Renaissance Man

A Golden Renaissance

By Miyuki Yamaguchi, Lifestyle Editor, The Japan Times
(originally published March 16, 2014)

In the mid-2000s, I first learned about Taro Gold by reading his bestselling book Open Your Mind, Open Your Life. Everyone in my office seemed to have a copy on their desk. I soon learned that Taro had written a series of acclaimed books, including a Book of the Year award-winner. I also discovered that Taro has a lifelong history in music and performing, and wanted to know more about this renaissance man who creates incarnations of inspiration. I caught up with him by phone from Tokyo.

JT: Thank you for speaking with me today, you’re in Paris?

TG: I was in Paris this week and now Montreux, Switzerland. There’s a mountain retreat here that I love, in a rejuvenating environment overlooking the lake, surrounded by snowcapped peaks, with great food, fruit, and Swiss chocolate. My friends joke that I could live on vegan chocolate, soy milk, and Evian. That’s probably not too far from the truth! [laughter]

JT: How long have you maintained a vegan diet?

TG: Since I was 5, when my mother learned about the horrors of the animal farming and dairy industries. She researched the science of vegan nutrition, and quickly switched our family to vegan. That was in the 1970s, when being vegan was far less accessible than now. She was ahead of her time.

JT: Your family roots have a deeply international background, and I read you’ve visited 40 countries. What is the most exotic place you’ve experienced?

TG: Exploring the Amazon rainforest was otherworldly. I think I got the adventurous side of my personality from my mother. When I was studying at university, my mother and stepfather were abducted and briefly kept hostage while they were exploring parts of Western Africa. I was in Tokyo and didn’t know until after my mother had managed to escape. She called me from a half-broken phone in a tiny jungle town! It was scary and surreal, but in retrospect totally outrageous and a little comical. As they say: tragedy plus time equals comedy. Someday I’d like to write a film about my mother, she’s like a female Indiana Jones! [laughter]

JT: In addition to adventurer’s DNA, you seem to have entrepreneurial streaks in your genes.

TG: That’s true. I’ve loved computers and technology since I was a kid. I was inspired by the War Games film, and I ran a “Joshua program” and early BBS (bulletin board service) out of my bedroom when I was in Jr. High School. In my twenties, I co-founded some communications companies in Silicon Valley. Those experiences deepened my confidence in the power of communication to bring people together, educate, and inspire. One company we built was acquired by AOL / TimeWarner, and another VoIP company we started was acquired by Microsoft.

JT: I’ve read that your grandparents and great-grandparents were politicians, but also writers and musicians. Instead of politics, your family encouraged you to pursue the arts, and you’ve written some bestselling books and J-pop songs. What’s next?

TG: I loved creating my album The Diamond YouI’m proud of the work my team and I did on each song. I’d like to make more music in the future. Lately, I’ve been focused on books again, in discussions to co-author a new book of inspirational with a legendary American singer. I’ve got a couple of screenplays I’d like to develop, too.

JT: You’ve lived around the world, studied on three continents, and could choose to work anywhere. Why have you spent so much time in Japan and why make J-pop?

TG: I studied at Soka University of Tokyo for my undergraduate degree, then at the University of Salamanca (Spain) for International Relations, and UCLA for my Master of Fine Arts. I’m fortunate to have had homes in some of my favorite places, in West LA, Key West, and Punta Mita (Mexico). But there’s a very special place in my heart for Japan. I’ve lived in Tokyo on and off for many years, and many favorite childhood memories are times spent in Japan, especially Kyoto. A lot of my best friends are in Japan, too. In my heart I feel humanity is one big family, so I believe spreading happiness and love in one part of the world radiates to every part of the world. Actually, I feel very much at home pretty much anywhere on Earth.

JT: Did you also go to high school in Japan?

TG: I went to high school in Del Mar, a beach community north of San Diego, and also spent time as an exchange student in Canberra and Brisbane, Australia.

JT: Is it true you lived at the Park Hyatt Tokyo? That sounds like the film Lost in Translation come to life.

TG: Yes, people find that odd, and I know it sounds strange, but it made sense for my lifestyle at that time. I lived there for the better part of two years. The Park Hyatt is a wonderful place and their team is so caring. Wherever I go around the world I stay at Hyatt hotels. They’ve always accommodated my vegan diet so well, and their attention to detail is excellent. I appreciate Hyatt a lot.

JT: Your books and music have touched the lives of many, and now you’ve said you’re also focused on giving back. Why is that important to you?

TG: Fortunately, I had the support of caring people, especially great teachers, throughout my life. I dream of building schools someday, and to start I’ve been supporting a few educational programs in the Americas. I also support The Trevor Project, co-founded by my friend James Lecesne, which is a network that helps prevent LGBTQIA teen suicides. I’ve also enjoyed establishing a named scholarship at Soka University of America, and my family and I’ve had the honor to sponsor underprivileged students to attend schools in Mexico and Peru as well.

JT: Are you involved in charitable work in Asia, too?

TG: I have big dreams about developing charitable entities, especially to help children and save wildlife in Asia, Africa, and South America. First I’ll make my work the best it can be to inspire, entertain, and educate. Then I intend to give the fruit of that labor back, through charitable groups.

JT: Growing up, you traveled a lot with your family, partly because of roots in the aviation industry.

TG: Yes, there are some bankers, politicians, and military officers in my family tree. My father and stepfather were entrepreneurs too, and they traveled for work. Most of the men in my family have had pilot licenses.

JT: Do you know how to fly, too?

TG: I had my own plane for several years, a Cirrus Turbo SR22, and studied to get my pilot’s license, but never completed it. Someday!

