YOASOBI's Global J-Pop Overthrow

YOASOBI's Global J-Pop Overthrow

Story by Travis Shosa / Photography by Brian Ziff / Illustration by Lauren Tsai / Styling by Nico Amarca / Hair and makeup by Youca

It’s 9 AM in Tokyo and YOASOBI — the duo of composer Ayase and vocalist ikura — are sitting in their abodes, 14 hours ahead and 6,661 miles away from me in Spring, Texas.

Ayase, who recently turned 30, looks bold — bleach-blonde hair, tunnel earrings, large round rimless glasses and tattoos poking through the shoulder holes of his t-shirt — backed by a screen projector, a long wooden table and a stylish spherical light fixture. ikura, 23, is wearing a plain black cotton hoodie and a dull silver face mask. Both are tired and for good reason: April was a monumental month for making further inroads overseas.

Less than five years ago, Ayase, who began exploring Vocaloid production (a singing synthesizer software) in 2018 while in the hospital with peptic ulcer disease, was presented with a concept: creating original songs based on the short stories posted to Sony Music Japan’s Monogatary.com, a social media site built around creative fiction. The concept intrigued Ayase and he soon scouted ikura from her Instagram account and YouTube channel. By the end of 2019, they released their first single “Yoru ni Kakeru” (“Into the Night”) based on Monocon 2019-winning story Thanatos no Yuwaka. But the song wouldn’t truly catch fire until next year, when it dominated streaming charts after going viral after the COVID-19 pandemic, becoming the first song in RIAJ history to be certified diamond based on streaming numbers. Since then, YOASOBI’s momentum has only grown, with no fewer than three more singles — including the Blue Period-inspired “Gunjo” (“Blue”), Beastars opener “Kaibutsu” (“Monster”) and Oshi no Ko theme “Idol” — reaching that same diamond mark.

(On ikura) Jacket: KidSuper, Jeans: VIAVIA, Sneakers: Moncler, Sunglasses: Arnette, Wallet chain: Other, Earrings: Lili Claspe (On Ayase) Jacket: KidSuper, Jeans: Dingyun Zhang, Sneakers: Moncler, Sunglasses: CHIMI

The duo’s music ultimately expanded beyond the scope of Monogatary.com into literary contests, collaborations with professional authors and stories attached to larger media properties like Pokémon. YOASOBI have managed to spread a wide creative net while still holding true to their initial concept of “novel into music.” While there’s something almost clinical to their approach (see how all of their original Japanese EPs follow the naming scheme of The Book, are around 30 minutes long and never deviate from using short stories as a writing base), the limitations which YOASOBI work within aren’t really limitations at all. Rather, they form a webbed network of context that further enriches their maximalist J-pop.

For example: You may listen to a song like “Biri-Biri” in its original Japanese and appreciate it for its frenetic, ever-shifting layered DnB rhythms, bit tones, vocal modulations and how the language directs vocal melody in ways English music trends away from. Then you could listen to the English version to more directly engage with the lyrical content and appreciate how the vocal melody is tweaked in small ways. And if you want to dig deeper, you can play Pokémon Scarlet and Violet and hunt down Ayano Takeda’s Kimi to Ameagari o, further enriching your appreciation through greater context.

Below, PAPER chats with Ayase and ikura about the group’s busy April, the release of their third English EP E-Side 3, a White House visit and their Coachella performance. We also discuss the creative process of YOASOBI, the appeal and benefits of cross-media collaboration, the members’ solo projects and what’s next for one of J-pop’s most prominent and unique modern acts.

(On ikura) Top and dress: Yohji Yamamoto, Shoes: Grounds, Necklace: Vitaly, Earrings: MALAKAI, Rings: Lili Claspe (On Ayase) Coat and pants: Yohji Yamamoto, Shoes: Dr. Martens, Necklace: Vitaly

(On ikura) Top and dress: Yohji Yamamoto, Shoes: Grounds, Necklace: Vitaly, Earrings: MALAKAI, Rings: Lili Claspe (On Ayase) Coat and pants: Yohji Yamamoto, Shoes: Dr. Martens, Necklace: Vitaly

So, you're finally back in Japan after a pretty historic run in the States. Between your presidential visit and Coachella performances, you've joined a couple of pretty prestigious shortlists. I believe you're the first J-pop act to actually be White House guest. That’s pretty massive. Has it sunk in that you've effectively become the face of J-pop's current movement?

