A Scratched-Up Gem Polished For 3 Years
Kenshi Yonezu has finished his fifth original album STRAY SHEEP, his first in approximately 2 years and 9 months. It features countless songs that have spread across the world: his biggest hit Lemon, Horse and Deer which livened up the Rugby World Cup, Foorin's Paprika, a cover of Masaki Suda's Spot the Difference, and more.
With the unavoidable cancellation of Kenshi Yonezu's nationwide tour HYPE that started early this year, work on this album has progressed while the spread of the novel coronavirus has had major effects on society. What were Yonezu's thoughts as he put the finishing touches on this album? And how has his mental state changed after putting his biggest hit yet out into the world? We dug into all this in a 5,000-word interview.
Q. This album was fantastic. Since the release of the previous one BOOTLEG in November 2017, you've released many singles after kicking things off with Lemon. So even before hearing the 8 new songs, I was expecting this to be a kind of best-of album. However, I came away with a strong impression that there was a consistency and sense of story to the album as a whole. First, let me ask what your thoughts were after finishing the album.
A. My thoughts after finishing are generally always the same: "I wonder, is this really best?" A lot's happened in the last three months or so. Not only the tour, but other things I'd wanted to do or planned to do... Not only concerts, but I couldn't do shooting, say, and plans had to change as a result. I started thinking "Okay, then what should I make?", and worked on songs stuck at home by myself. That caused it to become something different from when I had the intial thought of "I'll make this album."
Q. What kind of album were you thinking it was going to be?
A. At first, it wasn't titled STRAY SHEEP, it was something more positive. You mentioned it being a "best-of album," and at the time, I was indeed planning on showing the long 2-and-a-half-year period starting with Lemon in a sort of story format. But that got messed up in an instant. While thinking to myself "this isn't quite what I'd planned," that was the situation I found myself in, so I had to consider in a short time what I should be making. So my thoughts after finishing of "Is this really best?" were especially strong.
Q. Could you go into more detail about the idea of the album you planned to make, before the pandemic changed the situation?
A. I viewed Lemon as a song that traveled further than I ever expected, and had completely left my control. However, that was also a goal I had long sought to achieve. I'm always working with a desire to make pop music, so it was one kind of achievement. It became a song that allowed me to clearly feel "This is what pop music is like." So then I thought, what's next? I couldn't help feeling like I had to consider that as my foundation. Since it had become this massive thing, even when I gave thought about where to go from there to make Flamingo and Ghost of the Sea, it felt like the start of "Kenshi Yonezu: Chapter 2" in a sense. I figured I would arrange songs in such a way to clearly illustrate the three years that followed from that.
Q. Though it was interrupted after 8 shows, you'd planned a nationwide tour called HYPE from February to April. Does it have any connection to the album concept you've been talking about? Where did the name HYPE come from?
A. I was thinking of making a song called HYPE. As a track on my new album. It hadn't taken shape yet, but while I was thinking about the melody and such, it came time that I had to decide on a title for my tour. My tour last year, "When Your Spine Becomes Opal," was similar - there was a song that started with me singing "when your spine becomes opal," and I was thinking I'd reveal that song sometime during the tour. So you could say the tour and this album's creation were linked.
Q. Did the song tentatively titled HYPE get included in this album?
A. It didn't. As I started to see the bigger picture of the album, I realized that sure enough, it had become something completely different from what I was thinking. Part of it being the effects of the novel coronavirus. Under normal circumstances, I would've made the album in parallel with the tour, but those plans went out the window. It's extremely unfortunate even to me that the tour was canceled, and it pains me to let down everyone who was waiting. But if I must force myself to find a positive, I suppose it was good I could concentrate on making the album. I think there's value in the fact I could create this album amid all this chaos.
Q. With your tour being canceled, the novel coronavirus spreading, and state of emergency declarations causing major changes to society, what have you been thinking about?
