I first heard about Swinky on a Facebook group, where someone had shared a link to a video of her appearance on the Churchill Live show. I was enthralled! I mean, she was a Kenyan working as a singer in Japan! That had been my dream a few years ago, before I discovered programming! Naturally, I had to get in touch and ask her if she would do an interview for the blog!
Thanks for being so gracious and patient, Swinky! Enjoy the interview, everyone!
We would like to get to know you a little; would you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Esther Thirimu, but Swinky has been my nickname for a really long time. I like animals and I have a lot of respect for life. But cats just have my heart. I love everything about them.
How did you choose to live and work in Japan?
I came here as a student and stayed. It’s so comfortable for me here because the culture and the way people interact with each other suits my personality perfectly. 🙂
Do you speak Japanese? How did you learn it?
I speak Japanese. I went to a college where we could do our lessons in English, but we all took Japanese classes.
What aspects of the Japanese culture are you interested in? What do you enjoy most?
Oh wow, that’s a tough one! I love so many aspects of Japanese culture. The intricacies, the attention to detail, the holistic approach to life and everyday activities. It’s an island, so people have a very strong sense of their national and cultural identity. In a few words, I’d say that what I enjoy most about Japanese culture is that it works for Japan. People are tolerant and just let each other be. They’re on an island anyway.
How long have you lived in Japan? How do your family and friends from back home feel about you living in Japan? What do you miss the most about Kenya?
I’ve been here for about 14 years. My family and friends are ecstatic for me because they know I love it here. They all want to come and visit. ☺️What I miss most about Kenya is my family. I love them very much.
How was your transition from Kenya to Japan? What was the biggest challenge you had when first settling in Japan?
At first, the excitement of being in a country I’d admired for a long time carried me through a good six months. Everything was new and delightful. Missing my family was hard. Immersing myself in the language and lifestyle made the transition process too. The biggest challenge was coming of age in an environment entirely different from the one I was accustomed to and also contending with the spectre of success. I felt like a lot was expected of me because I had the chance to live, study and work abroad.
Have you always wanted to be a singer? If not, what were you considering? At which point did you first decide that you wanted to be a musician?
Answer: Yes, I’ve always wanted to be a singer! I used to sing the grass in our backyard and pretend it was an adoring audience. I was afraid of failing in real life, so I pursued other careers until I couldn’t ignore the constant beckoning anymore. I decided to go into music full time when I took part in a Japanese TV show where foreign participants sang Japanese songs in Japanese and I got a positive response. It was very validating for me at the time with my shilingi mbili confidence.
Would you tell us how you got your stage name Swinky?
My siblings are just very good with nicknames. It went from me singing “Twinkoh twinkoh ee-tee-tah” when I was two years old to Swinky. We all have silly nicknames in my family.
Was there an artist or a particular story that inspired you to become a singer?
There’s no one story. All of them. Everyone who puts themselves out there for better or for worse, just so they share what they have inside. From all genres. All forms of art. Ella Fitzgerald has a special place in my heart because she came from poverty and sang her way through life and into the hearts of millions. And still, in between songs at shows, she was hesitant and shy and retreated into herself as soon as she was out of her comfort zone (singing).
Who has had the biggest influence on you and how has that person changed your work?
My Mum has had the biggest influence on me, without a doubt. She was strong and quietly confident, unwavering in her love and pride in others. She was so gracious. What a gentle spirit. I miss her a lot. When starting out as a singer, I’d be crippled with fear and self doubt, and it made me physically sick before shows. Mum said, “Swinky, be confident. You’re doing it.” Hearing it from her made it feel more like a calling. ☺️
As a songwriter, ever got a case of writer’s block? If you have, what do you do to recharge your creative batteries?
