A Dialogue With My Past Self
Kenshi Yonezu's new single "Peace Sign," following in the footsteps of his sixth single "orion," is the opening theme for the new season of the anime My Hero Academia. This song which Yonezu describes as "created through a dialogue with my childhood self" has a racing beat, a dramatic melody, and the forward-facing line of "so long, throw up a peace sign" all in one. In addition to these, there's "Neighbourhood," an acoustic rock song based on memories of his childhood, and "Dreameater Girl," a self-cover of the song "Dreameater on the Sand" he released in 2010 under the Hachi name. One could call it a single that runs you through Yonezu's roots and his broad musical range.
Natalie has conducted an interview with Yonezu. With the creation of Peace Sign as the focus, he also spoke on his prior experience with anime songs, memories of childhood, and his relationship with Vocaloid.
Q. The title song of your new single Peace Sign is the opening theme for the new season of My Hero Academia. It received a lot of attention when it aired; how did this song come about?
A. Well, first there was a song that became a prototype for it. I'd made it around spring of last year, and after that, I was contacted by the My Hero Academia creators about an opening theme. I'd always loved the manga, so I was extremely glad to accept, and I figured that demo song would really suit it.
Q. How do you view My Hero Academia?
A. I see it as a brand new manga that does well to carry on the legacy of Weekly Shonen Jump. It's a story of boys growing up, and there's friendship, and also fighting elements. That's the kind of manga I've always liked since I was a kid. In my generation, it was Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, etcetera, and I've read them all. I wanted to make manga when I was in grade school, and that was because of Naruto. Looking at it that way, I liked manga and anime before I even liked music.
Q. Did you listen to anime music as well?
A. Yes. There's one anime that's sort of a monumental one for my generation, and that's Digimon Adventure. The power it holds is no joke - whenever I talk to people around 25 or 26 these days, almost without fail, we end up being like "you watched that, right?" And its first opening theme, Koji Wada's Butter-Fly, is just such a classic. Merely listening to it brings back to mind all these scenes from Digimon Adventure, and the way I felt watching it on TV, and the things I was thinking at the time. When I was put in charge of an opening for My Hero Academia, I thought to myself "I've gotta make something with as much power as Butter-Fly."
Q. So you want the kind of power Butter-Fly enacted on you to be felt by viewers of MHA, too.
A. Indeed. Butter-Fly is mainstream rock, and very emotional. That's what I picture anime songs to be, and when asked to do a theme song for MHA, I wanted to follow suit to an extent. Besides, it's sort of like I can never escape that song. Some say that people live relying on what they saw and heard as children, and I think it's true - much of what I liked and didn't like as a child has continued to stay that way in the life that followed. Me and Butter-Fly are deeply entwined, so as a creator of music, I can't part myself from it. I don't mean it in a negative way at all, I think it's a positive thing.
Q. On the official MHA site, you commented: "What was my childhood self like? I've thought about that a lot more since I started making Peace Sign." So I suppose that's what that's about.
A. I made Peace Sign while having a dialogue with my childhood self. I, now age 26, asked the part of myself who'd enjoyed all this different anime, "Well, I made this song, what do you think?" I was thinking the whole time "what would grade-school me say?" Maybe he'd say "You might like that stuff being 26, but I'm 12 and I don't." (laughs) My present self and my grade-school self are ultimately both me through and through, but I think there are still lots of children who think similar things as I did in this day and age. Times change, society changes, but I feel there's something universal in what children feel, and I asked myself if Peace Sign would be a song that got through to children today. I've been grateful for everyone's favorable impressions, even after the season began airing. Now I can feel confident that I didn't do something wrong.
Q. The second song Neighbourhood is a rock number that utilizes the sound of live instruments. It starts with the line "I'm having terrible dreams lately, scenes from my childhood" - does this song also have a motif of childhood memories?
A. Right. I also consulted my childhood self to make this one, coming from a different angle than Peace Sign. If Peace Sign came out of a dialogue with my manga- and anime-liking self, Neighbourhood was having a talk more based in my actual day-to-day life. Some say memories are sweet - humans shave away the painful events from their memory, right? This song doesn't do that; it extracts those painful events and smoldering feelings, and contrasts them with my present self.
Q. Is confronting your past self a difficult task?
A. Hmm... I know there are varying ways to make music, but that's the way I've always done it. It's not just this song where I've had a dialogue with something inside of me - sometimes my past self - to make a song. It starts from the question "just what is self?" Sometimes I think "this hurts to do," of course, and at times I even think "maybe I should stop this already," but I think doing it that way is what helps the music reach people who think the things I do.
