Theme song of the J-drama series Unnatural
Photo credit: Jiro Konami
Kenshi Yonezu - A perspective on human death
Kenshi Yonezu has released his new single “Lemon” on March 14.
The song, written as the theme song of TBS Friday drama series Unnatural, is a painful piece of senses of sorrow and loss of a loved one. Upon writing this tune, Yonezu was strongly inspired by the death of his own relative. In this interview, we asked him to open up on the background thoughts of the song.
“I knew it would definitely come out beautiful.”
Did you write “Lemon” after you had been asked to write a theme song of the Unnatural drama series?
KY: Yes, that’s right.
What was your first impression of the offer?
KY: Last year I made many songs for anime series and movies. I used to watch anime and movies as well, so I had sort of formative experiences and I was familiar with them. So I was able to make songs by looking back at my childhood. But when it comes to drama, I have no formative experiences. So I heard stories from the actual production people, read the script, and saw the visual while still in the making. First of all I simply thought, “This is really interesting.” I could tell that they were really earnestly into production. It had this heat that even a person like me, who had not been an avid drama fan, could feel. And that heat showed in the script and the visual. So I knew it would definitely come out beautiful.
How about the theme of the drama?
KY: Unnatural is a drama that takes on human death. Death is one of the important themes in my music, so I could relate to it in that sense as well. Thus I found something that clearly linked to myself, although I am not familiar with the format of “drama theme song”.
A relative’s death: a solid fact
Did the drama production team give you any requests, such as the song mood?
KY: There were some detailed ones, and the most impressive one was to “make it something that tenderly wraps around people who are hurt”. When I started writing, I was faithful that request but the result definitely did not come out as such. After all, it turned out to be a song just saying “I am sad that you are gone”. There were many factors that led to that result; one big thing was that my grandpa died when I was working on it.
KY: I’ve always been singing things related to death, so turning a death into music was, I should say, something I had been deeply familiar to. So I was making the song in the mindset that I could make a song about death if I tried. But then my own grandpa died. When I faced the solid fact of my relative’s death, I wondered, “Have I been able to take a real look at human death?” I thought I might have looked at death while still in an ambiguous way.
At first you were facing death as some kind of ideological thing, but all of a sudden it became something about yourself.
KY: Right. At first I was aiming for the most beautiful thing between the drama and myself. But when death actually came in front of my eyes, I wondered what that meant. It totally offset my previous perception on death, and therefore I had to build the concept all over again. And before I knew it, it turned out to be a very personal song.
A sensation of being “taken to that place”
To you, what kind of experience was it to lose a grandfather?
KY: I didn’t see him that often. Long time ago I used to see and speak to him whenever I went back to my hometown but I hadn’t done that recently. By the time I turned 20, grandpa was showing symptoms of dementia. When I visited him for the first time in a while, he didn’t remember me and I understood that, but… Gradually he was forgetting all sorts of things; he was losing all sorts of thing. And he passed away around the end of last year. I was still touring, and making a song on the road was something I had never done. It took quite a lot of effort.
KY: To me, making music is like going all the way deep into the sea, take a thing that lies on the seabed and then come back. It takes a lot of time. But this time I had to make the song during the tour, so the schedule was like, travel to the countryside to perform on stage, return to Tokyo, make the song in one or two off-dates, and then travel to the countryside again. So time was up while I was still deep in the sea; I quickly returned to the surface of the sea, switched to concert mode and then hit the stage again. I repeated that cycle over and over again.
When you make a song you have to go deep into yourself but when you perform in front of people you can’t be in that mode.
KY: That’s right. And having switched back and forth so many times, I developed something close to “decompression sickness”. I had this sensation of something going wrong with my internal organs or be in the middle of something like a storm. And while I was suffering from that situation, grandpa died. I had to make the song in a real chaos and I was wondering what I should look at. It was a really tough process.
Earlier in this interview you mentioned that this song was “personal”, however, as a listener, I didn’t necessarily have that impression. Anyone can identify it with his/her own loss of a loved one. I’m saying this because, although a death of a relative is a very sad thing, death is not someone else’s thing to you anymore, because the loss served as a trigger. You ended up making a song from the standpoint of a person who has faced death, rather than going for an intention or an effect to “tenderly wrap”. Drawing from your words, I think you were able to make a song by touching a really deep part.
KY: I think so. It turned out that way and maybe it’s weird to say, but I have this feeling of my grandpa “took me there”. This song does not tenderly wrap someone who was hurt by the loss; instead it simply says, “I am sad about your death”. That is because I didn’t have the capacity to tenderly wrap someone. I was too busy trying to hold onto the emotional ups and downs and focus on watching one point. And that’s why it turned out so personal. But I have always hoped that my music is “universal” and when I took a look at that song in an objective way, I did feel that it “turned out to be universal”. I do feel that my grandpa’s death led me to it; my grandpa brought me to that state of mind and let me make it.
Lemon as an icon
This song is entitled “Lemon”, and in the lyrics, lemon serves as an icon that represents loss and sorrow, such as “a bitter flavor of lemon lingers on in my heart” and “just like the one half of a split fruit”. Was this keyword there from the beginning?
KY: No, I had a totally different title at first. The tentative title was “Memento”, as I was going to make a song that spared a thought for human death, a song that sang about death. And I was making something close to a requiem in a sense. But a song about human death having a title “Memento” started to get on my nerves; it seemed too much. The phrase that goes “a bitter flavor of lemon lingers on in my heart” just came to me without really thinking, when I was writing the lyrics at a mock-song stage. To be honest, I don’t really know how I came up with this phrase. But somehow, I clearly knew that this had to be it. I did try to think of other phrases, but after all, this was the only one that felt right. So I thought the title should be “Lemon”.
