Japan singer Utada makes 3rd bid to crack U.S. market

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Japanese pop star Utada is hoping it’s third time lucky as she tries again to crack the U.S. market with a new album that she is convinced has a stronger voice from her divorce after four years of marriage.

Hikaru Utada, 26, better known overseas by her stage name Utada, is returning to her roots in mainstream pop in a bid to make a name for herself in the lucrative American marketplace where Asian stars have always struggled to succeed.

Utada is one of Japan’s top artists after with her debut album, “First Love,” sold 9 million copies in 1999 and became Japan’s biggest selling album ever, earning her superstar status at home. She has now sold over 50 million records in Japan.

But “First Love” failed to win her an international following while her English-language debut album “Exodus” in 2004, an electronically fueled album, also failed to earn her much attention outside Japan.

Produced by Timbaland, it only sold 55,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and spent just one week on the Billboard 200 of top selling albums.

“I’m not surprised my first English album, “Exodus,” didn’t sell. It wasn’t the kind of thing that would sell. It was a very experimental album,” she told Reuters Television.

Partly raised in Tokyo and her birthplace of New York, Utada has music in her DNA. Her mother, Keiko Fuji, is a famous singer of ballads while her father, Teruzane Utada, is a record producer who is now her manager.

Utada started early. At the age of 13, she recorded a single under the name Cubic U but it was never released in the United States. At 16, she released “First Love” which sold more than 9 million copies.

Three years later, while a freshman at New York City’s Columbia University, she stunned her fans when she announced she had married the 34-year-old director of her music videos, Kazuaki Kiriya.

She was so popular at the time that the government’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda addressed the news at his daily news briefing, proclaiming the marriage “good news” because rapidly graying Japan needs “more children.”

But her marriage didn’t produce any kids before ending in 2007 and now, at 26, she’s back in New York as a single woman.

“After (the divorce), I did a lot of maturing again - this new life experience. And I became single again, and I think that was a good opportunity to figure out who I was to begin with .. become more of an individual,” she said.

She hopes this is reflected in her new album, “This is The One,” in which she returns to her roots of pop and R&B.

“It’s me. It’s the pop side of me. With “Exodus,” I was a bit of an introvert,” said Utada, who sees herself as more American than Japanese.

“I’m actually going for it this time. I’m just going for something that connects with a wide audience through compassion and honesty with integrity.”

Her first single off that album, “Come Back to Me,” is a soulful ballad that debuted at No. 43 on Billboard’s hot dance club play chart.

Critics think she’s has a good shot in the United States this time around after her album makes its debut this week.

“The only thing that stands between Utada and stardom in the U.S. is really good marketing. That’s just about it,” said Christopher John Farley, culture editor at the Weekend Wall Street Journal.

“The talent is there. She has song writing ability. She’s shown she can succeed in other countries. It could happen to her if it happens for someone like Taylor Swift.”

Editing by Belinda Goldsmith