Q. So the source of your expression is "self."
A. That might be. I'm always singing about myself, and making the things I experience and witness into music. Yet maybe it circles back around and ends up coming to the aid of other people. I mean, who trusts it when something presents itself like "I'm saying this thinking of what's best for you"?
Q. True. Even teachers always say "I'm saying this for your own good!"...
A. I feel like saying "I want what's best for you" might just be equivalent to saying "I want things to go the way I'm expecting." You can't make a clear distinction between whether you do something for yourself or for another, but I think when it comes to music, "singing about yourself" is the most sincere thing to do.
Q. And the third song is Dreameater Girl. This is a self-cover of a Vocaloid song you released in 2010 under the Hachi name, Dreameater on the Sand.
A. I've done covers of Vocaloid songs at concerts, but I've never once released them as official tracks. [Not actually true - Donut Hole.] There are a number of reasons for that, but first is that I felt no need whatsoever for me to sing something that I released as a Vocaloid song. I guess I had a strong sense that it wasn't something I made for myself to sing. People have often told me "please cover Vocaloid songs," but I've got a contrary spirit that makes me not want to do what I'm being asked.
Q. Then why sing a Vocaloid song now?
A. Lately, my Vocaloid songs created as Hachi have become a good kind of "past." To give a little bit of a hint [that I would do a cover of it], I put up a photo of a text file with the song's lyrics on Twitter, and tons of people asked "is this a new song?" I was really happy they didn't know the song. It's becoming "part of the past" to me as well, and there are a lot of people who don't know the song exists at all. I thought it was the perfect timing to sing this song myself and reconstruct it.
Q. And what did you think when you sang it yourself?
A. First of all, it's taken on a totally different shape. The original had more of a sense of speed, while the BPM of the new Dreameater Girl is quite a bit lower. I was thinking like "If I'm singing it now, it should become like this," and so it didn't feel unusual for me to be singing it. If I had sung it a year ago, maybe it wouldn't have "stuck" for me, and maybe the arrangement or the nuance in the vocals would've been different. It's also for those reasons that I think this was the right timing.
Q. Dreameater Girl's vocals are really lively, and there's a lot of info conveyed by your voice itself. It even gave me an impression that as you continue in your career, your center of gravity for vocals has gotten heavier.
A. That's true. I really didn't like my voice before. I was always wondering how I could bring it closer to my ideal, and compensated with the other sound, and went through all kinds of trial and error. But as I create more, I think I mature musically, and my vocal expression improves, and I've slowly come to accept my voice. Maybe this has even had an effect on how I create music. But the fact that vocals are right in the center hasn't changed the whole time. I've come here with more a sense that I'm a creator of vocals than a creator of music. And I feel that idea has yet to be shaken.
Q. Besides your single, people have also been talking about the announcement of Sand Planet, the theme song for Hatsune Miku Magical Mirai 2017 using the Hachi name.
A. It had been 7 years since I used Hatsune Miku to make a song, and something happened that deeply struck me. A bit of a gap had formed between my own voice and Hatsune Miku's. I think it's probably because I've grown too used to my voice. I said earlier that I didn't like my voice, and ever since I decided that I would sing for myself, I've been fighting against that voice. As I did more music, I slowly came to accept it, but strangely enough, this made it harder to think of Vocaloid voices as being that good. In short, I think a distance has formed between myself and Vocaloid. Making the song Sand Planet required me to confront this distance, and that took quite a lot of time. I really struggled with it, but I think I found a good compromise.
Q. Maybe through both Dreameater Girl and Sand Planet, you've reaffirmed your relationship with Vocaloid.
A. Yes, I think so. I was asked to make Sand Planet as the theme song for Magical Mirai 2017, celebrating Hatsune Miku's 10th anniversary; if that request hadn't come in, I don't think I would have made a Vocaloid song at that time. It reminded me how happenstance like that and the ways things relate can give birth to music.
Q. It's not only confronting yourself that's important, but also your connections with others.
A. Yes. I think that's the case for everyone. Your self exists due to connections between things, and you can't live alone and unassisted. Everyone is a part of society, and lives seeking a comfortable distance with those around them. I believe that's an incredibly common way for things to be, and it's just a matter of how aware you are of it.