Ayase: [In the US] in the past two weeks, we've been able to experience something very rare. It’s a great honor to be able to do that. It’s very hard for us to say that we’re the “face” of J-pop at this point, that would be too arrogant. We feel like we’ve been able to earn the recognition that we have been working hard towards. We really, really feel blessed.

ikura: More recently, we’ve been able to see our songs enter the global charts in the streaming platforms. We see that through social media and it makes us think that our music has spread worldwide. We're at the threshold of being able to approach a global career. But going to the US this time and experiencing our own headline shows, and then performing at Coachella the last two weeks, I feel that we've been able to give a performance that we've really worked hard toward. At the same time, we think that we're not there yet. We had a great takeaway from this experience.

(On Ayase) Top: RTA, Pants: Off-White, Shoes: Vans, Necklaces: Apartment1007 (On ikura) Top: RTA, Skirt: DES PIERROT, Shoes: Vans, Bracelet and necklaces: Vitaly, Earrings: Lili Claspe

You spoke with PAPERthree years ago when you released your first English-language EP, E-Side, and E-Side 3 was just released two weeks ago. You noted in 2021 that the idea with these E-Sides wasn't necessarily to appeal to overseas fans. Could you elaborate?

Ayase: A lot of things have changed during those three years. When we spoke to PAPER three years ago, we weren’t in the place we are now, so the significance of the E-Side EP has changed a lot because our audience outside of Japan has grown so much. Like you said, it's something for our foreign audience, non-Japanese speaking audience, to actually experience our lyrics or how YOASOBI's songs are based on novels — that literary side of things — to make it more accessible in that way. Maybe they discovered our music through our Japanese version, but then they can actually deep dive into those songs listening to this English version. Also, like you said, it's something I feel as a composer, YOASOBI's music, translating that into a different language gives it another dimension. That's also something very interesting to us.

ikura: For the English versions, all the lyrics have been translated by Konnie Aoki. He’s really wonderful [because] she doesn’t lose the essence of the original lyrics. There’s a lot of attention to detail in how the original lyrics have been placed with the rhythm or the flow or even the phonetic sound of it. We want to keep that in the English version as much as possible. Doing that in two different languages must be a really hard thing to accomplish. We’re able to keep our essence as a group, which is to create music based on novels and stories. I hope that this will allow people to experience our music and make our music more accessible to wider audiences around the world.

(On ikura) Blazer and pants: Mugler, Top: RTA, Earrings: MALAKAI (On Ayase) Blazer and top: RTA, Pants: Fendi

(On ikura) Blazer and pants: Mugler, Top: RTA, Earrings: MALAKAI (On Ayase) Blazer and top: RTA, Pants: Fendi

The Book 3 [2023], like your first two EPs, has been a big success. All three of your original Japanese EPs hit No. 2 on Oricon and RIAJ Gold. “Idol” and “Biri-Biri” stick out as big hits, the former serving as the theme for Oshi no Ko and the latter being a tie-in with Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. But in YOASOBI tradition, these songs are still based on short stories. Could you tell me a little bit about these stories and the process of making a song that encapsulates both a short story and a larger media property, even if the two are related?

Ayase: Obviously, both songs are based on an original novel or short story. Whether or not a song has a tie-in — like a sync or mixed-media — sort of output, the process of putting together the song, writing the song, composing the song, and producing the song does not change. The mindset that goes into creating a song is always the same. So there will be a novel as a starting point. Then I would read that novel and absorb the story and try to come up with the best way of transforming that into music. What would be the coolest way to express this in a musical way? I would explore that path. I would immerse myself into the world of that novel and try to come up with the ideas to put that into music. Once the music is done, then some of the music might be an opening theme for something and also might have a featured song in something. That allows more people to discover the music and then experience the music and be inspired by the music, which is great. But the process that goes into creating this music will not change.

(On Ayase) Coat: Moschino, Tank: CDLP, Jeans: Jack John Jr., Shoes: Dr. Martens, Bracelets: Vitaly (On ikura) Top: Moschino, Pants: Weiraen, Shoes: Dr. Martens

While your earliest singles such as “Yoru ni Kakeru” (“Into the Night”) and “Ano Yume o Nazotte” (“Tracing a Dream”) were based on Monocon-winning short stories, eventually you began collaborating with professional novelists and even running writing contests for song inspiration. What about cross-media collaboration speaks to you artistically and how would you say it’s helped you commercially?

Ayase: So, the whole concept we have as a group — creating music from novels — is a very interesting one, and an inspiring one, too. Because you’re able to have ideas that you wouldn’t necessarily imagine or come up with yourself. And so you’re able to use these ideas or stories that other people come up with. They will give us this whole world, and we're able to be inspired by that and then create music from that. So that's very interesting as an artist, very stimulating. And sometimes when we do contests, we work with these writers, authors who are not necessarily professional yet — amateurs — but you're able to get this like inspiration. You're inspired by these... I wouldn't say naive, but still green, ideas from these burgeoning authors.

And so we are giving these opportunities for these writers to put out their work and their stories out into the world. So it's inspiring for them, but it's also equally inspiring for us too.

