Through days of sadness and kindness, futility and wishing, hope and despair, he lifts out beautiful vocals and sounds... Having experienced a liberation through two albums, Kenshi Yonezu aimed to be more free, more deep, and face himself in his new single, the first step in a new chapter, Flowerwall.
In 2013, there was a conflict between my prior method of creation and another, necessary method of creation, and I felt a sense of impending crisis. But by making YANKEE, it really felt like I had been freed from that.
Q. This interview about your new single is our first since your April 2014 album, YANKEE. During that time, a big thing to note was you doing a live show. First of all, let me ask: How did it feel trying to do a concert?
A. I was unsure how it would turn out at first, and before doing it, I even thought "I might just decide I don't ever want to do this again." But as it turns out, the prevailing feeling I was left with was "that was fun." Of course, there were definitely parts that didn't go well - I uncovered a lot that made me think "I've got a ways to go," but ultimately, I could be glad I did it. So that's really good.
Q. Besides the concert itself, when I met you right after the show, I was surprised to see you looking really elated, like, brimming with excitement and happiness.
A. Yeah, I'm not like that often. Even I was pretty startled by it. I sort of had some experience with concerts from back in high school, but I had no clue what to do then. I couldn't hear my own voice, even I couldn't tell what I was doing, so I could never think of it as fun. That contributed to a strong resistance to concerts... Though it's not like I've fully swept away that resistance now, it's like I no longer feel as much of a fog over the thing as I used to. I'm able to see a bit in front of me now, maybe 2 meters, 5 meters. So I'm a little more at ease.
Q. When I watched the show, I definitely saw things that indicated your inexperience, yet it was so extremely grand, it was hard to believe it was your first real show. And I felt a strong earnestness from you. It wasn't just "well, I won't know until I try"; rather, you were prepared to sing in front of people. In other words, it was proof of how earnestly you yourself have tackled your music and singing.
A. It's hard for me to answer if I was really "prepared" or not... Since I felt I had no room to spare for "being prepared." But as long as I was doing this, knowing people were paying money to come, I was self-conscious about having to make it worth their while, and didn't really feel any hesitation there. It was just like "Gonna have to do it," and "No point being all indecisive about it."
Q. The audience was great, too. More than anything, it really felt they wanted to leave knowing in their hearts that they'd heard Kenshi Yonezu's songs and vocals loud and clear.
A. Right, they were very warm. The moment I first stepped out, I did feel some nervousness about what would happen, but I felt truly saved by the warmth of the audience.
Q. Has anything changed after doing that concert?
A. I definitely think there are parts that have changed. I developed an awareness of making things in anticipation of performing them live. Whether I'm actually accomplishing that or not, it's what I'm trying to do.
Q. So, about this single. When did you start making it?
A. I moved out around the end of summer. Until then, I'd been somewhat unable to make songs.
Q. Because you exhausted yourself with YANKEE?
A. Yeah. I had this "nothing left" feeling, so I thought "this is bad." But I felt changing my environment might help things, so I moved. And then, I was able to make amazing songs. It was just me playing guitar and coming up with chords, melody, and lyrics, but for a time, I was able to make a lot of those "frameworks." The title song here was one of those.
Q. So doing something physical put you into gear for composing. I do seem to remember an earlier anecdote about how you couldn't make songs, so you started jogging.
A. Yeah, that happened. It really does seem to me like the mind is defined by the body, so to change my mind, I have to change something physical. That's where it starts from.
Q. You said you made a lot of frameworks by just playing guitar; do you take that kind of approach to make songs often now?
A. Usually, yes. Occasionally I'll do something like write a track on the computer then play a melody over that, but it's mostly freeform playing.
Q. So has it always been like that?
A. No, I feel like at the time of "diorama," it wasn't like that at all in comparison. I usually would play various sounds on the computer and develop an image from there.
Q. In the span between Santa Maria and YANKEE, you said, you developed your own interpretation of pop music and attempted songwriting for that kind of format. But the fact you're mostly coming up with songs via freeform guitar playing feels a little different from that.
A. Yes, it is different.
Q. When you said that, did you mean something like you're valuing the vocals more?
A. Ah, yeah, that might be it. I've felt the balance of things clearly gravitating toward the lyrics. It wasn't like that before... well, maybe that's a bit inaccurate. But lately, I've felt moreso that music is a communication tool. Thus, I definitely feel I'm giving more weight to the vocals.
