Pursuing What's Interesting About Pop Songs and Arriving at the Ultimate Love Song
Kenshi Yonezu's 11th single, Pale Blue, will release on June 16th.
Pale Blue is a single being released 10 months after STRAY SHEEP, a hit album that represented 2020. It contains three songs: Pale Blue, a return to making love songs written for the TBS Friday drama Rikokatsu; Half-Dreaming, the theme song for Nippon TV's "news zero"; and Shinigami, which has the motif of a rakugo programme.
In this interview, Natalie.mu talked with Yonezu about about the creation process of these three songs following STRAY SHEEP, the major changes in the music scene and soceity due to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as his thoughts amid it.
Q. I'd like you to look back and tell us how your life has been since you released STRAY SHEEP last August, and what kind of mental state you've been in.
A. The release and creation of STRAY SHEEP feels like it was such a long time ago. I imagine this isn't just me, but with the novel coronavirus taking the color out of life and not being able to go out drinking, it feels like nearly a year passed before I knew it, and I don't remember much about back then. But STRAY SHEEP felt like a big mountain in my musical career, so I want to say I was thinking after release, "well, what should I do next?"
Q. Before, I imagine you'd have tours after your album releases that would let you see fans' faces and reactions right in front of you, serving as a way to embody the work you created. But last year, you had no such opportunities.
A. That's true. So I feel as if STRAY SHEEP still isn't finished. Before, I had the experience of doing album tours and being able to view my music objectively. Not at all this time, so it feels like it ended kind of tepidly, and I started the next thing kind of tepidly... Maybe it just feels like I'm making music that extends along that same line.
Q. I think STRAY SHEEP was a very meaningful work in your career. Not merely in terms of sales numbers, but in the sense of being an achievement in creating universal pop songs like you've strived to since your debut. In that way, it's a monumental album. After you'd done that, what were your thoughts regarding what you'd do next?
A. In March, I turned 30, and it's not like anything dramatically changed, but it did feel a little bit like the way I felt when I was making music had changed. In the past, my approach to making music was to pick one thing out of several that I found most interesting, and then delve deeply into it. But the longer I go on making music, I inevitably end up feeling bored at times. Repeating the routine cycle of making a song, making a demo, recording, releasing, there end up being footsteps and traces of things I've done before scattered about. I had this sensation like I was laying waste to anything I thought was interesting, of my self becoming insipid. I once found it displeasing, but I've gradually come to view it in a positive way. Now, I've become more severe about where I search for things that interest me. In exchange for losing the sense that everything I see can be fresh and interesting, it feels like I've gotten a new sense of going more deeply into things that interest me. That's also proof that I've done music for just that long and built up a history. I think in its own way, it's a pretty impressive thing. Basically, whenever I think "this is interesting" these days, I take great care to turn it into my music; rather, it feels like I'm making it into music with the goal of no longer finding that thing interesting.
Q. Did this change in attitude happen gradually over the end of last year into this year?
A. It's fairly recent. It may well have happened the moment I turned 30.
Q. Tell me about the three songs on Pale Blue. To go in chronological order, Half-Dreaming was broadcast with "news zero" in January, so was it the first song to be made?
A. Yes, that's right.
Q. About when did the show contact you, and how did you start off making it?
A. It was in August last year. It's the theme for a news program, so it's not like the show itself has a clear story. If there is any story, it's the events and incidents that happened that day. What that basically means is "daily life"; everyone's current lives all across Japan become a story. And needless to say, due to the spread of the novel coronavirus last year, it was a time where people around the world had to re-examine their daily lives. As a person who makes music, it felt like an extremely good opportunity to take another closer look in that area.
Q. What kind of motif for the song came about from there?
A. Basically, I was angry. With all kinds of disorder, conflicts between different ideologies, and no one knowing a way out, there was an accumulating desire to defeat some kind of opponent. The situation was such that the world had to be that way, but seeing that kind of thing made anger and unease well up in me in a major way. I thought about how to put that into a theme song for a news program. So while on the surface it may have ended up floaty and kind, I personally perceive it as a song filled with intense anger.