JT: You had a lot of experience in music as a child, performing in Broadway musicals. How did that start?

TG: It originally started with violin lessons, the Suzuki method, when I was around 6 or 7. Then, I started performing professionally, acting, singing, and dancing when I was about 9 years old. One of my voice coaches was the legendary Seth Riggs, who taught me how to sing every day without hurting my vocal cords. I was fortunate that my first major job was with the #1 national touring company of Evita when I was 10. I spent a couple of year in Evita, then landed lead roles in Peter Pan and March of the Falsettos. I also worked for the Disney Channel doing voiceovers, and did some commercials for Puma sportswear and Duncan Hines brownies. I have to tell you, I got so sick of brownies after one hot day in the sun filming a commercial, I didn’t eat another brownie for years!

JT: You also appeared in an NBC special with Clint Eastwood about Alcatraz. How was it working with such a Hollywood legend?

TG: I think I was 12 when we shot that, so although I knew who Clint Eastwood was, I didn’t really think of him any differently than other adults I’d been working with. He was kind and professional, and I remember thinking he was very stately.

JT: How did your experiences with Broadway musicals influence your J-pop music?

TG: The foundation of music in my life is musical theater, which to me is more powerful compared to studio music. The style of music I create in Tokyo is mostly pop, which is not usually made with traditional instruments these days. Pop songs are often made with sounds generated by computers, and many times the producers don’t understand music history, culture, or philosophy. So the end product might sound catchy for a short period of time, but people get tired of it fast. That’s why pop music suffered in sales for a while but thankfully the authenticity of music production is coming back.

JT: Sales for music continues to decline everywhere around the world including Japan while streaming goes up.

TG: There are a lot of factors, but I think a major cause has been that trends in music have lacked depth. Solid musical foundations are important, and for a while a lot of music seemed to have lost its voice and message. I say a lot in my lyrics, and I’ve had the musical background and foundation in my life to hopefully do it well. My mix of synth pop with orchestral music is one of my hallmarks. I brought together a 50-piece orchestra for some of my songs. I’ve been told this is unheard of anywhere in the music industry now.

JT: Critics say a big problem today is that pop music has become “throw away” entertainment. Made for the moment, without staying power. People don’t want to spend money on music they know they’ll be tired of hearing in a month or two. What’s the remedy?

TG: For the music industry to thrive, I think it must focus on basics and supply people with art that moves their hearts. With my music, I wanted to provide people with songs they’ll love more and more as time goes by. The more you hear it, the more you love it. That’s the ideal. The way to create that kind of art is with real human musicians playing real instruments, and heartfelt lyrics, with the intention of imbuing emotion into the sound. Meaningful music. That’s what we kept in our hearts and minds as we created The Diamond You album.

JT: Some of my friends who don’t even speak Japanese enjoy listening to your music. When music is of quality, anyone can relate to it, even in a different language. It’s truly universal.

TG: That’s what I wanted, for my music to touch people regardless of culture or language. I think people are thirsty for good music, for art that resonates on a deeper level. I hope there will be a revolution in pop culture, a wave of new art, future art. I think it’s important for artists to create value in everything we do. For me this is through the books I write, the music I make, and my screenwriting. One of my musical idols, Herbie Hancock, told me, “Be thoughtful in everything you do. You never know how your simple actions, an idea written in one of your books, a lyric in on of your songs, is going to touch someone who you may never even meet. And because that one person was moved by your art, that person may be inspired to do something that changes the entire course of history.” His words changed how I look at what I do, and the cause-and-effect relationship at play in art.

JT: This reminds me of the “butterfly effect.”

TG: Exactly. Artists have the opportunity to speak to large numbers of people, so we have a responsibility to be thoughtful about how we create, to think deeply about what kind of energy we put out in the world. It’s about becoming happy, and helping others become happy. I think that’s the ultimate mission of an artist. That’s the ultimate mission of every human being, I believe.

JT: In your writings, you mention your study of Nichiren Buddhism, that you’ve practiced Buddhism in the Soka Gakkai tradition since you were a teen, and your daily chanting of Nam-moho-renge-kyo, but you also have a Jewish background.

TG: That’s correct, people say I’m a JuBu, a Jewish Buddhist.

JT: This is the first I’ve heard that term; it means you’re Jewish and Buddhist?

TG: Yes, I’ve learned from the wisdom of my ancestors and both Jewish and Buddhist traditions throughout my life, especially in times of adversity. When you read summaries of my life story, it can look sweet and simple. But my father suffered with bipolar depression, and we underwent financial troubles in my family too. My neck was broken in a car accident and I was almost paralyzed. My mom also suffered from chronic illness when I was young, and I saw her fight for her life. All of these experiences taught me to go inside my heart and figure out what’s really important in life, and to do my best to help others do the same. The most valuable things are ones you can’t put a price on, sometimes cannot even see, the inconspicuous treasures of the heart.

JT: Your grandmother in Kyoto was an important part of your life. Your book Living Wabi Sabi tells stories of her helping you overcome hardships you faced.

TG: Yes, she took my mother and me under her wing during the hardest times. She is the one who showed me how to live a joyful life. I am forever grateful to her, and I pray in thanks for her every single day. I wish she was still here to see how far I’ve come after all she did for me. I’m sure she’s still watching over me. The title song from my album, The Diamond You, is in memory of her. The word “diamond” conjures up a lot of positive images and feelings for me, all of which I relate to her: strong, priceless, beautiful, rare, pure, clear…. Hopefully this will be the case with the things I do, too.