Looking at Human Death
Kenshi Yonezu is releasing his new single Lemon on March 14th.
This song, written as the theme song for TBS's Friday TV series "Unnatural," sings acutely of the sadness and sense of loss from losing someone important to you. Yonezu told us that its creation was greatly impacted by the death of a relative. In this special feature, we talked to Yonezu about his thoughts that lie in the background of this song.
Q. Lemon was written explicitly as the theme song of the drama Unnatural, correct?
A. Yes, that's right.
Q. How did you feel when you first got the request?
A. Last year, I made a bunch of songs for anime and movies, and I myself watch plenty of anime and movies. So I have experience, you could say, a deep familiarity with them. Thus, I was able to think back on my childhood and create those songs. But TV dramas, I don't have any experience with those. So when the creators actually talked with me, and let me read the script, and showed me video from the production stages, I simply thought "This is really interesting," and could see how earnestly they were working on this. There was a passion that even someone who never really watched TV dramas like me could perceive, and that came through in the script and video. I was convinced it would definitely be beautiful.
Q. What do you think about the theme of the show?
A. Unnatural is a drama that deals with human death, and death is an important theme in my music, so there was that kind of link. So even if the format was an unfamiliar one of a TV drama theme song, I felt I was still able to find a clear link with myself.
Q. Did the creators request anything like "give it this kind of melody"?
A. There were a few detailed requests, but the most striking one was this: "We want it to be like you're gently embracing a person who's hurt." That's where I diligently started working from, but what I ended up with wasn't really that at all. Ultimately, it just became a song saying "I'm sad that you're dead." A few things happened in getting to that point, but the biggest one was, while I was making the song, my own grandpa died.
Q. I see.
A. I've always sung about things associated with death, so making that into music is something I was deeply familiar with. And while I was working and feeling like "I can probably do this if I try," my own grandpa died. When that firm reality of a relative's death appeared before me, I got thinking, "Have I actually been able to look at human death?" I wondered if perhaps my feelings about it were still only vague.
Q. At first, you were dealing with death as a sort of concept. Then suddenly, it became something that had to do with you.
A. That's right. Initially, I aimed to create the most beautiful thing at the median point of myself and the show. But when death appeared before me, I thought, just what is it really? My prior grasp on death was reduced to zero. As such, I had to build it up again from scratch. Before I knew it, it became a very personal song.
Q. What kind of experience was your grandpa's death?
A. I didn't see my grandpa very frequently. I used to meet him and talk with him when I went home to the countryside, but haven't done so in recent years. Grandpa got dementia before I turned 20, and when I returned to the countryside, he couldn't remember me, which I just thought was inevitable, but... he gradually forgot things, and it felt like he gradually lost more and more. And then around the end of last year, he died. I was on my tour, and it was my first time making a song on tour too, so it was really difficult.
Q. Difficult in what way?
A. Making music, for me, is like diving into the deep ocean and bringing back what's at the very bottom. It takes quite a bit of time. But this time I had to make a song while on tour, so my schedule was go to a place, get on stage, come back and make a song for my one or two free days, go to another place. As such, I'd hit a time limit while I was diving, hurry back up to the surface, change gears again, and get up on stage, over and over.
Q. So when you're making music, you need to dive deep within yourself, but when you're standing in front of people, you can't be in that mode.
A. Right. Repeatedly switching like that made me feel like I had "decompression sickness." My organs felt weird, it was like I was in some kind of storm. And amid that, my grandpa died. I had to create while in incredible confusion; I worked on the song while wondering where I should turn my eyes at a time like this. It was extremely difficult.
Q. You said this song was a "personal" song, but listening to it myself, it didn't feel that way. I think it's a song where anyone can relate to what it's like to lose someone. In that way, even though the death of a relative is a very sad occurrence, it had an effect on the song: it meant death was no longer something estranged from yourself. You were able to create the song not with this aim of "gently embracing," but rather from the standpoint of someone directly confronting death. To borrow your words, you were able to make a song that touches somewhere very deep.
A. That's true. I can think that way now, and it might sound strange to say, but I almost feel as if grandpa "brought me there." This song is by no means about gently embracing someone who's hurt; I'm simply singing "I'm sad about your death." That's because at the time, I had no room in my heart to gently embrace someone; I was focused only on clinging on amid the ups and downs and watching a single point. That's why it turned out to be an extremely personal song. But I'm always thinking how I want my music to be universal, and when I looked objectively at the song I made, I definitely felt "yep, it's universal." In a way, it feels like when my grandpa died, he made it for me, and led me to there.
Q. This song is titled Lemon, and the lyrics include the lines "inseparable from my heart, the scent of a bitter lemon" and "like one half of a fruit sliced in two" - there's the keyword "lemon" symbolizing loss and sadness. Was this decided upon from the start?
A. No, at first it had a totally different title. Since it's a song thinking about and singing about death, the temporary title was "Memento," and I was making it with a "requiem" nuance. But a song about death with the title "Memento" felt too on-the-nose, too excessive. So then, "inseparable from my heart, the scent of a bitter lemon" was a line that came out of nowhere with no real thought when I was writing lyrics in the temporary-vocals stage. I honestly don't know why that phrase came out of me. But I did distinctly feel that it couldn't be anything but this. I even tried thinking of other words to fit there, but it could only be that. So I figured the title should be Lemon.