Q. I see. That viewpoint you just spoke about sounds like a more aware refinement of one you've had for quite some time. For instance, in the lyrics to Hopeland on your 2015 album Bremen, you depicted the mood of a bloodthirsty society rather directly, and sang of going somewhere else from there. This time with Half-Dreaming, it seems like you chose a non-direct form of expression.
A. Right. They have the same goal, but it's as if the process changed. I once had a trend of "wanting to go far," but amid the chaos of last year into this year, that's gone away. I guess I've come to affirm staying inside rather than opening up. When I look around, everyone's wrapped up in outrageous circumstances, trapped in an extremely harsh situation. Since the root of that chaos is a virus, it's not a case where someone is at fault, but you're forced to be conscious of things like the framework of a country. And when you see cruel reality before you, you're put in a situation where you can't ignore it. Since you can't ignore it, your opinions become more radical, straying from your original goal. I think not much can be more worthless than that kind of life. I've always said things like "look outward more," or "there's more than just the place you're living now," or "there's a big wide world out there, so look at it," but not so much now. In terms of Half-Dreaming, I'm saying you should give more care to your "dreams," a personal space separate from society that only you could understand. What I ultimately want to say is you should live a life that's balanced just right. My belief that you should pay attention to others and live as a social animal hasn't changed, but I think my process for getting there has done a complete 180. As comments to "open up" intensify, divisions also grow stronger. To deal with this, I now think you need a place to be that's somewhat isolated, not rooted in society's morals and standards.
Q. How about the arrangement and melody of Half-Dreaming? Despite the movement of the chords and melody, there are strong modern jazz elements that make it a groovy and feel-good song.
A. Those come from my own interests. I have a strong desire to experiment, to try putting out something I haven't done that comes from the pop music I've always believed in. The same goes for the physical nature of the performance. I've always liked rock bands, so I think a simply-constructed song is best. But as I made this song, I was feeling a little tired of that, and thus thought about how to expand from there. So I imagine the sound would give that kind of impression. Well, but I generally think three chords is all you need. (laughs)
Q. Did you start writing Pale Blue after being contacted about Rikokatsu?
A. Even before I made STRAY SHEEP, I'd wanted to once more create a love song in an intensely pop form. Indeed, I think that compared to other artforms, music has an effect of fostering narcissism in a broad sense. That's how music is to begin with, and I feel the most poppy kind of song is the love song. So as a creator of pop, I had been wondering for a while how it would turn out to go back to that once more. Around the time I finished my album, I was contacted about Rikokatsu, and it felt like that was good timing for it.
Q. When the news came out that you would work on the theme song for Rikokatsu, you gave the comment "at last, I made another love song." Which is to say, STRAY SHEEP didn't feature anything that you'd consider to be a full-on love song.
A. When I gave that comment, I was feeling as if I hadn't made a love song in about ten years. Maybe I've simply forgotten, but at least currently, I can't remember ever making music thinking to myself "what is a love song, anyway?" It might be fair to say I've never made a love song tackling it head-on. Which is why I wondered how it might go to do something like that now.
Q. How did things proceed from there?
A. Rikokatsu is a show with the concept of "love beginning from divorce," and just that short description contains a duality between the breakup of divorce and the new love that can come from it. I found that interesting, so initially I wanted a song that sounded like both a love about to start as well as a breakup. But even with that axis decided, I spent a really long time thinking "what is romance, anyway?" Truthfully, the creation of Pale Blue might have been the most difficult in my music career thus far.
Q. In what way was it difficult?
A. I had about three scrapped versions before arriving at the current Pale Blue. I don't mean that like someone else rejected them, I just scrapped them internally. I had a few versions with a slightly different flavor before making this one, but none of them were head-on love songs; it was a messy process making the final Pale Blue. Like I said earlier, music has an effect of promoting narcissism and sentimentalism, and that's deeply linked with romance. That being the case, I felt I had to make something that properly shook free of romance, or it wouldn't be consistent to me. I felt I should make something almost indecently sentimental, and thus Pale Blue took on its ultimate form.
