Kenshi Yonezu Reveals the Place Where "New Music" is Born: "I Create While Asking My Childhood Self"
Kenshi Yonezu's 6th single "orion" is releasing February 15th. The title song, written as an ending theme for the anime March Comes In Like A Lion, features a hip-hop/trap-like sound, showing another new face of Yonezu's music. Also, the firm yet fantastical lyrics shine, and across all three songs, the album demonstrates the latest in Kenshi Yonezu. In this interview, we discussed resonating elements in Chica Umino's March Comes In Like A Lion, Yonezu's creative sources, and a new approach toward "physicality" coming from live performances.
Real Sound: I feel the three songs in your new single "orion," while being rock-band-esque, also definitely show a new side of your capabilities. First of all, how did the title track "orion" get made?
Yonezu: Around the time LOSER was complete, I was asked "would you make an ending theme for March Comes In Like A Lion?" The original manga is incredibly beautiful, and I'd always liked it, so I couldn't ask for anything better. And so I started off thinking "I'll make a song that's fitting for this series."
Real Sound: Was "beauty" something in the series you resonated with?
Yonezu: Indeed. In Chica Umino's manga, there's an effort, a powerful focus, to portray every subtlety of the characters' minds... I get the strong impression that there are things that can only be found in creations with that quality. It's a "beautiful" manga, to put it concisely, and so I gave the song my best effort, spurred on by not wanting to fail to live up to that beauty.
Real Sound: So you drew upon expressing the ideas of "beauty" within yourself.
Yonezu: That's right. Fundamentally, I always have it there as a compass guiding me when making music, but I resonated with March Comes In Like A Lion in that respect. In short, it's soft and sparkly, and the gags are funny, but on the other side of that are remarkably serious and nerve-wracking scenes. That methodology of the two coming together in one for the first time is something I really feel similarly about. Perhaps it could be called a tightrope walk, since it falls apart if the balance is even a little off. Because I've had that kind of approach to making music, I found myself sympathizing. I even had the impression that if it was for this particular manga, maybe I could make a song that followed the story.
Real Sound: Indeed, "orion" is an upbeat song, while also being stinging and ephemeral; I can feel the sharpness in the expression. When actually creating the song, what motifs did you picture?
Yonezu: I guess it's simply Rei Kiriyama (the protagonist of March Comes In Like A Lion). He himself is very on-edge, and keeps diving deeper and deeper. I figured I had to come from that viewpoint to even get started. What he pursues is shogi, a game with opponents, whereas for me it's music, so the form differs slightly, but there's definitely something in common there. The pieces on the board lead to many possibilities, and you advance one move at a time looking for the beautiful theme you want - I've never played shogi much at all, but I have memories of that part. Rei's mentality and the parts I see myself in are deeply related, I think.
Real Sound: So in making music, you have a tense feeling like in a game of shogi. Have you felt that since your teens?
Yonezu: Right. In fact, I think it was more present in my teens, back when I knew nothing. Of course, there's a disgusting amount I still don't know now, but... There are things I want to do and things I have to do, and back then, I often despaired over my lack of skill in handling them, which is exactly why I became deeply absorbed in music. I'm sure the same goes for Rei; tormented by his own nature and environment, he writhes and suffers, and it's exactly why he becomes deeply absorbed in shogi.
Compared to my teens, I think I've gotten better at living now that I'm 25. There are things I'm still a total mess with, but putting on a positive face and just handling it... I've gotten much, much better at that than I was. And I suppose there are some things that just die off as a result. Over the course of their youth, their teens, everyone becomes adults, so I'm fine with the fact that once it passes, it's gone. But there's still definitely a childhood self within me, and I do get the feeling I'm making music while asking him questions.
Real Sound: Having a dialogue with your own childhood self sounds interesting.
Yonezu: It's like, 25-year-old me asks "How about this?", and is told "You might like that now, but 12-year-old me doesn't care." I've been thinking lately about how at least for me, making music might be a form of "preserving my nervous adolescent self."
Real Sound: I see. Yes, out of all the worlds you've created, the elements in "orion" seem very purified, and I think it resonates with teenage listeners too. Like a condensation of your youth...
Yonezu: At first, I thought about making a winter song, and when I explored my own image of winter, I recalled this time I looked up and saw the stars in elementary school. The sky is clear in winter, so the stars look prettier. And when I looked up, there were three stars linked together, and I thought "I wonder if that's Orion?" That was the first time in my life I'd found a constellation all by myself. That left a strong impression, and so it stayed in my memory. I think this too ties into making things that are faithful to my childhood self.
Real Sound: On the other hand, the sound shows your continued evolution. I wonder if elements of Western hip-hop and trap music were influential here.
Yonezu: Indeed. I've liked American-ish music lately, and listen to it often. Starting from the idea to make a song that suited March Comes In Like A Lion, I made the melody and words with incredible earnestness, with confidence that I could do a good job. That's why in the arrangement, I felt like I was free to get more experimental. Pulling together American-ish music and J-pop, I went searching for a good balance. At least right now, I feel like maybe I found it.
Real Sound: Indeed, the lyrics and melody are simple and pure, whereas the sound, you wouldn't be surprised to hear party rap over it. There's a sense of tension coming from that conflict.
