4s4ki, the next generation alternative pop icon from Tokyo, released her major-label debut album, Castle in Madness, last July. She has since followed that up with two more EPs, Here or Heaven and Here or Hell, gaining even more supporters in both in Japan and abroad. She has attracted attention overseas as the standard-bearer of Japanese hyperpop. Her style, which encompasses a wide range of styles, such as punk, emo and electro, has a bitter, dark side while at the same time being colorful and cute. 4s4ki handles every part of the music production process herself, writing her own lyrics and composing and arranging her own songs, and she actively collaborates with overseas artists.
She talked with us about everything from her roots and the unique sensibilities she owes to them to her visions for the future.
Your music is often categorized as hyperpop. I believe that one of the reasons for that is that in early 2021 some of your songs, like “Sugar Junky,” were included in Spotify’s “hyperpop” playlist. What was your first impression when you saw your music being categorized as hyperpop?
Hyperpop was just starting to get popular, and I’d wanted to use that kind of unfettered hyperpop approach in making my own music. I like to create tracks by building up, not stripping things away, and I see hyperpop as taking the same additive approach, so I thought it was a good fit for me. So when they put me in the hyperpop category, that made me really happy, but at the same time I also had mixed feelings about it. I started feeling like I had to make that kind of music because that’s the way they’d categorized me. I was in a difficult position.
What kind of artists did you listen to as a teen, and how did they influence you?
When I was in junior high, there was a “Nicorap” culture of submitting rap videos to Niconico (a video sharing site). That was my starting point. I started to explore what these Nicorappers were listening to, which is how I was first exposed to grunge. “The first result when I searched online was “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It had a huge impact on me. I had no idea that music could be that gloomy. I also loved Avril Lavigne. I was a timid kid, so every when I went to school I was like, “Oh no, another day of school, another day of having to talk to other people…” However, listening to Avril on my way to school made me feel stronger and more secure. That’s what got me into pop-punk music with female vocals. I didn’t know a lot about musical genres, so I did some more searching and I discovered Paramore. I listened to a lot of Avril and Paramore on my way to school.
What led you to making your own tracks instead of joining a band?
I’m not very good at cooperating with others, so I didn’t think I’d do well in a band. Being in a band was one of my aspirations, and in high school I joined the music club, but there were so many members who were really energetic and outgoing, which intimidated me. But I wanted to make music, and I wanted it to be quality music, so I did some searches online and found out about producing your own music. I watched videos on YouTube explaining how to do it, and I thought “Writing music this way is almost like playing a video game.” Right around then, smartphones started supporting GarageBand. In my first year of high school, I created a song and I thought, “Wow, I didn’t expect it to be so easy to produce something that sounds good.” I started really wanting to improve the quality of the music I made, so I worked really hard at a part-time job, got a computer, set up a home recording environment, and bought Logic. My first experience with full-fledged production was during my second year in high school. I preferred creating the backing tracks to singing, so at first I just wanted to work behind the scenes as a producer. Unfortunately, none of my friends wanted to sing, so I recorded some temporary vocal tracks. That’s what got me started singing.
What do you think was the turning point that led to your current activity as 4s4ki?
There was a teacher who taught me music production at my vocational school, and I talked to them about things like not feeling like I was cut out for society, or being unable to get a part-time job. They worked for a company that made music for stage productions, and they said, “You should come work for us and make a living from music.” I started working as a production assistant. One time, someone at work said “I can’t get a female vocalist. Could you lay down a temporary vocal track for me?” I sent in my track, and they just gushed with praise, saying “You should become an artist yourself! It’s a shame seeing this talent go to waste!” I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence, but I decided to give it a shot. I started busking, and one day Kussy (president of Sasakrekt, 4s4ki’s music agency) saw a video of me performing and sent me a DM. At around the same time, I was booked for an event being held by Shaka Bose, and I was starting to really devote myself to my musical activities.
On your major label debut album, Castle in Madness, you collaborated with foreign artists like Zheani, Puppet, and Smrtdeath. How did you make those connections?
