The Key to "Curses": The Thoughts Put Into YANKEE
Kenshi Yonezu released his second album YANKEE on April 23rd.
In May last year, he made his major debut with the single Santa Maria. This album is his first since that debut, which he personally stated was a big change in his approach to expressing himself.
We talked to him about all that went into completing his latest work.
Q. Listening to YANKEE, I felt like it was an album made by taking a very deep look at music as well as yourself. How did you initially feel when you completed it?
A. First of all, I felt conceit about having made something really good. Then, frankly speaking, I slided into self-deprecation. I believe Tatsuro Yamashita once said it in an interview, something like "After I'm done making an album, I hate it so much I can't listen to it." I didn't have a clue what he was talking about when I first read that, and I didn't feel that way at all with my previous album diorama, but I think that happened to me this time.
Q. Why do you think you would feel that way?
A. I wanted to make something easily understood, in sound and in words and in rhythm. But something so easy to understand has a tremendous amount of energy because of its simplicity. If you let your guard down, it can do you in.
Q. You felt you were being done in?
A. I can't really word it very well, but simple words, easy words are hard for me to sing because my self-consciousness gets in the way. So even while I was making the album, I went and redid the lyrics many times.
Q. Where did your desire to go in a direction of simple and easily understood come from?
A. Looking back on it, I think it started around Santa Maria. That was a kind of "declaring my intentions" song. I made it to be a song that draws you toward it. "No matter what, I, an imperfect human, will allow music to pull me in so that I can head in the direction of the light." Singing the lyrics of it, it makes you feel like you're becoming that kind of person. So that was the impetus. I came to want to make things with words that even children would understand.
Q. Did you feel like you wanted the songs you write to be consumed as pop music? For example, you often hear Tatsuro Yamashita's songs in commercials totally unrelated to Tatsuro Yamashita's creative style. Do you want your songs to spread in that kind of way?
A. That was certainly something I felt. To the extent that I wanted only that.
Q. So, what is pop music in your mind, Yonezu-san?
A. I personally really like music, and I listen to it wanting to actively get deep in it, but I think the world has more people who don't feel that way. Like people who go to the convenience store for some shopping, and they only buy what they like, or they only buy things they've heard of one way or another. I think pop is something which holds the power to reach even people like that. So I want to make that sort of thing myself. Ultimately, I want to make music that's like a manga book which anyone might pick up at the store.
Q. How do you think that "power of reach" is born?
A. I believe a creator has to have an understanding of what's universal. Things which reside in people's subconscious, not even going into consciousness. Things common to all humans. I think a work that grasps all of that has immense power. I think it's very close to "mass entertainment," and personally I think it's wonderful.
Q. Mass entertainment does have an image of being fun and uplifting, doesn't it? But this album isn't really that at all. It goes deep and has some sharp edges. Not to mention the overall tone has a piercing sense of loss, sadness, and such things. What kinds of emotions did you focus on while making the album?
A. "Curse" was one of the major keywords in my mind for this album. Although it's one I was using consciously. Trauma and perverse ways of thinking brought about by your circumstances could be referred to as curses. Myself, I think a lot of people live bearing curses. They live while their curses bear down upon them. And that's just life. It might be getting too much off-topic, but the other day, I read online about the statements from the person who made the the Kuroko no Basket terrorist threats...
Q. Oh, I read those too. About how he always had a complex and was contemplating suicide.
A. There was one comment in there that really struck me. He said "I've been wearing invisible handcuffs since I was a child." For reasons such as his surroundings and being bullied at school, he couldn't live a normal life. So he called them his invisible handcuffs. And when the police handcuffed him and took him away, he made a smile that the general public considered to be disgusting, and said he couldn't help it, because his "invisible handcuffs" had been made real.
Q. So his "handcuffs" are the same as your "curses."
A. Right. People who live normally in society have communication skills, think positively, and can put effort toward their goals. And there are "curses" which those people can't sense. They're things they can't relativize. It's unimportant to one person, but a matter of life and death to another.
Q. I see. The word "curse" comes up in Santa Maria's lyrics. And could the "donut hole" in Donut Hole, a "hole in your chest that can't be filled," be a metaphor for a curse?
