What is "Original"? The Beauty and Essence Packed Into a "Bootleg"
Kenshi Yonezu will release his album BOOTLEG on November 1st.
It's his first time releasing a full album in about 2 years. This album contains a variety of songs, some of which were theme songs for anime and movies. It even includes self-covers of Sand Planet, a song released under the name Hachi, and of Fireworks, a song released under the name DAOKO x Kenshi Yonezu. Last but not least, Masaki Suda is also involved via the song Gray and Blue, and Elaiza Ikeba via "fogbound."
Why have so many varied collaborations in this new album? And why did he choose to name it "BOOTLEG"? Natalie.mu conducted an interview almost 4,000 words long to ask about his thoughts.
Q. I felt BOOTLEG was an album that really represented the times.
A. Thank you very much.
Q. Which of the songs included did you complete first?
A. Number Nine.
Q. Since it was the theme for Louvre No. 9 in September last year. At that point, did you have an idea of what your next album would be like?
A. No, not a clue. Starting from Number Nine, I had a bunch of different partnerships, and kept making songs where I had a connection with the people or works. orion for March Comes In Like A Lion, Peace Sign for My Hero Academia, Fireworks for Do You View Fireworks From Below, Or From the Side?, Sand Planet for Magical Mirai - I was making totally different songs in different modes to suit each occasion. Since the approaches were all completely different, I was unsure myself what kind of album I would end up having. I felt like it could end up being an album where the points are all spread out, but the median points between them would highlight my own self.
Q. Was there a reason why you've had so many collaborations and partnerships in these two years?
A. It's not really any fun to do the same thing over and over. I was getting pretty bored of doing everything alone up to then, so I feel like I'm starting my career as Kenshi Yonezu now. Maybe I hit my limit with that.
Q. Looking back at your career up to now, with the three albums from your debut to Bremen (2015), perhaps you had a sense of having reached a destination. So you sought new stimulation.
A. Maybe that's it. I believe with those three albums - diorama, YANKEE, Bremen - I had clear visions like "it was like this before, so let's make an album like this next." But not so this time. I even decided the title BOOTLEG at the last minute, so in that sense, maybe I've become a little bit more free.
Q. Working in collaboration with someone else is never necessarily easy, but I think you gain a lot from it as well. What would you say about that? What do you think you've gained, looking back?
A. Quite a bit. In fact, my way of making songs and constructing melody has become fresher. A melody that I can feel good singing won't necessarily be a perfect fit for other people too, so such experiences helped me think of new melodies and lyrics - that's a big one. I think this album is an album of connections. Various types of connections and homages are laid out all over. Like myself and March Comes In Like A Lion, myself and My Hero Academia, myself and Hatsune Miku. Not to mention Elaiza Ikeda and Masaki Suda, people who actually exist. And even my drinking buddies who helped record 爱丽丝 (Alice). By having the aid of others, doing things with people other than myself, I feel like I'm making it easier to see what kind of person I am. Like my own self is bubbling forth from contrast with others.
Q. I think having Elaiza Ikeda and Masaki Suda on the album is a big selling point. First, how did Elaiza Ikeda end up contributing to "fogbound"?
A. I already had an acquaintance with Elaiza. We talked on Twitter, and met a few times. And what got this song started was seeing a video she posted on her Instagram. The video was pitch black, and you could hear environmental sounds and rustling, so she probably recorded it while walking around, but she was singing as she walked, and the singing was really wonderful. Whispery, transient singing. Hearing it, I thought that transience and sense of emptiness was a 120% match for my song "fogbound." Things moved quick after that.
Q. Did this song come after Fireworks?
A. Yes, immediately after.
Q. Fireworks was made with the assumption of just DAOKO singing, and ended up becoming a duet. I suppose that song really got you thinking?
A. That's part of it. I'd had no conception of the song being a duet at first, so I was thinking "Is this gonna be okay?", but in practice, our contrasting voices balanced each other and covered the range the other lacked. I thought "Oh, this is pretty good." It made me realize it could be fun to have other people's voices in my songs. Furthermore, Elaiza-san and Suda-kun are actors, not musicians, which is why I asked them. By letting totally different contexts into myself, I can make myself newer, and make my own shape more clearly visible. It was really fun.