I was already listening to Zheani’s music, so when she commented on my Instagram and started following me, I got really excited and sent her a DM saying, “Let’s make a song together.” I connected with Puppet when he got in touch with my friend gu^2, who is also a producer, saying “I remixed a 4s4ki, so get her to listen to it.” I got in touch with Smrtdeath through Instagram as well. I sent him a DM out of the blue saying “Your music is so cool,” and that just happened to bear fruit.
Looking back, what do you think of the album?
I wasn’t sure how much leeway I’d have to do what I wanted with a major label and how much I could push back against the label, but they gave me a ton of freedom, so I really poured my all into the album. I think the album expresses my own duality. There are really dark songs, but there are also really bouncy pop songs. I wanted to show off the breadth of the music I could create.
After the album came out, you also played at FUJI ROCK FESTIVAL and went on tour. Looking back, how do you feel about that time?
Fuji Rock was one of the things that got me to start performing live. The whole experience was such a natural high that it’s all a blur. Partly, that’s because it was my first time performing live. To be frank, I suspect that my voice was terrible. Still, my memories are just of how incredibly fun it was, and the feeling of accomplishment I had. On tour, I’ve tried to make sure I don’t go overboard like I did at Fuji Rock, but when practicing I’ve also tried to keep that same level of aggressiveness. When it’s all said and done, what I’ve discovered is that if I just give myself up to my emotions, the show turns out great.
Lately, you’ve been playing guitar and putting on punk-like stage performances at your shows, right?
Punk is starting to become popular again in the underground fashion world, and when I look at the covers of old Avril Lavigne albums or listen to those songs I loved when I was younger, I think, “Yeah, that’s cool.” I’ve also been heavily influenced by Grimes, so even as a solo artist, I didn’t want to get trapped by convention. So that’s why I added guitar to my live performances.
Tell us about your two newest EPs. Here or Heaven and Here or Hell are a conceptual pair, right? Where did that idea come from?
It goes back to wanting to express that idea of duality again. I had a lot of unreleased songs, enough for two EPs, so I thought I should take advantage of the opportunity to make the EP titles a set as well. Heaven and hell are two opposite extremes, right? So I wanted to convey that kind of extreme duality while still creating EPs which gave listeners a good idea of what I’m like as an artist, even if they only listened to one of the EPs.
How do you write your lyrics?
A lot of my lyrics express my inner thoughts. I have really extreme ups and downs, and when I’m at either end, it’s like the words fall like rain in my mind. I save up all that I’ve written at times like this, and I write the lyrics to songs by connecting these little fragments.
The pandemic has made international travel difficult, but it seems like that hasn’t hindered you at all in making connections with other artists.
What can I say, I love the internet. I feel like it’s precisely because of the age we’re living in that we have these opportunities to reach out across national lines, so I’m using the net to its fullest. I send out DMs with music I’ve written, people get back to me saying “Sounds great,” and then they send it back with their own take. It’s like a conversation through music instead of words.
I’m sure that back-and-forth goes smoothly because you share such similar sensibilities. I feel like people are making these laid-back connections through the internet, not really focusing on genres or categories but instead sharing things with more of an attitude like “this is cool.” Names like “hyperpop” or “digicore” have been created to express these kinds of connections.
I think so, too. You get a feel for people who share a similar sense of what’s cool, what’s pretty, what’s beautiful. Like-minded people just seem to naturally come together and connect.
What do you want to do in the future?
More than anything, I want to invite the overseas artists I’ve collaborated with to come to Japan so that we can hold a “4s4ki festival”. There are so many artists I want to collaborate with that I couldn’t even try to name them all, but to pick just a few examples, when I was around 17 years old, learning how to make tracks, I listened to a lot of music by Porter Robinson and Madeon and copied them by ear. They’re part of my musical roots, so I want to reach out to them and say “Let’s make some songs together.” I’d love it if that became a reality. Also, I’d like to play at Coachella one day. However, I think it all comes down to fortune or fate, so more than anything, I just want to keep doing what I think is cool, without compromise.
This week, 4s4ki’s online performance at SXSW 2022 has been reedited and released on YouTube. Check out the special live performance signaling the start of a new chapter in 4s4ki’s career below.
This interview by Tomonori Shiba first appeared on Billboard Japan.