The Life and Death in New Single "Lemon"
Kenshi Yonezu's new single Lemon releases on March 14th, 2018. The title song, "Lemon," best known as the theme song of TBS's Friday TV series "Unnatural," reached 21st in the daily rankings of its main streaming platform, and 13th in the weekly rankings its first week. In addition, the music video, created with a "requiem" theme, broke 10 million views in a mere 5 days and 11 and a half hours after posting.
In addition to Lemon, this single features two coupling songs: Cranberry and Pancakes, and Paper Flower. On the whole, it contains Kenshi Yonezu's portrayals of "life" and "death." Just as he himself explains that "properly portraying human life makes the things on the opposite end stand out," this interview covers his views on life and death, his creation process, his Budokan performance at the start of the year, and his prospects for this year. Though he considers himself to be poor at speaking, these are the words of Kenshi Yonezu, who endeavors to face others sincerely.
— Congratulations on your Fogbound tour. I asked you this at the Budokan show, but how does it all feel now that it's done?
Yonezu: Let's see... I want the people who come to have fun, but it felt like "something I just gotta do." I just don't have much personal experience with concerts in the first place. Music to me was something that played from a computer or earphones, so I hardly ever went out to hear it, and never felt the urge to do shows. That feeling's still lingering in the back of my mind.
— Even so, it was a fantastic concert, even down to the construction of it. The flow of starting out hidden by fog, then making yourself vividly clear, then the guests coming on stage, it all felt representative of Kenshi Yonezu in general.
Yonezu: It was my first time inviting that many people on stage, so I spent forever thinking about what would be the best way to bring them on. On the last day, Masaki Suda-kun came out too, and I was truly happy I could sing with him. It felt like my heart was trembling. I think that was really the one moment I felt like singing live could be more beautiful than just making a recording.
— In addition to the Gray and Blue video in which Suda-san co-stars, the Lemon single's Video Disc includes your first recordings of a live show. Why at this particular time did you decide to take a recording?
Yonezu: Hmm, maybe because concerts are starting to feel less like they're just compulsory to me. Before, I absolutely wouldn't want to put out recordings or anything. And I didn't have any desire to later look back objectively on what I did. In doing one show after another, my mentality changed bit by bit. If there was something beautiful in that space, maybe it'd be nice to preserve it physically. That's what allowed me to consider making a recording for the first time.
— Why did you arrive at the title "Fogbound"?
Yonezu: There's no particular deep meaning. Once the tour was decided on, I had to choose a title around summer or so. But at that point, the album wasn't ready at all, and I was in no situation to think about the tour. I had no ideas whatsoever, so I just made it the same title as the song I was working on, Fogbound.
— The opening to the show was "fogbound" as well. Ultimately, I think it made for a really good flow.
Yonezu: Thank you very much.
— During that tour, you announced your new song Lemon would be your first theme song for a TV show. Did you just start making the song from scratch after reading the script for Unnatural?
Yonezu: Right. Starting from absolutely nothing.
— There are a number of songs of yours involving fruit. Like "Fruit for the Heart," of course, and lemons are in the lyrics of "I'm A Ghost."
Yonezu: Fruits are colorful, and they look beautiful, right? I personally think they're similar to humans. They have skin, and meat, and seeds, so in terms of structure, they're like a human body. Music is a form of communication between people, and I generally sing about humans. I feel like having something else take the place of humans allows for a beauty that can't be expressed any other way. Fruits are extremely ideal for this, so they often end up falling into my songs like a sort of gimmick.
— Unnatural is a story about forensic doctors, so there is that common point of "the human body." Incidentally, why did you choose a lemon and not some other fruit?
Yonezu: I couldn't say why myself. From the temporary-vocals stage, I had the tune of the "Inseparable from my heart, the scent of a bitter lemon" part. When writing the lyrics, I stared at that part and thought about what words I should use, and my hands just sort of moved, and that came out. So I don't really know either. It simply had to be these lyrics. It had to be a lemon. I can't put the reason into words, and don't particularly think I want to.
— I imagine you're a fan of literature as well; when I saw the title, Motojiro Kajii's "Lemon" crossed my mind.
Yonezu: I certainly think there's a literary nuance to the word "lemon." There's also Kotaro Takamura's "Portrait of Chieko" (Lemon Elegy), etcetera. Perhaps lemons entered my mind from those, then subconsciously came out.
