J-pop artist Kenshi Yonezu made chart history this month when he topped the Billboard Japan year-end survey for the second year in a row with the same song, “Lemon.”
In 2019, he also released a number of new hits, including “Spirits of the Sea” and “Uma to Shika,” while also writing and producing songs for other acts, including movie star Masaki Suda‘s “Machigaisagashi” and the kids’ group Foorin‘s “Paprika.”
Yonezu’s own rendition of “Paprika” joined the long list of songs being broadcast on NHK’s historic five-minute music program Minna no Uta, on since 1961. Just this week, it was announced that he collaborated with megastars Arashi on a new song to be featured on the national broadcasting organization’s 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics programs, which will be revealed for the first time on the network’s prestigious year-end music spectacular, Kohaku Uta Gassen.
The 28-year-old hitmaker reflected on his milestone year, sharing his thoughts on songwriting, his favorite songs from this year and more in an e-mail interview with Billboard Japan.
There are many ways of listening to music now besides radio and CDs, including YouTube and streaming. How do you mainly listen to music?
Kenshi Yonezu: I listen to music a lot on YouTube. I often come across something I like on social media, and friends tell me about stuff, too.
With various charts that track CD sales, downloads and karaoke choices, to name a few, when do you feel that a song is popular?
When I hear someone sing them at a bar with a karaoke machine, or when I hear them being played repeatedly, I feel maybe they’re popular. I become strongly aware of it when I happen to hear them many times in different places.
You held concerts outside of Japan for the first time in 2019. How did the local fans react?
They welcomed me really warmly, and also with lots of energy. I was so surprised and grateful that many people from countries not my own had been waiting for my music.
Your song “Uma to Shika” that dropped in September became a huge hit, logging 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Download Songs chart. Is there anything you try to be mindful of on a daily basis in order to create so many hits?
“Uma to Shika” wouldn’t have been born if it hadn’t been for the (rugby-themed) drama No Side Game. While you should value the things you have inside you, I also think you shouldn’t reject new things that come jumping out at you. Accept it once, then evaluate what you want to do and what you should do. And if you feel you don’t need it, then just walk away from it. But it’s important to try to approach whatever it was you didn’t know about before.
Could you share some of your personal hit songs of 2019?
What left the greatest impression on you from this year?
Making “Spirits of the Sea” meant a lot to me in 2019. I’d been dreaming about becoming involved in some way with the original manga called Children of the Sea (Kaiju no Kodomo) for about 10 years.
The new imperial era began this year, so it was a historically meaningful year as well. And because of that, it seemed like everything that happened during 2019 had some kind of meaning to it. To me, it seemed like so many appalling incidents were occurring frequently in Japan, and I had to keep telling myself to calmly and objectively decide whether I happened to just be following such news.
Maybe this means my stance in daily life is beginning to change. So every day I think about what I should be doing to keep making positive music under such circumstances.
You’ll be kicking off your biggest arena tour in 2020. What will this tour be like?
I want to make sure my mind and body keep up with the growing scale of the tour, so at this point, I’m just hoping to be able to travel around the country without forgetting to work hard and take care of myself, as well as to not stop thinking.
2020 is also the year of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, and I expect Japan will change greatly because of it. I’m looking forward to seeing how things change and what will remain after the event passes.