Kenshi Yonezu, From Vocaloid Producer to National Artist; Where the Young 27-Year-Old Talent Looks
"That moment felt like a response to all my continued efforts in music."
In under a week since the March 14th release of Kenshi Yonezu's Lemon, it's broken a million sales. The digital download count stands at 752,000, and over 300,000 CDs have been sold.
The song has attracted attention as the theme song of the TV drama "Unnatural." While already highly acclaimed among young people in their teens and twenties, no doubt this has proven a chance for his name to become known by a wider audience.
Yonezu started in his mid-teens under the name Hachi, posting Vocaloid songs such as Matryoshka and Panda Hero to NicoNico Douga. In 2012, he debuted under his real name, Kenshi Yonezu.
Since his Vocaloid producer era where he handled everything from music to illustrations to videos alone, he's now come to actively take on collaborations and commissions. In 2017, he had what he considers a major turning point as a musician when he met with actor Masaki Suda.
A maker of pop songs that bloomed on the web, how far can Kenshi Yonezu fly? We asked the talented 27-year-old about his past and future.
— Lemon is out to much success, both online and as a CD. It's a big hit - how do you feel?
Even I didn't expect it would turn out like this, so I'm just plain shocked. I owe it to the power of the fantastic drama, Unnatural, for delivering it to this many people.
— It was very striking how the line "How good would it be if this were a dream?" would play at the perfect scenes every week.
It got used with timing like "it really couldn't go anywhere else." My time to make it was tight too, with my tour going on at the same time, so it was honestly pretty difficult. But I'm very grateful that it could be used with such love.
Looking at the hashtag for people's thoughts on the show, a lot of people referenced the theme song Lemon, and I really got a sense of how this song was reaching people just now learning the name of Kenshi Yonezu.
— It was a little surprising for the title of a song about someone who's passed away to be "Lemon."
The temporary title was "Memento." But that title was a little much for a song themed around death, a little too direct, so it didn't sit right for me.
I wrote the line "Inseparable from my heart, the scent of a bitter lemon" in the first chorus without really thinking, but despite falling out naturally, it really seemed to fit and wouldn't leave my head.
Why was it "lemon"? I think it came from somewhere in my memory, but I can't really explain it well either.
It was actually really close - the day before recording, I was still writing the lyrics, and even late into the night, those last two lines wouldn't come to me.
Like one half of a fruit sliced in two,
Even now, you are my light...
The moment that phrase came up after lots of struggling, everything came together for me, like "Ahh, so this song really was "Lemon.""
— You did the CD's cover illustration yourself as well.
Similar to the title, I didn't want it to be a drag. I focused on liveliness and freshness of a lemon, giving it an image quite unlike what's typically associated with death.
— Is there a song from 2017 that left a particular impression on you?
Gray and Blue, with Masaki Suda-kun. It was a really valuable experience in my life as a musician.
I first learned about Suda-kun from the film "The Light Shines Only There" (2014). He's not the star, but he made a strong impact, and I was left thinking "I'm kinda curious about this guy."
After that, he was always in the corner of my eye, working with people I knew or appearing in interesting films - "Nanimono" (2016) and "Do You View Fireworks From Below, Or From the Side?" (2017) were direct links with my own work. (Note: For both, Yonezu-san did the theme song, and Suda-san was part of the main cast.)
I had a strong feeling like, "just who is this person?"
Suda-kun has a super good voice. I'd watch him playing and singing Takuro Yoshida-san's songs on variety shows, and go "man, he's got a good voice."
Soon, I was faintly thinking about getting him involved in my own works, and so I came up with Gray and Blue last summer. I felt that if Suda-kun could sing this, it'd definitely be something beautiful, so I made him the offer.
I don't know which came first for me: wanting to sing with Masaki Suda, or this song being born. But I think if it weren't for this song, we may not have done anything together.
— "I want us to sing together" is a different feeling from "I want to produce with him," I suppose.
I suppose. I guess it was this conviction of "If he's here, I can definitely make music I consider beautiful"...
So my own ego was also involved. Though of course, I was hoping it would be a positive thing for him as well. I wanted there to be good-feeling moments in our mutual involvement.
— How was the Budokan performance? (Included in the Lemon Video Disc)
When Suda-kun came out, there was cheering like I'd never heard before. I was like "That's louder than when I went out!", but when you think about it, you're coming to a Yonezu show, so if I come out it's just whatever. (laughs)
I'm sure there were people faintly thinking "I wonder if Suda-kun's going to come?", but I still felt "were they waiting for him that much?"
