Ken Hirai (平井堅, Hirai Ken) is a Japanese R&B and pop singer. His soulful voice and unconventional looks won him fans following his debut back in the 1990s.
Born January 17, 1972 in Higashiosaka, Osaka prefecture, Ken Hirai grew up in Nabari, Mie Prefecture.
He began his music career back in 1993 when he signed with Sony Music following an audition in Yokohama the previous year while he was a student. His debut single "Precious Junk" and album were recorded the following year and released in 1995. The first single, used as the theme to a TV drama, immediately garnered Hirai attention and his second single, "Kataho zutsu no earphone" also used for a drama, further capitalized on his unique sound. Hirai's debut album, "un-balanced", went on sale the same year and was followed by a second, "Stare At", in December of the following year.
Taking things more slowly, Hirai used the next four years to consolidate his style and take time out - he only released one single each in 1997 and '98 and didn't produce any new music during 1999. Fans had to wait until 2000 for a third album from Hirai, "The Changing Same", and it was the first single "Rakuen" (paradise) that established him as a major player in the domestic charts and overseas. He was the first Japanese artist to take the classic test of a true R&B performer - playing at the Apollo Theater in New York, where he got a warm reception. Capitalizing on a strong fan base in Asia, Hirai appeared at the MTV Music Summit in Taiwan in August 2000. Voted Best New Japanese Act in a pop poll organized by the RTHK radio station in Hong Kong.
2001 saw his single "Kiss of Life" used as the theme for the popular "Love Revolution" TV drama series. His fourth album "Gaining Through Losing" (it went to sell 1.5 million all over Asia including Japan) and a national tour of the same name built on his solid reputation. 1st remix album "Kh remixed-up 1" was released in November, 2001. Through the album, the artist showed wholly new part of himself to the audience, and appealed to club-goers and DJs for the first time.
He had already shown that he had the urge to perform abroad, so his live appearance on the Music Fair show in March 2002 with producer/singer Babyface from an LA studio was very much part of the plan. In the summer, recognition like winning the Best Male Artist at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards Japan and appearing in the official FIFA World Cup concert with Chemistry and Lauryn Hill seemed like they were just par for the course.
Already an established star, Hirai went one step further when he released a cover of "Ōkina Furudokei" (My Grandfather's Clock) in 2002. A popular nursery rhyme, it was expected to be a minor success, but it went on to become one of the biggest hits of the year.
In 2003, Ken performed for MTV Unplugged Live in New York, as the 1st Japanese male solo vocalist. Also, he was interviewed by CNN "The Music Room", which was televised in 210 countries, and watched by 230 million viewers.
5th album "Life is...", which contains "Strawberry Sex", "Ring", and super-hit single "Okina Furudokei" (My Grandfather's Clock) was released on January 22, 2003.
In December 10, 2003, conceptual album "Ken's Bar" was released. In the album, Ken selected his favorite songs and covered in his own style.
In May 2004 "SentimentaLovers" was made public. The album spawned 4 singles, with "Hitomi wo Tojite" (Close my eyes) the most successful, also becoming the biggest-selling single of that year.
* Hirai once participated in a music session with Babyface, who admired Hirai's singing ability. He said, "I think that Hirai can be popular in the world if he releases CDs in English".
* At the end of 2003, Hirai was invited by Stevie Wonder to join his Japanese show, where he co-performed "You Are the Sunshine of My Life".
* Hirai's 20th single "Hitomi wo Tojite," the theme song of the Japanese movie "Crying Out Love, In the Center of the World", peaked at No. 2 in Japan's Oricon chart in 2004, but got No. 1 in annual sales for the year 2004. Incidentally, he also sang a cover version of Eagles hit "Desperado" as the single's B-side.
* 2channel, a Japanese internet forum, made a parody of Hirai's song "Pop Star", titled "Vip Star", in which internet slang of 2channel and the name of the administrator of the website, Hiroyuki, appear.
* When Yo Hitoto's debut single "Morai Naki" is slowed down to 80 percent, her voice sounds uncannily like that of Ken Hirai's.
* The "バイ" part of the name of Hirai's 24th single "バイマイメロディー" is the double meaning of "by" and "bye".
* During a trip to Hong Kong, in an interview, he stated that he admires director Wong Kar-wai.
* The name, 平井堅 (Hirai Ken), literally means a Ken come flying
* The 10th Anniversary Complete Single Collection '95-'05 “歌バカ” ("Utabaka") becomes the 1st best-selling album of 2006, overlapping Kumi Koda's, BEST ~second session~ in the second position with a great selling interval.
* Some musical artists whom he respects are Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye etc.