J-Pop Star Gen Hoshino Reflects, 'The World Seems Closer': Interview

Gen Hoshino
Courtesy of Billboard Japan

Gen Hoshino

Gen Hoshino is a name recognized by almost everyone in Japan. His latest album, POP VIRUS, has moved 600,000 units (physical and downloads combined), and in the spring of 2019, he completed a sold-out stadium tour with a total of 300,000 tickets sold.

His recent EP, SAME THING -- featuring his first-ever collaborations with international artists such as Superorganism and Tom Misch -- has attracted widespread attention. The pop superstar kicked off his world tour in November, hitting Shanghai and Taipei, as well as sold-out dates in New York and Tokyo that featured his personal friend Mark Ronson as special guest.

Almost everything Hoshino does makes headlines. An Instagram post of a photo he shot on film would go viral instantly and be on the morning news. If you want proof, check out any record store in Japan or turn on the TV. As the title of his latest album suggests, Hoshino's artistry and creativity are widespread like a virus in Japanese pop culture.

The musician, actor and writer is a pop star who always has a bright smile on his face, but he's nothing like your run-of-the-mill J-pop idol or boy band member. He started his music career as a guitarist of an instrumental band called SAKEROCK and has since climbed to the top of Japan's music charts on his artistry alone after going solo.

The lyrics for the latest single, "Same Thing," are a good example of his calm and objective perspective -- which could be described as zen-like -- towards the times we live in, and displays the love and anger embodying the counter-cultural spirit of music co-existing within himself. Hoshino is a true artist and musician who produces all of his work, creating artistic expressions that reflect the times. Here, Hoshino talks to Billboard Japan:

You've mentioned falling in love with R&B and soul legends such as James Brown and Aretha Franklin, after watching the movie Blues Brothers when you were a child. Were your parents into music?

My mother dreamed of becoming a jazz singer before she had me, and I grew up watching my father play piano as a hobby, so I can say music has always been in my life since I was born. I remember hearing modern jazz records at home all the time. My parents also loved Japanese singer-songwriters, so I'd say my musical roots are grounded in improvisational jazz and the world of singer-songwriters that's nostalgic and lyrical with a simple melody line.

Courtesy of Billboard Japan
Gen Hoshino

You discovered punk and rock music in junior high and started to play guitar and write your own songs. I heard you didn't pursue music seriously until after you graduated from high school. Is that true?

It is. My biggest turning point was discovering my musical mentor and legend Haruomi Hosono [best known internationally as a member of Yellow Magic Orchestra] when I was in 11th grade. I fell in love with his album Bon Voyage co. and started to listen to his entire catalog. I got to meet him in person when I was playing guitar for my band SAKEROCK. He's like a mentor to me. I never had enough confidence to sing before he suggested I should. He's the reason why I started singing as a solo artist.

SAKEROCK was an instrumental band you formed with your high school friends, named after the song "Sake Rock" by the father of exotica and mondo music Martin Denny. You were the leader, playing guitar and marimba while also producing and writing music for the band. The tagline for SAKEROCK's first album, YUTA, went, "Even if you accidentally die, you'll be fine as long as you have this CD. You'll dance happily on the other side. Strange music with pearls of wisdom that will surely rock your funeral." What was SAKEROCK aspiring to communicate musically?

When we released YUTA, I was into music from Okinawa. I was inspired by a line in a book that said, "Musicians in Okinawa play music facing the ocean while the audience listens to their music facing the same way." That meant musicians weren't playing for the audience, they were playing for "the air" and "the other side." I wrote that tagline thinking, "I want to play music like that!" But now that I think about it, I probably just wanted to say, "We're different from other bands." (laughs)

Your solo debut album, BAKA NO UTA (2010), is a masterpiece filled with Americana sounds reminiscent of Wilco and The Band, as well as exotica inspired by Haruomi Hosono, perfectly mixed with the emotional aspect of traditional Japanese songwriting. Your second album, EPISODE (2011), was released shortly after the Great East Japan Earthquake, and the single "Kudaranai no Naka ni" was on heavy rotation at the time. Did the earthquake influence your album in any way?