Q. Through all three of the songs on this single, I got a sense that it came about when, after opening up to the outside via your first concert, once more you took a trip into deeper parts of yourself. And there's definitely a major sense of solitude there. That's stronger in the second and third song; in Flowerwall, there being two people - being with another person, "you" - is key, and makes for more hopeful lyrics. But still, I feel a strong sense of isolation from the world. Why do you think these songs came about when they did?
A. Isolation, huh... When I was making this, I was feeling like "I want someone else to define what my self is." The song Flowerwall has that motif of a "wall of flowers," which is itself something uncertain, that can be taken any way.
Q. Like in the lyrics, no one knows if the Flowerwall "refuses us, or if it's for our protection." Since many flowers - both hope and despair, and sadness and joy - bloom in it.
A. Right. Things like that are all around us. ...I've thought a lot about, like, whether the accumulation of all the things I've done is good for me or bad for me. I'm an essentially pessimistic person, and I'm conscious of my pessimism. So I can't be the one to affirm myself. Like I've said in the past, I feel like I can't put my trust in much.
Q. And I suppose that's no different now.
A. Yeah. But a person can't live their lives only feeling that way. So I need something to provide me relief. It can be a song like this, or it can be music itself, but I need to have myself affirmed by something, have myself defined by something. That's exactly why I increasingly feel the need to make cheerful things that offer salvation. And so I wanted to make a cheerful song this time.
Q. I see. Earlier, I put it as "taking a trip into deeper parts of yourself," but Flowerwall, and Repentance Town, and Petrichor, I think they all come from thoughts you scooped out of your fundamental core, from the bottom of your heart, and gave form. So in other words, it's an extremely deep single.
A. That's right. When I was done writing Flowerwall's lyrics, I remember thinking it was a really extreme song. Maybe it was just my mental state at the time, but that's how it felt.
Q. Flowerwall ultimately echoes with hope and affirmation, but it somehow carries despair too; alongside joy and kindness, it makes you feel a deep sadness. But as the line "Is this hell, or is it heaven? Well, it's all up to one thing: the path we two choose" illustrates, even in that chaos, it's up to you to get joy and happiness out of it.
A. Indeed. There are moments I might think the place I am right now is hell or heaven, even though I haven't taken a single step. I think that comes from nothing more than how I look at things, and what I feel... Yes, that's really the sense I have. If a huge Flowerwall appeared while I was thinking that, I feel like it wouldn't be necessarily happy or unhappy.
Q. The start of the chorus directly expresses those thoughts you just discussed: "This wall that stands before us now; does it refuse us? Or is it for our protection? Not knowing the answer, we stand at an impasse." Were you thinking deeply about these things at the time?
A. I wonder... I feel like I was, and I also feel like I wasn't thinking anything at all. But I feel like I achieved a very level-headed way of thinking. For my album YANKEE, I was thinking I had to make something physical, and I had that compulsion. But once I finished that, put it out into the world, did my concert, and saw all these new things, I felt super freed. The bass in this song is a synth bass, and the drums are sampled, so it's not too focused on physicality - put another way, it's like what I've done before... But basically, I guess I've just come to not think about those things. Somewhat like how I was able to make a lot of songs after moving, maybe I don't think quite as hard about things as before... Maybe I'm making songs a little more naturally. I used to think and think, going in circles quite a bit over "this might be better, no, that might be better." I can't say that process is worthless, but I was like, maybe I don't have to be so worked up about it.
When people around me open up the drawers in their heart, they're vibrant and filled with toys and stuff. But when I open my own drawers, it really feels like there's nothing inside.
Q. I'm sure there are pains that come with it, but I get a sense it results in more honest expression. So, you did the arrangement for Flowerwall with Koichi Tsutaya. How was that?
A. The process was just that I made the entire arrangement first, then sent it to Tsutaya-san and talked with him. During that conversation stage, "EDM" came up as a keyword.
A. Yes, though I was the one who said it. EDM has a certain frivolousness to it, right?
Q. A sort of vulgarity.
A. Yes, yes, yes. I decided I wanted something like that. I didn't want it to be pointlessly refined; I didn't want to be too much like "This is something superb!" about what I made. Of course, I do want to make good and creative songs.
