Despite a rocky start, hunch about staying in Japan paid off in spades, as does flexibility
For a musician and entrepreneur with many professional faces, Australian Donna Burke is surprisingly wary of constantly taking work-related calls.
“I’m always disconnecting myself. I’ll go for days without looking at my mobile phone,” said the singer, narrator, songwriter, lyricist and talent agency head.
Oh, and she also runs a company that exports disposable chemical hand-warmers.
A resident in Tokyo for 14 years, Burke, 45, sings live and for soundtracks, her repertoire ranging from jazz to pop to Celtic.
You may have heard her voice giving the onboard announcements on the Tokaido Shinkansen. And starting in April she will be the voice for the mother of Little Charo, the dog in the popular NHK English conversation program. She also sings and writes lyrics for commercials.
Burke founded the Dagmusic talent agency for foreigners in 1999 with her British musician husband, whom she met in Japan. The agency now has 350 artists on its books and 1,000 people on its casting list. In recent years the company has expanded into sound production, creating music for Japanese game software aimed at an international audience.
Despite all the sounds she makes, Burke, a sunny blonde with a confessed love for the sound of her own voice, prefers to work in silence. She used to work in the office upstairs with her employees at her home in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, but now she works alone downstairs in an open-plan living room and study, where she also practices her singing to an audience of three cats.
“I like complete silence, I crave it. (If you’re constantly answering calls), it’s reacting rather than creating.”
Hailing from Perth in western Australia, Burke arrived in Japan in 1996 having heard there was singing work for foreigners. With a background in operatic voice, speech and drama, she had been performing part time at churches and parties in her hometown, but beyond that opportunities were sparse.
It was not all smooth sailing once she came to Tokyo. Burke landed a job as an English teacher, using her spare time to break into the music scene, but the school let her go when it ran into financial problems and she was left with little income.
Still, Burke persevered, following her instinct to stay in Japan.
“Even though I was so poor and moved seven times in one year, my intuition was saying ‘If you stay in Japan you’ll do really well here.’ ”
Looking back, Burke says the keys to success were making contacts and asking people for help, as well as having confidence in her abilities and the flexibility to work as a singer and narrator.
“You need the ability to do different accents, and read without seeing things beforehand. I’m a good actress. If they ask, ‘Can you do a high-pitched voice, or sound younger or older?’ I say, ‘No problem.’ ”
It is also important to be good live and in the studio, she said.
This is even more relevant now than when she arrived in Japan, when there was still great demand for foreign performers, according to Burke. In recent years, the increasing number of bilingual, less-expensive Japanese singers means there is less work for English natives.
In this ever-changing market, Burke is “always looking for the next new talent in Tokyo,” and recently specifically for a female Arabic singer who can also write lyrics. Her agency receives many applications, although a real gem emerges only rarely, as professional standards are high, she said.
“I think some people — and this is not a criticism — were a bit paralyzed in their own (home)towns because everyone was watching. But in Japan you’re anonymous so it doesn’t matter if you don’t succeed. No one has to know back home.”
Burke says the market for foreign talent in Tokyo is huge, if you can crack it.
“There must be a hundred male narrators working in Tokyo full time, and they’re earning ¥5 (million) to ¥10 million a year. If you can narrate and sing, you’re really lucky.”
To get work as a foreign performer and composer in Japan, it is important to listen to the client, Burke said.
“Japanese like (to work in) harmony. I’m very good at not holding onto my view. Even if I think the song won’t be as good, if that’s what the client wants, then I don’t get worried.”
Working together with a production team is much more efficient than throwing a tantrum over a lyric you can’t bear to change, she said, recalling a recent successful meeting.
“It was such a great creative meeting of minds, and in the end the song was much better for it, much better than what I would have done on my own.”
Another useful strategy that also shows in Burke’s work is listening to one’s intuition.
“I think I’m very good at relying on my subconscious. In a tense professional situation, the last thing I’d be doing is worrying that I can’t think of something, or I’ll hit a bum note. And I think my success as a businessperson is also that I’ve gone on gut feeling.”
Following her gut was what gave Burke the idea of exporting chemical hand warmers, which she dubbed Hotteeze.
“I kept taking (the product) back to Australia and realizing that every family member wants it; boys, girls, old people, young people. I couldn’t believe that some company hadn’t done it.”
