Utada creates much of her genre-hopping music on a computer, "sitting in my tiny room alone with a microphone and a mouse in my hand." Although she has a close network of friends here and abroad -- and she has hubby Kiriya, who's been spending a lot of time in Los Angeles lately -- she prefers to be by herself.
"I love walking around alone," says Utada, who's currently living in Manhattan. "Last night there was a terrible rain. It was one of the hardest rains I'd seen in New York. I was walking home with an umbrella, but it was windy, too. So I closed my umbrella and got wet. It was kind of fun, walking in the rain alone."
Utada Hikaru's English-language debut is an inventive melange of techno bleeps and blips, intricate rhythms, and early-Madonna-like vocals.
She credits her solitary nature -- and her rather grown-up way of processing life's twisteroos -- to being an only child with very busy parents.
"It's like when a cat grows up with a bunch of people, the cat starts to think it's human," she says. "So as only child in a family of adults, you think you're an equal. I don't feel that different from when I was 5 years old -- the way I see the world and react to it."
Utada's mother is Keiko Fuji, a traditional-style enka singer who sold millions of albums back in the '70s. Her father is Teruzane Skingg Utada, a famed music producer who oversaw his wife's career and now acts as his daughter's manager.
"I grew up watching my mom performing," Utada says. "And I was always fascinated how, before a show, up to the last minute, she'd be arguing with my father or crying about something or sick, but once she hit the stage, she'd be perfect."
When Teruzane, waiting for his charge in the Four Seasons lobby, is asked how he feels about his daughter following in her parents' musical footsteps, he looks at Utada and smiles. "It's the family business," the tall, handsome man says. "If she wants to do it . . ."
"But you guys made me!" his daughter snaps back.
"But you're so good at it!" Teruzane says, laughing (a nervous laugh, to be sure).
Utada winces at memories of the paparazzi chasing her through the streets of Tokyo. "It was bad when I was really young," she says. "Like shock treatment. They'd be hiding in my bushes at my house. The tabloids are much sleazier in Japan. I was in the tabloids every week, for, like, a record number of weeks."
About the possibility of losing her privacy in the States, Teruzane says, "She can always go to other countries. Like South America!"
(Teruzane will send an unprompted note the next day, writing about his relationship with his wife and daughter: "I didn't force either artist to do anything, but I always make sure that everything they wish to do is done the way they wish them to be. . . . I am happy that [Utada] has been successful, but I also know how difficult for her to maintain the good spirit.")
Utada lightens up when asked about making "Exodus." She has real affection for Timbaland, even though she says the two artists were a little stubborn at first.
"I told him, 'I have to write my own stuff,' Utada says. "And he was like, 'What do you mean? I have my own way of doing stuff.' And I was like, 'I have my own way of doing stuff, too.' It was just a matter of getting to know each other."
Timbaland provided Utada an assortment of loops and beats to choose from. ("I was like a kid in a candy store," she says.) And back in her hotel room -- alone again, naturally -- she added lyrics and melodies.
Their best collaboration is the club thumper "Let Me Give You My Love," on which Utada sings of "mixing gene pools" and turning "this room into a melting pot." When "Exodus" was released in Japan on Sept. 8, some of her longtime admirers weren't sure what to make of the new Hikki. "A lot of my Japanese fans, when they read the Japanese translation of these lyrics -- they were like 'Whoa!' "
Utada feared that an English-language album would be perceived by Japanese worshipers as a sellout. "I was worried about that, but I really haven't gotten that sort of reaction yet," she says, adding that "Exodus" has already sold half a million copies in Japan.
For now, Utada will wait. And think. And think some more. "I think I'm going to go back to the university when I get sick of music," she says. But almost in the same breath, she lets out a giggle and says, "I would really like to produce for Britney Spears."
And for the first time today, Utada finally sounds like a 21-year-old pop star.