Singer Digby hopes to increase Asian presence in music, talks about success

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Japanese American singer-songwriter Marie Digby performs in Seattle at the Triple Door on Dec. 8. She recently released her sophomore album, “Breathing Underwater.” (Photo by Vivian Nguyen/NWAW)

By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly

For singer-songwriter Marié Digby, each of her songs tells a story about her life. While on tour this past week at the Triple Door to promote her second album, “Breathing Underwater,” Digby explained to the audience that she prefers songwriting when she feels inspired or emotional about an event.

“Songwriting is like journaling — I find writing songs very cathartic,” said Digby to the crowd. “Music has always been very natural for me.”

But pursuing a career in music was not Digby’s original goal. A few years ago, when she started studying at the University of California, Berkeley, Digby planned to study philosophy in preparation for law school. Although Digby grew up with a background in music, she never considered it as a career. But after a few months at school, it became apparent that she had an undeniable passion for creating and performing music.

“I never thought I had enough talent because no one ever validated me before,” Digby said in an interview the day after her concert. “But when I went to college, I realized that even if the odds were completely against me, I wanted to try doing what I loved most.”

After the completion of her freshman year, Digby returned home to her parents and announced her plans to drop out of school in order to focus on her music full-time. “They reacted like any parents would given my situation — they were scared to death,” admitted Digby.

“It’s not like I was a musical genius, and I was never in school plays growing up. And they were worried because they knew I was on such a great path at school.” Her parents remained supportive as Digby proved herself by performing consistently in her hometown of Los Angeles and eventually getting signed by age 22.

Digby recorded her debut original album, “Unfold,” a year later, but grew concerned when her label showed a lack of interest in releasing the album. Worried that she would be dropped from her label, Digby decided to generate visibility for her music on her own.

“I got paranoid so I did whatever I could to create my own buzz,” said Digby. Using her laptop, Digby self-recorded several video clips of her performing and uploaded them to the video sharing website, YouTube.com, including an acoustic cover of Rihanna’s popular single, “Umbrella.”

Her rendition of the song became an instant hit — with more than 12 million views to date on the video — and catapulted Digby’s public popularity.

“I wasn’t expecting much attention from the video clips,” said Digby. “I just figured it would be a win-win situation if 10 extra people knew who I was. And if nobody watched my videos, then I’d be in the same place where I started.”

Digby’s newfound fame brought her success on the Billboard charts as well as soundtrack spots on popular television shows including “ER,” “The Hills,” “One Tree Hill,” and “Greek.”

As the eldest child of a Japanese mother and an Irish American father, Digby has also used her cultural background to reach out to the international music market. Raised on Japanese movies, cartoons, and music, Digby and her songs are often influenced by Japanese melodies.

In March, Digby released a Japanese cover album, “Second Home,” which received a limited release only in Japan. “[The cover album] was a way for me to introduce my voice to the Japanese market,” explained Digby. She hopes to release another album there in 2010, which will showcase original songs in Japanese.

Since Digby invests much of her personal life into her music, fans often feel like they know her through her work. “My fans really like the main message behind my music — to be confident in doing what’s right for yourself,” said Digby.

“My message is still the same with my fans in America and Japan … and that’s the incredible part of music. Even though we all speak different languages, we all feel similar emotions, and that comes across in my music no matter where my fans are from.”

She also hopes that this same message will set an example for increasing the visibility of other Asian Americans in the music industry.

“I didn’t think my [ethnicity] would be a big deal at first,” said Digby. “But now that I’ve been in the business for a few years, it’s beginning to hit me how few Asian Americans there are in mainstream media.”

“I really hope to pave a path for other aspiring Asian Americans like me … I think it’s just starting to surface with YouTube giving people a chance to showcase themselves with their own resources at home. Everyone has a shot at it now, and I hope others follow my footsteps because I know there’s a lot of talent out there.” ♦

For more information, visit www.mariedigbymusic.com.

Vivian Nguyen can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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