"Have You Imagined Being A Top Seller Since the NicoNico Days?" A Special Interview with Kenshi Yonezu
Kenshi Yonezu, who boasted tremendous fame on NicoNico Douga as Vocaloid producer "Hachi." His third album Bremen released in in November [sic] earned first in the Oricon rankings, and went on to win an Excellence Album Award at the Japan Record Awards; it wouldn't be an exaggeration to call him one of the fastest-rising artists of the year.
Telling us "Spotlight? I've seen that before" and showing his deep knowledge of the web, our editors conducted a special interview with him. We tried to determine from the words he gave us why he's kept being accepted even through the move form NicoNico to the major music scene.
Spotlight: I should congratulate you on the Excellence Album Award for Bremen. How do you feel about this year, looking back?
Yonezu: Thank you very much. I think it was a very fulfilling year. Whereas the year before last, 2013, was an altogether hopeless year for me. I suppose I was too hasty with a lot of things, like I had to this and had to do that - I was just wasting time in that lousy mental state, and it became something really incomprehensible.
Spotlight: Since you did get out of that state of mind, I can assume there was some change within you.
Yonezu: I stopped thinking about a number of things. Decided to enjoy myself no matter what, in a way; I started to realize that there was no real point in thinking about this and that. Ever since I decided I would just follow along with the things I could do now, I've had a pretty good time.
Spotlight: Last year had your first concert, and this year had your first appearance at the Rock in Japan Festival and a nation-wide tour. More chances to perform music in front of an audience year by year.
Yonezu: I have a strong awareness I'm not great at concerts, and really wanted to live my whole live never having to do one.
But when I started making music directed at people, I realized it might be something I inevitably had to do. Once I did get started, I noticed the thing I had to value most was, indeed, "having fun." Without the sense that I'm having fun, I'd probably think "I never want to do this again" and so it wouldn't happen. I still have many weaknesses and no-good aspects regarding concerts, but I'm not worrying about them and just trying to have fun.
Spotlight: And in November, you had a battle of the bands against RADWIMPS, who you'd long listened to.
Yonezu: RADWIMPS was a band I'd listened to constantly since around high school, and that I deeply respect from the bottom of my heart. I think it's amazing that I could stand on the same stage as them, and I felt a connection between the points of my high-school self and present self. So it was a very meaningful experience.
Spotlight: One could certainly see topping the Oricon charts as a turning point, but do you have other objectives to come? Like playing at the Budokan, say.
Yonezu: I really don't have much desire to play at the Budokan or anything. The Yokohama Arena is bigger than the Budokan, after all. And I frankly don't understand why the Budokan is considered to have better "value" despite that. I still wonder why everyone's itching to play there.
I'm afraid I don't have anything as clear as an "objective," but I've always liked Ghibli movies. I think they're productions with an incredible strength, which is that while they move pleasingly enough to get kindergarteners absorbed, they have an ability to construct context that even old men and ladies can enjoy. I have a vague objective to make that kind of thing.
Spotlight: This year was a good year for you gaining "popularity," in a good way. Has that been something you aimed for since beginning to create things online?
Yonezu: Yes. Ever since I was making Vocaloid, I did have an aspiration to stand in front of people, show my face, sing with my own voice, and express myself with my own name.
NicoNico Douga was a big place at the time, and I was always thinking about how you could be accepted there. But later, as I did things moving away from "Vocaloid" under my own name, I saw that wasn't all there was, and there was a need to construct new, different methodologies. I've been thinking about that ever since.
Spotlight: You say "methodologies," but I'd like to ask about your online activity up to now. NicoNico is a given, but you've been on Twitter, do TwitCasts, and continue to express yourself using the web.
Yonezu: That's true. What I see and listen to online has become my present self's flesh and blood, so I'd even consider that I've been half-raised by the internet. I came out from NicoNico Douga, after all. So I find TwitCasts comfortable too and still do them now.
Spotlight: Maybe it's because of those roots, but there don't seem to be too many who are critical of you online. Do you ever check on your approval there?
Yonezu: I've stopped doing so lately. My heart can't take it anymore... (laughs wryly) I used to be really curious and did constant egosearches, but I feel like that's unproductive now.
