Kylee Saunders ’16 may be a pop star, but she’ll be the first to tell you she’s no Hannah Montana.
Arizona media outlets and The Today Show have dubbed the freshman a “real-life Hannah Montana,” citing her singing career and Stanford connection. Saunders, who goes by her stage name, Kylee, does not feel comfortable with the nickname.
“It wasn’t a secret. I wasn’t trying to keep it a secret. That’s the only commonality I see between us, is that we both have two different lives,” she said.
Saunders’ roommate, Vicki Lau ’16 was surprised to find out Saunders is a Japanese pop star. When Lau asked Saunders if she sang by herself or with a group and Saunders responded that she sang by herself, Lau did not think it meant professional singing.
“She’s a normal roommate,” Lau said. “I thought Kylee sang by herself like in the shower, not that she sings in Japan.”
Saunders first took the stage in front of about 5,000 people at age 11; she won the audition to sing the national anthem at a Portland Trailblazers game. After that she realized her dream to sing professionally. Her mom, originally from Japan, researched record companies and sent in videos of Saunders’ national anthem performance to all that would accept them. Among these was Sony Music Japan.
Saunders’ mother is Japanese and she spent several summers in Japan with her siblings. She also went to Japanese school until she turned 13. The aspiring singer met with Japanese music representatives over one such summer, at the age of 12, and signed with Sony Music Japan the next year.
Her debut single, “Vacancy,” was released through RX-Records, an indie Japanese record label. With them, she then released a mini album, “Love Kicks.” At 15, she released her first major single, “Kimi ga Iru Kara,” through Sony Music’s DefStar Records, and followed with four more singles after that one. Her first album release, at age 17, was titled “17.” One of her major hits, “Crazy for You,” was featured on a Nissan fall 2011 commercial.
Saunders has had wild experiences performing in Tokyo music clubs, where she recalls times with rowdy rockers, “guitar players blasting their amps” and blaring music. She felt like a fish out of water as a young 14-year-old who liked to sing pop/rock yet hung out with older band members. She still regards them as her role models.
“I have so much respect for them not in the sense of their drinking and smoking but their love for music … for those who gave up everything for music,” Saunders said.
Saunders applied their love for music to her own career. Before Stanford, all her singing was recorded during breaks. Besides long vacations, Saunders even spent three-day weekends in Japan. Sometimes Saunders had to miss school to go perform for events, and recordings were done in mainly in Japan.
“Every break was a done deal to go to Japan,” Saunders said.
Saunders’ early influences include Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne and Christina Aguilera for their powerful voices. Now she listens to every genre besides country, but she describes her music as “in the mix between pop and rock.” She was originally into rock but then wanted to try more of a pop sound. Right now, she’s unsure if she wants to pursue more rock or more pop or try to mold herself into Japanese culture.
“I’m just trying to focus less on being a singer but more on an artist [by] incorporating Japanese lyrics and finding a balance that will help me connect with the Japanese people.”
Saunders draws inspiration for her songs from made-up experiences or stories she’s heard that she adapts as her own experiences.
“The roots start from my life, but what I like to do is be creative,” Saunders said. “I never had a boyfriend. I’ve never been in a serious relationship before, but I have of course had crushes… the roots are from things that happen my life or people in my life whether it’s their situation or their breakup, and then I can play around with the perspective.”
This quarter, Saunders’ recording team flew in from Japan for her upcoming album, her first music project since coming to Stanford. Saunders traveled to Fantasy Studios in Berkeley for recording. According to Saunders, her singing “slowed down a bit” because of how hard it is to be pulled out of classes to perform and do events away from Stanford. This winter break she’ll be in Japan finishing recording for her album, made up of 10 English covers of Japanese songs.
At Stanford, she sees herself potentially majoring in economics and minoring in communication. If she stops singing professionally in Japan, then she wants to work in the entertainment industry and incorporate what she’s learned at Stanford.
“The music industry is extremely risky and unpredictable, so I can’t say whether or not I’m going to be singing five years from now,” she said. “It’s a tough world.”
She tries to practice vocal exercises 30 minutes a day in her dorm room. She also spends her free time staying in touch with family; her hobbies include photography, painting and playing her acoustic guitar.
Saunders, who is currently in Sun Nikkei, a Japanese culture club, and the Stanford Japan Exchange Club (SJEC), is contemplating joining an a cappella group here sometime down the road when her schedule clears up.
“I figured I already have a job with singing and that should be my main priority when it comes to singing,” Saunders said. “I know that a cappella can be very time-consuming. I really want to at some point; we’ll see.”