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He’s Big in Japan

When musician Scott Jacoby heard that his first single, “I Like You,” had hit the airwaves in Japan, the Manhattanite was incredulous. So he sat down at his computer to find out if he was indeed a rising star in the Land of the Rising Sun. To his astonishment, Jacoby discovered — with the help of Google — that his song was quickly climbing the Japanese pop charts. It eventually claimed the No. 1 slot, besting big-name stars like Beyoncé, OutKast and Britney Spears. Japanese youth have even taken to downloading the song to their cell phones.

Sitting among the towering stacks of CDs, snare drums and computer equipment that filled Jacoby’s recording studio on Manhattan’s Park Avenue South on a recent afternoon, it was hard to grasp that the lanky, freckle-faced singer-songwriter had reached the top of the charts in Japan — even as he worked in New York as an organizer for the American Jewish World Service. But his unique blend of soul, rhythm and blues, hip-hop and classic crooning is certainly creating a buzz.

“My manager said, ‘Would you like to see the press that’s been written about you in Japan?’” Jacoby told the Forward. “I said, ‘Sure,’ expecting this flimsy piece of paper. He handed me a stack of magazines that I could barely carry home with me.” Lugging them home was a relatively easy feat compared to reading the articles, written in Japanese.

Since Columbia Music Entertainment — a Japanese label unaffiliated with Columbia Records — introduced his first album, “Before Now,” to a Japanese audience, the 32-year-old Jacoby has been the object of 20 major magazine articles; shot a music video that airs frequently on MTV Japan, and recorded a vocal interpretation of “Here Comes the Bride” for a national Japanese TV commercial.

“Scott is such a hottie,” one woman wrote on a Japanese fan site, “I am so excited the album just came out so I can listen to [‘I Like You’] over and over and over again. I would say… I am a bit obsessed…. I hope he comes to Japan to tour soon!!!!!”

A review from the March issue of EL magazine — a free English monthly distributed in Japan — raves, “This acoustic guitar-toting New Yorker has made quite a splash here, propelled by the Stevie Wonderful lead single ‘No Socks’ [also on ‘Before Now’].… While Jacoby may not have the instrumental chops of Ben Harper, he’s a better soul singer and a more interesting songwriter. Jacoby is as comfortable playing jazz, blues, folk and even rock as he is playing Donny Hathaway-for-a-day. You might mistake him for the second coming of Sly Stone.”

So just how did a nice Jewish boy from Westchester end up a pop star in Tokyo?

“It completely happened to me,” Jacoby said. “I didn’t do anything; I haven’t lifted a finger. You work really hard… and sometimes, you’re lucky; things just happen to you.”

In Jacoby’s case, an Italian music label, Irma Records, offered him a record deal in January 2003. Jacoby, who quit medical school in 1998 to pursue what became a fruitless hunt for a record deal with an American label, co-founded Maze Studios in 2000 with fellow musician Allen Towbin. He has since produced songs for a host of recording artists, and has composed and produced music for national and international TV shows and commercials for such clients as the Disney Channel, Heineken, Chevrolet and Target. Jacoby consented to the Irma contract, despite his skepticism about its likely success.

“The advance scarcely paid for coffee at my lawyer’s office,” Jacoby said. “I gave them 20 songs and said, ‘Pick the 12 you like best.’ I had no idea what their plan was going to be for marketing.”

Irma took Jacoby’s music to Columbia Music Entertainment, which petitioned to license his record in Japan. A deal was sealed in December, and by January Japanese radio stations were playing “I Like You” almost incessantly.

But on the other side of the globe, Jacoby was barely aware of his quickly burgeoning fame. Once he found out about his sudden popularity overseas, he said, “I called my mom and said, ‘Mom, I think I’m on the charts in Japan!’”

“A lot of parents look for concretes,” he added. “I have a lot of concretes these days.”

Jacoby grew up in Rye, N.Y., a place he describes as both a “quaint, fun, beautiful suburb” and a neighborhood that was “insular, not diverse in a socioeconomic, racial and artistic sense.” His parents threw his bar mitzvah party at the Mamaroneck Beach and Yacht Club. “I hated the idea of a club,” Jacoby said. “I hated the idea that some people could belong to this place and some couldn’t.”

He began taking drum and piano lessons in fourth grade. On his 11th birthday, he wrote his first song, called “I Can’t Remember When.” “My family was always very encouraging of my music. We’d do this thing called The Jacoby Trio — my brothers and I would lip-sync Billy Joel songs.”

The seeming ease with which Jacoby has shot to stardom exposes some quirks of the Japanese music industry.

“The majority of Japanese music is bland and redundant,” said Philip Brasor, author of the EL magazine review. “Real music lovers turn to true underground acts for quality. Or they turn to foreign acts. That’s one reason why so many foreign musicians get exclusive deals in Japan.”

Columbia “hit with Jacoby because the kind of music he plays is quite popular in Japan anyway. His music is reminiscent of Ben Harper and Terry Callier, who both have respectable followings among die-hard music fans and radio DJs in Japan, which makes it easier to promote Jacoby, I would imagine.”

These days, Jacoby is hard at work. “Before Now” was released this month in England, France and Italy. After his April 8 performance at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square — a celebration of the March release of “Neo-Soul United 2,” which features songs Jacoby produced — he’ll perform at Manhattan’s Blue Note jazz club May 8 and then head to Japan this summer. Jacoby also has just begun scoring his first feature-length film, “Confess,” a thriller starring Eugene Byrd (“8 Mile”), Melissa Leo (“21 Grams”) and Ali Larter (“Varsity Blues,” “Legally Blonde”). (“Neo-Soul United” came out in September and included the then-obscure “I Love You.”)

In mid-March, Jacoby abdicated his part-time job at the American Jewish World Service, where he spent nine years coordinating, leading and volunteering on missions to Africa and Central America. He vows, though, to use his newfound stardom to promote social justice issues, just as U2’s Bono has rallied against AIDS and Radiohead has fought for fair trade.

“This doesn’t happen to many people at 32,” he said. “It’s fluke central. I’m not the best singer; in fact, I’m probably closer to the worst singer. I’m definitely more the reluctant star-type.”

So far, the unassuming, cerebral musician hasn’t let Jacoby-mania go to his head.

“Nothing has changed my life at all,” he said. “I ride my bike everywhere; I’ll always do that ’cause I love it. I always joke I’m gonna ride my bike to the Grammys. I know I’m good at what I do, and I just gotta play my cards right. Do what I can to enjoy my 15 minutes of fame.”

Jennifer Fishbein edits Fabrics & Furnishings International, an interior design magazine.

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