GARNiDELiA is a male-female J-pop duo whose songs have been featured in over a dozen Japanese TV anime series since its formation on Sept. 11, 2010. After over 10 years of producing signature J-pop tracks that have gained a devoted following both within their native country and abroad, the pair switched record labels to Pony Canyon earlier this year and released its first album through the imprint this month, called Duality Code.
In an interview for Billboard Japan, GARNiDELiA members MARiA [pronounced “may ree ah”] and toku sat down with Tomokazu Nishibiro to look back over their musical journey. Starting from their beginnings, they share their thoughts on gaining fans overseas, working solo during the pandemic, the concept of their new album and more in this special feature.
Let’s start off with how you two met and debuted as a duo. Why did you two decide to work together?
toku (composer): Before I met MARiA, I was making music using Vocaloid software [a pop music genre referred to as “Vocalo-P” in Japanese], but I wanted to start working with a real vocalist. A common acquaintance introduced me to MARiA, a singer who had a following for her cover performances online [called “utaite”] at the time. We started out by making demos and uploading them to [Japanese video platform] Nico Nico Douga.
MARiA has a background singing jazz and R&B, so I thought it’d be really interesting to integrate her way of singing with rock music. At the time, my idea of music that stood out in smaller music venues [called “live house”] was band sound, so the original concept of GARNiDELiA’s music was to fuse MARiA’s singing with that kind of music.
You mentioned Nico Nico Douga. From the beginning, GARNiDELiA placed importance on its connection with the Internet and has been proactive in building its online presence. Why was that?
toku: In Japan, “doujin ongaku” [music produced and released by hobbyists] became really popular from around 2002, which led to the rise of the Touhou Project and Vocaloid music. The way of releasing music changed rapidly around then, and people were also already starting to create their own videos in addition to music, so we knew that we had to use the Internet as our main platform for releasing music.
This quickly lessened the distance between Japan and the rest of the world as a result. While J-pop artists in the ‘80s and ‘90s found it extremely difficult to bring their music to a global audience, in today’s environment, Japanese music is being discovered online by international listeners. This was also the case for GARNiDELiA, whose music video for their 2016 song “Gokuraku Jodo” and the user-generated dance videos using the track gained popularity mainly in China. This became the biggest turning point for the group.
toku: After our music started being featured in anime, we were often invited to perform in anime festivals abroad. When we were thinking about what we could do specifically as Japanese artists, we came up with the concept of doing a song using traditional Japanese melodies with MARiA wearing a kimono. We thought that this would be a way to repay our listeners around the world for accepting us. That’s how “Gokuraku Jodo” came about, and at first we thought it would be popular in places like Europe and the English-speaking world, but it turned out to be a big hit in China.
MARiA (vocalist): We really didn’t expect that to happen. Every time I go to China, I ask our local fans and crew why they like this particular song, and they say the title had a strong impact [gokuraku jodo is Sukhavati, or the Western Paradise in Buddhism]. A lot of people said the thumbnail for the music video caught their eye. I also found out when I went there that the people simply love flashy costumes and that they have a vibrant cosplay culture. Ever since we started GARNiDELiA, we’ve been trying to make it fun for both the eyes and the ears, and I think the timing was right for our concept to stick with the Chinese people, which is why they give us so much love.
The duo had been performing live every year abroad as well as domestically until 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic that began around 2020 canceled concerts and events around the world.
What went through your mind at the time as you celebrated your 10th anniversary while facing an uncertain future?
toku: I didn’t want our fans to think that we weren’t doing anything, so we decided to put something out periodically, and continued to livestream concerts once every two or three months. But we didn’t know what the right thing to do was, so it was a period of trial and error.
MARiA: It was something nobody had ever experienced, so there was no correct answer or any kind of answer at all, and we had to find it ourselves. We were feeling our way the whole time.
GARNiDELiA’s new album follows this year’s solo projects by both members: MARiA’s Utamonogatari, in which she sings ten songs written by different songwriters, and toku’s bouquet, in which he worked with ten different female singers on each track.
Your new album Duality Code is your first album together after working on solo projects, and marks your 12th year in music. Could you share some of your thoughts that went into its creation?
