Being cooped up for the past two years, we’ve all done a lot of things: We baked bread, made Tiktoks, left our jobs, started businesses, brought down the stock markets — all in a day’s work. On one side of the world, however, Chanmina fell back in love with Tokyo.
Since debuting independently with her single “Miseinen” (meaning underaged), and then under a major label in 2017 with “Fxxker,” Chanmina’s unique blend of hip-hop, rap, and pop — which has made her a force to be reckoned with in contemporary J-pop — came to shape in bustling city of Los Angeles.
For the past two years, however, she was “locked” inside Tokyo, so much so that the world sometimes reduced itself to include Chanmina and the city. She breathed in the Tokyo air, feeling the city pulse through her veins, letting the sounds and the sights distill — and then she turned it into her third studio album, Harenchi.
“When you go to one side of Shibuya, it’s all beautiful and fancy and everything’s new,” she tells Billboard excitedly over Zoom one evening in Tokyo. For someone who’s used to the cute-horror visuals of “Doctor” or the fierce sucker-punch of “Bijin,” her casual attire gives pause. She speaks with infectious excitement, throwing herself into accentuating phrases and pulling at her hair when she can’t pull out words. Her youth belies the maturity that her releases come colored in, a soundboard for her musings on who she really is.
“All the shops look very nice and the malls are really fancy and stuff. And then if you go to the other side, you see, like, bang! The red-light district right in front of you! [There are] love hotels and funky places, and people doing funky things in funky places!” She laughs as she explains the oxymoronic Tokyo — a big, buzzing centre of everything cool, hiding a seedy underbelly beyond the veneer.
For Chanmina, it’s all about hitting the spot that balances the two, a pattern that she’s perfected over the course of her releases.
“The darker the emotions expressed in a song, the more colorful or fancy I tend to make the visuals,” she says, laughing. “That’s something I do in music as well. Something very lighthearted on top of a dark track, or the opposite, saying something heavy on top of a light track, because I’m a libra. I like to try to balance out things that may almost fall apart — I enjoy that process.”
Below, Chanmina talks with Billboard about her third studio album Harenchi, her artistry, and her personal mottos in life.
What brought Harenchi to life?
I was actually planning to market overseas more, so I wanted to make an album to prepare for that.
How did you think Harenchi would add to the vision you have for 2022?
I wanted to contribute to giving Japan a better [international] impression, kind of like showing my friends overseas the kind of Tokyo that I see through my eyes — which is very colorful, and a place that I really love.
That sounds different from the track “A Girl of Tokyo” on the album, which was kind of sad.
That’s what major cities are like, oh yeah. It all coexists – the sadness and the happiness of it all. But people are feeling the sadness inside their minds [because] they’re busy. I think that was my reality of Tokyo.
The coexisting of darkness and lightness is also a very prominent theme in Harenchi.
Yeah, if you listen to it from the top to the bottom, I’m hoping that people will be able to see Tokyo through my eyes. It’s the place that I’ve been since my childhood. I kind of like [wanted to] let people know what people my age are thinking about. The beauty of it all — the negative and the positive included.
What other themes did you explore on the album?
Being born and growing up in this city, I want to show people what it feels for somebody like me to be living in this age, in the present and in Tokyo. I’m doing normal things like being in love and meeting all kinds of people – from awesome people to strange people, people who I might not like get along with. The main theme would be living in the present.
If I’m not wrong, the direct translation for Harenchi was “shameless.” How does this word play into that narrative?
So, you can see that Japan is an introverted country. People used to not be too happy about expressing themselves to another person or like as a country. When they do try to express themselves, they are usually thought of as someone who knows no shame. I feel like that’s an identity that I share also as a person — people might think of me as shameless, but I’m just trying to express my true self.
This sounds like something that has been developed over the years because of, you know, personal experiences.
I felt that to fit in was a bit harder for myself then to change herself. I stayed unchanged — at first, I didn’t really have the courage but as I continued with my musical activities, I felt that a lot of fans accepted me for who I was. That was the result of it all.
