Takanori Iwata — a performer in EXILE and J SOUL BROTHERS Ⅲ, an actor, an artist, and a creative director — is a versatile and busy creator. Roughly a year after his debut as a solo singer with the single “korekara,” he launched his first album, The Chocolate Box, on Oct. 12. According to Iwata, “COVID made me reflect on my own purpose and the basics of my work. It was a huge turning point in my singing career.”
Billboard Japan talked with him about the album — his expectations for it and the spirit he poured into it — and about him as a person.
Why did you name the album The Chocolate Box?
Iwata: Looking back on the finished album, I felt that it delved deeply into the topics of love, in a broad sense, my life experiences, and my beliefs. So at first I was considering keywords like “LOVE” or “LIFE,” but choosing a grandiose title like that for my first album would be a little embarrassing for me. [Laughs] Then I recalled a line from one of my favorite movies, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Like the single that preceded it, you also drew the illustration used on the album cover, right?
Iwata: I couldn’t pass up the chance for self-expression presented by the album and other artwork. A lot of people leave things like that up to the creative director, but I really like to draw. As a creator, it brings me a lot of joy to express my worldview through one of my creations, and that encompasses both music and artwork. For packed products, especially, the artwork is the “face” of the product. Being able to represent my album the way I want is nothing but upsides for me.
The illustration shows a couple embracing. Should we see this as the “love” you were referring to earlier?
Iwata: Yes. There are a lot of different types of love, though, and trying to express them all in a single image would just result in a very abstract cover. That’s why I tried to create artwork that you could associate with all kinds of things, while also adding a personal touch and doing what I wanted to do. I also paid close attention to the color palette and tested out various palettes. The pastel colors are striking, and I chose them to represent skin tones. When I finished the album, I felt that it had a warm, human feel, so I expressed that through the pastel colors.
The artwork isn’t the only great thing about the album; every single one of the songs is wonderful. I’ve heard that the theme of the first streaming single, “Ready?,” is a night drive.
Iwata: I wrote the lyrics to match the tracks, but at the same time I also created the jacket (for the streaming release). I wanted to try my hand at creating an image that expressed the world-view of the song, so I just listened to the track and drew. That became the artwork for the album, and the music video was also an embodiment of that art. I used some of what came to mind during the drawing process in the lyrics. When we met to discuss the filming of the music video, and when we scouted for locations, what I had drawn connected to ideas like “the magic hour” and “going for a drive.” As for my performance, I had a clear vision of presenting an image of an artist who can both sing and dance.
“Ready?” Music Video
So the drawing was the start of everything. “Ready?” is in the same genre as the track that came before it, “korekara,” but it feels like it has a different groove. You also worked on the lyrics to “korekara,” right?
Iwata: When I first heard the track, I felt like the strange addictive quality of the main vocal melody of the intro and chorus was key. The intro is catchy, so it stays in your head. When writing the lyrics, I tried to really take advantage of that. There was also a sense of speed, which is why I went with the straightforward concept of going on a drive. On some other songs, I sang about what I wanted to communicate, about the messages I wanted to share with the world, about love. With “Ready?,” I avoided abstruse lyrics and instead sang about an everyday scene from daily life. When you hear that the concept is “going on a drive,” you might imagine music that you’d listen to while driving, but for me the concept was like taking the steering wheel of life itself. I’d like for the listeners to think of the road they’re driving down as their own life. It’s a message of being positive and carefree, living life the way you want. From the hook in the second half of the song, “Turn up the base line,” it feels like a jazz club. This song is all about the vibe. [Laughs] You don’t need to understand it, just feel it and enjoy it.
Where there any songs that were easy to write, or any songs you struggled with?
Iwata: Things went really smoothly on the third song, “Keep It Up.” This song is a song of personal encouragement. The lyrics contain a lot of things I’ve said in interviews and the like. It’s the kind of song that my fans would hear and say “That sounds like Iwata.” I don’t try to rush through life, but I do often say “the time we have is limited.” I tell myself that, as well, and I try to stay active, because you can’t turn back time. That’s the spirit of this song. I also tried using a rap-like flow. I’d chop it up, taking care to make it sound good, and then fine tune it. I repeated that process a few times, and the whole writing process went smoothly. One of the lyrics is “like the shimmering summer heat” (“kagero” in Japanese). Last summer, I was looking at a mayfly (also “kagero” in Japanese) and thinking about what a sad sight it was. Mayflies only live for a few days after they hatch. It reminded me of how short life is and how our time is limited. I didn’t put the expression in there as a seasonal expression to give the song a stylish, poetic feel, but because it was a specific experience of mine.