Some exporters turned down her proposal, saying they had already tried that idea and failed, but Burke eventually launched the project five years ago in Australia.
Now also selling in the U.K. and U.S. with plans to expand into India, the company has seen sales rise by 25 percent a year, with 300,000 pads sold last year.
In whatever she does, Burke is determined to hold up under pressure. This applies to her efforts to study Japanese, which she admits have not been fruitful.
“I studied for eight years and then realized I’m rubbish at this, and there are other things I’m really good at. I can’t even say it’s a disappointment, it’s just a fact of life. Unless you need Japanese for work or love, there’s no motivation.”
Stress provides no inspiration for Burke, who avoids watching negative news on TV and often escapes to her forest cabin in Gunma Prefecture. She makes sure her employees can work in a similarly relaxed environment and says she can’t understand the work-centered mind-set of the Japanese.
“That work is everything — it’s sad. In Australia, leaving work at 5 (p.m.) means you have a life.”
Her employees — including Japanese and foreigners — work from 10 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m, Burke said.
“Japanese are more frightened of being seen as not necessary, so they don’t take their holidays. I find that the people who take their holidays are the most efficient.”
But Burke admits she finds it easier than others to balance work and play, since she loves her work, which she says is first and foremost singing.
“My work is my hobby; singing is fun. I’d do it even if I wasn’t getting paid, though don’t tell my clients that.”
I’m hear to tell you why Australian Accented English is as desirable as a British or American accent and perhaps even BETTER!!!
At the end of my short talk- I want you to understand that not only will students visiting Australia learn English, have a fantastic time in the outdoors, enjoy barbies, go to the beach and play sports, but they may be lucky enough to pick up the hint of an Aussie Accent.
I want you to understand why Australian English is a good accent to have.
Where did a negative image of Australian English come from???
Two words! Crocodile + Dundee
- Crocodile Dundee had come out in 1986 then Crocodile Dundee TWO in 1988
The world thought ALL Australians talked like that
I came to Japan in 1996, started my narration career in 1997.
- No one wanted an Australian accent except NHK news
I would have to do UK or US english.
- when I auditioned for the Shinkansen in 2002 which I then recorded in 2003 I was told by the agency not to mention Australia!!!
- Most songs I’ve recorded for Benesse, EEC and Yamaha have been US English
No matter where you go in the world there are many global variants of English- Carribean, Singapore, India, China, South Africa..and French!
Within the UK or US there are many types of English accent
You have Southern American, New York and Queens English and people who talk like David Beckham. You have Tokyo Japanese and Tohoku Japanese- Paul Hogan is Tohoku!!!
Wherever you go, English speakers HAVE to learn to listen and understand different types of English-
In the 1990s there was an NHK program which taught that Australians said DYE instead of DAY
So by the time I came in 1996 was a prejudice against Aussie English.
What is Aussie English?
- There are THREE Aussie accents
10% speak like Bob Hawke, Steve Irwin and Julia Gillard & PAUL HOGAN
10% speak like Malcolm Fraser and Cate Blanchett & Heath Ledger
80% speak like Nicole Kidman and Kevin Rudd.
Crocodile Dundee is a rare Regional accent
However, NOW Aussie English is more popular and is gaining acceptance even in Japan
What’s happened to change the perception of Aussie English?
One year after Titanic, In 1999 Kate Winslet took the role of a young Australian girl in Holy Smoke and Heath Ledger became famous overnight in 10 things I hate about you
BOTH USED AUSTRALIAN ENGLISH- this was new to Hollywood.
But a breakthrough came with Moulin Rouge in 2001- I’ll never forget my shock at hearing Aussie English on the big screen in an “international movie”
Nicole Kidman, Heath Ledger, Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Naomi Watts, Eric Bana, Geoffrey Rush, Baz Luhrma, Rachel Griffiths, Toni Collette- all these actors are constantly being interviewed and the world has finally learned that Aussie English sounds attractive!
We don’t all sound like Paul Hogan!
With the growth of CNN and 24 hour news coverage, the whole world became used to hearing Aussie accents from journalists based in the UK and Australia.
In 2007 I rerecorded the Tokaido Shinkansen using a cultivated Australian accent. A documentary I recorded about Climate Change in 2007 won an award in New York for MICO a subsidiary of NHK- and I used Aussie English.
