Depicting a Wall of Flowers
In commemoration of the release of Kenshi Yonezu's new single Flowerwall, Natalie.mu has conducted an interview with the man himself.
In 2014, he released his album YANKEE, then had his first one-man concert and a nationwide tour. In this interview, he discusses how his experiences in the last year have greatly affected his stance as an artist. In addition, he talks about his new song made to visualize a "wall of flowers," his goals, and his influences.
Q. First, let's start by talking about concerts. You had your first tour in December of 2014. Personally, I saw you in Osaka, and it was really great. It had a more impressive impact than the one-man show in June, I think. How was the tour experience for you?
A. It was short, but I enjoyed it. I also felt exhausted at times, but thankfully I could enjoy it on the whole. After all, before I started doing concerts, I thought "I bet I won't even be able to enjoy myself."
Q. Won't even be able to enjoy yourself?
A. Yeah. I've never thought I'd be capable of doing everything from the beginning. I'm lacking in technical aspects, and there's a lot about concerts that I just don't understand, more than I realize. So then I wondered, "What can I do?", and my answer was "see if I can enjoy it." See if I feel like doing a concert again or not. That was the important thing, I supposed. I'd give up, in a sense, on the stuff I couldn't do, and enjoy it. And get others enjoying it. That's basically all I was thinking.
Q. You first stood on stage last June. When that show ended, did you think "Sure, I'll do that again"?
A. I did.
Q. Was it mostly due to you personally having enjoyed it?
A. Yes. Since in the past, I'd had the experience of not enjoying it. I was in concerts in middle and high school... though I could count on them on one hand. Those weren't fun in the least. I couldn't hear my own singing, and I even felt myself asking "What's fun about this?" So I gradually came to dislike concerts.
Q. When you first changed from Hachi to Kenshi Yonezu and released your first album under that name, you still weren't thinking about concerts.
A. Indeed. When I made diorama, I enjoyed making the music, without so much as a thought about live performances. But as I started making YANKEE, I came to think that I have to give my music to listeners face-to-face, that it was coming time for me to do concerts. That said, I was still hesitant at that point. I didn't want to do it if I didn't have to, and I wasn't sure if there was any value in doing it. But I'd try it once, at least.
Q. And yet after getting up on stage, your stance seems to have changed drastically. I would suppose that means you found a lot of value in meeting the people who appreciate your music in person.
A. Right. I had an immense impression that there was something truly irreplaceable in that place. Heck, I thought it was amazing that hundreds of people took time out of their schedules to come at all. I mean, it's hard for just four or five people to align their schedules. So I thought it was really wondrous, and there was a lot of energy in the hall. So I found it very valuable.
Q. There were also many applicants for the ticket raffle, so there were plenty who wanted to come but couldn't. Which means you could go somewhere bigger if you wanted to. Still, you said while emceeing that you want to climb up one step at a time. What's the thinking behind that?
A. I don't trust myself much with regard to concerts. I knew I was poor at them, and I lacked experience with them, so simply knowing that I "can" do them doesn't amount to much. I was in a state of distrust with myself. Plopping me on a big stage in such a state wasn't going to accomplish anything useful, I felt. Those around me would suggest how to present myself in a way suited for a large place, all these people working to make me a stage presence. But ultimately, that would just be a cardboard cutout with the name Kenshi Yonezu. I didn't think there was any point in making something like that. I just thought it was worthless.
Q. You wanted to make it have a point.
A. Yes. If you don't make things that go along with what's inside you, it's like a bad lie to yourself. I'm just supposing, but if I had done a concert on a huge stage from the start, I think I would've decided I didn't want to do it anymore.
Q. What I felt as I watched was that, as many people there were at the show, everyone was having a one-on-one with Kenshi Yonezu's music. And you, too, seemed to be facing each member of the audience. If it were a huge stage, I don't think that sensation would've come about.
A. Certainly. That would have diluted it, I think. You can't tell what's what in a big venue, and I've heard you can't even tell if there's really people on stage or not. Those that go step by step to eventually reach large venues seem to have ways of forming accompliceship with every member in the audience, no matter the size of the place. But I have not a clue about that; I can't even see people's faces, so I can't even be sure if there's people in the audience.
Q. So your new single was made after you did your first show.
A. Yes it was. I made it after the June concert was over.
Q. Flowerwall doesn't have an explicit "band" sound to it, but somehow I feel like it was influenced by your experience of standing on stage.
