Kenshi Yonezu has released his first single, Santa Maria.
He gained much esteem for his album diorama last year, which portrayed a world with strong aesthetics. Formerly in the limelight as Vocaloid producer "Hachi," he chose to debut with his own voice last year, and his song Santa Maria is a new step in that direction. Recording with Katsuhiro Mafune (bass), BOBO (drums), and Tetsuya Hayata (piano), he's created a truly majestic world.
What was he looking to achieve? We had an in-depth talk with him.
Q. First off, I have to say your album last year, diorama, seemed like a rather fully-developed production.
A. Indeed. As you say, I was very dedicated to doing it right. It was an album in which I packed all the things I had fostered while making Vocaloid songs.
Q. Was there a point after that where you decided what you would be doing next?
A. After that album was done, I was like "Well, I did that, so I wonder what's next?" So I was absentminded for a while. While doing that, I started to rethink why I was making music in the first place. And I decided I'd make something positive and open.
Q. Was it difficult to settle on that?
A. Yes. I was really doing nothing but thinking it over for quite a while.
Q. For months?
A. Indeed. I thought alone in my room, ate and slept, and thought again. That was my life. It was a pretty mopey couple of months, actually.
Q. If I might say, with your songs made in Vocaloid getting millions of views, and the album released under your name getting such praise, Kenshi Yonezu has come a long way in just a few years. I wouldn't be surprised if you just found yourself thinking "Hooray, my music was recognized!" And yet you went all the way back to "Why am I making music in the first place?" Was there a reason for that?
A. I'm grateful that my songs have gotten millions of views; it means there are more people who like me. But as more people regard you, you feel lonelier. I'm sure anyone who's experienced this feels the same way. So it's an ordinary thing to me. My creations and humanity get more popular and are accepted by more people, diffusing across Japan. And as that happens, I feel more and more lonely. That being so, I had to think about myself again. I think that period after making diorama was a good time for it.
Q. Did you feel you began making music to get attention and be recognized? With your album diorama, you talk about not being able to establish a mutual understanding. I think it must be disorienting for that to spread so far.
A. Desires like wanting recognition are one reason why I create, music or otherwise. When those desires are fulfilled, I do feel my ambition to create fade a little. So that's true. I guess that's why I had to ask myself "Why am I making music?" Since I had already been recognized, then maybe that meant I didn't have to make anything more. I wanted to do something about those passive thoughts, so I decided I needed to open up.
Q. The single contains the three songs Santa Maria, Pandemonium, and Flute Without Dancing. Which song was actually completed first?
A. First was Pandemonium. If chances permitted, I thought I would make a video for it and upload it to YouTube and NicoNico Douga, but it just wouldn't stick. When I considered if it was right to make this the song I posted after diorama, I couldn't really say that it was. So I put it on hold to make something completely different, the result of which was Santa Maria.
Q. Aren't Pandemonium and Santa Maria total opposites in their melodies and their messages? Pandemonium says "Ah, how does that matter now?", whereas Santa Maria says "Let us hold hands." So Santa Maria feels like a response of sorts to making Pandemonium and it not sticking.
A. Indeed. Pandemonium is a song filled with cynicism and irony, and the very act of making a song like that was one of the reasons I decided I needed to open up. What's needed now isn't cynicism or beating around the bush, but honest expression. Something that says that however rubbish it is, you need to keep on moving ahead. I thought that's what I should make.
Q. Something cliché, dare I say?
A. Yes, yes. Cliché and pop-like.
Q. You didn't make these songs specifically for a band, yes? Was taking that direction related to "opening up," as you told us?
A. Indeed. I was in a band in middle school and high school. But most likely due to my human nature, it didn't seem to suit me. It was much easier to do it all myself, and there was no need for a mutual understanding of intents, right? So I created songs thinking I had no need to work with anyone else, and they were well-regarded. So when I think back on it, I see the things I made alone are at least known. But while not everyone may realize it, there are limits to what I can create alone. If I continued this way, I'd be stuck creating the same things over and over. So I decided to have a band. I guess I just like bands.
Q. How did it go? It was a long time ago when you last made music with others.
A. The first thing I thought was how hard it was. I couldn't properly tell others what I wanted in words. With someone who hadn't done it in so long, of course it wouldn't be easy. So I had to get out of my habits. Fortunately, I was given much assistance. It was particularly BOBO on drums and Mafune on bass - they had the power to drag me along.