Has any fan ever come up to you and told you that you help them express themselves?
There was a fan who said that she can’t cry in front of anybody else, but when she’s listening to my music, she is able to actually cry. When I heard that, I really felt like that was my purpose for my music.
One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Imagination.” It’s very different from the rest of Harenchi. What made you want to include it on the album?
So, there was a time in my life when I felt mentally ill. I did go to the therapist, but it really didn’t fix it. The doctors were like: “You can tell me if you’re doing drugs,” when I wasn’t. That experience was really hard. I wrote this song to let people know that I’ve been there too, if you’re feeling this way.
I was seeing things — like imaginations and illusions maybe — and I never really got a diagnosis for it. Another reason why I wrote the song was to see if any of my fans might know anything about it. [Laughs.]
This reminds me of when you said — in a previous interview — that music is nutrition to you and you are a flower that blooms because of the nutrition you get. What led you to that realization?
I think I wouldn’t have been anybody if I didn’t have music.
So, we’ve been in quarantine for close to two years now. How did that impact the process of working on this album? How was it different?
I was in Japan the entire time I was working on this album. Being locked in Tokyo, being here for two years, I really had to look at Tokyo in detail. Like, that was the only thing I had to look at. I could really study all of the details of Tokyo — all the pretty things and all the not so pretty things.
That certainly explains a lot of the musical influences on the album. Were the sounds of the album also directly inspired by Tokyo?
So, when you go to Shibuya — when you go to one side of Shibuya, it’s all beautiful and fancy and everything’s new. All the shops look very nice and the malls are really fancy and stuff. And then if you go to the other side, you see, like, bang! The red-light district right in front of you! [There are] love hotels and funky places — and people doing funky things in funky places!
Like, a couple’s about to start deep kissing, about to start doing something a little more than that. It’s really easy to just get a glimpse of other people’s relationships, which you might not really want to see. A lot of young people my age look at that and they complain about it on social networking sites. I saw all that around me and in the album, I’m expressing how I both agree on some bars and disagree on some of what they express online.
You’ve also spoken a lot about beauty as a concept in a lot of your releases, and the expectations that society puts on women. How has the concept of beauty featured in your life and how has it defined your approach to your music or your creativity?
Since I’ve been in the spotlight, a lot of people talk about if I’m beautiful or not — because of the way I portrayed myself as an artist, by my looks, my fashion, my makeup. It’s not something that’s very typically Japanese, so I’ve been criticized a lot for that. So, I’ve had to really think about what beauty means for me — my words do have a lot of influences from that. When that kind of negative emotion explodes, that’s when songs like “Bijin” and “Doctor” come out.
I also remember you saying that your motto is “Pain Is Beauty.” You said that the saying was passed down to you by your mother, who got it from her mother. When we inherit mottos like this from our family, every generation adds their own interpretations to it. Is there anything you’ve added to this motto?
To challenge. I feel like in the past, a lot of people had to challenge themselves. There was no other way to make their lives better. My generation is benefiting from the challenges of the people in the past, because they’ve tried so hard to make everybody’s lives better. People are so used to being safe and sound that I feel they are scared to challenge themselves, to become who they want to be — because they’re scared of the hurt, the pain. I believe the more it hurts and the more pain you get, the more beauty grows in you. That’s what I really felt, seeing my grandmother and my mother, working hard to get what they want.
How do you challenge yourself?
There are two things. The first is the one I inherited from my environment, whether it be in my DNA, all of the gifts that I have, like my voice – to keep on leveling it up… I play the piano and keep writing new, better lyrics and keep making music, to not stop working on all of my gifts.
The second thing is to know that sometimes, the timing might be so that it’s necessary to receive hate. When you’re starting something new, something that people aren’t used to, it’s very easy to receive criticism — but to not stop there, and to not give up and to keep pursuing what you want to do.