A. I certainly did make use of that experience, yes. Up until making YANKEE, the sensation of "I have to do this with a band" was very strong. It was like a kind of obsession, no doubt because of my complex from never doing things with a band. And it was the same with concerts. Because I'd never once done one since going pro, I was self-aware of my weakness in that area, which is the reason I felt I had to do it. But after making YANKEE and having my concert, I felt very level-headed.
A. I guess my complexes and anxieties were purified, to an extent. I was able to do music with a band. I was able to enjoy a concert, too. Now that I'd accomplished those, I didn't need to have such threatening thoughts about them. So Flowerwall didn't go for a band-like impression. That was the kind of song it was from its creation, and I decided I'd just embody that feeling. If I had made it just a little earlier, I might have thought that Flowerwall also had to be done with a band.
Q. You were freed to express yourself as you wanted.
A. Yes. In being freed, I feel like I've become less clingy to bands.
Q. How did you start making Flowerwall?
A. First of all, I moved around summer of this [sic] year. Part of the reason was that I'd been pretty unable to make songs. Not that that's a particularly rare occurrence... But I thought I'd change up my environment. And then wouldn't you know it, I made a ton. Flowerwall is one of about ten songs I made at that time.
Q. You can really work wonders.
A. Hahaha. (laughs) Changing your environment changes your mentality, too.
Q. Do you always make the music first, then write the lyrics afterward?
A. Generally. But most of the time I picture an image or a situation before anything else. For example, Flower and Storm: I pictured a person waiting around lonesomely, in an empty train station waiting room, in the middle of a storm. Often I imagine a situation like that as I get started.
Q. I see. So was there a base idea you had for Flowerwall as well?
A. Indeed. I pondered about what it would be like if there were a "wall of flowers." A "wall" has a negative association of blocking your path, and "flowers" have a positive association, and a "Flowerwall" is the combination of the two. So it's not happy, it's not unhappy. As you're living your day-to-day existence, there are numerous times where you feel neither unhappy nor happy. For instance, you may have the thought that you were born in a very distorted form. But a few hours later, you can have the thought that this allows you to make beautiful things. Your situation and position haven't changed at all, yet you can think differently. I realized the "Flowerwall" was perfect for representing that, and that was the start.
Q. The Flowerwall sounds like a very phantasmal thing, but it symbolizes a much more common sentiment.
A. I think it's something everyone must have encountered before. I believe it's very universal.
Q. That sensation is rather clearly expressed in the lyrics: "Does it refuse us? Or is it for our protection? Not knowing the answer, we stand at an impasse." But when you listen to the whole song, you can tell it doesn't just end with standing at an impasse.
A. That's right. As I've lived, I've found there are many things I don't know and can't define alone. Speaking personally, I'm a pessimist, and I don't trust people very much. I don't want to put my trust in them. But living without trust for such a long time, there comes a particular day where it seems like there's nothing else in front of me. I had a premonition that if I kept living this way, I'd someday see nothing at all. At those times, I felt "I can't help living this way." And I felt I needed someone to define for me what's important, to define my own self.
Q. Have someone define you?
A. Even if you can't decide something yourself, having someone beside you helps you understand your shape and place. If there's nothing around you, you can't even tell where you are. So living on solely my own standard seems worthless. There's no point in trusting no one and deciding that everything I do is right. It's like continuing to dig from a dry well. So in one sense, it's a song about wanting to deny that.
Q. This is just my conjecture, but probably the reason I feel a connection to your concert experience is not purely on the sound side; it's also an affirmation that "meeting people changes people." In a YANKEE interview, you said that one of the keywords for that album was "curse," but you're moving forward out of that past. And now you want to do things that have a point, that have value. I can really feel your conviction toward that.
A. There's really no going back now. Because there's nothing back there. So that sensation got bigger and bigger after finishing diorama. I made Santa Maria from the idea of "How about starting from zero?", and now that you mention it, maybe there's conviction there. No hesitation now. I feel like the only thing to do is this.
Q. Is the Flowerwall not a curse?
A. The Flowerwall itself isn't really either, I think. It's not like it was created by God to be strictly good or evil. So that's a question for you to figure out. I'm simply determined to accept it as a blessing.
Q. On the sound side of things, Koichi Tsutaya is credited as a co-arranger for Flowerwall. How was it working with him?
A. I realized this when I did a song with him before, but he really is an amazing person. I made a very precise demo of the song at first. I decided my own arrangement, then threw it to Tsutaya, who fixed it for me through an oral discussion.
Q. How did that discussion go?
A. Initially, I said I wanted to make it EDM. I thought the kind of frivolity in EDM might suit this song, so I threw out the word EDM and had him arrange it. Ultimately that track wasn't used, but it was really good for what it was.