A. First of all, I thought "musicians are non-essential, huh." I've heard the word "non-essential" enough to get calluses on my ears. When you're choosing the bare minimum of things that are necessary for life, music is one of the first things people will say they don't need, and we're still in a state where concert venues can't be properly opened. While on one hand I'm like "I suppose that figures," when I see it written out in front of me, I just think "so is my life non-essential?" Like, you could live just fine without it. Of course I think music has a cultural richness, but when something like this happens, its use is almost immediately lost. I was reminded what an incredibly frail entity I am. And so I thought, you can't entrust all your judgements and values to other people. And after all, there are people in the world who are treated unjustly; there's no need to go along with everything others say. Everyone has their own lives, and they have to place importance on protecting them. Of course, you do have to consider things like public opinion in your judgements. But whatever anyone says, only you know what's essential to you. Perhaps there are people who really would die without music. When you have only the true essentials for life, can that really be called living as a human? When you leave only the essentials, how much humanity is left? I've been thinking a lot about that sort of thing.
Q. The album is titled STRAY SHEEP, and features a song with that title. Was this song made after your tour was canceled?
A. Yes. I made it as part of a collaboration with Calorie Mate for a commercial, but also, I started making it around the time the tour was canceled and I couldn't freely go outside anymore.
Q. The sound has a dark and turbulent feel. What kind of place did this song come from?
A. Since Ghost of the Sea, my songs have been arranged working with Yuta Bandoh, and I remember us talking innocently about things like "the commercial is sort of sci-fi, so we wanna make it a sci-fi-esque song," and "let's end it like 2001: A Space Odyssey with the birth of the Star Child." On the other hand, with chaos unfolding both in Japan and many other countries, I was thinking what I should make in a time when no one knows what's the right thing to do. At the time, I was trying to keep it objective, but looking at things unfold has made it feel like I'm being dragged into them, so sometimes it got more emotional.
Q. That said, the song has a sort of overhead perspective.
A. When I think about how I'm going to live in this country from here on, I can't help getting emotional - getting mad at things, feeling disappointment or despair. But ultimately, I just have to live in this country, in this world. When I get like that, I come to the conclusion that what I can do is make pop songs. Ultimately, I have to affirm living and existing in the world. It's incredibly easy to be pessimistic, and I could make things where I give myself to anger and sadness, but I feel that isn't my role. Maybe that's why I imagined the distant future, and people living healthy lives and looking back like "That happened way back then," when I made this song.
Q. The lyrics do have the lines "In the future 1,000 years from now, we're not alive; friend, no matter what day it is, know that I love you."
A. In the proposal for the Calorie Mate commercial, there was the ad copy "The world is changing at a startling rate, but the things humans need won't change that much," and I had to agree with that. The anger, sadness, and joy felt by humans 1,000 years ago can't be that different from what we feel now. For instance, if you read the records of the workers who built the pyramids, you find things written there like "Carrying rocks with a hangover sucks." That worthlessness included, I don't think what humans feel changes that much, even if it likely changes form. If we could travel 1,000 years into the future and talk to the people there, I'm sure we'd see cultural differences, but could ultimately be friends. While making this album, I thought about what we could be doing for those guys right now.
Q. Have your thoughts changed as you get older?
A. As I've gotten older, I think I've gotten into a position where many things are connected. I've always expressed myself through music for the sake of self-actualization, and that's no different now, but yes, my position has changed. I'm 29, turning 30 next year, so I've been thinking more about what this country and this world will be like when the next generation is born. I'm really interested in how the world will go around after this, including after my death. I think I might have expressed a lot of that in this song.
Q. Shock is the theme song of the TV drama MIU404. What sort of idea did you have for it?
A. I was allowed to read the script for episodes 1 and 2, and I followed a chain of various associations from there. At first, I was thinking of making a song called "Dog Policeman." I was wondering if I could just use that as the title, but there's already a song by that name, so I reconsidered it. After some hesitation, I ended up going with "Shock."
Q. The first verse has a sample of a dog barking, and the second verse a cat meowing. So those weren't just for flavor, but rather, core elements.
A. Right. The "a troubled woof-woof-woof" and "a lost and wandering meow-meow-meow" parts might have been the first things to get made.
