International

Japan's Kenshi Yonezu Talks New Single 'Pale Blue,' Looks Back on 'Fortnite' Virtual Concert & More

Yoshiyuki Okuyama

Kenshi Yonezu

J-pop hitmaker Kenshi Yonezu’s most recent album STRAY SHEEP, released in August 2020, became a landmark album for the Japanese music scene, ruling 46 different year-end rankings including the Billboard Japan Hot Albums of the Year 2020 chart. The hit-filled set also left its mark globally as well, becoming the highest-ranking album by a Japanese artist on IFPI’s Global Album All Format Chart 2020, coming in at No. 7 on the tally from the organization that represents the recorded music industry worldwide.

The 30-year-old artist’s first single since the release of his best-selling project is “Pale Blue,” the theme song for the ongoing drama series Rikokatsu, starring Keiko Kitagawa and Eita Nagayama. The highly anticipated CD single will also include the theme of the nightly news program News Zero called “Yumeutsutsu,” and a new track called “Shinigami.” Fans will be able to choose from three types of packages — the puzzle, ribbon, and normal versions — and the DVD included in the ribbon version will feature his groundbreaking virtual live performance on Fortnite from last August.

Yonezu shared the process of writing the songs on his latest single and more in this latest interview with music journalist Tomonori Shiba for Billboard Japan.

Yoshiyuki Okuyama
Kenshi Yonezu

What was going through your mind when you began writing “Pale Blue”?

I’d been interested in writing a love song again since before I was working on my album STRAY SHEEP. I wanted to create one that has strength as a pop song. To elaborate… I think music, as compared to other forms of art, has a tendency to foster a kind of narcissism in a broad sense. Music is inherently like that, so the strongest type of pop song is a love song in my view. As someone who creates pop music, I wanted to see what would happen if I went back and tried writing one in a straightforward way. So this was something that I’d been thinking about for a pretty long time, and when I received the offer to write a song for Rikokatsu, I thought it was a good opportunity to go ahead with it.

So by that reasoning, there are no “straightforward” love songs on STRAY SHEEP?

When I released that comment, I’d felt like I hadn’t written a love song for about 10 years. Maybe it’s just that I’ve forgotten, but at this point in time, I can’t really recall writing anything while asking myself things like, “Just what is a love song?” It might even be that I’ve never written a love song in a sincere way like that. So I kept thinking about what the result would be if I tried to do that now.

How did you decide on its theme from there?

Rikokatsu depicts romantic relationships that begin from divorce. While divorce is a parting of ways, some romances start from that point, and that ambiguity sounded interesting to me. So my initial idea was to make it so that it could sound like a song about a budding romance, and also about saying good-bye. And then I spent a really long time thinking about “just what is a romantic relationship?” based on that idea. “Pale Blue” happened to be the most challenging song I’ve ever written in my career in music.

Challenging in what way?

I scrapped about three songs before I finally made it to “Pale Blue.” It wasn’t like anyone told me that they weren’t good or anything, but I just couldn’t be satisfied with them.

There were a few that were kind of different in taste before I wrote this one, but they didn’t feel straightforward enough as love songs in my view. So I went on to try this and that before ending up with “Pale Blue.”

As I mentioned before, music has an effect of fostering narcissism and sentimentalism. Romance ties in deeply with that. Which meant that I had to make something that properly followed through in that direction or else it wouldn’t be consistent with my view. So I figured I should make something sappy to the point of being vulgar in a sense. That’s how the song turned out like this.

Illustration by Kenshi Yonezu
Kenshi Yonezu's "Pale Blue" artwork

You wrote “Yumeutsutsu” for Nippon Television Network’s nightly news program News Zero. When were you asked to make it, and what was the jumping-off point for the track?

When was it? Last August, but feels like such a long time ago now. It was for a news program, which means there’s no clear-cut story or anything, and if there were stories to speak of, they’d be the events or incidents that happened that day. In other words, daily life, right? The daily lives of everyone in Japan right now. And it goes without saying that last year was when everyone in the world had to re-evaluate their daily lives because of COVID-19. As someone who makes music, it felt like an excellent opportunity to take a deeper look at such things once again to create something.

What can you tell us about the sound and arrangement? The chords and melody of “Yumeutsutsu” feel strongly influenced by modern jazz, and the track has a kind of pleasing groove to it.

Those were based on my interests. I was experimenting, trying to do something that I’d never done before, to step out from the comfort zone of pop music that I’d believed in until then.

I’ve always been a fan of rock bands, so my favorite songs are ones that are simply structured. But as I began to get bored with that, I wrote this song while searching for ways to expand upon that within myself. That’s what that sound is all about.

Yoshiyuki Okuyama
Kenshi Yonezu

What motif did you have in mind when you wrote “Shinigami”?

“Shinigami” (“The Reaper”) comes from a rakugo story [rakugo is the traditional Japanese art of comic storytelling].

When I was working on “Pale Blue,” I thought I might actually drop dead. I kept thinking stuff like, “I’ll miss the deadline and there won’t be a theme song and I’ll cause trouble for people, this is bad,” moaning while making music. But I did manage to complete it on time and was so relieved. “Shinigami” was a song I started working on after that, thinking that I’d only do stuff that I really enjoy.

I’ve always loved rakugo, and there’s a story called “Shinigami.” There’s a memorable phrase in the work that goes, “ajarakamokuren tekerettsu no paa,” like a spell to chase away the Reaper. Depending on who tells the story, there might be various other gibberish between “ajarakamokuren” and “tekerettsu no paa,” but I just really love the sound of this phrase. I thought it might be fun to set it to music. I went on to produce it in a casual way, and this is how it turned out.

Could you tell us about the virtual concert you performed last August entitled “Kenshi Yonezu 2020 Event / STRAY SHEEP in FORTNITE”? How was that experience for you looking back?

That was great. It was a good experience. It was something new in the sense that it was a live show that could be staged under the current circumstances of this age. I hope that the format becomes more polished and widespread and deeply rooted from now on.

I used to love online games when I was a kid. You can meet different people in an anonymous environment. You meet people whose faces or voices or personalities you don’t know, who exist on the opposite shore. That kind of freedom really saved me because I felt really confined within my environment and my body as a child.

And now we can use virtual bodies -- avatars -- and gather in a virtual space to enjoy a concert. We live in really good times. I was fortunate to have been able to do something like that on such a large scale. It was a really satisfying experience.

Yoshiyuki Okuyama
Kenshi Yonezu

Your album STRAY SHEEP came in at No. 7 on IFPI’s annual global album ranking in 2020, joining the ranks of superstars such as BTS and The Weeknd. This indicates the globalization of the way music is consumed. How do you feel about this?

Personally, I don’t think it’s as big a deal as the numbers suggest. I suppose it’s an accomplishment in terms of annual sales for last year, but still, I don’t think I stand alongside BTS and The Weeknd within the global framework at all.

At the end of the day, what I’m doing is J-pop, nothing more or less. That’s not to say that I won’t make something geared towards an audience outside of Japan in the future, but I do feel that I want to basically keep my focus on J-pop. Having said that, though, I think there are things that I could do [on a global level], so I admit I’m curious as to see how things turn out if I give them a try.

Additionally, the animated tour-de-force from Japan’s STUDIO4°C CHILDREN OF THE SEA returns to select theaters in the U.S. on June 13 & 15. The film features Yonezu's stirring theme song, “Spirits of the Sea.”