Q. I think what really depicts the things you're talking about clearly is Gray and Blue, which Suda sang for. It's a song built on the two of your voices overlapping. What kind of motif did you make this song from?
A. First, I really like the movie Kids Return, and wanted to make something like that. It starts with two high-schoolers riding a bike together, and the two take different paths - one becomes a boxer, one becomes a yakuza. And both end up hopeless, and return to where they came from... It's a really beautifully-composed movie. I've always had the thought in my head about somehow making music that's like this movie.
Q. I see. That's why it has the motif of memories of youth.
A. In addition, and this is a totally separate subject, I've always thought about how I want to depict "miraculous moments." For instance, when friends are talking and they say the same thing at the same time, or when a total stranger is walking in front of you, and their walking tempo perfectly matches the BPM of the music you're listening to in your earphones. I've had a number of those moments in my life. I've always thought those moments are just so... exquisite. There are these moments I can feel "I could have a 120% understanding with this person," or "Maybe I was born just for this day." They're only brief moments, but I wondered if I could express these dramatic, miraculous moments in music. That's always been on my mind.
Q. Why did you decide to try it with Suda?
A. He's someone I was always really curious about. I first watched The Light Shines Only There, then Destruction Babies, and Drowning Love, and Nanimono... He kept performing for directors I knew or for works I was involved with, so his face frequently popped up on the timeline of my life. I couldn't ignore him. Somewhere I picked up the idea that maybe we had something similar. I thought that, working with Suda, the two of us could depict both a miraculous moment and something akin to Kids Return. So I called him up.
Q. A number of different musical genres meet in Gray and Blue. There are harmony effects used in leading-edge music overseas like Bon Iver or Francis and the Lights. The song itself is living in your own roots, like BUMP OF CHICKEN or RADWIMPS. And it has the fierce voice of Suda, a contemporary who likely grew up listening to the same sort of music. In comparison, your voice has a pleasant coolness. That difference in temperature also links to the themes of the song. It really does feel like a song that couldn't have happened without the two of you.
A. I really think so. I really think if it weren't for Suda-kun, it wouldn't have worked. I'm just under my own impression that he has similarities to me, though; we were raised in totally different environments, and we express ourselves differently, me being a musician and him an actor. And yet, I still do feel something in common. That sort of balance was just right. We recorded it in September, and it feels like the song could have only existed in the whole vague span from summer to autumn of 2017.
Q. I think Gray and Blue symbolizes the album, but meanwhile, Moonlight, placed in the center, also felt extremely important.
A. That was the last song I did.
Q. You said on Twitter "My new album was going to be 13 songs, but I added a 14th." So that's what that was?
A. Right. By the addition of this song, the album became more tangible. This song is extremely representative of the album BOOTLEG. It felt like drawing on the daruma's eye to complete it. The difference between having it and not was night and day.
Q. Why was this song so necessary?
A. Hmm... I felt like I needed to bring things closer to the album's mood and the title of BOOTLEG. It's kind of an ironic title, though.
Q. Moonlight has the line "nothing is the real deal." I felt that was in keeping with the title BOOTLEG.
A. I personally think of this album as an homage album. There are homages to things I've worked with like March Comes In Like A Lion, My Hero Academia, Louvre No. 9. There are homages to Hatsune Miku, and Elaiza, and Suda-kun. The song Moonlight is also an homage to the post-Frank-Ocean R&B style. And I'm doing that self-consciously. I wanted to present my own response to people's belief in extreme originality.
Q. What exactly is this "belief in extreme originality"?
A. This is something I've mulled over for a long time, so it's not anything recent... But Sand Planet was one impetus. That song's lyrics have homages to the titles and lyrics of old Vocaloid songs... monumental ones in the Vocaloid community. I did that because I thought there was something I couldn't express any other way. But people said things like "Don't use other people's songs like that!" I was told to my face, "How would you feel if someone used your lyrics like that?" But I thought, "I probably wouldn't really care?" Because this is the way music is made. Music comes in different shapes, like rock, jazz, hip-hop, R&B. Why not cross these with each other and swim as freely as possible? That's how I think music is.