And as for myself, it was my first experience singing on stage with someone besides myself. It felt really good...
Deep in my heart, I thought "I'm glad to have this moment" - "though I've been unsure at many points, what I've been doing wasn't wrong." That moment felt like a response to all my continued efforts in music.
If you asked me "Was it absolutely necessary to do something with Masaki Suda in 2017?", I honestly don't think I'd have a good reason I could give you. But I absolutely wanted to do something with Masaki Suda. If I didn't, I couldn't move on.
When you're making songs, you can make plenty of stuff thinking "let's do this logically," but it's no fun to do that all the time.
As a person making pop songs, I always want to send out thoughts to people, and serve as food to keep living. I don't think those sorts of heart-moving things will await you when you're just building things up logically.
I want to be making music that has something off-beat and thick, in a place you'll only notice if you aren't straining your eyes.
— Is it possible you'll collaborate with Suda-san again?
I'm thinking I'd like to do something, but it's all timing.
Suda-kun's new album has one song I composed and wrote the lyrics for, and that's really nice. There's a purity of "I made a song for the first time," not in a bad way. The words are good, and emotional, and honest.
At the last concert, I did that song for the encore; I really wanted the songs Suda-kun sings and makes to be seen more.
— Since you do all your sound and art direction yourself, I think you could've become a more introverted, quiet type of artist. But beyond just Gray and Blue, you've actively sought out collaborations and commissions for about two years now.
That's because I got exhausted - or just tired of it, rather. Of doing things locked up solely in myself.
When I was using Vocaloid and making songs as Hachi, I did the song, the lyrics, the mixing, the illustration, and the video all by myself.
But at some point, I thought "What good is it continuing to do this alone?" There arose feelings of wanting to connect with others, wanting to do things with others, and that's why I decided to debut using my real name.
Finally, as of late, I feel like I've been able to properly realize the offers and collaborations I'm involved in, to put as much energy into my songs as possible.
Vocaloids are colorless, invisible things with no "personality," and that has its benefits, but flesh and blood humans all have their own backgrounds.
Thinking about how their lives and what they've accumulated therein overlap with mine can feel like it's just a pain sometimes. Even so, if I don't undertake that tediousness, I won't be able to create anything fun or beautiful.
— Still, leaving parts of your works, which you've previously looked over every bit of yourself, in the care of someone else must be scary as well.
Maybe at first, I did feel that sort of thing. But "leaving it to someone else" is like... "well, so what?"
In my life, I've aspired to musicians and film directors, and my friends and parents have taught me plenty. Thinking about how I absorb those things and rearrange them into some other form, I've come to think: is it really "something I made entirely myself"?
There's fundamentally no difference between "making things alone" and "making things with someone." Jumping into the world of pros and meeting lots of people, my thoughts have slowly changed. There wasn't one big event, it was a little bit at a time.
— How do you feel about "being pop"?
I have to say my formative experiences were with J-pop. The folk songs and popular music played at home, the band music I intently listened to... The things I listened to back then are one with my memories now, as an adult.
It's not like I want to target a specific generation, but I strongly feel I want to be the music that grade-schoolers and middle-schoolers now will have playing in their memories 10 years later, when they're my age.
— What do you think about the balance between what you want to make, and what the era seeks?
There's no separation in the first place. That's never changed since my Vocaloid days.
When I was active as Hachi, high-speed Vocaloid songs around 200 BPM were popular in the NicoNico Douga community. Songs that Vocaloids are capable of, yet would be inconceivable with human vocals - that's really beautiful, isn't it?
That was what was in style, but also what I personally wanted to do, so I was absorbing that and making my music.
Ultimately, it's about how much I can have my music connect the community I'm currently in with - in the case of Lemon - the TV show. I'm constantly thinking about that element, so I feel no discord between "what's desired" and "what I want to do."
Some would derisively say I'm "ingratiating myself with the times," but that's laughable. To put it cynically, I've always been ingratiating myself. With pride. I think I'll continue to do so.
— I imagine it's impossible to escape when you're fighting on the battlefield of pop, but do you have a desire to "sell"?
That's essentially asking "do I want to reach a lot of people?" Because I was raised on pop, I want to make music with that kind of intensity, down to my roots.
I want to make things that reach and stick with more and more people. If that's referred to as "selling," then I'd like to get there.