"Making Music That Affirms Living" - Kenshi Yonezu's Changes, and the Hope Entrusted to Music
"The moment something this unprecedented happened, I couldn't even send things out anymore. I think I'm a frail entity, and I feel some embarrassment too." Even for Kenshi Yonezu, creator of many hit songs like Lemon and Paprika, the coronavirus pandemic has led him to reflect on himself as a musician. The album he quietly worked away at during self-quarantine has shipped 1 million copies before release day. What has he thought about in these past months, and what feelings did he put into the songs?
His tour that began on February 1st had to be discontinued less than halfway through the schedule due to the spread of the novel coronavirus. In the months that followed, Yonezu immersed himself in creation.
When I could no longer go outside, I decided I would focus only on music, fully immerse myself in making music. I decided that from the get-go, so I didn't have to worry about it. If you focus your attention on one thing, you only have to think about that thing. You start to worry meanderingly only when you have time to spare, so sometimes I've chosen not to give myself leisure time.
[Working at home alone] felt like it suited my nature. I'm not someone who finds it painful to seclude myself at home and work for hours, so I don't have too many memories of finding self-quarantine itself difficult.
If it hadn't been for the pandemic... His tour would have run its course, for one, but he'd also planned to perform Paprika for the entrance procession of the Invitational High-School Baseball Tournament. And around this time, the "NHK 2020" song he wrote for Arashi to go along with the Olympics/Paralympics, Kite, would have likely been playing all over.
It's no use counting things that have been lost. It's easier for me mentally to focus on things I can do right now.
I've heard the word "non-essential" enough to be sick of it, but if you get down to what the bare essentials are for humans, I think musicians are one of the first things to get cut away. In practice, you can't do concerts, so people who primarily made a living on live performances can't live right now. That's a mild way of putting it, but it's roughly like having the words "you're not needed" thrust into your face.
The music I make can be a thing that keeps someone going - maybe I have that kind of role. And yet, the moment something this unprecedented happened, I couldn't even send things out anymore. I think I'm a frail entity, and I feel some embarrassment too.
Medical professionals are the ones fighting on the front lines [against the novel coronavirus], and when I imagine what they're dealing with, it just seems so incredible. Measures like stay-at-home orders are necessary on the whole, but there are people whose livelihoods are visibly in trouble due to the confusion it's brought about. It's a kind of hell, an irrationality you want to escape. Is there anything a musician can and should be doing about this situation, and if so, what form does it take? That's what I've been thinking about.
I figured there were various approaches, like streaming no-audience concerts, or making more direct donations, but when I considered it looking back at my life so far, I realized it had to be making music. Because of this chaotic situation, I wanted to make music that affirmed living in this world.
What does "affirming living" mean exactly? He says this: "I think it has to be about loving someone, and being loved." The song Canary, from his new album STRAY SHEEP released this month, gives form to those feelings.
In these times, it's easy to be pessimistic, and if you let yourself be swallowed by anger and sadness, you very quickly will. I wanted to advocate for living with hope so that doesn't happen.
For instance, people have come up with the term "self-quarantine policing." With the virus spreading worldwide, people are concerned that their choices and actions could lead to someone's death, but that risk isn't something entirely new. Our lives are ultimately built upon the deaths of others.
Everyone lives turning a blind eye to that fact. I don't think that's really a bad thing. Because I think making the right choice in every part of life is logically impossible. But when I see people fastidiously say "People who don't stay at home are evil, and I can't abide those who let evil go either," I feel like I don't want to take that stance.
Of course, you need to take time to consider your decisions based on the advice of medical experts, and ignoring everything and mindlessly endangering the lives of others is utterly shameless. You have to make your choices one at a time, always searching for the right balance between preventing infection and everyday life.
Society is changing every moment. For example, physical discipline used to be approved of, but now people have come to recognize it as a thing you shouldn't do. I strongly feel I want to avoid becoming the sort of person who, at times like that, adheres to what he's seen in the past and immediately rejects an improved system. In other words, I think it's important to acknowledge that change happens.
It's the same for personal relationships. Humans love each other, right? Whether it's their face or voice or whatever, people fall in love with each other for all sorts of reasons. But those things will absolutely change. Indeed, because nothing permanent exists, you want to think "this meeting was inevitable."
That's essentially incorrect, and the reality of "affection" might be a meaning assigned to a coincidental meeting after the fact. If you don't start from the point of "you and I being here was just coincidence," I feel like the relationship will become warped at some point down the line.
