What "Ubiquitous Music" Does Kenshi Yonezu Seek? "I Considered That You Shouldn't Fear "I Love You""
On October 7th, Kenshi Yonezu released his third album Bremen. After his first, diorama, and his second, YANKEE, this album could be considered a compilation brought about by Yonezu's desire to always seek change in his language and sound. With a base of peculiar rhythms and lyric timings, the sound is more intricate, and the lyrics paint more bold and physical stories. We conducted a long interview with Yonezu, whose album has hit first on the October 19th Oricon album rankings and the iTunes weekly rankings (October 5th to October 11th). About the themes and thoughts packed into Bremen, and sound and language which he says "aimed for ubiquitousness."
Real Sound: Your third album Bremen, released on October 7th, hit first on the October 19th Oricon album rankings and the iTunes weekly rankings (October 5th to October 11th).
Kenshi Yonezu: Should I say I feel happy, or is it more relief? There was quite a lot in this album that differed from what I'd released to the world before, so I was uneasy about whether it would really be accepted or not.
Real Sound: There were some elements that differed in this album, yet others that were the same as ever. I feel that it's a "compilation" sort of album that condenses your many different sides into single concepts. Given the flow of your works up until now, how would you describe the place of this album?
Yonezu: I can say now that, during diorama, I was creating with just a narrow viewpoint of only what I thought was beautiful. The moment I finished diorama with that method of creation, I thought "okay, enough of that." Thinking about where to go from there resulted in YANKEE, so named because its role was one of migration from the Vocaloid neighborhood along the rock and J-pop route.
Real Sound: You said once that YANKEE had the meaning of "migrant."
Yonezu: Looking back on it now, while it might have been inevitable - and necessary, I think it was something "half and half." In other words, the methods based entirely in myself which I cultivated in making diorama, and the methods that involved searching for ubiquitous words and melodies, were there in equal parts. So then this album was made with the thought of going as ubiquitous as I could.
Real Sound: And what do you consider to be "ubiquitous"?
Yonezu: When you make music using what everyone knows, it can be very powerful. I feel this album is based in my devotion to that idea alone. ...The context of my own life, what I think is good, the information and wisdom I've seen and heard, it's not guaranteed to be something everyone else shares. What seems obvious to me may not be at all to someone else. I came to think that if I kept making music with the sort of attitude like I'm only interested in myself, I'd be heading further and further down a blind alley, and then I'd just have to die. So that was the only path left to keep living as a respectable human.
Real Sound: In order to create ubiquitous songs, I imagine you "trained up" your words and sounds. First, what in the sound is new and ubiquitous?
Yonezu: When I posted my songs on NicoNico Douga, I had no viewpoint of the outside whatsoever. I only had the viewpoint of "how should I present this within this giant island that is NicoNico Douga?" So while it may be "ubiquitous," its ubiquitousness is limited to that area, I think. Afterward, I came to feel that was a fact of life, but what got me thinking about this was that I really liked Ghibli movies.
Ghibli movies are very ubiquitous works; they're easy to understand even for kindergarteners, not just old men and ladies, and I think that's incredible. We're talking about movies, but I have to wonder if there's anything that's stronger than Ghibli movies when it comes to creating a work to express something. They're for amusement and even kids can understand them, but they also have context, and the creation of them that takes so much into account on top of that is fantastic. It started with me being influenced by that and wanting to make creations like that myself. When I considered it, I certainly felt that what I'd been making, like with Vocaloid, wasn't something everyone could enjoy, and that there were must have been other methods to try.
Real Sound: For example, the intro of I'm A Ghost leaves an impression with sounds and a rhythm that anyone can enjoy. Is that designed to make people's bodies naturally start moving along, even if they're kids?
Yonezu: Right, Ghibli movies are the same way. Ghibli is basically about the power of "art," or how amazing the power of it is in animation. Thus, rather than just being about the twists and turns of a complex story, you can feel good just watching the "art" move, which I think is great. Even if you don't get the story of Howl's Moving Castle, it still pulls you in. And when you're done watching, even if you can't say what the story was like, you still get catharsis from it. I believe that's an amazing aspect.
Thinking about this in terms of music, the rhythm, melody line, and placement of words along them can reliably give people an automatic uplifting feeling. I'm always thinking about how to express that.
Real Sound: I see, so there's a great importance to how the lyrics are timed. Was Unbelievers, the starter for the album, a song that sought something new in that regard?
Yonezu: I'd never done a song like this before, so I agonized over it a lot. Even when the arrangement was about 90% complete, I worried if this was really alright, and couldn't "close the curtains" on it until it was 100% complete. Maybe it was actually finished at that 90% mark, but I asked the producer Kouichi Tsutaya to fill in the last 10%. I think I wanted to do that so I could tell myself that it was fine.
Real Sound: Ultimately, Unbelievers sets the album's tone, so it's very important as the first track.
