Meiko used to live in Roberta, Ga — more than 80 miles south of Atlanta, current population: 1,007. She revisited the small town last winter, then became a vegetarian immediately after. “I was eating all of this pork and fried skin, and I came back to LA and just wanted to get healthier,” she says.
At 18 Meiko had trailed behind her sister to Los Angeles and landed a waitressing gig at Hollywood’s Hotel Cafe. Later, she emerged as one of the venue’s biggest success stories, alongside Rachael Yamagata and Ingrid Michaelson. Her first, self-titled effort — her moniker, by the way, a nod to her one-fourth Japanese heritage — debuted at No. 1 on iTunes’ Singer/Songwriter chart, before Meiko even signed to the now-defunct MySpace Records/DGC.
And in May, Meiko reemerged with her first album in four years — cheerier and bolder sophomore effort The Bright Side, off Concord Music Group offshoot Fantasy. As she finished a bowl of vegetarian ramen in San Francisco, we talked Meiko about other ways she’s changed since her mostly acoustic Hotel Cafe days, thanks to a new label, newfound collaborators and a new boyfriend.
Audrey Magazine: Since this is your first release with Fantasy/Concord, what exactly were you searching for in a new record label?
Meiko: Enthusiasm. I really loved my label MySpace/DGC, but when they dismantled it was definitely time to find a new home. I just wanted to find people who I knew were music lovers. And, when I was looking for a label, their whole office would show up at my shows. They were just really cool like that, and they have a lot of heritage acts, so they’re not just putting out super poppy stuff, one-hit wonders. They have Paul McCartney and Paul Simon, and they have Carole King, so they’re a career label.
AM: It must feel a little surreal. I heard you’re a fan of Carole King, and since you started as an independent artist, it must feel like a big leap for you.
M: Yeah, it is. The whole idea is to give your music out to as many ears as possible. You can only do so much when you’re by myself, so I just wanted to pair up with somebody who has a little muscle but a lot of heart at the same time. I’m really happy here, which — I mean, how many artists can say that they love their labels?
AM: This album features a few producers. What did you think Styrofoam in particular would bring out in your music?
M: I was a little inspired by electronica artists, so when I heard the stuff that he did, I felt that would be a nice match. I started recording stuff on my computer and sent it to him, and then he would chop it up and set it back — like, he would basically do remixes of what I did with my acoustic gutiar. He agreed to come to America for a few weeks, and then we started working on the record. It was pretty instant, and we really got along from the beginning. We’re definitely very diiferent, but we mesh very well.
AM: Why did you want to toy around with electronica?
M: I’ve always wanted to do that, mesh the acoustic, organic vibe with a little bit of electronica here and there. It was my chance for this record, so it turned out well.
AM: What else did you want out of this sophomore record?
M: My first record was pretty mellow and super acoustic — I can write those songs all day long — and I wanted to make a record that people could move to, that wasn’t just a downer record. I fell in love and wrote a bunch of happier songs, and that’s why it’s called The Bright Side. I got a little more positive when I started writing this record, and I started being a little more optimistic about things and relationships and stuff.
AM: Are you still with that same dude?
M: Yeah. So far so good.
AM: May I ask how you guys met?
M: We met at SXSW three years ago. He likes music, and I like playing music.
AM: “Leave the Lights On” is about a fictional love affair. Were there any other songs in The Bright Side where you tried to imagine yourself as someone else?
M: Not really. I was writing all these happy songs, and I wanted to write about something a little more scandalous, a little grittier. I got together with my friend Tony Reyes in Atlanta [Cee-Lo, Ne-yo, Fantasia], and he was showing me these beats, asking, “What do you think of these?” And I was like, “Oh my god, I want to write to this.” So it became a joint effort and step outside my comfort zone with my happy love songs, as kind of a secret romance song. I could see how the crowd would respond to it, so I was like, “I gotta add this song to the record.” Now it’s the radio single. People like it, which makes me happy because, whether I like it or not, it’s definitely out there for others to like it, too.
AM: Had you tested out a lot of songs from The Bright Side on tour?
M: That’s kind of how I do things. I’ll write a song, then I’ll play it live once or twice and then I just put my testers and feelers out, and see how people respond to it or how I feel people are responding to it. “Leave the Lights On,” I feel people really liked the single a lot. But sometimes I’ll play a song, and I feel awkward playing it and just don’t feel like everybody else really loves it, so then I put it in the backburner, for a rainy day.
AM: In what ways do you think The Bright Side has reflected how you’ve changed since you were working at the Hotel Cafe?
M: It has been a while since my last record came out four years ago. I think I definitely became more positive about things; I feel like life is short, and you should just enjoy it and not have regrets or any bad feelings toward people. With age you get to learn these things, a lot more than you knew before.
AM: It can be difficult, to find ways to stay positive — but as long as the right people are around you, it’s not so bad.
M: Keeping positive people around you is key. Keeping things positive and happy around you is good, and it kind of rubs off a little bit. I’ve tried to distance myself from negative people I was hanging out with, and that’s actually why I spend a lot of time by myself, writing and doing a lot of soul-searching. I’m playing a show in Hawaii next week, and I asked two friends to go with me. No one could go. I thought it was going to be horrible to be by myself, but now I’m getting more excited. I can go by myself, chill out and do all the things I want to do, without making sure that’s okay with everybody else.
AM: What sorts of things do you want to do while you’re there?
M: Well, I’m renting a car for the first time while I’m there. I’ve been there a few times, maybe five times, but this will be the first time that I’ll get to rent a car and just drive around, see more of the islands. I got some recommendations for hokey places and some amazing restaurants, local places. I want to go snorkeling. I want to get some shaved ice and yeah, get tan, because I’m super white and pasty right now.
AM: Do you have any plans to visit Japan anytime soon?
M: Yeah. I’ve never been to Japan ever, and it’s always been a lifelong dream to go there and just connect with my heritage. That’s a piece of me that I’ve never known, really. I’m going in the middle of July, and I want to try to get in touch with relatives I have some cousins there, and it’s my motherland; my mother was born there. I don’t know how it’s going to feel, if it’s going to be overwhelming, but I want to go there and see something that I’ve always wanted to see. It’s going to be really cool — like life-altering, bucket list-type stuff.
AM: Going back to the album, which song off The Bright Side would you say is your current favorite?
M: I love “Leave the Lights On,” but also a song called “Lie to Me” and another called “Let It Go.” I like all of them, but I think “Lie to Me” is the best right now. When I’m on the road, I think it goes around in my head because it’s very upbeat. I really like playing it live, when it starts.
AM: Is there anything else you wanted to point out?
M: No, just that I’m really excited, and I’m going to Japan for the first time; that’s probably the most exciting plans that I have coming up, is just going there. Universal Japan is putting out the record, and they made a J-Pop remix of the first song off the record, “Stuck on You,” and it’s really amazing. It’s really fun to me, because I love J-Pop but at the same time I never imagined having a J-Pop song. I’m curious as to how people are going to respond to it, if they’re going to like it better than the actual version of the song.