Q. Where did you get the idea to make a funky song using horns?
A. MIU404 is about a mobile investigative unit, so I personally had the notion of Showa-era detective dramas. And I thought of an arrangement like "Roar at the Sun!" with horns blaring. Looking back on my songs, I hadn't done a song with horns way out in front before, so I anticipated that if I could do that in my own way, it would be a new achievement for me. The "made for a TV drama" aspect of Shock is very strong.
Q. Like Lemon for Unnatural and Horse and Deer for No Side Game, I feel your TV theme songs always have good synergy with their use in the show. Shock, too, is equipped with lots of hooks for elements of the show in its lyrics.
A. I always wanted to be a manga artist, so rather than just express subjectivity through music, my real specialty is expressing the flow of a story using music. In other words, making the theme song for a story is near to my nature. I didn't think that much about bringing it close to the show; I just took the general nuance and flow from the script and made what came to mind, and I think that resulted in something that fits the story.
Q. Let me ask about the music video for Shock, too. What did you think when you watched the finished product?
A. It's the best. (laugh) I wanted to film something with some comical elements this time. Something that didn't feel too rigid, was natural, would make you laugh a little. So I asked director Yoshiyuki Okuyama. In my first meeting with Director Okuyama, it felt like things clicked. We're the same age, and we'd even been watching the same stuff lately, so there was a real "Ahh, I get that, I get that" feeling. And also, in that very first meeting, Okuyama-san told me some very important words. I knew at that moment it would be something good.
Q. Some very important words?
A. It was his impression of me. To put it bluntly, he described me as "a disco ball reflecting the world's light every which way," and that really stuck with me. I often wonder about what kind of person and musician I am, and those words hit the bullseye. Because rather than passionately hammer out my own beliefs, my style has always been to take in things like what's going on around me and the people I meet, and reflect and reconstruct them in my own way. I really took to the description "reflecting the world's light." Him saying that served as a huge compass needle for this album, and made me want to make something like a gem or crystal. That's also depicted on the cover.
Q. What do you mean by "something like a gem or crystal"?
A. I've always thought gems were a really good motif. Gems are born by happenstance as rocks, dug out by human hands, then polished and cut and such to achieve a beautiful form. I think that could be called "damaging the raw ore." The act of preparing it to look beautiful is essentially "wounding" it. Similarly, at the moment of their birth, humans are like perfect spheres, which then get scratched and chipped by their home environment, friends, and other outside stimuli. The once spherical form is altered, experiences abrasion and polishing, gets damaged in many ways, becomes more angular, and as a result, turns into a gem that reflects light. That's how I think of it. The name Kenshi Yonezu may have become somewhat of a major one, but I think happenstance is a big part of that. As I've polished my music that was born as a sphere, it's happened to take a shape that can be sent out into the world as pop songs, which is why I'm here now, I feel.
Q. I see. By being "damaged," it takes the form of a beautiful gem. And because it reflects light, it can sparkle. You realized that was your identity. I suspect that was a major axis for this album as a whole.
A. It really was. I don't produce light from inside me like the sun; I think I'm like the moon, shining by reflecting outside light. I think I'm more suited for the moonlit night, when people are quiet, than the day when the sun shines harshly, so that included, I really identify with it.
Q. The first song Campanella has the lines "A crystal taking in light, and rebounding it with a sparkle; the wounds you gave me, too, are part of that sparkle." Were you thinking about the things you just discussed when you made this song?
A. I made Campanella at the end of working on the album, so it's the closest to my current mental state. The lyrics I put in the bridge are similar to what I just explained. I wanted it to have a sense of summarizing the album.
Q. I think Campanella is an important piece in this album, and a memorable song. How did it come about?
A. Making track 15, Canary, was really difficult, and after finishing it with all sorts of thoughts on my mind, I was stuck in a mindset of "it's still missing something." Campanella was me going "Got it! It's missing this!"