In terms of the commercial side of things, I think putting our music through different media allows some music to reach a wider audience, and the audience too can also experience this music in different ways. And so the music itself becomes more 3D almost. For the listeners, they can listen to a song and then come back to it and discover new things each time they listen to it. They can use much more of their imagination or put themselves into, immerse themselves into it.

(On Ayase) Jacket: Reese Cooper, Tank: CDLP, Pants: Strike Oil, Shoes: Dr. Martens, Sunglasses: Praying (On ikura) Jacket, pants and shoes: Versace, Sweater: VIAVIA, Sunglasses: Crap

(On Ayase) Jacket: Reese Cooper, Tank: CDLP, Pants: Strike Oil, Shoes: Dr. Martens, Sunglasses: Praying (On ikura) Jacket, pants and shoes: Versace, Sweater: VIAVIA, Sunglasses: Crap

You each have solo careers in addition to your partnership as YOASOBI. Ayase, last year you did themes for Buddy Daddies and the Rurouni Kenshin remake and contributed “Hero” to a KarenT Vocaloid compilation. ikura, you released (as Lilas Ikuta) your debut album Sketch. What are some of the challenges to balancing your separate projects with the whirlwind that YOASOBI has become? Would you say your solo projects and YOASOBI inform each other, and if so, in what ways?

Ayase: To be honest, I haven’t been able to do too much of my solo thing because I’m too busy with YOASOBI. So in terms of balancing the two, I’m actually not able to balance it. It kind of tells you how challenging it is to do both. Having said that, I've been able to do one or two projects a year while doing YOASOBI. That has been a nice change of pace for me, taking on different challenges. Through these solo projects, I'm able to discover something new, and that will definitely inform what I do with YOASOBI. So yes, I think I have a better case compared to ikura. She has a more challenging balancing act to do.

ikura: I often write my own songs and I sing them, but in terms of being able to do both equally, it’s been a challenge. Because I do write a lot of music myself, but I only have one body! So it’s a lot of work, I’m very busy, I try to work every day. But with YOASOBI, the concept is clear: Ayase writes music based on novels. Compared to that, with my solo work, I write my own story, and I put that into the music. There's a difference, for sure. I write from my own experience, from my day-to-day life, everything that inspires me. With my solo work, I put everything that comes out of me naturally. Because it's different, it serves as a change of pace, like Ayase said.

It's a different way of expressing myself, I guess. We're very busy with YOASOBI, and trying to do my solo work in the midst of all that is very hard work, but I try to do it as much as possible. With YOASOBI, because I sing the songs that Ayase writes, it enables me to discover new ways of singing or new ways of expressing myself through music that I wouldn't necessarily have known if I was just singing my own songs. Because they come from novels, there's a lot of discovery, finding new worlds or new stories. Also, I'm able to widen my expression as a vocalist. I'm able to take that back with me when I write my own songs, and I'm able to try different things with my solo work too, which has been very inspiring. It's very challenging, but I do my best to bring out the best of both worlds.

(On ikura) Jacket: KidSuper, Jeans: VIAVIA, Sneakers: Moncler, Sunglasses: Arnette, Wallet chain: Other, Earrings: Lili Claspe (On Ayase) Jacket: KidSuper, Jeans: Dingyun Zhang, Sneakers: Moncler, Sunglasses: CHIMI

Now that you’re back in Japan, what’s next up, both as a pair and individually?

Ayase: We’re going back to the States this summer. We’re going to be performing at Lollapalooza, but also we’ve announced that we’ll be doing headline shows in New York and Boston. And then in October, we have our 5th anniversary as YOASOBI and we’re going to be performing at the Tokyo Dome and the Kyocera Dome in Osaka. That's going to be a huge show. We're currently preparing for this show to bring the best performance as much as possible. My personal goal connects with YOASOBI, but now that we're able to bring our music to the world outside of Japan, I think the important thing is to stay healthy, both mentally and physically. And to continue to work on music and sort of have fun with that, to be able to enjoy that. That's my goal.

ikura: Like Ayase said, we have big shows ahead of us. Each one of the shows is significant so we need to be prepared. Because we’re traveling more now between Japan and other countries, it’s really important that we stay healthy both mentally and physically. Staying healthy has almost become the YOASOBI motto.

Photography: Brian Ziff
Illustration: Lauren Tsai
Styling: Nico Amarca
Hair and makeup: Youca

Photo assistant: Max Flick
Stylist assistant: Alex Levy
Production assistant: Ricardo Diaz

Editor-in-chief: Justin Moran
Managing editor: Matt Wille
Editorial producer: Angelina Cantú
Music editor: Erica Campbell
Cover type: Jewel Baek
Story: Travis Shosa
Publisher: Brian Calle