Yonezu: Beauty can only reside in places with that sort of tension. The same is true of March Comes In Like A Lion, where sparkliness and jokey scenes coexist alongside serious scenes. I think people who thoroughly consider what they should do, and what's best to do in a manga - or what's best to do in music - reach a point like that sooner or later. That's what Chica Umino is exceptional at, so reading her works gives me courage, and makes me turn around and think "so what about me?" I'm really very happy I could make a song like this.
Real Sound: The second track, Lullabye Goodbye, has the sound of a guitar band. The bassline is especially cool, and there's a thrill of strong emotion, like you're pouring out feelings relentlessly. Was this song made around the same time as "orion"?
Yonezu: It was after I finished making "orion." Personally, I might say it has a feeling closer to disappointment and resignation than anger. But if I say too much about it, I might make a number of people mad at me, so I'll keep it at that. (laughs)
Real Sound: Understood. (laughs) Sound-wise, it's not actually made up of very many notes.
Yonezu: Right, it's a solo performance. Initially there were lots of notes, and even a fairly intricate arrangement, but it wasn't that kind of song. I kept going "this is wrong" and whittling away until I ended up with the song I was really trying to make. That was the best. It might be the song with the least notes in my personal history.
Real Sound: It's extremely fresh as a rock song. It's a deeply meaningful song that doesn't talk a lot, but the title "Lullabye Goodbye" is straightforward.
Yonezu: Yeah. I have a lot of cynical parts to me, which I think are well-represented by that title.
Real Sound: Have those feelings of cyncism and spite, or anger toward something, been with you since your teens? Or have they slowly changed, perhaps?
Yonezu: I wonder... I think they've also diminished compared to back then. I used to be much more cynical. When you talk cynically, it's because you have expectations for things. If you don't have those expectations, there's nothing to be cynical about. Cynicism is an inversion of "I want to be loved," and that was much stronger in me before.
Real Sound: And the last song, Jade Wolf. It has some things in common with "orion" - basically, feelings of isolation at odds with a sort of glittering paradise.
Yonezu: What should. I say about this song... It's overwhelmingly me.
Real Sound: I see. Like the line "Faced with a high cliff, it sighs; it'd be easy if you just got somebody's help" - there are parts where you're putting yourself in there while keeping a little distance.
Yonezu: Right. I've had only the first chorus of this song since around 2015, so I extended it to finish it. As such, to me, the first chorus and everything else are totally different. Though I worked on it thinking the same things then and now, there's a clear disconnect. I'm not sure how it sounds when listened to objectively, but I've changed in a year or two, and my senses are slightly different, so I can see that divide. In a sense, maybe it happens to represent the path I've traveled, oddly enough. That's what I think.
Real Sound: Just what is the division between you and that past self?
Yonezu: I used to have expectations for a lot of things, and feel despair as a result, and dug myself deeper as I repeated that cycle. But lately, for better or worse, that's gone away. I still do feel excitement and anticipation, really, but sometimes I feel like I've squandered all of it already. There are moments I think: even if I do feel anticipation in the future, it'll just be a sub-species of something I've already seen, and there'll never be a sense of beauty I've never felt before or anything. People might tell me "what do you think you're saying, you youngster?", but I really do have those thoughts, so.
However, I think it's because I'm having that dialogue that I was able to write this song's lyrics, and it's all just my frame of mind, and maybe if I can make beautiful things regardless, it doesn't really matter - I can generally see it in a positive light.
Real Sound: So even the thought that maybe nothing new will happen can be a creative source. I feel like what you're implying is that a kind of resignation is one of your creative sources currently.
Yonezu: It feels like maybe the time where I was a proper person has passed. (laughs) I still have my own 25-year-old sort of youth now, but it's different from my teenage youth. Are you familiar with the movie Benjamin Button?
Real Sound: Yes, about a man born at age 80 who gets younger instead of older.
Yonezu: Right, right. He gets in a relationship with a certain girl, and their ages match for just a moment, but after that, they only get further away. Similar to that, I feel sometimes that the time where I was "proper" is very far away now.
Real Sound: I think it's interesting how the music you make amid those feelings has a strange sense of cheerfulness and loss.
Yonezu: Ultimately, even if I'm thinking like that, I "have faith" in my inner child, and so I'm saved. I thought - because the days are just so boring (laughs) - "I want this child to save me." And so I should make music that wouldn't embarrass my past self brimming with hope, and it's all right if I wail and howl.
Real Sound: One more thing I wanted to ask about was concerts. Your dancing left a huge impression, and I feel it's greatly expanded the physicality of your expression. And your sound is trending towards dance music in places... You've definitely undergone some changes.
Yonezu: True, I now feel like I'm equipped with that physicality. Diligently taking on dance lessons and exercise has affected the music I make too. It's only natural, if you think about it: the mind and body aren't exactly independent. Yukio Mishima said to Osamu Dazai, "Your worries can be rubbed away with a dry towel" - and really, if you get your body in order, the worries of the mind do go away to an extent. By getting fit, you become able to create a bodily melody, and now that I'm able to sing in that way, I've found it's something I've been missing. So it's fresh and tons of fun.
Real Sound: With signs of change in your performances and sound, I have high hopes. Do you think we'll be hearing lots from you this year?
Yonezu: I think this year will be one for making a ton of songs. I'll be making songs nonstop, and maybe I can show some new things too. I haven't seen the full picture yet, but there's no point in doing the same thing every time, and I'm enthusiastic about making things worth listening to.