That might sound cold, but accepting the fact that both of you will change, and confirming with each other every time it happens that "it's fine even if you aren't you," feels to me like a really beautiful relationship.
It's long been said that it's become difficult to create a national hit, but nevertheless, "songs that everyone knows" will show up. Needless to say, Lemon, released in 2018, is one of those songs.
I believe that pop music needs to have enough intensity that a lot of different people will listen to it, but... Lately, I feel like that causes it to possess a sort of violence as well. Even if it's called "a song everyone knows," everyone knowing it results in there being people who aren't part of that circle. For instance, since many people are right-handed, things are often designed ignoring left-handed people to an extent. So I'm always wary of generalizations.
When I hear [Lemon] playing at a restaurant I often visit, say, I sometimes feel kind of apologetic. Because there are people who don't like or dislike me, and are just indifferent. Being put in this position for the first time, I might have come to see the limits of "being pop."
Even more important than the pressure put on me is that I don't want to get tired of myself. Like I said earlier, humans are always changing, so if you told me to make Lemon again, there'd be no way, and the same goes for my Vocaloid-era music. I just have to do what I can do right now, expressing things one at a time alongside the era I'm in. Thankfully, people have come to gradually accept what I've done in that way, and led me to where I am now.
Having come to make hit songs that are nationally accepted, this new album has already shipped 1 million copies. However, his fundamental style of dropping "issues important to me" into his work hasn't changed.
Things I feel all of a sudden in daily life, minor things my friends say - I take bits and pieces of these things and pile them up over time. When it's then time to make music, I stir up all that sediment, and it rises to the surface of my consciousness. By scooping that up and moving my hands, it gradually becomes music.
After finishing the song "Kind Person," I thought rather deeply about whether I should put it on the album. I was concerned that in some cases, it could be a song that really hurt people. Since there are people in the song who are clearly being oppressed. And thinking about people for whom something similar is currently happening listening to it... I suppose it was a song that forced me to be self-conscious about taking responsibility for the things I express.
The lyrics describe what would seem to be bullying. A child being bullied, a child bullying, a singer witnessing this, and additionally, another voice heard from outside.
You have morality classes in elementary school, right? When I was in grade school, the teacher taught me that you shouldn't discriminate. At the same time, I have a vivid memory of being told that you can't think "how pitiable" about people being discriminated against. I couldn't really understand it as a grade-schooler. Because they are pitiable, aren't they? They're being hurt for no reason, and their dignity's being trampled on.
For not being able to understand the "correctness" of how you shouldn't think of others as pitiable, maybe I was a bad person, maybe I was lacking something as a person - I worried about that an incredible amount. The fundamental mood of this song might be a strong remnant of my memories from back then. Although now, I feel like there's no person who doesn't have some evil inside them.
In recent years, he's done more compositions for other artists like Foorin, Masaki Suda, and Arashi. Accepting the "annoyance" of doing things with others, he's expanding his world.
An especially important encounter for him was with Yuta Bandoh, who's the same age as him. Bandoh studied composition at the Tokyo University of the Arts. Besides supervising the classical performance group Ensemble FOVE, he's worked on songs for anime and commercials under the name Taku Matsushiba.
Meeting Bandoh-kun was a major event. I wanted an orchestral feel to the song Ghost of the Sea (2019), so I first brought him on to cooperate with the arrangement there, but once we started working together, I found him to have absurd talent.
The fact he'd studied music academically made him the polar opposite of me, always making things that feel good to me with hardly any ability to verbalize them. I feel there's a significance to making music with that kind of person now.
I might have been getting influenced by others more lately. For instance, I like going out to drink, so I have an interest in meeting different people that way and finding out how these people have lived their lives. The more I learn about those people, the more clear my own shape becomes.
Interacting with people is very much a skill, I think. With a vague understanding of what the other person wants, dislikes, etc., you choose your words and actions to build a relationship that feels good for both of you. That's what human relationships are, but lately I've thought more about how they're ultimately built using that skill. In the past, I didn't do that at all because it really seemed like such an annoyance, but as I gradually spend more time interacting with people, I've sort of learned, ah, I can handle a certain level of things using that skill.
To someone who can be around people as naturally as breathing, it probably seems like what I'm doing has terrible fuel consumption. But it's possible to associate with people by building skill and just sort of faking it, you know. I think that's something that can give you a fair bit of hope.