Now in April 2010 NHK’s 2nd series of Little Charo has a main character- Charo’s MUM- played by ME is using Aussie English- probably the first time in educational programming in Japan
Why is Aussie English a good accent to have?
Australia is a small, friendly, cultured country.
Aussie English reflects this. Unlike American English and a lesser extent UK English, it is politically and socio-economically NEUTRAL.
Aussie English is not snobby, not bossy or haughty.
But here’s the sad news- most students will never pick up a Aussie English Accent unless they study there for years.
My husband as taught returnees for years at Dokkyo University and more often than not could only tell someone had lived many years in the US, UK or Australia by their vocabulary- not their accent (heaps! is the word that identified students who’d lived a long time in Australia)
It takes years to become a good enough speaker to also pick up an accent. But if they don’t come back with a wonderful Aussie accent, they will come back with many happy memories of spending time in friendly, beautiful Australia!
By Donna Burke with Tokyo Comedy Store founder Chris Wells and Spontaneous Confusion actors
This session will give you some tips on how to cast actors and reveal common mistakes to avoid in the studio. It will also help you gain confidence in directing actors by watching real actors act out various situations you may encounter. Finally, it will model good direction techniques.
Prerequisites: Previous studio recording experience helpful but not essential.
How can you make your next narration recording as successful as possible?
First let’s look at what can go wrong on the producing side…
Common casting problems
Can you trust the voice sample?
Getting recommendations from other actors
Casting by demo tape or open auditions?
Should you pay by the hour or by the session?
Common problems once in the studio for directors
poor (or just plain wrong) casting
poorly written script- — actors keep suggesting changes
miscalculating recording time
poor scheduling of other actors
actors can’t/won’t take direction
actors talk too much and are too relaxed
Now let’s look at the actor’s side…
Common problems actors have with directors/producers
directors don’t know what they want and are too vague
directors chose useless “actors” to work with (no budget for professionals)
directors want the actor to parrot them EXACTLY, just like a robot
no graphics or back story
too many directors giving pointers/arguing
low-quality recording booth with no air-conditioning due to budget constraints
working alone on dialogue without other actors present in the studio
Tips for better performances from voice actors
Three things voice actors love
1. Be specific
“I liked the low voice that you did on the Princess Moon anime ”
“No — it’s too sexy and breathy. Talk more firmly and straight.”
2. Give character info
“Here’s a picture of your character. He’s very cunning but he’s a good person underneath. We want you to play this scene so that we don’t know he’s a good person.”
3. Provide well-written scripts
Make sure you’ve had a NATIVE check by a WRITER. Just because someone has an Australian/American/British passport and had to take English at school, it doesn’t make that person a writer. Writing and editing are high-level skills, so make sure your native checker really is a writer/editor, not just an unskilled native speaker.
If you can’t afford or find a skilled writer/editor, get checks from several different native speakers with CLEAR instructions on what kind of feedback you need. E.g. “ Can you check this for (a) naturalness of dialogue (b) grammar and spelling (c) layout (d) all of the above!
Use at least a size 14 font with double spacing…it’s easy to read.
COURSE NOTES SUMMARY
How can you make your next narration recording as successful as possible?
Get actors to record 10 lines of script at home — in character — and email it in as a sound file
Listen to other actors. If they say another actor is “difficult,” they are probably telling the truth!
Talent is cheap — an actor with good character and behavior is much more valuable than the “perfect” voice
Open auditions are notoriously time-consuming. Only hold them if you’ve got a lot of time and enough people to go through all the samples. Otherwise just cast from voice demos
Successful recording reminders
Make sure you’ve had the script checked by a native WRITER prior to the studio recording.
Make sure you’ve checked the timing of the script beforehand
Provide pictures and/or short character histories to help actors
Listen to actors’ feedback and be open with them. “That’s a great idea — let’s record it your way” saves a lot of arguments and angst on the part of the actor. Then you can also get them to record it YOUR way! Win win!
Watch the clock. Don’t let actors eat up your time. Be strict
Make sure the sound booth is air-conditioned and water is available. Screaming hurts vocal cords!
Decide beforehand who is the director. Don’t make the actor’s job more difficult position by requiring them to take instruction from several different people.
Make direction and feedback as specific as possible
Make sure you have actors sign confidentiality agreements beforehand. You don’t want them blogging about your project!!
Try not to ask for a million different takes. Be decisive about what you want.