What songs did you struggle with?
Iwata: One song that it took me a long time to develop the concept for was “Can’t Get Enough.” When I heard the melody, at first I thought making it into a love song wouldn’t be a bad approach, but I decided to try out two different directions. I wrote down a lot of different words. During this process, I started thinking that I wanted to make it a powerful, passionate song, so for the chorus I wrote strong, straightforward lyrics. Then, based on that, I built up the verses and the bridge. It ended up being a really fiery fight song. [Laughs] Once I decided I wanted to make it a motivational song that would give you that extra push, the words just started flowing out, but it took a long time to decide on that concept in the first place.
You’ve written lyrics for songs with diverse concepts in all kinds of genres, so your lyrics use a wide range of words. Where do they come from?
Iwata: Whenever a word jumps out at me in day-to-day life, I write it down on my phone. Words that strike me when I’m reading a book, words that catch my attention when I’m watching the news, things that people say that make me nod my head. I write all kinds of things down, even really little things, and sometimes I use them. When I decide on the concepts of songs, sometimes the inspiration wells up inside me and the words just flow. I also get ideas from movies. The song “Monday,” for example, was somewhat inspired by the risqué American love comedies that were so popular in the early 2000s. I wanted to write a love song that’s light, mature, and a bit erotic — kind of like a hangover.
It’s been a year since you started your solo music activities. How do you feel you’ve changed during this time?
Iwata: When I started last year, it created quite a stir, but it hasn’t really hit me yet. However, I have announced a tour, so I expect that things will look very different to me once this year’s schedule is all finished. I’m looking forward to it. For now, I just want to make the tour a success.
Looking not only at your work as a soloist, but also as a member of a group, as an actor, and as a creator, you’re truly versatile.
Iwata: People say that a lot, but I don’t think of myself as being all that versatile. It’s not something I really feel. People say it, but it doesn’t quite click. I always like to stay moving. I also work in a lot of different fields, so if I get all stressed out with one kind of work, then when I do other work it allows me to unwind. I’m kind of a career-minded person, so I’m just doing what I want to do. Fans often ask me what it is that I’m working towards, but I don’t have my sights set on anything in particular. [Laughs] I’m not aiming to achieve specific goals, I’m just doing what I like. To be honest, I’d like to ask myself what I’m working towards. [Laughs] If you set goals, then you start seeing the end approach.
I think that your versatility is what enables you to succeed in so many different fields.
Iwata: In my case, I can do it because I started out as a member of a group. I think it all ties back to group-work. So the question is what I’ll do one day in the future, as I get older, if I’m no longer working as a member of a group. Another thing I constantly struggle with is the quality of my work. All I can do is make incremental changes to improve the quality, but I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so sometimes I feel a little down.
You’ve taken a really multi-faceted approach in your work on The Chocolate Box and in your other activities. What stimulates you?
Iwata: I’m inspired a lot by music and film. Recently, I watched Green Mile again, for the first time in a long time. I don’t just watch Hollywood films, though, I also enjoy European films. Even just gazing at the scenery is a joy. When I write lyrics, I picture vistas in my head, and I transform what I’ve seen and heard in my own personal way. That’s why I listen to music and watch movies from all genres. I constantly keep up to date with new hip-hop tracks and trends.
How would you define “stimulation”?
Iwata: Hmm…I guess it’s when something moves me. Of course, that includes music and movies, but also the words I jot down on my phone — they’re words that move me, so they’re stimulating, too. Also, no two days are alike in this line of work, so I’m never at a lack for stimulation. However, when I’m pushed to my limit, sometimes I want the thrill of just kicking back and drinking to my heart’s content. That’s “stimulation” in the same sense as splashing some cold water on your face when you think your mind is just going to explode. It’s a kind of stimulation that’s vital to maintaining your own mental balance. Ultimately, it all ties into the process of creation. In that sense, I might not need to take a trip overseas to seek out new stimulation. My everyday life might just be stimulating enough on its own.
This interview by Azusa Takahashi first appeared on Billboard Japan.
By: Billboard JAPAN / Photo: Yuma Totsuka