Spotlight On Yoshiki


Japan's Renaissance Rocker Goes 'Classical'

What do you do for an encore when you are Yoshiki, a legendary rock musician who helped create a genre of music, founded a band that has sold tons of singles and albums performed around the world, and been a innovator in his nation's music industry? Release an album of classical music of course. "Yoshiki Classical" is available now in the U.S. and arrives worldwide on September 24.

Yoshiki, a living legend in Japan, is founder and leader of the massively influential hard rock band X Japan, and creator of the revolutionary indie Japanese label Extasy, and owner/operator of a successful LA recording studio (formerly Larrabee East) that has recorded or mixed Rihanna, Rage Against The Machine, Janet Jackson, No Doubt and Muse, among others.

Why then would a musician with this kind of heavy rocking pedigree release a classical album? Yoshiki tells Billboard, "This album reflects my 'other' love outside of rock and roll. I'm always composing music like a diary, whether it's Rock or Classical. Because I did the Golden Globes theme song in 2012 and 2013, I thought it was a good time to release my Classical side of [my] music worldwide."

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Yoshiki composed every piece on "Classical," but for the recording he collaborated with renowned Beatles producer Sir George Martin and enlisted the talents of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Tokyo City Philharmonic Symphony and the Quartet San Francisco. The result is a collection of beautiful pieces of music with sweet melodies, soaring voices and vibrant strings. Yoshiki notes he doesn't see the traditional art form at odds with his rock career. "Actually classical music came first, and has been by my side ever since. I started playing classical piano when I was 4 years old, and started playing rock drums when I was 10."

But certainly the drums did help take him to the heights. Yoshiki founded the groundbreaking group X Japan in 1982 (and the Extasy label in 1986), and by the late '80s the band was massively popular in Japan and pioneering a brand of rock and a visual style never before seen. It was dubbed Visual Kei (or Visual Rock in English) for the driving music, outrageous costumes, heavy make-up and arresting images presented.

Yoshiki tells Billboard, "We used the words ‘Visual Shock' as a slogan when we first started because we did not belong anywhere in terms of music and style. We played thrash metal to the extent of fully orchestrated ballads. Also we wore gothic-y heavy make-up, not influenced by American bands, but British punk rock. Because of the combination of all these elements, people started calling us one of the origins of Visual Kei. To me, Visual Kei is expressing the freedom of [the] rebel against the conventional image of the music scene. I can say that we contributed majorly to the movement."

The band went on to sell out the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome a record 18 times. You Masuda, an expert on Japanese rock and former Editor-in-Chief of Tokyo-based Music Life magazine, gives some context. "Yoshiki destroyed the old rules of music industry here in Japan. After X's "Vanishing Vision" (their first album, 1988 –ed) was a huge success, younger bands and fans found there didn't have to be walls between major and indie. Yoshiki proved that you can be a rock star even if you don't look and sound like the old ‘70s rock stars."

Still, those familiar with Yoshiki won't be surprised by the new classical release. The man has constantly been pushing his career in new directions and taking on new challenges. He's composed the theme song for the Golden Globe Awards the last two years and recently had Stan Lee create a superhero based on him.

Yoshiki explains, "Stan Lee came to a charity dinner I had put together several years ago. Since then we became friends and (this) eventually led us to work together. Basically he made me a character as a superhero in his American comic book series 'Blood Red Dragon.' Now we are discussing to bring that series to the next stage."

To top off all these musical and pop culture accomplishments, he's also involved with a charity that supports children and helps those affected by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami and you have a real renaissance man.

Through it all Yoshiki remains a humble craftsman. "I don't feel like I'm an accomplished artist. I'd like to create beautiful songs to touch people's hearts throughout the world. I really would like to do it while I'm alive. Hopefully 'Yoshiki Classical' can contribute to a small part of my wish."