Q. You figured out what it was missing?
A. Until the final stages of this album, it didn't really occur to me it had been nearly 3 years since my last one. 3 years is long enough for a middle schooler to become a high schooler, for a high schooler to become a college student or employee. I got into this mood wondering just how many people had passed in front of my eyes over these 3 years. And how many might've passed me by, and liked my music, but had now died. I don't know anything about those people, and it's not certain whether there actually was anyone like that, but I thought, I'm sure there are people who will pass away before they get to hear this album. Similar to dying before getting to read the end of Hunter x Hunter or learning how One Piece ends, for example. Thinking that got me being incredibly hard on myself, like "What have I been doing all this time?" So by making Campanella, I'm saying the people who died in these three years... whether they're children I've never met, or people who I don't know but who know about me, definitely existed. Calling it a "grave marker" might be a bad choice of words, but I somehow felt it was my responsibility to leave something like that as a warning.
Q. I take it the title Campanella comes from the character in Night on the Galactic Railroad. That's why it's a song about the relationship between those who were left behind and those who have gone far away, like Giovanni and Campanella.
A. Right. It's a song being sung about Campanella, but the singer isn't Giovanni; if anything, I think it's Zanelli. Zanelli is a bully, and a direct cause of Campanella's death. Part of me has a lot of empathy for Zanelli. When humans make mistakes, directly or indirectly, they can result in someone's death. I think all sorts of choices are connected to the deaths of others. To relate it to current events, it's possible that I'd be carrying a disease without knowing it, and unintentionally infect someone, causing them to get seriously sick and die. All kinds of choices can lead to the potential of someone dying. I think Zanelli is someone who witnessed that in person. He was directly involved in Campanella's death, and lives dragging that along. I suppose that connects with my self-punishing nature.
Q. That discussion of Campanella seems to connect with the motifs of other songs, too. For instance, I think "Kind Person" is being sung from the perspective of an idle spectator of others being hurt out of ill will, or bullied. It's written with simple and direct language more than metaphor.
A. I planned to unveil this song somewhere on the When Your Spine Becomes Opal tour. At the time, it started with me singing "when your spine becomes opal, I wonder where I'll be." It hasn't fundamentally changed since then. The chorus lyrics are exactly the same, for instance. However, time's passed, and my circumstances and position have changed. I felt like it wouldn't be sincere to make it with the exact same feeling. In an earlier stage, there was wording that left gaps, and allowed room for interpretation, but I couldn't square that with my current self. I thought releasing it as-is would be looking away from something, eschewing a responsibility I should be carrying as a pop musician. I felt I'd rather express it directly and vividly.
Q. This song really wrenches at your heart. It takes things that aren't pretty, that you don't want to see, so you'd normally put a lid on them, and puts them into words. But I think that makes it a very beautiful song.
A. Still, I also thought "Is it okay to put this song into the world?" This song features people who are clearly being oppressed, but there are many people experiencing that kind of thing as we speak. Putting this song out there could potentially contribute to the pain those people feel. It could open the lid on people hurt by those things. But in the end, I chose to release it. I thought a lot about how anything you do can hurt someone, and how it's my responsibility to caution myself about that.
Q. You said you really struggled with the last track of the album, Canary. At what stage did this song come in?
A. When I was making this song, the novel coronavirus was spreading disorder worldwide, and various musicians were announcing things, and I was looking at them and wondering what I should do. I concluded that I should make new music. Making music is my livelihood, and part of my lifestyle. What I can do for people suffering from this ongoing pain is make music with a message of "It'll be okay living in this world." It might be incredibly slight, and maybe it's just nonsense with no meaning at all, but even so, I thought I should make music. So then I started to make Canary. But I really struggled with what form it should take. Before making Canary, I made another song about the novel coronavirus.
Q. Is that song on the album?
A. It is not. It was a super dark song, and I realized this wasn't the direction to take, and that I couldn't release it to the world. So I scrapped it, and tried to make a song affirming the people living in this world. That said, it wasn't just affirming them. There's all kinds of anger and disappointment swirling around inside me, so I had to affirm them with consideration of that. That's what was on my mind making Canary, so it took a lot of energy. Even though I made it using those kinds of chords and that kind of melody line, I was thinking about a whole lot.