”The one half of a split fruit”. Did you have that phrase at that stage as well?
KY: That part I wrote the night before the recording into the late hours. I couldn’t come up with the phrase until the last minute and I wrote it not knowing what it was. But the moment I wrote it, I had this sort of aha experience. And I finally made myself understood; there was a feeling of learning from what I wrote and the song I made. I think the song turned out to be that way.
This song doesn’t have any word referring to death when it comes to lyrics. But when you listen to it, you can feel that it is a song of death and loss. It has that kind of universality.
KY: I think the word “lemon” did a good job in depicting that part. It has become an icon of death. A straightforward expression was fulsome to me. That was why I didn’t go with the title “Memento”. I don’t think it’s interesting to just depict such kind of thing as is; it’s tasteless.
Photo credit: Taro MIzutani
Tracing human death with dance-like rhythms
Another really impressive thing is that although the song is themed on death, the mood is very bright.
KY: Right. I didn’t want it to be just a drag. Actually, it links to the initial inspiration I got from the drama script and the visual of the first episode. It did not only tackle death but also had a very good tempo of the flow of the story; it also had a comedy-like side, and the characters in the drama felt an intimate connection with human death. To people who are not familiar with death there are some gross moments, such as laughing during autopsy and then eat meat like nothing in the next scene. So I definitely did not want to make a simple drag, or just a ballad. Even if you take an intense look at death, you can never depict the beauty of death. Instead, if there is death, I’ll just leave it ambiguous on purpose. Like it says in the lyrics, there is something that emerges by “tracing the contour” of it. There is definitely something that cannot be depicted otherwise. I think there is death that can never be depicted with an intensely sorrowful, dark, and plausible song of human death. So I had this image of a song in a stepping rhythm, a bouncing, dance-like rhythm that traces human death.
In the drama, this song comes on in a very exquisite timing, doesn’t it?
KY: Right. I watch the drama and really feel that the song is played where it is the only scene to be. I don’t think it’s good to have the song too close to the drama. I have to make a song as Kenshi Yonezu and I shouldn’t just follow the story of the drama. So I didn’t have the perspective of “perhaps it’s good to make the song this way as it’s going to be played at this scene”.
So when you saw the completed drama, that exquisite timing of the song being played must have impressed you strongly.
KY: Yes. It really hits the right spot. And it’s kind of strange to see the song, which came from my personal experience, is played with no inconsistencies with the story. Well I did write that song for a drama, but it was also, or more likely, a song I wrote for myself. But it really links to the story right from the start. It’s really a strange feeling, and at the same time a proof that I was able to reach some universal place.
How to show the roots beautifully
Two songs, namely “Cranberry to Pancake” and “Paper Flower” are bundled with this single. Did you make these two tracks after you had finished making “Lemon”?
KY: Yes. After the tour.
What motifs inspired you to make “Cranberry to Pancake”?
KY: I like drinking recently. I drink all night; come home in the morning and take a nap; I wake up around noon and the sun is strong; I have a hangover and a headache. I wrote a song in such a terrible state and the song turned out this way. I wanted to keep preserve that terrible feeling.
Some years ago, you never used to write such a party-life kind of song.
KY: Yeah. I would never have. I think it’s my recent self.
How about “Paper Flower”?
KY: This is another recent me. I was thinking of making a song to be bundled with “Lemon”, and focused on that fact. The first thing I did was to make the track while imposing many limitations on myself such as “no hi-hats”. Well, I ended up using hi-hats though.
What other limitations did you impose on yourself?
KY: I was thinking about creating the dynamism with the bass, and build up the excitement as the song goes toward the latter half… all those things I had never done before. I also encapsulated a certain atmosphere, such as walking in the middle of the night and seeing a beautiful moonlight. And so the song turned out to be like that.
Speaking of the mood of the song, I think you broke a new ground with your BOOTLEG album, a method that opens a new breakthrough by looking at the sound of your contemporaries overseas and your own roots at the same time. Perhaps you felt you scored something around the time of “Dune (Suna no Wakusei)”.
KY: That’s right.
Did you feel that this single was a continuation of that?
KY: I feel that “Paper Flower” is.
But even with “Paper Flower”, you can’t make this kind of song by just incorporating what it’s called alternative R&B overseas. I understand it must be difficult to put it in words, but how do you analyze your breakthrough or secret to the creation of such songs?
KY: Let’s see… Well, at the end of the day, it’s not that I want to do alternative R&B. I find my roots in a wish to make a kayokyoku (an old-school Japanese pop genre). So I’m always thinking of how to show my roots beautifully. It’s about the balance.
Photo credit: Taro MIzutani
Waiting to be chosen
Last but not least… You’ll be performing a single-bill show at Makuhari Messe in October. What do you think the rest of 2018 has in store for yourself?
KY: Last year, I’ve overstuffed things. Then how about this year? It’s all about timing, and I’m working on how to make that moment beautiful. There are many flows of the times. Do I belong to any of them? Is that a beautiful place? Does it have to be me or not? I have always tried to figure them out, but this year again, I hope to closely examine various aspects to create something truly beautiful. While waiting to be chosen by the fate to encounter people, or by the flow of the times, I create my own music and be prepared for that moment. I think that’s the state of mind I am in right now.