Q. Right. This is my own personal thought, but for instance, there's a tendency for a third party - not even a creator - to point out that two things are similar and denounce it as a "ripoff." I think that way of thinking is a serious disservice to the culture.
A. You're right. Even the idea of "ripoff" is ambiguous; first of all, it's not for you to decide what exactly qualifies as ripping off. People will say things like "If you could get in trouble for it, it's a ripoff" and "If it's out of respect, it's an homage." But that's a fuzzy line. I can't say I'm fond of there being people who are so extreme about it. Just as an example, I feel like there are a lot of people who would look at a drawing of a tree and say something like "this is a ripoff of trees." There are many genres, with their own histories, and I'm making things now, at the latest point in that history. My current self is born from picking things up from places. I've wondered for a long time if I could clearly express that through an album.
Q. So that's what the title of BOOTLEG symbolizes. It may be used ironically, but your works are not "original" in the way defined by the "believers of extreme originality" you speak of. It's an "original" formed by absorbing and adopting many things, and building on that foundation. And there's a unique beauty there.
A. That's right. If you pursue "originality" in the sense of something no one has never seen or heard before, you'll just end up with a bizarre static-like substance. That's beautiful in its own way, but it's not what I want to do. I want to make something universal, something that flows through everyone. I want to make it represent the times. Thinking of it that way, of course it's going to be something you've heard somewhere before. So if people are going to use the word "originality" in such an extreme sense, then I don't care one bit about originality. I feel very strongly about that.
Q. Back to the songs on the album: the first track, Flying Swallow, was very memorable. It's a very energetic, fast-paced song. What were you picturing when you made this?
A. I wrote about myself here. I put in my thoughts on "how I want to be" in my life of making music, and it just ended up as this sort of song. The original image I had for the song came from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. I wrote it while reading the manga. I've loved the Nausicaä manga since I was a child, and it influenced me a lot, and I feel a certain charm from the character of Nausicaä. She's overflowing with affection, kindness, and motherliness, but in contrast, loses herself in anger and can hurt or kill people. Those confused, mad aspects are also part of her. She's pulled around by both these aspects, and yet always pushes forward to a better future, a future she can consider beautiful. I thought that was something truly beautiful. I've always felt like I wanted to live like that myself. So I intended to sing about myself with this song, but at the same time, I'm singing about Nausicaä. That's how it feels.
Q. I think people captivated by the music of Kenshi Yonezu listen to it now feeling the same feelings of aspiration you felt for Nausicaä. I'm sure there are many who think "I want to be like this too." In that sense, you're taking on responsibility as being a kind of hero.
A. Well, it's hard for me to say if I want to be a hero to people who like listening to me. Sometimes I get embarrassed thinking like that, and I'm like, I didn't intend for that one bit. But yes, I do think there are things I can do. Of course, I'm confident that I have an aptitude for making music, for weaving together melody and lyrics. So what can people like that do? Is it like I have a wind blowing from behind that stirs me up? If so, where should I have that wind take me? I don't know where I'm heading myself, but I want to head somewhere even just a little more beautiful. I want the world to be just a little bit better. Those are the things I feel strongly about.
Q. Let me also ask about track 12, Nighthawks. In an album which overall has a lot of electronic-sounding songs, this one has a straight band sound. What kind of song did you make this as?
A. The things that dominated my mind around middle school and high school - a sense of urgency, anxiety, and anger about not knowing what to do with myself - are what I thought back on while making this song. Back when I was thinking "If I died tomorrow, if the world ended tomorrow, what would happen?", the music I liked was BUMP OF CHICKEN and RADWIMPS. And furthermore, BUMP OF CHICKEN can be traced back to Coldplay and U2. I made an homage considering that context.
Q. I see. Besides Nighthawks, are there other bands and artists that were a source of influence for each song?
A. There were. For instance, I said earlier that Moonlight has influence from post-Frank-Ocean R&B, and for "fogbound," I pictured modern trap music.
