An uncomfortable number of people in Japan know how Nyk Edwards likes his Big Macs.
"People tweet my McDonald's order and stuff, and I'm like, 'Dude,'" the 24-year-old singer says over Skype from Tokyo. "I don't like pickles on my burger, so whenever I go to a McDonald's and order no pickles, someone who works there is like, 'Nicholas Edwards just ordered a no-pickles double cheeseburger.' I swear to God, every single time."
Such is the peculiar nature of fame in the social-media age. But Edwards can't complain. As he often reminds himself, this is exactly what he wanted. In 2010, the day after graduating from Glencoe High School in Hillsboro, Edwards boarded a plane to Tokyo, determined to make it as a pop star in a country he'd only visited once before. Within three years, he found an agent, won a televised singing competition, starred in a movie, signed to a major record label and went on a nationwide tour. He doesn't quite have a gauge on the level of his celebrity—he's not Justin Bieber, but he still has to leave the house in disguise or risk a mob scene—but regardless, he's living a dream he willed into existence. As far as he's concerned, a few invasions of dietary privacy is a fair tradeoff.
How does a white kid from the farm town of Cornelius, Ore., end up as a pop star on the other side of the world? Where does someone even get a dream like that?
Speaking with Edwards—who returns to the States for his first-ever Portland show this week, with 100 fan-club members in tow—he comes off like someone who's been prepping to be interviewed since childhood, with an easygoing maturity beyond his years. And indeed, his performative streak started young. "I remember, when I was about 3, at my dad's birthday party, everybody was going to sing 'Happy Birthday,' and I just got up on the counter and I was like, 'No, I'm going to sing it myself, and you're all going to listen," he says. In high school, exchange students from Hillsboro's sister city of Fukuroi spent a week at his family's house and introduced him to J-pop. He was already learning Japanese, which he chose to study because "it seemed like the most difficult" language class offered at his school. Singing lyrics then became a study tool. "I didn't have anyone to speak to," he says, "so I would record myself singing in Japanese and put it on YouTube, and use it as a way to practice the knowledge I'd gained studying in a real-life situation—as real as I could get, living in Hillsboro."
By the end of his senior year, Edwards was fluent in both the language and history of Japanese popular music. With $800 in the bank, he left for Tokyo while his mortar board was practically still in the air. "I was not thinking very much about what I was going to do," he says. "I didn't have a visa, I didn't have a place to stay." After a few months crashing the lobbies of every record label in the city, his YouTube videos landed him an invite to the international singing pageant Nodo Jiman Za! World. On his first appearance, he finished third; on his second, he won. (He's won a total of three times, more than any other repeat contestant.) His career fast-tracked from there. A film based loosely on his life, Hinomaru Dream, premiered in 2012. In 2013, he signed with Warner Music, put out his debut single and went on a promotional tour, playing for 30,000 fans in 10 days.
It was a dizzying ascent. But as a songwriter, Edwards wanted to be known for more than just his voice. Shortly after the release of his first album, Skies, he split from Warner, which was pushing him to record a covers album—a trend made popular by Nodo Jiman Za! World. Instead, he wanted to explore what he calls "the four pinnacles of human emotion: happiness, sadness, anger and fun." He's since released two albums, The Strange and Hardspice, on a label started by his management company. While the music is broad and bombastic—ranging from acoustic ballads to chugging rockers to electronic rave-ups—Edwards sings with an honesty he says is rare among his peers. He often draws from his own autobiography, tapping into the excitement and confusion of coming of age in a place wildly different from where he grew up. Not many people anywhere can claim to have had the same experience, but according to Edwards, his is a more universal story than it might seem.
"Obviously, people in Japan may not have moved to another country to chase a dream, but I think anyone can relate to being out of your element, your comfort zone and the environment you're used to, and trying to build yourself into what you desire," he says. "I think that's an experience everyone goes through, whether they're moving down the block or across the country or across the world."
SEE IT: Nyk Edwards plays Roseland Theater, 8 NW 6th Ave., on Sunday, Sept. 25. 3:30 pm and 7 pm. $33 general admission, $90 VIP, $210 meet-and-greet. All ages.