Q. You readied yourself to affirm narcissism.
A. I had the thought that to create a proper love song, you need to confront a certain kind of shallowness and selfishness. To "fall in love" is fundamentally lonely, thinking things like "What can I do to get closer to them? What should I do to get into their sight? What should I do to be able to interact with them?" Rather than trying to understand the other person, it's a time where you think only about yourself. Wanting to do something for them, wanting to make them happy - things such as that aren't the essence of falling in love, I feel.
Q. Falling in love isn't "giving," but "desiring."
A. Right. Fundamentally, I think "falling in love" is a selfish period of time. Which is why I think it's a truly sentimental, shallow thing, that can feel extremely lonely. Humans are born alone and die alone, yet every time they fall into a state of love, somehow it feels as if the life they had been living by themselves was missing something. In that sense, I think the essence of falling in love is being lovelorn. Despite having lived on your own, when your partner appears before you, it puts you in a state where it's like you've lost half your body, and you can't help feeling lonely. That's why you seek things from the other person, and get disoriented. That very state can sometimes feel good. And so, well, it's an embarrassing thing.
Q. And so, considering "falling in love" to be a self-centered and shallow thing like you said, you decided to create something that got to the bottom of it..
A. I don't mean to say I hate it because it's shallow. It's perfectly fine. But since I'm creating something fundamentally shallow, I'm not going to make weird excuses about why it's actually refined. I needed to ready myself in that way.
Q. Pale Blue has an amazing opening. The vocals start suddenly with a falsetto. It feels like a rather brave way to do it - was that also part of you readying yourself?
A. Right. If I didn't go at it at full throttle from the beginning, I couldn't achieve my objective of making something shallow, as I said earlier. Basically, start emotional, have ups and downs from there, and head toward the end with a bipolar ebb and flow. That's how it feels.
Q. I feel this song has a rather polished construction as well. After the final chorus, it switches to 6/8 time. And what was "I loved you always" before here becomes "I love you still." I think this cleverly expresses, even musically, the duality you talked about at the start. How did you decide the song structure?
A. I made it in parts, so initially it felt more scattered. The first verse was the "love about to begin" part, the second verse was the "absolute worst post-breakup" part, and the chorus brought the relationship back to normal. But I made all the parts in a disconnected way, and spent a long time figuring out how to put them together in a way that didn't feel off, like mending broken pottery. There's this movie starring Ryan Gosling called Blue Valentine, which starts with this couple who have a kid in the absolute worst place, where they have no choice but to divorce. From there, the scene changes to the two of them first meeting. It continues to alternate between the awful situation they're in now and the situation they were in back then, and in the ending, the moment they're wedded and the moment they leave each other play at the same time. I wondered if I could do something like that in music. But movies and music are completely different things. In a movie, you can clearly present something like that through the differences in their appearances and the texture of the film, but not so in music. For instance, I tried things like making the sound quality worse for the past scenes so it sounded like it was coming from a tape, but it just wouldn't work as pop - it was a bit too avant-garde. After long hours thinking, it ultimately ended up in this form, but it really took putting it together like a puzzle.
Q. In addition to the regular version of the single, there's also a "Puzzle Edition" and "Ribbon Edition"; I suppose the origin of the name Puzzle Edition was the formation of this song. In the past, the different versions have been connected to the motifs of the songs, so I was wondering what "puzzle" and "ribbon" meant.
A. Besides what I just said, there are various other meanings behind "puzzle." A puzzle is something that starts scattered and then takes on its original shape. It's like repairing something broken, so I thought that was a lot like a love starting from divorce. Ribbons can also be tied when they come apart, and then pulled apart again, giving them some commonality with puzzles. So I thought those two motifs would be appropriate for the packaging.
Q. How about the cover illustration?
A. When you're in love, you're not entirely in your right mind; I think it's a state of intoxication where you're half-loopy. I represented that state of psychedelic dizziness on the cover via a picture of a person with open pupils, drawn using vivid colors.