Q. What about Spring Thunder?
A. For Spring Thunder, I pictured a certain period of French indie pop bands like Phoenix. That's the feel present in the guitar and use of synth.
Q. And Monster's March?
A. Monster's March was The Cure. The Cure was a 1980's band referred to as "neo-acoustic" in Japan, and sound-wise it sounds really dazzling. But when you look at the lyrics, at the root there's a nuance of "it's just me anyhow." The Smiths, too, have a very melodious, mellow, and gaudy sound, but what they actually sing is very rebellious. I was influenced by that sort of music.
Q. I see. In short, it's music influenced by various songs, using them as foundation. That fact supports the meaning of the title BOOTLEG.
Q. I'd like to ask about the cover illustration. It has a different style than usual, but you drew it yourself again, correct?
A. Yes. I think of the art I draw as manga art, but I thought it would be nice to get away from that. I've always wanted to draw art like this, so this time I did. It took a lot of trial and error, however.
Q. In the center of the picture, there's a headless person. I felt you singing "Just rip my head off right away" in Moonlight matched with that motif. Any comments?
A. I say "nothing is the real deal," but I also wonder what my own true nature is. In terms of the "extreme originality" I discussed earlier, my own self is a sham. I've been taught by many people, inherited from people, built myself from chewed-off pieces. Being this sort of patchwork collage, I think I'm a very transparent entity in some ways, and I think a person like that can go "deeper" into doors that aren't easily thrown open. I've always been self-conscious about being an irregular human. And yet a human like that can make music that's this beautiful and poppy. I think that's also something that comes out in the lyrics of Moonlight - "making dynamite like prepping for the culture festival."
Q. I think that's been consistent since your Hachi-era songs.
A. Right. I think I've always been making things that way. It's beautiful because it's a sham. I dare say that's my own originality, and why there are things only I can do. That kind of thing feels like I'm making dynamite to sell at the culture festival.
Q. I understand. I'd like to dig a little deeper on one more thing you mentioned earlier about "universal things." I agree that you're an artist who's constantly pursuing that universality, but I think Bremen and BOOTLEG have different approaches to being universal.
Q. In Bremen, you faced yourself, and searched for things inside you. As a result, as you discussed in the interview back then, you arrived at a fairytale-like universality. Meanwhile, in BOOTLEG, you attempted to mingle with various cultures and people in various places. And it resulted in an album that connects points as if saying "I can have an understanding with this person on this point."
A. Indeed. Doing each song one at a time, that's really how it went. So I think it's an album of connections. I can see the parts that link up. I feel I can do a really good job of that. And I made this music while managing that back-and-forth pull. Even the lyrics of Number Nine have the line "the future and past pull each other," so it might be that it's just something important to me when I make music. I look for the place in that tug-of-war that doesn't have either side yielding, but is just right and comfortable for both.
Q. So this album began with Number Nine. I think Sand Planet is another important piece of this album; they're both songs with a desert motif. And in general, I think deserts are an important motif in the world of your works - why is this?
A. It's hard for me to answer why... First of all, there's a master of bande dessinée called Mœbius, and the deserts he draws are something like my earliest memories. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is the same way. I guess I just like deserts. It feels like it's almost contradictory, but deserts can have a feeling of salvation. They have a negative image of being desolate and ruined, but at the same time, they give me a positive, refreshing feeling that maybe you could call salvation. I really can't say what exactly that is, though.
Q. I think the feeling of salvation you sense in the desert might actually be a very important key concealed in the back of this album.
A. That's true. I think my picture of deserts involves death being very close. For instance, Number Nine started as me wondering what would happen if Tokyo became a desert, 100 or 200 years from now, far in the future. I live in Tokyo now, but it's not like I'm living in a desert Tokyo, of course. There would be no trace of the people who are around me now. Yet the events that happened there would somehow be connected to things continually passed down from today. At times, that gives me a really refreshing feeling. Finding salvation in a place where everyone will eventually die. Yes, so that's why I try to live beautifully in the present. But on the other hand, I also have fear and unease about dying, or things being ruined by various imperfections, and feel pained about life being lost by people's negligence and mistakes. Those thoughts about death are, to me, very similar-feeling to my idea of deserts.