Contrary to the freight train energy of her songs, Ado is surprisingly soft-spoken. On her songs, her voice tears through like a shock-wave reducing everything to dust, but on our Zoom call – cameras off to protect her identity – she sounds like the deep sea on a calm day. Her low tenor is punctuated by long pauses for thought. It’s disarming and almost intimate: while her songs are an impenetrable shield, she’s surprisingly forthcoming, even bashful – very much a newly-minted adult propelled onto a global stage.
“Not to pat myself on the back, I just thought I was perfect for this role [of Uta],” she laughs sheepishly as we talk about One Piece Film Red, the latest movie in the famous anime franchise. With a mesmerizing voice, Uta is a beloved singer in the One Piece universe and a childhood friend of protagonist Luffy, but her complicated past with Red-Haired Shanks has sowed in her a darkness that drives the primary conflict in the story. Just like her two-toned hair, the dichotomy of her character – the optimistic, bubbly ‘Princess Uta’ versus the rage festering inside her – comes to life through two people: voice actress Nazuka Kaori (My Hero Academia) delivers her dialogue, whereas Ado sings as Uta, belting out seven songs for the movie’s soundtrack.
In her own words, the pressure was on – since the songs were completed before Kaori’s the voice recordings, Nazuka relied heavily on Ado’s singing to inform her own complexities of the character. Ado had no such frame of reference: “When I initially took this job, I didn’t know who the voice actor would be. During the recording, I really didn’t have an idea what her voice would be like.”
“I thought about [her] emotions and what Uta was going through, especially her relationship with Shanks, because he was such an important person in her life,” she says. “Particularly for the song ‘Gyakko (Backlight)’ – I think it was important to really express her anger at that moment.”
Setting the stage for Uta’s character wasn’t her only challenge. Uta’s songs on One Piece Film Red are her proverbial diary, a record of her ambition on ‘New Genesis’, her loneliness (‘The World’s Continuation’), her rage and darkness (‘Tot Musica’ and ‘Gyakko’) and her determination (‘I’m Invincible’) – each produced by artists and producers who have established immediately ascribable musical identities. As much as this diverse roster of producers harnessed her voice, she also had the task of infusing genres she had never attempted before with her own sound.
“There were challenges I’ve never experienced before. I had no experience with ballads and rap – it was kind of deep raps, so that was quite difficult for me.” She resorted to doing her own research, immersing herself in the genres until she felt like she had a handle: “I was anxious until the finished music reached everybody, but I feel confident about it now because many people were pleased with the songs.”
Part of the hurdle was also the secluded nature of it all. “The process didn’t really exist in terms of collaboration, because I never really actually met or talked to or even texted the people that I work with,” Ado says.
She doesn’t mind the isolation, though. Her recordings are a solitary affair, usually with only her and a recording engineer. “I like it because I feel relaxed,” she provides with a laugh, “I feel like I’m at home, and I can focus. It’s my own time.” She prefers the luxury of engaging in private dialogue with herself, a habit harking back to her roots.
Long before she broke the internet with her viral 2020 hit ‘Usseewa,’ she’d already been deep into Vocaloid – a software allowing people to make synthesized vocals and sounds, eventually spawning an entire musical branch spearheaded by characters like Hatsune Miku. For the shy and introverted Ado, it was perfect. Her formative years were spent trawling NicoNico Douga, admittedly a ‘childhood home’ for her, watching music videos, gameplays, and songs.
“I’m very much an introvert. It’s not easy for me to make friends,” she admits. “I’m a lover of the art [of Vocaloid], and I feel like I’m aligned with other fans of the culture. I’m enjoying it with them. When I see how everybody gets along and there’s a sense of community, I’m happy.”
It’s hard to miss the reverence in her voice as she recalls her time on NicoNico Douga and her transition into an Utaite – singers who cover Vocaloid tracks. The freedom and endless possibilities of Vocaloid sowed the seeds of her relationship with the ‘artist’ Ado – whom she calls her “ideal.” “Vocaloid really is who I am. It’s all of me. I would say that Vocaloid’s existence is one and only. It’s so unique. There’s nothing that comes close to it.” she says.
While it may once have shielded her ‘personal complexes,’ as she told the Japan Times in 2021, it came to be the cornerstone of her multifaceted artistry – anonymity and all included. “The style of what I do… if you put a word to it, it is ‘anonymous’,” she explains. “But it’s actually who I am. This is Ado, and this is what Ado does artistically as well. As long as I am Ado, this will be the way it is. I don’t see that changing at all.”
Even as recently as the release of her debut album ‘Kyougen’ in January, she might have opined differently. During her transition into a mainstream career, the desire to hold on to her roots caused a split between her identities as an utaite and an ‘artist.’ But a hunger for expansion forged a middle ground where they weren’t mutually exclusive. After pondering, she says: “It’s hard for me to have an image separately of Ado, the artist. I think utaite Ado is always there [as] a part of me, but I’m not aware of separating the two. They’re both what I do.”
This understanding coincides with a crucial time in her career, when she’s quite literally become the face of a changing landscape in Japanese music. While the country has been slow in catching up to speed with digital streaming, the success of her singles marked the first time an artist reached the top spot on the Japanese Oricon year-end sales charts for new artists without a physical release.
As she joins an increasing crop of artists rooted in Vocaloid – YOASOBI and ZUTOMAYO to name a few – her expeditious rise reflects the collective sensibilities of a generation reckoning with the harsh realities of life. While she doesn’t claim to be the mouthpiece of a people, she believes it’s important for this mutual rage and exhaustion to have an outlet.
“It’s important to process and to feel the emotions you have in your youth. For the people that are similar age to me, I hope they value their emotions, that they’re assertive and they act on what they’re feeling,” she says. “I realize that is not an easy thing to do and things don’t change overnight, but I think it’s a learning process. And there are no mistakes.”