Yonezu: It was an experimental track for me, not using guitar, and I had no doubts about making it track 1 when deciding the order.
Real Sound: I get the impression that while you sought to perfect each individual song, the whole album's structure was also thought through. The cheery and dark songs are arranged in an extremely intertwined way.
Yonezu: Harmony is a must, and you have to keep a good balance too. Even if one song has really well-developed lyrics and a great melody, there's no point of the balance is all over the place. I had no clear thoughts about how it should be as an album, but I think each individual song I make has objective "strengths." That may be singing my own praises too much, but I feel it's more logical to present songs which have such strengths in the form of an album. I think it works better to have people listen to them in a "bundle" rather than all individually.
Real Sound: Let's ask about the lyrics on this album. Your use of words is clear, and the lyrics in this album have, in a good way, no "ambiguity." They have a quality where if you read the words you wrote, anyone can imagine the story.
Yonezu: One theme I had was "If it's something I could either directly put in words or get away with not saying, I shouldn't be afraid to do the former - I'll just say it." For Eine Kleine (on YANKEE), though the song was based on the love between a man and a woman, I wondered how to avoid using words like "I love you" in the lyrics at all, and instead express love in a more tortured manner. In this album, I took a step further. I considered the need to properly use "I love you," and how I shouldn't be afraid of that.
As a person who's made songs with a lot of different rhetorics, I have an ego that makes me want to twist words around and such. But given the notion that my context and knowledge isn't the same as someone else's, I realized that's not something I should do. That there was a need to express "I love you" by properly speaking those words.
Real Sound: The title "Bremen" brings to mind the Town Musicians of Bremen. Please, tell us how you came to this title.
Yonezu: While making Will-O-Wisp, I wanted to incorporate the essence of the Musicians of Bremen. When I first decided to make this album, I had an image of all these creatures on an unused highway in a ruined town, heading away from the light of town behind them into the dark. That felt like it had a major connection to the Musicians of Bremen.
Real Sound: Like how the animals in The Musicians of Bremen don't reach Bremen, even "Hopeland" on the album is a fictional utopia, and no one can reach it. I felt the implication that we have thoughts of wanting to escape from society and the world, but ultimately can't do so; is that accurate?
Yonezu: Since there couldn't really be a so-called utopia, yes. You have to live making compromises all the time, and it's inconceivable that your thoughts and ideals would be respected 100% of the time. Keeping a balance of how much your thoughts are reflected in your compromises, you just have to live.
In Hopeland, it clearly says in the lyrics to "come here," but even I have to ask, where is "here"? If it were a "here" that serves as an emotional cornerstone, fine, but it doesn't exist as a physical location, and absolutely can't give food to people seeking salvation or anything. So while making songs like Hopeland, I had this fear of listeners being trapped in this emotional space, especially when deciding the track ordering. So I felt the need for a song to come after Hopeland - the song I made last, Blue Jasmine.
Real Sound: Blue Jasmine is also the song which contains the phrase "I love you" front and center.
Yonezu: There was a need to end with a song that actively encouraged you to 100% love the things within a 5-meter radius of you.
Real Sound: I suppose the album's artwork is also related to such themes?
Yonezu: When I finished the album and thought, well, let's draw this, I listened to the songs on endless loop, and my brush just went sliding around, and it turned out like that. It's not something that had a clear intention, but I have the feeling there's a nice, tidy reason inside me for why this is what came out. It's just difficult to express it in words as a concrete reasoning.
Real Sound: I think the art shows the mixture of the light side and dark side of the album. But on the album, it ends feeling like both the light and dark parts fought hard, which I felt added to the strength of it.
Yonezu: It's not something you can clearly break up as "this is light" or "this is dark." And I think people are made up of contradictory elements to begin with. They can have bright parts and dark parts coexist in one mind; I think people are entities which can say something about a thing, and meanwhile have no issue saying the exact opposite thing. I'm not saying that's a bad thing by any means, I just think that's how it is. I think living without feeling any contradictions is the same as not saying anything.
And with the songs of this album, I wanted to see what would be left if I had the dark and the light contrast - in other words, have one song say this, but position another song to say something completely different. Ultimately, though, I don't think you can clearly break up the contrasting sides.
Real Sound: In 2016, you'll be starting a nationwide one-man tour, "Town Musicians." How's your motivation for doing concerts?
Yonezu: More willful than before, I guess is the situation. Before, I practically felt there was no need to hold concerts at all, and I had not even a thought of them in my musical activities. So, I didn't feel the necessity, but lately I've started to do them, and I've gotten up to thinking "concerts are fun!" Having all these discussions about the next tour, and reflecting on how to take an attitude that others can easily endorse, I feel my desire for concerts growing.
Real Sound: I suppose being able to directly interact with fans through concerts must be tied to that.
Yonezu: Having people who listen to my music in front of me, and getting to see their expressions, makes it feel like a very powerful place. I think that kind of thing has changed my way of thinking about my own music.