Q. So you don't want it to be excessively artsy?
A. Yes. It's not like I don't like such things, but I felt like that's not what I'm making.
Q. I think you've been consistent with that. Even if you often put charming electronic sounds in your songs, I suppose that's the mindset they come from.
A. Right. So I wanted to borrow some of that frivolous nature from EDM this time. And what Tsutaya-san came up with after that talk was really just straight-up EDM. I thought that was really great in its own way, but as I went searching for the right flavor, it became what it is now.
Q. From the finished song, I would have never imagined it had an EDM period. (laughs) The tone it has now fits the world portrayed by the lyrics really well. If this were EDM, I suspect the despair/sadness side of the "hope and despair, joy and sadness" would have been quickly lost. (laughs)
A. That's true. From the plot stage, I felt like making something cheerful; not weirdly dark, and brimming with hope. But as I was doing it, it ended up like this. I have to wonder about that balance. I say I'll make something cheerful, but what use is it just being cheerful...? But I did want to try an EDM-like approach. I couldn't this time, but something more rough and delinquent... (laughs) "Frivolous" is kind of a bad word for it, but I want to make something with that mood. Dark stuff is just kind of disagreeable, you know?
Q. Though Flowerwall isn't necessarily dark. I definitely think the third song Petrichor is, though. (laughs) Incidentally, I really love that song.
A. Petrichor is like, a completely unfiltered song. I don't intend to say something or another is my true self, but this is the kind of song that results from not thinking about anything and acting on feeling. ...In thinking about why I don't like dark stuff, I realize it's probably self-hatred. I don't like myself, so I try to make things very distant from myself. It's very easy to get pessimistic and cry that this world's done for. I don't want to do the easy thing, and I don't want to do what's foolish. Of course, I say that, yet I also want to do something vulgar... I can't really explain that myself.
Q. Well, I think wanting to do something vulgar is part of the balance in your pop.
A. There's a whole lot of things I want to do. And Petrichor was one of them. So I think about what I should do, in order to do what I want to do, and I find that the more knowledge and experience I gain, I can more easily act the way I want.
Q. If I might say, Petrichor is your take on post-James-Blake soul music and R&B. You skillfully mix a deep, dark synth drone and ambiance with high-tone electronic sounds that are more your style, which I thought was excellent. The singing is really good as well, so an extremely fantastic song all-around.
A. I've really been into R&B and such lately. I made this wondering if I could make a song in that context. I'd like to seamlessly integrate that kind of thing into my music.
Q. The lyrics are also very deep, with a super-thick sense of emptiness from beginning to end.
A. It's all in the fact that I feel I'm that kind of person. ...There's always been an emptiness. For a long time, since kindergarten or so, I very much wanted to "be neutral." Even if there were people around me mad at something or dissatisfied, I'd look at that and go "Well, but you're just saying that. Maybe that's just your excuse, and you're putting your selfish feelings in there." That's how I thought since I was a child. Repeating that over and over, I came to not side with anything. Long story short, I became largely unable to put my trust in things. And the more I chose to be neutral and not take sides, it contributed to a sense that nothing was accumulating in me, that there was only "a self that's neither way"... Eventually I noticed that situation I was in, but I suppose it was too late by then. When people around me open up the drawers in their heart, they're vibrant and filled with toys and stuff. But when I open my own drawers, it really feels like there's nothing inside. I think Petrichor is a song where that feeling shows itself bare.
Q. Other people open up drawers full of things, but yours have nothing. Perhaps the sole thing in yours is music?
A. The sole thing... I mean, that's because I haven't done anything else. (laughs)
Q. You say there's nothing in your drawers, but in your case, many different drawers show up in your music. They may be feelings deep in your heart, or a part of yourself that hasn't given up even if you say people can't understand each other, or the feeling of wanting to believe. You say you're neutral, but there's a part of yourself that's looking far away and one that's not, and that appears in your music.
A. Yes, it does feel like that. I think I'm an extremely worldly-minded person. Most wouldn't think of me that way, but there is a fad-following aspect to me, and I'm easily swayed.
Q. In your songs, I can sometimes see you innocently, joyfully playing with music, and there are also times such as in this album where the deep subtleties of your heart surface. So I think you're a superb musician and artist down to your very fundamentals.