Countless times!! When it happens, I step back and really evaluate how I’m feeling. Sometimes that doesn’t help either, so I do something else and come back to it later or on another day. I know some people power through writer’s block (Oh, how I envy them!), but I need to have a clear idea of the message or emotion I’m trying to capture in words. Doing something else or imbibing art in all forms (music, movies, music, visual art, music, nature, music, music ☺️) helps me see things from other angles. Oh, and science! I love me some science. And astronomy. Uuuwii!
How often do you practise your singing?
I think I’m always practising. I’m learning a song for a show right now as I type this. Cramming it into my brain cells through my headphones. I don’t have to be singing out loud to practise.
Singing in Japan
Would you take us through your journey as an African singing in Japan?
It’s so very uplifting when you find out you can do something you didn’t think you could. Those have been my highs. Getting called for jobs, being asked to write, working with reputed musicians, seeing and feeling the crowd respond … okay yeah I think it’s obvious that I crave validation.☺️ When people enjoy themselves because you opened your mouth, it’s euphoric. My lowest times are when I feel like a failure. When I feel like I don’t measure up and there’s nothing I can do about it. What’s challenging is remembering and acknowledging successes and progress when I’m at the nadir of my experience.
Have you participated in any singing competitions?
No, I haven’t. I was on Nodojiman The World, a TV show where foreigners sing in Japanese. There’s no prize (e.g. a record deal or a cash prize); It’s wholesome entertainment for the whole family. I sound like I’m promoting it. I’m not affiliated with them in any way! I’m happy for the chance I had to sing in Japanese on national TV. ♫
Do you sing your own original music, or covers?
Both. For work, I sing jazz standards and covers, depending on the venue and the client. For my shows, I do whatever I want!
(Here’s one of my favourite covers by Swinky – enjoy!)
What kinds of crowds have you performed for? What is the biggest audience you’ve had?
I’ve performed at tiny venues and huge arenas. The big crowds have been for work, singing background for major acts or performing for major companies.
The biggest audience I’ve ever had was at Nihon Budokan. I wasn’t working or featured – I’d gone to see Michael Buble in concert, and since I was on the first row, he must have noticed the little black girl screaming and jumping like a buffoon. He came down from the stage and pointed the mic in my face mid-song, and I sang my little heart out. He wasn’t expecting it, and the crowd was happy too!
Do you get nervous before a performance? What do you do to get over the anxiety of performing?
I get nervous about the big shows where I’m the featured artist, when the success of the show is hinged on my performance. What I do is go to the loo. Then I breathe deeply, over and over, and say affirmations out loud. “I’m happy to be here. I’m grateful to be here. I will enjoy myself no matter what. I will share my heart with the audience, and I will receive from them. I want to see people smile and dance. There is an abundance of love, joy and light.” Anything to get my nerves under control!
Has anything spectacularly embarrassing ever happened to you while on stage?
Forgetting lyrics! Drawing blanks! Those are the worst! I calm myself and focus on salvaging what’s left, and I try to keep it entertaining. I’ve come up with some really good lines on the fly, and the audience ends up enjoying even the mistake. Everyone makes mistakes! I try not to punish myself on stage and just make sure everyone’s happy and keep the show going!
More of Swinky!
Where can people go to sample your music? Do you have a YouTube channel? Can we share your social media pages on our blog?
Oh wow, thanks for asking! You can find all things Swinky at www.swinkymusic.com. My YouTube channel is www.youtube.com/swinkymusic. I’m a doodler too. My Instagram is @swinkydoodles and my regular account is @swinkymusic. I’m currently working on my first full album, and I plan to have it available for purchase and enjoyment before the end of the year. Stay tuned! ☺️
Thank you for asking me to do this. I wish you all the best with your projects and travels! ❤️
Mbithe’s ideal life would consist of an infinite loop of travelling to beautiful, idyllic locations with breathtaking views, amazing food, and nothing on her to-do list but relaxation and rejuvenation. Mbithe’s actual life involves a lot of proposals, research papers, and code, with just enough travel to make up for the rest of it.