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Ginger Root's Cameron Lew wants his new EP to showcase city pop as familiar yet fresh


Japanese music from the 1970s and '80s seems to be having a moment in the West right now. Take the latest album from The Weeknd, which samples the 1983 Tomoko Aran track, "Midnight Pretenders."


TOMOKO ARAN: (Singing) Midnight pretenders.

SUMMERS: Then there's Harry Styles' new album, "Harry's House," whose title pays tribute to one of the era's most celebrated musicians, Haruomi Hosono.


HARUOMI HOSONO: (Singing) I'll be a good sport, be a good sport. I'll be a sportsman.

SUMMERS: And if you're on TikTok, you cannot miss the Japanese song snippets that appear as soundtracks to people's videos, like the 1982 track "Fantasy" by Meiko Nakahara.


MEIKO NAKAHARA: (Singing in Japanese).

SUMMERS: City pop, as the genre is sometimes called, was a breezy, highly polished style of Japanese pop, which took a cue from American genres like yacht rock, disco and funk. But the way that it has filtered back to the West sometimes feels hollow to musician Cameron Lew.

CAMERON LEW: When you hear the songs on TikTok or you see, like, fan edits of whatever, I feel like there is definitely something lost with the superficialness (ph) of just using the song or remixing the song - or a prime example is, like, just putting a screenshot or a GIF of, like, an anime character from, like, 2001, like, over, like, a Mariya Takeuchi song. Like, that doesn't make any sense.


SUMMERS: Lew performs under the name Ginger Root. And on songs like "Loneliness," he says he's trying to showcase a sharper depiction of 1980s Japan and city pop through his own lens.

LEW: I'm basically just making my own interpretation of a remix of Japanese music that was interpreting American music from the '70s. So absolutely, it comes full cycle. But I think, with that, it kind of makes something both familiar and something brand-new.


GINGER ROOT: (Singing) What the seasons bring. You said it goes when those children sing. Oh, wait. It's only half past noon. Stay tuned...

LEW: And, yeah, I'm not Japanese American. I'm Chinese American. And, yeah, I'm 26, and I definitely was not alive in the '70s and '80s. But there's a rich history that I wanted to really make sure that I was respectful of. And I think that's why people in Asia have been very receptive to it - because they can tell that, as cheesy it sounds, it's kind of like my love letter to the culture.


GINGER ROOT: (Singing) Loneliness. Say goodbye.

SUMMERS: Ginger Root's new EP is called "Nisemono," and I asked him to explain the meaning behind the title.

LEW: Nisemono roughly translates from Japanese as fake or fraud. The whole premise of the EP is that - what if Ginger Root was brought in to write a bunch of songs for an up-and-coming fake Japanese idol from 1983? And so I created this whole fake idol from this artist in Japan, and I pretended to write songs for her. And then she quits. And then, basically, I become the idol because she leaves the spotlight unexpectedly due to the stress of being, you know, an idol. And a deeper connotation with the album is kind of this idea of imposter syndrome and how to grow with it, how to deal with it and hopefully how to overcome it, which I'm still learning how to do.

SUMMERS: OK, there is so much to unpack here. How did you come up with this idea of this whole concept for the EP? It goes so deep.

LEW: I've been a huge fan of Japanese music since high school. The first Japanese band that I found out about was Yellow Magic Orchestra.


DON CORNELIUS: The Yellow Magic Orchestra.


LEW: It was a clip from YouTube of them performing "Tighten Up" on "Soul Train," and I was just totally intrigued by that point.


YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA: Hi, everybody. We are YMO from Tokyo, Japan. We don't sightsee. We dance. You understand. Yeah, yeah. We are the No. 1 dance band in Tokyo. Aha.

LEW: I always also wanted to learn Japanese, so I started to learn through - purely through immersion. I didn't, like, go to a class. I didn't use textbooks at all. I just basically watched a bunch of YouTube. And, yeah, I was finding all of these clips of interviews from all these shows back from that time period of, like, the late '70s, early '80s.


CORNELIUS: In case you folks out there in television land are wondering what's going on - I haven't the slightest idea.


LEW: And so after watching I don't even know how many thousands of hours of YouTube VHS rips, I kind of came to that. And I think that definitely subconsciously influenced this whole idea of the EP and how it turned out.


GINGER ROOT: With two new flavors just in time for summer, nothing beats ginger fresh.

SUMMERS: On your EP, there is a song called "Holy Hell."


GINGER ROOT: (Singing) If I knew how, I'd tell you all the time. Talking about...

SUMMERS: And the video for this track is half music video and half an advertisement for ginger soda, cleaning spray, disposable cameras. What are you nodding at there?

LEW: I think it's funny 'cause, back then, in Japan in the '70s and '80s, there wasn't, like, music videos. And so just by default, a lot of people associate commercials or the late-night TV performances as kind of the visuals paired with city pop music. I know a lot of idols and a lot of bands would have their track debut as a commercial's song - like, as the jingle or whatever. And so I wanted to kind of give a nod to the craziness of, like, advertisement back then and how distinct the visuals are and just how fun every frame is from those commercials.


GINGER ROOT: (Singing) Remember counting all the things. Well, are we over? Tell me again. No matter what our hearts will bring, it's over. It's over, I think. It's over. It's over, I think.

SUMMERS: You have a Japanese tour that's coming up this winter, and it's your first ever. And I know that you've also recorded versions of your hit songs, like "Loretta," in Japanese.


GINGER ROOT: (Singing in Japanese).

SUMMERS: Has your music started to gain recognition in Japan?

LEW: It's really funny that you bring that up because, you know, I was talking to my manager and, as - you know, just like a DIY indie band from America, usually the next step is Europe and then Asia. It seems like we've just bypassed Europe, and Asia has kind of exploded in a way that I would never have imagined. And it's a very important market to me, being a Chinese American. And so I'm very excited to go there. It's been really fun to use my remedial Japanese skills to, like, talk with the listeners over there and them be so excited. And I am very nervous, but very excited, and I can't wait for January to get here.


GINGER ROOT: (Singing in Japanese).

SUMMERS: Cameron Lew performs as Ginger Root. His new EP, "Nisemono," is out this month. Cameron, thank you so much for talking with us.

LEW: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure - very, very happy to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF GINGER ROOT SONG, "LORETTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Enrique Rivera
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.