Q. Like you said, I can see how this is a song made with consideration of the sudden changes brought on by the novel coronavirus, but at the same time, I think it's a song with a universality that will continue to resonate even listening to it 10 or 20 years from now. Were you conscious of that?
A. With this song, I was thinking deeply about wanting to affirm change. Part of me is almost obsessed with "having to keep changing" when I make music, and I suppose that's actually a fundamental part of me. Due to the novel coronavirus, I'm faced with a very different day-to-day routine from before, and ultimately, I have to affirm it. It's commonly said that over the course of 7 years, all the cells in a human body are replaced, making them a different person biologically; in that sense, even when humans settle down, it's impossible for them to stay the same. So for instance, if you love someone, and say "I want to be with you because you're this kind of person," that's only a temporary state, and they'll someday change. If you insist they stay that way, you're trapping the other person in a box, and won't be able to keep up a healthy relationship. So at least personally, I realized I wanted to be positive about the fact that things change.
Q. The lyrics certainly express what you're saying. "You and I will both change, I'm sure; sometimes we'll quarrel and hurt each other, I'm sure; every time we lose sight of each other, I want to fall in love and assure each other."
A. That's right. "I like you, but it doesn't necessarily have to be you. However, that's why at least for now, I want to love you." I think you can look at things that way. I want to constantly be questioning that sort of thing. Where am I now? How is the world changing? Let's check with each other and find meaning there... And so I decided to sing about affirming change. At first, the chorus didn't say "it's you, so it's fine," but rather "it's fine if it isn't you." That seemed too direct, and it was really hard to make it feel consistent, so it became "it's you, so it's fine." But the idea is that there's empty space for the words "(it's fine if it's not you, but)" before "it's you, so it's fine."
Q. With PLACEBO, you did a collaboration with Yojiro Noda-san of RADWIMPS.
A. I've been talking with Yojiro-san for a while about making a song. While taking him out drinking various places, I brought up how I wanted us to do something together someday. He was positive on it too, so we worked out when to do it, and ended up with this song. Just a guess, but I feel like this isn't what everyone would imagine out of a song by Kenshi Yonezu and Yojiro Noda.
Q. Honestly, I didn't imagine it.
A. I thought not. (laughs) But we dared to do this. RADWIMPS has steadily built up a history for themselves. I've taken influence from them, so it's all one context. I'm confident I could've made something good going along those lines too, but I had a hunch this wasn't the time for it.
Q. I had a very different idea of what the musical midpoint between RADWIMPS and Kenshi Yonezu would be. It ended up a more cheery song with an 80's-like sound.
A. But it's not like I forced myself to make this song, it was very natural for me. Our relationship's continued since our battle of the bands in 2015, and in drinking with Yojiro-san and having worthless conversations, it really did take that form naturally. The sense of isolation about him, and his cheerfulness and friendliness in contrast to that... I ended up with this song by considering both the Yojiro-san everyone else knew, and the Yojiro-san I knew.
Q. Yojiro-san mentioned it in his own comments, but it's really nice how there's a feel like never before in the points where your voices overlap.
A. Even I was looking forward to that, and when our voices overlapped in recording, I felt something in my chest. I had never heard Yojiro-san sing this sort of song before. It had a really pure feeling. I felt a clear contrast with myself in it, and I was pretty happy to see a new side of someone who influenced me so much, and for it to be in my song. I'm really glad I got to make it.
Q. This is a general impression of the album, but I felt a lot of songs used "you" in the lyrics, and are themed around relationships with others.
A. In the past few years, I've had a lot more thoughts about how others help me. In the act of making pop songs itself, for one thing - but I realized music is nothing without someone to listen to it. The fact that there needs to be someone opposite me has become more and more concrete in the process of making pop songs. The history of my music as Kenshi Yonezu has been a story of heading to that point. I realized making something all by myself was ultimately meaningless, and it was healthy to have people around me and make music out of my relations with them. That's especially borne fruit lately, I think. I did my own cover of Spot the Difference for this album, but I definitely don't think I'd be who I am now without Masaki Suda. My music has really evolved thanks to the presence of other people, and become something I can approve of. There are a lot of tedious parts of interacting with others too. But it's thanks to these guys that I'm here now, and also, I'm sure I've hurt them sometimes too.