Q. Well, I'd like to talk about the Santa Maria song. And what I really want to ask about first is dissonance.
A. Ah. Yeah. (laughs)
Q. During the ambient loop in the intro, there comes a piano in a different tune. I'd say that's one of the first highlights of the song. How did that come about?
A. That's part of a selfish belief I have. I believe beautiful things must be dirtied. If you ask me for a sensible reason why, I wouldn't really know myself. But don't truly beautiful things exist because there are awful things to compare to? When the distance between the two is reduced, I feels like it approaches reality. It's a very visual thing that I like, a flower blooming in the mud.
Q. I see. It's not just Santa Maria, of course. Including all your songs made with Vocaloid as Hachi, Kenshi Yonezu is no doubt a master of dissonance. When making music, one usually has the tendency to go for something feel-good. But you dare to create dissonance. And with that dissonance, you make this era's pop. It's very curious.
A. Like you say, people like to go for a sound that feels good, but the thing is, some amount of dissonance feels good for me. How can I dirty my songs? That's always in my mind as I make them.
Q. When you have a bit of dirtiness, it sticks and comes closer to beautiful in your mind?
Q. But in Santa Maria, that dissonant sound is really only in the intro. From then on, it no doubt pursues beauty. It becomes a very majestic song as the piano and strings come in.
A. It's true. When I first created it, I wanted to make the noise in the intro louder. But it didn't seem to fit this particular song. It went against the very elements encapsulated in it. Trying to force it would have just been foolhardy.
Q. What do you mean by the elements encapsulated in it?
A. I don't know if I fully understand it myself, but I felt like there was something holy in this song, something that made it so overwhelmingly beautiful that even my "dirty is beautiful" mindset could be brushed aside.
Q. Going back to what you said about "beautiful things must be dirtied," I suppose you investigated that feeling in Pandemonium, which you actually finished before Santa Maria.
Q. So it must take that kind of "holiness" residing in a song to wash away your "it must be dirtied" mentality.
A. Right, that's what it takes. I mean, I kind of do like dirty things. However, compared to all my prior songs, there's not much filth in this one. Because it felt very wrong to me. So perhaps it was a song that required me to reconstruct my own mental philosophy. I think of it almost like a purification.
Q. It really is like you say. After all, Santa Maria does talk about "going toward the light." For example, when a camera flashes, or if you look directly into the sun; really bright places aren't very comfortable, are they? But this song expresses taking the brunt of that discomfort and opening up.
A. Indeed. Until now, I had been heading in comfortable directions, wanting to stay low and flow along. As a result, I created my current self. And I predicted that I would fail somehow, or if not fail, then I would be eaten away and become a boring person. So in making this song, I realized I would have music save me. It's a ritualistic song in that way. Making music like this is partly a way to tell things to myself. In fact, I think music is a ritualistic thing to begin with. Something akin to shamanism.
Q. This song seems like it may be a big turning point in your career.
A. Indeed. I may not know what I'm doing next, but for better or worse, this is one of my most important songs yet. This song will no doubt affect my life.
Q. Incidentally, was there any song earlier on that was a similar turning point for you?
A. The Vocaloid song Close and Open, the Rakshasa and the Corpse was the first of mine to get seriously recognized. Until then, I made it around 10th on the NicoNico Douga hourly rankings, but that song made it to 1st. Myself, I just made songs I liked, not sure why some would be more recognized than others. But for some reason, that one became very popular. It was the first song to give me an objective view of my creations.
Q. Matryoshka received the most views of all Hachi songs - did you make use of your experience creating Rakshasa and the Corpse?
A. I suppose so. Maybe. I remember making Matryoshka and thinking that kind of song would catch on.
Q. So it was a song you made with the listeners in mind, knowing what would stick with them?
A. Indeed. I think it was a song I could make because of Rakshasa and the Corpse.
Q. Understood. Now, to speak a little of the future, if you plan to keep opening up, certainly you'd consider doing concerts.
A. Well, I've been thinking about that a lot, yes -
A. And I'm sure many have asked about it.
A. Yes, many have, quite forcefully. But to say it another way, opening myself up and working with a band is the process of redeveloping my "body." I had ignored my body completely and proceeded solely with my soul, and it caused my head to get huge. I didn't have the body to match it. So now, I have to bear the full brunt of it. If composing songs involves my soul, then concerts and bands involve my body, so I'm doing my best to train right now.
Q. So basically, "don't yell at me to do concerts, it's not that easy." (laughs)
A. Definitely. (laughs) Even if people might tell me I'm being ridiculous for thinking about things that way.