However, while I feel there are many people who "hail from the internet," how I appear objectively is always on my mind. How people will respond if I post such and such isn't something that's easily visible to the eye, is it? When you throw yourself into that environment, it becomes a habit to look at yourself from a bird's-eye view.
Spotlight: You have many Twitter followers, so you're aware of your statements and behavior there too?
Yonezu: That's right. Music is about more than just sounds; I think it incorporates things like your words and actions. To express what kind of music I made, what sorts of things I was thinking, I have to choose all these different words. Maybe I shouldn't be saying this, but hardly anyone fully understands just what sounds I'm playing and what's being expressed by that song when they listen to it.
People are heavy on appearances after all, so the surface of a song is a very important part. Granted, I think that's a horribly grotesque thing, and I don't like it one bit.
Still, I can't just say "I'm making great songs, listen to 'em!" all the time. Searching around in my own way for better methods is important, I think.
Spotlight: Earlier you said you had a "bird's-eye view" of yourself. I'm curious about how you personally interpret why you've had such success thus far. Incidentally, could you imagine yourself now, first on the Oricon charts, back when you were posting songs to NicoNico?
Yonezu: Yes, I had that mental image.
Spotlight: Wow, that's amazing.
Yonezu: I had a completely baseless self-confidence back then, and thought the music I made would undeniably be appraised as the most magnificent in the world.
Now, back in reality - when other musicians told me there was something different about the songs I made, I felt it was only the slightest difference. But that "slightest difference" must be incredibly important, I thought. Like how in a short-distance race, a mere 0.1 seconds can turn a gold medal into a silver medal. Like they say, "God is in the details." I think that's pretty much true.
Spotlight: What abilities do you think are needed to make your works known to more people?
Yonezu: I feel as if people who can see themselves objectively and self-critique make it big without exception.
Spotlight: Self-critique as in, saying "maybe this isn't very interesting"?
Yonezu: Looking at what you're doing and asking, "Well, what am I missing? What kind of person am I, and what haven't I done?" Having the ability to precisely understand and analyze those questions is a very important ability.
Spotlight: A small question about your private life, please. How has it been in Tokyo for the five-or-so years you've been there?
Yonezu: When I'm asked whether things changed moving from rural Tokushima to Tokyo, I feel like things haven't changed that much, but Tokyo really is easy to live in. For better or worse, people don't have much interest in one another. In a rural town, like it or not, you have to treat your neighbors well... I think it suits me how in Tokyo, you're free to do whatever, and can live without having to mind anything.
Spotlight: I'm sure you must lead a busy life, but what do you most often do when you're not working?
Yonezu: When I'm not working... that's a tough question. I don't think of making music as work so much, and still have a sense that it's an extension of play. I'm usually listening to music or making music, so in that sense I suppose I'm always working.
Spotlight: As an artist, you leave a strong "cool and enigmatic" impression. But are there moments you suddenly have a surge of energy? For instance, you're making a song, and a good phrase comes to mind, so you start shouting in your room. (laughs)
Yonezu: I've had those for a long time. (laughs) When I make a really good song or melody, I get very hyped up about it. I spend hours playing just for that song, going on runs while listening to it. Those times may be the best in life.
Though in making songs, the demo-making stage is the most fun, and after that I have to focus on packaging, so my energy level gradually drops.
Spotlight: I'm sure there are young people who have desires for self-actualization like you, saying "I want to make it big in music," or "I want to be famous." Some final advice for those people, if you please.
Yonezu: You can only keep on doing what you like to do. I had a concrete desire to play music from early on, and kept going on stubbornly, thinking "I'm one incredible person."
You don't know what will provide the opportunity to find what you want to do. You might just happen to discover it while living an ordinary life. But if even the slightest thing makes you think "Maybe I'm suited for this," it's important to head toward it at 100% power.
Spotlight: Thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule for us.
The answers given to our questions, preceded by brief pauses, gave off a feeling of a clear "will" despite their quiet tone, perhaps due to the experiences earned from his journey thus far.
"I believed in my own talent more than anyone else."
As someone who could say this without a hint of sarcasm, he will surely be a figure to lead along Japan's future musicians.