put together a band. I played bass and sang. We made money playing at high school dances and private parties.
Who were your earliest musical influences?
I grew up with rock and R&B, the Beatles, Motown, Phil Spector, Ray Charles, James Brown, the Young Rascals and the Animals. When I was 16, my band was signed to a major record company, Atlantic Records, in New York. We didn’t have any big hits, but got lots of experience. Atlantic’s owner, Jerry Wexler, offered me a part-time job in the mailroom. On my breaks and after work, I used to hang out in the recording studio watching Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin. It was an amazing experience, watching the world’s best artists, studio musicians, producers, arrangers and engineers. Their kindness and talent inspired me to become a record producer myself.
What first brought you to Japan?
I came to Japan first in 1982 with the late singer John O’Banion for whom Richie and I were producers. He was invited to take part in the Tokyo Music Festival and won the grand prize with a song that I wrote. We did a concert tour around Japan. I basically fell in love with Japan. A year later I came back to do a soundtrack album for a movie called “Satomi Hakken Den,” which was a big hit. I came back the same year as a keyboard player in a backing band for rock singer Eikichi Yazawa.
How often do you come to Japan?
It varies, usually 3 or 4 times a year. In 2010, I was here 60% of the year. Last year, about 40%. I have been an adviser for 6 years to Avex Music Publishing and I am a consultant for a section of Sony, dealing with domestic songwriters. I am also a vice principal for Jikei Gakuen which is a college with branches in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Sendai and Sapporo. During this trip, I gave lectures and attended their opening ceremonies.
What do you think of the musical talent in Japan?
I am impressed with young talent in Japan. They are creating their own stuff. I have signed several students from the schools to both Avex and Sony and we have been able to create quite a few hits with them. It’s one of the things that I really love doing because I feel that it is my responsibility now to give something back to the younger generation. I know what they are going through, what they are dreaming of. I want to help them to achieve their dreams, and to prepare them for the rejection that they will often have to face.
A lot of non-Japanese people often insult J-Pop. Why do you think this is?
Yes, I know. I read their comments on Japan Today. J-Pop is just another genre of music. You can’t compare AKB48 with Aretha Franklin, or SMAP with Eric Clapton. But the Japanese don’t pretend to. J-Pop is just another form of entertainment. I happen to be a big fan of J-Pop and have an extensive collection at home. I love their melodies. Current American music is often void of melody and based on groove and vocal ability.
I go to Johnny’s Jimusho shows and am totally impressed with the package – the music arrangements, quality of songs, production of stage show, danceability and how hard those boys work. SMAP are personalities, they are entertainers. They’re doing what they are supposed to do.
When did your association with Johnny Kitagawa start?
I had written and produced a song in 1985 for a Honda scooter television commercial. It was subsequently released as a single and went to become #1 on the Oricon International chart sung in English by an American singer. Then Johnny heard it and thought it would be a good match for his group Shibugakitai. Their Japanese version hit #1 on the Oricon domestic chart. I attended a Shibugakitai press junket in San Francisco and Johnny asked to meet me next time I was in Tokyo. So I did and gave him a CD with some of my songs. He recorded 12 of them with his new group Shonentai. Since then, we have become close friends and I have written more than 100 songs for various Johnny’s artists. Johnny is truly a genius, as evidenced by his incredible success record and his two Guinness Book awards this year.
Your tally for the Japanese market must be quite high.
I have composed or produced more than 1,000 songs for the Japanese market but that includes American artists for Japan as well. Except for songs written by the Beatles, I think I have written more songs than any other foreign composer, that have been recorded by Japanese artists.
Why aren’t Japanese singers successful in the American market?
Language plays a big part. It doesn’t sound believable if they sing in English that they have learned phonetically. Sometimes the artist management companies in Japan, which have all the power, only want to use songs they can control the rights of, and those songs may not work in America. Sometimes the artist tries to imitate instead of being original. It also takes a tremendous commitment of time, money and energy to penetrate a market like America, and you would have to compete with the best of the best.
I have seen some great artists in Japan with potential. For example, I have produced six songs for Crystal Kay, and she is one of the best singers in the world. Also, her English is flawless, she is a great dancer and beautiful. I think she would have a great chance! On the other hand, I was disappointed when Hikaru Utada’s album was released in America. Her English was perfect but the album didn’t have the same soul or feeling in it as her Japanese CDs. I guarantee that probably some American record executive changed the direction of the music to make it more appropriate for the American market. It ended up sounding contrived.
Another reason, I’m sorry to say, is that there are probably discrimination factors involved. I think the American market mostly wants American, British and an occasional Australian or Swedish artist. I hope it will change in the near future.
How are social media changing the business?
Social media is changing the business. It’s a big shot in the arm. But the Internet has been a double-edged sword. It has severely hurt the music business due to illegal downloading and file-sharing. On the other hand, it has given many artists the ability to promote themselves.
How do you get your inspiration to write music?
From my life experiences, from something a friend tells me about their relationship, from a sunset, a newspaper article, from the smile of a child. Maybe I’m on the subway and the idea for a melody will go through my head. So I’ll jump off at the next station, find a corner and record my voice singing a cappella, while Japanese walk by thinking I am a crazy guy singing to myself. Then later, when I get to a studio, I will record a proper demo version. I try to compose every day – just open the creative door and see what comes in. Sometimes it sucks, but sometimes I get lucky and create something that I like.
When you are at home, how do you like to relax away from the music business?
I just got a new dog from an animal shelter. I love him like crazy and I enjoy playing with him. Also, I play piano as a volunteer for my church choir in LA. Totally music business pressure free. When I am in Japan, I love going to hot springs and karaoke.
What gives you the most satisfaction about your profession?
I got into the music business as a kid because I loved music, not for the money. I cannot live without it. You know ... ”no music, no life.” I need music like I need food, water, air, the sun. Well, I am still that little kid who loves music and I will continue to play it until I die. However, all the professional awards I have received do not mean as much to me as the satisfaction I have received from the reaction of my students, witnessing their composed songs (that I promoted) being performed by major artists at concerts. To see the excitement and smiles on their faces, and the tears of joy that they (or their mother) sometimes cry is priceless!