MARiA: Since we couldn’t perform live as much as we wanted to, I think our fans are definitely relieved to have the two of us back. That’s the story behind this album, so as the first project of our 12th year, we wanted to show everyone our answer, that we were committed to being a duo. The word “duality” in the album title is also a reflection of what we — MARiA and toku —want to convey, and that GARNiDELiA is all about the things that are born from the clashes of minds between the two of us. We really wanted to make it a powerful album.
At first glance, this album appears to be a return to the roots of the band, in the sense that the pair are stepping out together again after their 10th anniversary and respective solo endeavors. In fact, the set is full of powerful rock tunes reminiscent of the “music that stands out in live houses” that toku envisioned when they formed, as well as digital tracks cut out for the current Internet J-pop scene. But these songs also solidly reflect the band’s experience over the past 10 years, and are upgraded versions of those original concepts.
toku: When considering what makes a song “powerful,” I suppose you could strengthen it by creating a “deluge of sound” through the arrangement. But when we were working on our new album, I was thinking about shifting in a direction where the melodies and lyrics stood strong on their own. I wanted the songs to be solid without needing heavy arrangement, so I reduced the number of notes as much as possible in the demo stage. I handed those over to MARiA, and she sent them back with the lyrics, then I continued to arrange the song. I think we were able to create something that allowed the lyrics to come through, and also make our longtime fans think, “This is what GARNiDELiA is all about.”
MARiA didn’t write the lyrics for her solo album, but she says the experience she gained from working on that album proved to be useful in writing the lyrics for Duality Code.
MARiA: I think my experience with the solo album was very meaningful. It’s something I felt when I was writing the lyrics and recording [Duality Code] . The lyrics for each song [on my solo album] was written by a different person, and I went through the experience of taking those words I received from others and expressing them as my own songs. I did that ten times over in such a short period of time, and I also performed those songs live.
That experience provided me with a great deal of input when I was writing my own lyrics. It broke all the rules I had for writing lyrics, including how to choose words and express myself. For over 10 years, I adhered to what I perceived as being “how MARiA of GARNiDELiA should be like,” and that “she should be strong,” but after performing a number of very feminine songs on my solo album, I’ve come to realize that it’s okay to show that side of myself.
I feel confident that I was able to write freely, honestly, and express my real self. In that sense, I put a lot of thought into what feels good and fun to sing on this album. That’s why I want everyone to sing all these songs, too.
Your new album is an expression of the new GARNiDELiA that you want to show fans, while drawing from your signature styles. It’s even more rewarding to listen to than your previous works, and each song is very distinct. This must also be the fruit of your solo activities.
MARiA: There are many songs on our new album that our fans might find strange if they were included in our previous albums. We’d never included so many love songs before, for example. Our lyrics were more fantasy-oriented in the past, but in this album, I wrote many songs like a diary, laying out my own emotions. The reason for this isn’t only about our solo projects, but it also has to do with the fact that our music was featured as anime openers and and theme songs for TV drama series and that gave us confidence that we’re GARNiDELiA no matter what we do. I think there used to be this image of what GARNiDELiA should be like both within ourselves and our fans, but we were able to break that in a good way.
The last track in the set, “Reason,” is a rock number with a strong message that spells out why MARiA intends to continue singing.
MARiA: When this song was completed, I knew it belonged at the end of the album, that it had to be the last song on the set. These words, and the song itself, are what I wanted everyone to hear the most right now, and I’ll probably feel that way about it from now on as well.
In these times of the COVID-19 pandemic, we hear people say that music isn’t necessary and we’re told that we aren’t allowed to perform live, even though this is how we make a living. So I put some thought into why I keep singing under such circumstances. I’ve seen many friends and colleagues quit halfway through their career, so why is it that I don’t give up? In that sense, if it hadn’t been for these past two years, I probably wouldn’t have been able to write this song. A lot of things have changed during that time, but I think everything that happened helped us grow and reaffirm our connection with our fans. I’m proud to say that this album is filled with songs that we want people to hear now.
GARNiDELiA’s songs can be streamed here.
–This interview by Tomokazu Nishibiro first appeared on Billboard Japan