A. I originally wanted to live plainly. A quiet existence, a calm life - I just wanted to stay in my room alone and watch movies and read manga. But I didn't choose that. In the history that followed from there, the "you" opposite me has become more and more clear, and the people listening to my music have slowly come to occupy a lot of my personal space.
Q. I think the stimuli and influence from your meetings with others has been especially striking in the past few years.
A. That's right. For instance, even when we're drinking, I sometimes hear some trivial words someone says and think "Ah, that's a good expression." I like to drink, but part of it's that drinking makes me emotional, or more subjective, so all kinds of conflicts occur. For as calmly as I work normally, when I go somewhere like that, the differences between me and the person opposite me become more evident. I think more often than I used to about how there are people completely different from myself. The idea of beauty someone completely different has might be hard for me to accept. But I think about how I might go about making that beauty my own. In that sense, there's a direct connection between the influence people have given me lately and my music.
Q. You've had a few songs born from going out drinking, like Flamingo, or Cranberry and Pancakes. (Flamingo / TEENAGE Riot Interview, Lemon Interview) But you haven't had those opportunities in the past few months, have you?
A. Right, I haven't. For about three months. During the period where they were asking for self-quarantine, I didn't talk with anyone outside of work at all. I completely shut down contact, and didn't have a drop of alcohol. I'd been drinking all the time until then, but I was totally fine without it.
Q. You became healthy?
A. I wouldn't call it healthy. Since I was working in a chair the whole time, not moving my body at all. After self-quarantine was lifted, I had a rehearsal for the Shock video shoot, and the moment I jumped on the car, my back went out. I was like, "Already 30, huh?" (laughs)
Q. Finally, I'd like to formally ask one more thing. With some time having passed since you finished, what kind of album would you say STRAY SHEEP became?
A. It has a feeling of "incorrigibly getting lost." That's why the title ended up being STRAY SHEEP. I'm getting to an age where people tell me "Shouldn't you settle down soon and stake your place?", but I don't learn my lesson and think things like "I wonder, is this really best?" day after day unceasingly. Though that directly ties into my music, and because I'm satisfied with it now, I can think it was for the best. But sure enough, I think I need to take more responsibility. Of course, there are times that making things freely and innocently like a child can be beautiful and emotional, but I feel that's not the way to healthily make sincere things. Especially when I'm making pop songs, I do sometimes feel a kind of adult wretchedness and worthlessness. Sometimes I'm even thinking, like, how wretched it is for me to want lots of people to listen, for my music to spread far. That can hurt people in unintended ways, and even if I'm saying things that can be taken positively, the more people there are listening to me, the more people there'll be who reject them. Maybe the things I express themselves could end up working against structural change. I believe I need to be attuned to the responsibilities surrounding that. I think I released this album, to some extent, as my own answer to that. At the very least, it's an album with a stronger awareness of my desire to keep creating beautiful things as entertainment while also taking these things into consideration.
Q. In that way, I believe it expresses the reality of how you've changed since Lemon. As a person who makes pop music, you needed to put out a proper answer that considered how you've managed to make it to the center of that world.
A. That's right. However, I don't think it's a way of taking responsibility everyone can and will approve of. Indeed, a lot of things are expected of me. I have influence, so people tell me "shouldn't it be more like this or that?" Maybe it's not an album that covers all of that comprehensively. But at the very least, I think this is what I should and can do right now. And building off this album, I expect that I'll keep on changing.
Q. I feel that for the listeners, STRAY SHEEP may be viewed as a "gem" of an album in the way you described. Especially for people whose hearts have been wounded, who have experienced oppression, maybe it'll allow them to take another look, and see themselves as gems fostered in that way.
A. Ultimately, it's always going to end up oriented at people like that. What can I do for people who are easily hurt, who get terribly depressed over things? Keeping in mind my wretchedness as an adult, how can I wrap them up in a hug? More than anything, maybe that's where I'm paying the most careful attention.