A. If I could, I'd just want to lead a fun life. I want to live innocently, not thinking about anything, just going like "This is fine, yeah?", but -
Q. Nah, that's never gonna happen. (laughs)
Q. Now, about Repentance Town. It has quite the title, and the intro starts you with an uneasy impression, but the chorus melody and the catharsis that comes at the end are fantastic.
A. This is just personally speaking, but of these three songs, I think Repentance Town is the best. Of course, they're all made to my satisfaction, but... man, is this ever a good one.
Q. Honestly, all three of these songs are high-level.
A. It was really fun. I wrote Repentance Town in one day. Wrote it like that, finished it like that. I also started with guitar playing for this, and even at that stage, I was thinking to myself "this is good." Of course, I always want to make every song good, and every time I finish a song I think "this could be a single." That's the temperature level I keep as I work, but the sense of satisfaction Repentance Town gave me could've kept me going for at least six months.
Q. In the lyrics, you seem to be singing about yourself, and also about modern society - I felt both of those sides from it. "A procession of saints, a hymn and a prayer, wrap your bandages around this town; I await the healing" is a very striking lyric, and I heard it as a representation of the state of society. "Though I want so much to see into someone else's heart, I can't even see the text on a sign just in front of me" brought to mind issues of communication in our era.
A. I see... In general, though, it's a song extracted from my memories. When you return to your hometown, you feel like "was the park always this small?" Of course, all that happened was you got bigger. Whenever you face something like that, there's a sense of irreversibility, which can make you really sorrowful. That feeling of "there's no going back"... I saw somewhere that people with cognitive disorders frequently say "I want to go back." You might assume they want to go back to where they grew up, but even if you take them there, they still say that. In other words, it's an issue of time: "I want to go back to then." Seeing that made me go, "I get it." That was something I had in my head while making this.
Q. Cognitive disorder or not, everyone surely gets those "I want to go back" feelings sooner or later. Learning things as you grow up gives you experience, but you can feel nostalgia and longing toward the "purity" of not knowing anything.
A. Right. If you did go back, it might be to a worthless era, but your recollection makes it look really appealing.
Q. So if those were your thoughts when writing it, why did you give it the title Repentance Town?
A. Because I have a lot of regrets, I guess. As I said in Flowerwall too, there's the feeling that I want to have my place defined for me, to have someone else decide the value of the Flowerwall. There are things about yourself that are vague and uncertain when you're alone, so at times I might feel like I'm in the greatest mood, or I might have the illusion I'm an incredible person, or I might think I'm the absolute worst human. I'm swaying between those, but there are definitely days I can't look at with anything but regret. "What would've happened if I turned that way at that corner?", or "Would it be smooth sailing for me now if I'd made a different choice?" Sometimes that's all I can think about... And this is the song I wrote while in that mood. And I think those things will only continue to multiply. Even if I exhaust all my words for a person, those words could hurt someone. On the other hand, even if I make a huge mistake and trouble someone, it might be for the best in the long run. Thinking of it that way, regrets can only increase as time advances. Of course, the things opposite to that will also increase. So I feel both excited and fearful about it.
Q. So that covers these three fantastic songs. But you said you made a lot of songs after moving... Are there lots of good songs besides these?
A. Hahaha, that's right.
Q. Oh! Then perhaps I'm jumping the gun, but is an album approaching?
A. I have no clue right now. But I have clear things I want to do, and I want to give them form as soon as possible.
Q. I look forward to it. Lastly, since this will be the final issue of 2014, what kind of year was 2014 for you?
A. ...I really feel like I opened up a lot musically. In 2013, I had a lot of impatience and haste. Considering that, 2014 has been a lot more fun. There were hard times, but on the whole, it was a good-feeling year.
Q. I guess making YANKEE freed you in some ways.
A. That's true. I found a level-headed approach unlike what I'd picked up before... In 2013's Santa Maria and MAD HEAD LOVE, there was a conflict between my prior method of creation and another, necessary method of creation, and I felt a sense of impending crisis. But by making YANKEE, it really felt like I had been freed from that. Right now, I'm honestly wondering, what can I do next? I'm feeling positive about what I can do, and I'm having fun. So I'd like to keep that up.