I'd originally intended to make it more pop, but the earthquake forced me to change direction because our society wasn't ready for music that was happy after the earthquake. It also made me reevaluate my work as a musician, and I tried to figure out what I could and should do at the time.

And I realized I could only sing about what's authentic, about everyday life and reality. But I wasn't trying to say that happiness lies in the small things in life or anything like that. To give an example, being able to say to someone sitting next to you that their hair smells, that's a manifestation of true love. There weren't any other musicians writing and singing about life and love in that sense, and that was my particular style of pop and punk.

Courtesy of Billboard Japan
Gen Hoshino

You were diagnosed with SAH just before you finished recording your third album, STRANGER (2013). Would you say that the experience of overcoming the illness influenced you musically?

While I was in the hospital, I had to overcome great pain and face myself every single day. I couldn't even listen to music because it reminded me that I couldn't do anything that I wanted to do.

But some time after I went home from the hospital, I felt like listening to something and played Prince's "I Wanna Be Your Lover." It's not exactly a peppy party song but it lifted my spirit. It reminded me of how much I'd always loved dance music. I'd shown my love for black music before by incorporating elements from it into songs that I put on B-sides of singles, but that whole experience gave me courage to challenge myself and be true to what I love, to create the music that I've always loved. So I made the album YELLOW DANCER (2015)

YELLOW DANCER was a landmark album that took elements of black music that influenced you as an artist, such as Michael Jackson, Prince and D'Angelo, to depict honest emotions from a Japanese standpoint.

Following its success, you released your biggest hit single to date, "Koi" (2016). It was the theme song for the TV drama series you starred in, called Nigeru wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu (The Full-Time Wife Escapist/ We Married as a Job), and its dance went viral in Japan.

You know what? My team went to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo the other day to get our visas, and an embassy official joked, "Can you show us the Koi Dance? If not, we can't approve your visas." I wish he'd asked me! (Laughs)

"Koi" is such a unique song. The melody sounds like a sped-up Motown record with Japanese folk-dance elements. I even used an instrument called erhu -- a traditional Chinese two-stringed bowed instrument, also called a Chinese two-stringed fiddle -- for the intro. I felt a sense of fulfillment to know that it was loved by people all around Japan as one of J-pop's iconic songs, because it was something that only I could create and something that could only be created in Japan.

Your latest album, POP VIRUS (2018), seems to encompass past, present and future, musically and thematically. The title track, "Pop Virus," is featured in the PS4 game DEATH STRANDING and has been gaining momentum globally. Can you tell us what you wanted to communicate through the album?

It seems everyone feels like there's no hope and it's hard to even breathe. But there's a warmth even within that struggle. To give an example, there's a blizzard outside, but inside the house, there's a fire in the fireplace. I wanted the album to express that feeling sonically. You get annoyed or angry in everyday life. Of course, you feel love too. I wanted to express those kinds of emotion through music.

Would you say emotions like anger and love were the main themes for the EP SAME THING (2019) as well?

Yes. The EP was inspired by [shame and vulnerability researcher] Brené Brown's TED Talk. She's basically saying that humans are incapable of holding in certain types of emotions. You need to know anger and sadness in order to know joy. You're human because you feel all those emotions.

There's a term called satori [meaning awakening/ enlightenment in Japanese] in Buddhist and Zen teachings. I think people who are truly aware of satori let themselves feel frustration, cravings for food and sexual desire, acknowledging that they feel that way, like, "Well, you can't help it, can you?" (Laughs) I wanted that idea to come across in SAME THING.

You've had an exciting year, challenging yourself to try so many new things. Your entire catalog is now available on all major digital platforms, and you just wrapped up your first world tour. Sounds like people outside Japan will get the opportunity to hear more and more of your music.

I think there used be a thick and tall invisible wall between Japan and the rest of the world. But with all the technology that's available now, the world seems closer -- at least the physical distance seems to no longer be an issue. What stands before us now is what I'd call real distance: The distance that you might feel trying to come to an understanding with people around the world and trying to understand the person standing next to you is the same. That's why I want to go places and meet people I've never met and just enjoy music together. I'm really excited to share my music with people around the world.