Music Talk: Meet ra’z, the Artist Redefining J-Pop

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Highlights

Japan-born Sarah Farshed Bahlol (AKA ra’z) never felt like she fit in – so instead of conforming, she carved out her own niche
After years of hard work and studying, she’s now one of the music industry’s most prolific vocal recorders
Artlist Original release her bright, upbeat J-Pop tracks for anime films featuring some of the biggest names in Japan’s music industry

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The story of Sarah Raz – or ra’z to Artlist subscribers – is as unique as her music. Today she’s known as a talented J-Pop and anime producer, with tracks like Hoshifuru Yoruni feat. Noa Tamaki and 9maBear transporting listeners into the multicolor, hyper-optimistic world of Japanese pop culture.

In her short time working with Artlist Original, Sarah has carved out a niche for herself, bridging the gap between western culture and the world of J-Pop, which was confined to the borders in which it was founded. Until now.

From Afghanistan to Japan

Sarah isn’t one for sticking to norms. In fact, she’s been breaking barriers both personally and professionally since she was a kid. Sarah was born in Nagoya, a manufacturing and shipping hub in central Japan. Her parents moved to Japan after fleeing the Russo-Afghan war in Afghanistan in the ’80s, so Sarah grew up navigating between her strict Muslim home and secular Japanese culture. She remembers changing clothes on her way to school so she could fit in with her classmates, then changing back on her way home. 

But both inside and outside her home, Sarah was surrounded by music. When she was small, her parents bought a karaoke machine, and the family would spend entire afternoons belting out their favorite pop tracks in the living room. Sarah felt isolated at school like she didn’t fit in, so music became a safe haven for her to express herself. “I remember when I was 12, I fell in love with this rock band called Mr. Children,” she says, chatting from her apartment in LA. “They’re like The Beatles of Japan – and one lyric said ‘you never know how hard the concrete is until you fall,’ and I felt like they were speaking to me.” Sarah’s classmates were kind until she made a mistake or did something different – then, they’d tell her she didn’t belong.

Sarah felt free when she sang, so she decided to make music her career. When she was 13, she auditioned for Japanese Idol, much to her father’s fury. After everything he’d been through, he wanted Sarah to have a stable career, so he banned all music from the house and forbade Sarah from listening to it outside the home. Heartbroken, she decided to study fashion instead. But when she was 18, she came across the music of Eminem in her local CD store and instantly fell in love with his lyricism and rhythm. Then she discovered Usher and Paramore, leading to a sharp uptick in her English language knowledge. Soon, she was speaking better English than anyone else in her class.

“There weren’t many jazz singers in San Diego, so many groups contacted me and asked me to sing in their band.”

After fashion school, Sarah couldn’t shake her desire to make music her career. Her mother had moved to San Diego a few years earlier, so Sarah joined her. There she applied for a green card and reached out to every vocal coach she could find. That led to vocal lessons from Michael Jackson and Steven Tyler’s vocal coaches. Then she enrolled in a music and language course in San Diego, where she learned to sing jazz and was soon a familiar name on the local jazz circuit. “There weren’t many jazz singers in San Diego, so many groups contacted me and asked me to sing in their band.”

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As she was applying for a green card, Sarah had to go back and forth to Japan. On a trip back, she met the producer of GReeeeN, one of Japan’s biggest pop acts. They’d been one of Sarah’s favorite bands growing up, so when the producer suggested they work together, she couldn’t believe her luck. She joined his production studio and started learning how to produce music by watching him work and practicing on the equipment after hours. Then, one day, she played him a track she’d created. “It was this epic, orchestral song, even though I had no knowledge about composition. And I could tell from his face he was super impressed and wanted to know how I did it. That’s when I realized I had a talent for composition.”

So after returning to the US and finally getting her green card, Sarah decided to give composition everything she had. In 2014, she enrolled in Mesa College in San Diego. Sarah asked one of her favorite Japanese producers which classes to take and spent the next 2 years nose-deep in textbooks, hell-bent on being one of the most advanced students in her class. She felt particularly inspired by a woman called Erin, who had a show-stopping voice. “I knew I wanted to record artists like her, so that’s when I started learning vocal production.”

Scoring Anime

Sarah discovered the best school in America for audio engineering was CRAS (the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Science) in Arizona. So that’s where she went and spent the next year consuming everything she could about vocal recording. By the time the year was over, she was giving her own teacher advice on vocal editing.

Word spread that Sarah was the person to contact if you wanted to record vocals, so it wasn’t long before her client base began to grow. One of these clients was the Japanese composer Yutaka Yamada, one of the biggest anime composers in the world. “He sent me a song, and I put the vocal on it, and he was impressed,” Sarah says. “And then he said I want to work with you from now on.” Together they worked on huge anime tracks, including the opening theme for Crunchyroll Dubs Stand My Heroes series, music for the Netflix anime series Great Pretender and the Japanese historical manga series Vinland Saga, among many more projects.

“I want to support Japanese musicians to open their path a little bit because they have less information about music.”

Soon every producer in America and beyond was demanding Sarah’s time, including Katy Perry’s producer Bonnie McKee. Finally – all the hard work had paid off. “But then I fell pregnant with my daughter,” Sarah laughs. “So it’s only been the last year I’ve been back at work.”

Universalizing J-Pop with Artlist

While Sarah was on maternity leave, she connected with Artlist Original. “They initially contacted me as a singer, but then I showed them my anime demos, and they asked me to write some J-Pop tracks.” Sarah hadn’t written J-Pop for several years, so she teamed up with J-Pop artists Noa Tamaki, 9maBear, Kaito Akatsuka and ZENI to feature on her songs. Her first Artlist Original album, Shibuya Lovers, came out earlier this year, and Sarah can’t believe the reception. “People sent me videos of the track being used at Japan’s national high school tennis tournament,” she laughs. 

Sarah hopes to universalize J-Pop, so she’s writing some lyrics in English. And she just launched a YouTube channel to share her knowledge of vocal editing and recording in Japanese. “I want to support Japanese musicians to open their path a little bit because they have less information about music. I want to help them become more international.” And with an artist as driven as ra’z in their corner, there’s no doubt they will.

You can listen to ra’z’ full catalog on Artlist.

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About Alice Austin

Alice Austin is a freelance writer from London. She writes for Mixmag, Beatportal, Huck, Dummy, Electronic Beats, Red Bulletin and more. She likes to explore youth and sub-culture through the lens of music, a vocation that has led her around the world. You can contact and/or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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