— Motojiro Kajii's Lemon is dark and a little cruel, but with the title "Lemon" and its use as a motif, it gives an impression of freshness. Your Lemon has an overall melancholy mood, but a similar refreshing feeling.
Yonezu: This song was originally called "Memento" instead of "Lemon." But naming a song about someone's death "Memento," I mean, it feels so overdone... It's too on the nose. I wrote the lyrics thinking "that's definitely not it." And then, as I said, the words "Inseparable from my heart, the scent of a bitter lemon" came up. So I thought by using something "fresh"... a lemon, something that seen on its own you think it couldn't be further from death, that would be good for abstractly representing a person's death. And in practice, I think it worked out well.
— The way it pairs with the show is fantastic as well. The timing at which it plays is just miraculous.
Yonezu: Honestly, that makes me feel the love from the makers of the show. I'm grateful to them for playing it in the exact place it should play.
— Yet listening to the song on its own, it still has weight. That sort of thing seems it would be difficult for a commission. Is there any particular element you focused on?
Yonezu: I was commissioned for many things last year as well, and what I've paid attention to - or rather, what's served as a guiding arrow, is "is there something that's a connection between me and the work?" In terms of Unnatural, it's a TV drama about death. And death is an important element when I'm making music, so there was a connection there. Of course, there's going to be minor reconciliations, but as long as there's one of those cores, I think it can ultimately work. And if there isn't one, there's no point in doing it. Like, it'd only be to the detriment of us both.
— Were the lyrics written from experience?
Yonezu: Hmmm. Well, I'm not sure how much to call "imagination" and how much to call "experience." It's a tough thing to do. For instance, even if I made a song based totally on a fantasy scenario, it's ultimately stemming from my experiences. It's no more than an extension of the things I've felt and done in my normal daily life. So it's difficult to clearly differentiate.
— I see. By the way, I think Lemon is a surprisingly hopeful song. Though you sing about days that are now over, and a person who's gone away, "even now, you are my light" - I feel like that's a wonderful thing.
Yonezu: Indeed... Certainly, "even now, you are my light" has a hopeful side, but personally, I think it can be cruel as well. Of course, listeners can think what they want, but objectively reading over the lyrics I wrote, I think "talk about selfish." I get the impression he's only saying what he's thinking. I think it's absurd. They're not very logical words. Well, but there is merit that comes from that, so it's not a bad thing or anything.
— Much like the title of your last album BOOTLEG, you have an incredible ability to take negative thoughts and things in a positive direction. Almost like I can't really tell if it's negative or positive...
Yonezu: I don't know that either. But ultimately, it doesn't really matter which it is. Negativity is simply when, because you're seriously wrestling with things, your eyes look toward the things you're uneasy about. To rephrase that, it just means you're fully seeing what's in front of you. If you just think "eh, I don't really care," you don't worry about it. Just the same, if you're not thinking about anything, you can always stay positive. But no matter how I look at it, "not thinking about anything" doesn't feel like something beautiful. In that sense, only being optimistic all the time has downsides.
— I feel you're skilled at finding the balance there.
Yonezu: Well, humans just disappear after some decades, ultimately. I'm just a trivial human, and me and what I'm thinking right now will eventually vanish completely. Thinking about how everyone I know won't be alive in a century has its own sort of salvation to me. Good or bad, nothing lasts that long. It'll be forgotten. It'll all be over. I think that's incredibly relieving, and incredibly beautiful. And being able to think that way lets you be able to think about living the present to its fullest.
— That's true.
Yonezu: I like deserts, you know. They're barren lands, not well-suited for people to live in, right? So in stories and such, they're portrayed as "a place that's left after things have fallen to ruin." But there's just something refreshing and comfortable about that. Maybe it's because I normally live in a cramped country where people are packed like sardines, so I yearn for a vast open space with nothing in it.
— The third track Paper Flower is rather dystopian. Is this sort of like Yonezu laid bare?
Yonezu: No, I don't want people to think "this is the real me." Lemon and Cranberry and Pancakes are the same way, as are all the songs I've made. No single one of them is me. Because they're all songs that came out of my life.
— Then saying "now THIS is Kenshi Yonezu" is incorrect?