Q. Was the "one half of a fruit sliced in two" line also there from that stage?
A. I wrote that lyric the night before recording the vocals. Nothing was coming to mind up to the very end, and I wrote it without really knowing why, but as soon as I did, I thought "Ahh, I get it." That's when it finally clicked for me. I had the sensation of being taught something by the song I wrote and created. I think it ended up being that kind of song.
Q. Looking at just the lyrics, there's really no words specifically indicating death. But when you listen to it, it's clear it's a song about death and loss. I think it has that kind of universality.
A. I think the word "Lemon" does well to express that aspect of it. It serves as something to symbolize death. Direct references were too on the nose - the same reason I dropped the "Memento" title. I think expressing those things as-is isn't interesting. It just feels crude.
Q. One other thing that's really striking about this song is that while it has a theme of death, it's very melodious.
A. Indeed. I didn't want it to just be tedious. That's because of the initial inspiration I felt upon reading the script and watching episode 1. It's not only dealing with death; it has really good pacing, even a comedy-esque aspect, and the characters see death as familiar. There are some grotesque moments for people who aren't so familiar with it, but even when doing autopsies, they'll laugh with each other, and will be eating meat as normal in the very next scene. So I absolutely didn't want the song to be tedious or just a ballad. If you're just looking exclusively at death, there's no way you can represent any beauty in death. Instead, you have it so that if death is there, it's kept vague; like in the lyrics, it appears via the phrase "tracing your outline." Some things simply can't be expressed without doing that, I think. There are aspects of death that can't be represented by a death-related song that's simply sad, dark, and serious. So I pictured a bouncy sort of song that traces death with a dancing rhythm.
Q. In the show, the song always plays with the most miraculous timing.
A. It does. Watching it myself, they play it at times that really make me think "it couldn't go anywhere else." I feel like it's not good for me to be too close to the show. And it's also not good to go "I need to make a song as Kenshi Yonezu" and just follow suit with the show. So I didn't have a perspective like "It'll be played here like this, so I guess I should make it like this."
Q. So then watching the finished show, I suppose the superb timing left a strong impression on you.
A. Yes. It gets played with dead-on timing, and seeing something born of my own personal experience working with the story without any inconsistency gives me a strange feeling. Sure, I wrote it for the show, but it's just as much, if not moreso, a song for myself. But from the moment the singing starts, to be that closely linked... It's a curious sensation, and I think it's proof I managed to arrive at something universal.
Q. The single has two coupling songs in Cranberry and Pancakes and Paper Flower. Were these songs made after the song Lemon?
A. They are. After the tour was over, too.
Q. What kind of motif did Cranberry and Pancakes originate from?
A. I've liked to drink lately. I drink all night, come home as it turns morning, sleep, and I wake up at noon suffering from the sunlight, my head aching from a hangover... I made a song in that truly hopeless state, and this is how it turned out. I decided I would preserve that kind of awful feeling.
Q. A few years ago, I doubt you would've written a "party life" song like this.
A. Right. Definitely not a few years ago. It feels like it's a more recent me.
Q. What about Paper Flower?
A. This is also a more recent me. While I was thinking about the coupling songs, I would come up with a focus, like "don't use high-hats" - I'd impose restrictions on myself and just make some tracks. Though in the end, I used high-hats anyway.
Q. What other kinds of restrictions were there?
A. I thought up things I hadn't done before, like strengthening the bass, or steadily increasing the excitement as the song progresses. Also, I put in atmospheric things like "the moonlight while I was walking around at night was pretty," and ended up with this.
Q. Regarding the compositions, with your album BOOTLEG, you came up with a methodology of looking at both contemporary overseas music and your own roots and considering both to open up new breaches. I imagine you've kept with that since around Sand Planet.
A. Yes, that's right.
Q. Did this single feel like an extension of that as well?
A. Paper Flower is like an extension of it, I feel.
Q. But with Paper Flower, even if you took from alternative R&B overseas, it didn't turn out quite like that. I know these things are hard to put into words, but do you self-analyze it to determine what new breach or secret you were able to find?
A. Yeah, I dunno... But ultimately, it's not like I want to do alternative R&B. At my roots, I want to make Japanese pop. So I'm thinking about how beautifully I can display my roots. I guess that's the balance.
Q. Now, lastly, you have a one-man concert scheduled for October this year at Makuhari Messe. What kind of year are you thinking of making 2018?
A. I feel like I crammed too much into last year. What I'll do this year just comes down to timing, so it's like, I'll see how beautifully I can work with the way things are timed There's a flow between eras, and I ask, do I have a place in that flow? Is that place a beautiful one? Is this a place that doesn't need me? I've been doing this before, but I want to closely examine that and make truly beautiful things. Be it a chance encounter with someone or a change in the era, I'll be waiting to be chosen by it, creating music and making preparations for when that happens. I think that might be the mode I'm in.