A. Yes, certainly.
Q. And you were convinced that expressing those curses in music and words was "pop," something that had a universal nature to it.
A. Of course, maybe there are people who don't have anything like that. But I'm sure many people bear curses in some way or another, and there are many kinds of curse. I believe there are even people who can't take a proper try at anything. So I think it might be the kind of thing which everyone has.
Q. I see. That's why even though you have songs directed at your past self, they can still make listeners think "This song is talking about me!"
Q. That's rough. That's troublingly introspective. (laughs)
A. Yes. It was very difficult work.
Q. You released the song Donut Hole using Vocaloid under the name Hachi. But now what kind of balance and relationship is there between your real name Kenshi Yonezu and the Vocaloid producer Hachi?
A. It's clearly different from before. With prior Vocaloid songs, I definitely didn't want to sing and record it and put it out to the world. Thus, those were songs made from the environment of Vocaloid. Strictly songs from that kind of circumstance. So I had no intent to sing them at all. But while making Donut Hole, I thought "I could sing this myself - in fact, I want to!" I feel that the clear distinction is going away. Maybe the boundary of Hachi and Yonezu is steadily weakening.
Q. What about Living Dead Youth? Though the word "curse" appears in that song as well.
A. I made that song thinking about my own experience in elementary and middle school. At the time, I was very gloomy, and unlike the curses I'm talking about now, it was a time when I felt like I was really, legitimately cursed. A big part of it was looking back on that time, and wanting to affirm it for my past self, or tell him "Still, it's fine."
Q. Is it a very important song on this album?
A. Yes. I made this song last. I wanted to keep working on it until the very, very end. I wanted to forgive my past self, and for my past self to be forgiven. I wanted to do that with words, melody, and rhythm which children would understand. Doing that, the natural basis was my own childhood memories. I had to rely upon that. I wondered if my past self would feel forgiven with these words and sounds.
Q. So the keyword of the album was "curse," but meanwhile there are songs like Eine Kleine, Melancholy Kitchen, and WOODEN DOLL which use "you." And in Melancholy Kitchen, for example, it talks about "being saved." What kind of image did you want those songs to have?
A. What the word "you" signifies is that I made it while thinking of someone to be directing it to. Be it the people listening to my music, or someone near and dear. I think I've been saved considerably by such people. Even in Flower and Storm, at the end I sing "you gave me a flower." That's a very important line, for me. It's saying I've lived getting flowers from lots of people. Even if I've had various curses, I've been able to live through it. Because I'm getting flowers. So I thought about what I should sing for those people. And then, naturally, a lot of second-person "you"s came out of it. It's getting more exact and concrete. That's how I felt.
Q. What I think doing this job is that appreciating music, or supporting idols, or manga or anime or anything - those little things can be opportunities to lift your "curses" or unlock those "handcuffs." The feelings you get supporting someone or waiting for a new release link you a little more to society, I suppose I'm trying to say. And I feel like the role of pop music is something similar.
A. I greatly feel like that's basically what I want to be. After all, around elementary or middle school, I remember picking up Japanese rock and animation and such, and being blown away so hard I could've turned inside-out. I still like those sorts of things now, and I think they have immense energy, so the desire to make them is strong. Looking back on what got me really passionate as a child, I want to make my own songs to be that.
Q. You want to be something to accompany teens.
A. Right. In about a decade, they'll be grown adults that move from their home to go work someplace. I'd like people from similar circumstances to meet and feel the same passion over something I made. I want them to tell each other "Remember that album? Wasn't it so great?"
Q. I understand. Lastly, let me ask about concerts. Your first has been announced - how are you approaching it?
A. To be honest, I still greatly feel like it's a thing I "have to do." Since I made this album with "you," the listeners, in mind, I think it's necessary to stand on stage and face them head on. It's not a matter of wanting to or not. Just have to. In that sense, I just thought "Okay, let's do it, I guess." Thus... I'm still pretty reluctant. (laughs) But I do think it's important to go in front of people.
Q. It's what you "should" do right now.
A. But I'm also really looking forward to it. Maybe once I try it once, I'll actually find it really enjoyable. Maybe someday I could even tour the country.