Q. What kind of motif did Shinigami come from?
A. Shinigami is rakugo. As I made Pale Blue, I was wondering if I really might die. "It's looking like I might not make this deadline, but if I can't make it, the show won't have a theme song, and it'll cause all sorts of trouble. This is super bad," I groaned as I worked. And yet somehow, I made the deadline. Relieved, I started making Shinigami, truly just doing only what I liked. I've always liked rakugo, and the programme named Shinigami has this memorable phrase, "ajarakamokuren, tekerettsu no pa." It's a sort of incantation for driving away shinigami, and depending on the person, they'll put different words between "ajarakamokuren" and "tekerettsu no pa." I really like the sound of those words, so I casually started making it thinking it'd be fun to make a song out of that, and it ended up having that sort of feel.
Q. I see. It makes sense hearing that - I thought this was the most relaxed, most frivolous song, in a really good way. Did it feel good to make?
A. It really did feel good. I was wondering as I made it what would strike a chord with people, and if they'd laugh.
Q. I'd like to ask once again about the presence of Kenshi Yonezu in the modern music scene. Indeed, Yonezu-san, you started out using Vocaloid as Hachi, from there sought more physicality, and have solidified that to make pop songs as Kenshi Yonezu. That's the path you've taken - but now once more in online music culture, popularity is gathering around music using avatars.
A. My history begins from the internet being a place to release music where your physicality can be removed, so in a sense it's my hometown. But taking a step out of there and learning more about reality, I stopped making things based in swollen self-centeredness, and struggled toward making things that were rooted in daily life. I believe that's defined these ten years of Kenshi Yonezu. But, with the coronavirus seeming to be a big impetus, now it seems we've returned to that self-centered era. Take a look all over Japan, and it's clear music originating from the internet has become extremely big. That's because my juniors who have come out of the Vocaloid scene... well, calling them that might sound self-important of me. But the others from my hometown have become really major presences, haven't they? It's an extremely delightful thing. I'm really happy about it myself. It makes me feel like what I did had meaning.
Q. As Hachi, you said in Sand Planet "Let's plant an apple tree in the desert"; I think you could say that tree has borne fruit.
A. Yet, that being said, there are aspects that make me uncomfortable as well. Of course, I don't want to disgrace the people of my hometown doing their best right now, but it feels unpleasant for it to be nothing but that. It's a really tough world right now for people who use concerts as a weapon. Meanwhile, there's also a kind of brand-ification of Vocaloid happening. I've noticed dubious views like "if it originated in Vocaloid, it's fine, right?", and it feels some are trying to take advantage of that. As the world becomes easier for me, I personally feel extremely uncomfortable; it's truly wearisome.
Q. It's wearisome for the world to become easier for you to live in? How so?
A. In lots of things, I think it's really important to be striking compromises and, to some extent, looking at things you don't want to see. Looking at things you don't want to makes you think about what you're lacking. And having some kind of viewpoint on the weak is really important. I think that's basically the role of art. I feel it's extremely important to polish your forms of expression through observing difficult situations and dealing with conflict. But now, circumstances allow for you to not really have to do any of that. Since there's no need to go out anymore.
Q. I've felt that myself, interviewing various artists; there are both those who have lost a lot in their music careers and daily lives during the long pandemic, and those who really haven't found their lives that different from before. And many of the latter were indeed those expressing themselves on the internet - the people from your hometown. In that sense, you'd also fall into that group for whom things haven't changed.
A. That's true.
Q. But what you've said is that you feel discomforted by things becoming more comfortable.
A. I think it's because I'm an outcast that the things I've been doing have value. Having a mindset of being uncomfortable no matter what I do, almost wondering if I was born by mistake, and deeply examining how proper I can be and the meaning of my existence - that kind of work is my origin point in pop music. There's a pride to that. Though I don't know how much that comes across to listeners.
Q. I'm sure it does.
A. At the very least, I think that's allowed me to create beautiful things that are to my satisfaction. But I didn't necessarily want to create comfortable circumstances in this way. I guess fundamentally, I like to live rebounding off something. I just want to retaliate, to have a mindset of resistance. So it feels awfully insipid now. I simply want to say that it feels uncomfortable.