Q. Oh, wow. I'd really like to hear that. (laughs)
A. Hahaha. (laughs) It was fully completed. But in my search for a good seasoning, I found I wanted something that felt like what I first created, just with an added touch of Tsutaya's essence.
Q. I see. I think I understand your "frivolity of EDM" concept. Maybe another way of saying it is "marketability." Did you perhaps have the desire to have more such elements in your music?
A. Exactly. I want it to be sellable. To take it to an extreme, I don't want to be an artist. The things I make should be consumed by others, and should be for the sake of those listeners. So I don't want to do anything weirdly pompous. I am proud to claim I'm making wonderful music, and I'm enthusiastic about making creative things, but...
Q. You're not an artist.
A. Right. And I don't want to be. I haven't found much of a point in making artistic things. There definitely is a part of me that likes things with an artistic quality, but I think that what I should be doing isn't that. After all, I think I'm here now as a result of getting tired of that stuff. My creations don't aim to be that way. It's a very strong sensation that can be called both resolution and resignation.
Q. I think I'll ask about the other songs on the single now. First, Repentance Town. This one has a band arrangement, and a catchy shuffle beat. How did you go about making this song?
A. I made this one after I moved, too. It really came about in a blink. I personally really like it. There are also parts that come close to Flowerwall itself. Like the Flowerwall, the so-called Repentance Town isn't itself good or evil. It's not as if it were made with a particular person's good or bad intentions.
Q. Was there a core image for this song as well?
A. Indeed. Once, when I visited the town I was born and raised in, I came to realize how small the park I once played in looked, and how narrow the alleys I walked down to school were. And it wasn't because the town changed, it's simply because I got bigger. It sounds extremely obvious, but I really felt the sense of irreversibility, that there was no going back to how things were before. It got me very gloomy. That's the kind of thing I was thinking about while making the song.
Q. And why does "repentance" appear as a symbol?
A. How should I put it... I've long had a desire for someone to give me forgiveness. I've had a feeling, "Am I allowed to be living right now or not?", since I was a kid. It'll never go away. That's ultimately the root of it. When I think "there's no going back to before," or "my life might have been much smoother if I'd done so and so back then"... I strongly want someone's forgiveness, I want affirmation, I want definition.
Q. How about Petrichor? As far as sound, parts of it sound like western indie R&B or electronica.
A. It's a song that really went through no filters. For Flowerwall and Repentance Town, there were some number of thoughts like "Should it be like this?" or "It has to be like this." That's not really a bad thing, and has a positive effect. Petrichor came about by being created totally naturally, without passing through any such filters.
Q. "Petrichor" means "the smell of rain." How did you learn that word?
A. I happened to see it while looking things up online. It had a great sound to it, and looked nice. When I looked up what it meant and saw it meant "the smell after rain," I realized "Oh, so it's perfect for this song."
Q. So Flowerwall is based on a wall of flowers, Repentance Town on the park when you were a child... And this one?
A. I didn't consider any basis. I just got engrossed in putting notes together, quickly writing and composing just like that.
Q. I see. So it didn't pass any filters in that sense, either.
A. Nope. I just want to say, I don't want people to think that means this song's basis is "the real me." Even if I say it came about without passing through any filters, I don't want it to be interpreted as being "my real self," or being the most accurate to me. Because Flowerwall and Repentance Town, filters and all, are still me. They're all the real me.
Q. I see.
A. I believe the "self" is just a set of coordinates, really. Thinking of it like there's a "real self" seems laughable. It's just a "you are here" marker, always changing in relative terms. Questions like "What is the real me?" aren't going to find you anything.
Q. In 2015, you're releasing this single, and in April will be starting a larger-scale nationwide tour. Are there things you want to do more of next?
A. There most definitely are. Lots and lots. Because I felt like there was much, much more that I couldn't do in the previous tour versus what I could. So I just have to do them one by one. I think I'll continue with them.
Q. Incidentally, you mentioned EDM earlier. Has recent music served as stimuli for you?
A. Very much so. I listen to old stuff as well as contemporary music.
Q. What's been a stimulus for you lately?
A. Let's see... I really like Alt-J. And Sam Smith. They're both my generation - I think Sam Smith is actually the same age. The fact that people of my generation are out there making such high-quality works stimulates me. I want to keep trying new things myself.
Q. Understood. Can you see, to an extent, what lies ahead for Kenshi Yonezu?
A. Indeed. I feel like there's only one thing for me to do, so I'm just proceeding along the path I think I should take. It's like the songs go out in front, and I'm following along behind them.