Yonezu: Right. For instance, there's a tendency to elevate dark things, or things you don't show other people. There's people who say "the things you can't say to others are your real feelings, and those are what's beautiful." Like that's the person's essence. I don't really care for that kind of thinking, or like, I don't think it's very interesting. I think the connections between people are what's beautiful. Of course, when I'm alone, the one thinking about stuff in my head is my real self, but when I'm talking like this, the one putting my thoughts into words is also my real self. Neither's better than the other, and I think they all make up your essence.
— When you're making songs, do you think about the balance of the entire album?
Yonezu: Not so much. I made the coupling songs for this single after making Lemon, but it's not like I decided up-front "let's do a song like this." I just went and did it, and as I went, I found ideas of what to do. I reeled those ideas in, and ultimately could say "it ended up as this kind of song."
— You've always talked about wanting to make Japanese pop songs, but your sound is often Western. As far as this single, Paper Flower is especially so.
Yonezu: Strictly speaking, if the melody and words have Japanese parts, a feeling of Japanese poppiness, I think I can do whatever for the track itself. Tracks are mostly imported goods in the first place. It's something many people have done, so in that sense, I think what I'm doing is "making Japanese pop songs."
— Indeed, I think Paper Flower could work even with a simple accompaniment. And the second track, Cranberry and Pancakes, gives me a really nostalgic feeling.
Yonezu: When making Lemon, I was listening to stuff like Takuro Yoshida's. I got really into it. So I wanted to take that kind of essence into myself. "Gives a nostalgic feeling" is exactly it - that's exactly what I've been wanting to make.
— We talked about fruits earlier, but Cranberry and Pancakes is also about food. Is there something about simply the act of eating?
Yonezu: "Eating something" is an extremely fundamental thing essential for living. It's something that comes at the forefront in human life and work. So I feel like it's synonymous with "humans living," and I express those things in my music. It's the opposite of the "human death" expressed in Lemon, but it's like the other side of the coin; I very much feel that properly portraying human life makes the things on the opposite end stand out.
— By the way, Paper Flower's lyrics mention "Humanity all done up with fixatives." Do you draw your art analog? (* Fixatives are agents used in drawing)
Yonezu: I don't draw analog much lately. The cover art for this single was fully digital. So the word "fixatives" came up by reeling in past memories.
— Have you studied art?
Yonezu: No, hardly ever. I did go to a fine-arts school to leave my hometown, but all I did there was play video games and table tennis. That's all I can even remember. I mean, it was fun, though.
— Do you not think much about music theory, either?
Yonezu: Yeah. I don't know too much. Koichi Tsutaya-san once talked to me about Gray and Blue on KanJam, and as I listened to him talk about the chord progression in the chorus, I was like "oh, really?" But going on feeling alone isn't praiseworthy or anything. I think I absolutely ought to have that kind of musical knowledge. Really. It's definitely better than not having it.
— Do you ever make songs considering how they'll be performed live?
Yonezu: No, I don't think about that either. I think it seems fun in a way, but I'm not really thinking much about doing it right now. I'm a person who likes to simply make recordings. I do what I like there, and can suffer later. Most of my songs are hard to sing, so when it comes time to do them live, I lament "why did I make such a difficult song?" Well, so maybe there'll come a time when I'm thinking ahead about concerts, and make my songs with some level of constraint.
— You do have a unique way of using your voice.
Yonezu: Perhaps I'm figuring out those technical aspects little by little. The more shows I rack up, the more points for consideration come up. I go through those points one by one, until finally, I get accustomed to it. It's not like I've had an epoch-making experience, it's just the result of diligent repetition.
— You have a two-day performance scheduled for October at Makuhari Messe. That's still a ways off, but do you have a vision for the year, and for what you want to do by then?
Yonezu: Well, as always, there's plenty I want to do, but time won't allow me to do it all. That being the case, within the way things are timed and the way my fates with other people unfold, I want to see how beautiful a thing I can make. I feel that's the most important thing. If there's such a thing as "the progression of eras in music," I want to properly capture that - that how I've thought for a long time. So I consider what I need to do to jump into it myself. Thus, it's not a matter of what I'll do with myself. If there's a current, I'll ride that current. If there's a storm, I'll get swept up by it. That's the way I feel, so I'm just waiting here for it. What I feel I should do is this: while preparing to be swept up by a storm, I'll be waiting for it to happen. I think that's the kind of year this will be.