When asked to describe the music of YOASOBI, 27-year-old composer Ayase only needs a single word: connection. He sees the Japanese duo — comprised of himself and 20-year-old vocalist Ikura — as connectors. They connect meaning to melodies by creating songs based on fictional novels and short stories, turning lyrical prose into catchy pop verses. YOASOBI is where the written word and music meet. Each song is its own mellifluous novella, a chapter in a book on the human condition.
For their next entry, the act is going global with a debut English-language album, E-Side, set to drop on November 12. "We want to reach more people," Ayase tells PAPER, via an interpreter. "We don't want to change anything. We just want to give the essence of YOASOBI to new fans in a new language. But it should be very similar at its core."
It's a little after 8 PM in Tokyo — a perfect time of day for YOASOBI, whose name roughly translates to "nightlife." It symbolizes how Ayase and Ikura pursue their individual careers during the day before transforming into YOASOBI at night. Ikura is a singer-songwriter who releases music under the name Ikuta Rira, while Ayase produces Vocaloid music for virtual pop stars like Hatsune Miku. Together, they have created a string of electrifying hits and have become one of Japan's most exciting and successful, new acts.
E-Side features eight tracks, with lyrics from music director Konnie Aoki, including their latest single "Blue," inspired by the anime Blue Period, and "Into The Night," the English version of their breakthrough hit "夜に駆ける (Yoru ni kakeru)." The song, adapted from Mayo Hoshino's タナトスの誘惑(Thanatos no Yūwaku), which translates to The Temptation of Thanatos, has accumulated more than 400 million streams globally. It topped multiple charts in 2020, becoming the No. 1 song on Billboard Japan's 2020 Hot 100 of the Year.
There's a magnetic contrast to YOASOBI's music. The pacing is relentless, with drum kicks and piano interludes that propel the dizzying vocal melody forward. There are key changes and octave jumps that showcase Ayase's familiarity with Vocaloid software and Ikura's crystalline vocal modulations. But the narrative is often pensive, even melancholic. "Yoru ni kakeru" is a tale of two lovers who succumb to the allure of death. It's romantic and bleak, and it became a huge hit in Japan within months of its release.
Ayase credits the song's various access points for its success. Perhaps listeners were drawn to its macabre story, or its bright melodies, or its colorful visual aesthetic. "Maybe my voice," Ikura adds. "There are so many elements [to the song] that attract people."
All of these parts of the creative process work in tandem. Ayase and Ikura pull inspiration from the stories submitted on popular creative writing website monogatary.com. It's a destination for young writers to upload and share their work. Once a story is selected, Ayase dissects its themes, picking it apart into bits and pieces and reconstructing it into music. He takes the novel in and interprets its meaning into his lyrics. "When I come up with a melody," Ayase says, "that's when everything starts." Meanwhile, Ikura calls herself the "cherry on top."
She receives a demo from Ayase, constructed using Hatsune Miku voicebank software. After absorbing Ayase's message, she then adds her own sensibilities to the mix. "I feel a huge responsibility to fill in the blanks," Ikura says. It's a very multilayered process and everyone fills the gaps with pieces of themselves. When Ayase and Ikura are done finalizing the track, a team of artists work on bringing the song to life through distinctive animations. "We always look forward to their creations," Ayase says, adding that they like seeing how their music is interpreted visually.
This creative symbiosis has driven YOASOBI from the beginning. They started making music together in 2019 under Sony Music Japan. Ayase found Ikura on the internet. He was looking for a vocalist to collaborate with him on a new project, writing music based on novels, when he came across one of Ikura's videos on Instagram. He immediately checked her YouTube, where she had uploaded covers and original compositions, and he was taken by her voice. "It was very clear like crystal," he recalls. "It was also comfortable, but unique. It's something that you've heard before and also never heard before."
Ikura, then known as Rira Ikuta, initially didn't know if she wanted to sing other people's words. She's a songwriter at heart, a Swiftian by nature. "Taylor Swift is the artist I look up to," Ikura says fondly. But she was mesmerized by Ayase's work in the Vocaloid space and his song "Last Resort" convinced her to work with him. "It was a song about suicide and it made me feel something that I had never felt before," she says. "The theme was so unfamiliar to me and yet it went straight to my heart. It was an indescribable feeling."
On the surface, Ayase and Ikura seem like complete opposites. Ayase is dressed in all black — black mask, black sweater, onyx ring adorning his middle finger — and Ikura is all patterns, colors and delicate jewelry. His first impression of Ikura was that of pure innocence. "When I met Ayase, I was distracted by his ear gauges," Ikura laughs. Ayase agrees, calling himself a combination of his favorite hardcore rock band, Maximum the Hormone, and J-pop. "He seemed like a scary guy, but he actually wasn't," she adds. "He's a nice, gentle person. He's like a brother to me now."
And like any older brother, Ayase is in awe of Ikura's energy. "I don't feel like there's much of an age gap between us," he says. "But sometimes we're working on music well into the morning, and Ikura can dance all night and still be cheerful. That's when I realize that I may not be so young anymore," he adds, grinning.
Their influences couldn't be more different. Ikura spent the first three years of her life in Chicago before moving to Japan. So she was raised on the Disney Channel. She recalls singing along to the High School Musical soundtrack and listening to Swift on repeat. In junior high, she picked up a guitar and started listening to J-pop acts like EXILE and J-rock band RADWIMPS. Ikura always dreamed of being an artist. She's never known life without music. Even now, she can't recall when she decided to pursue music because it's always been a part of her.
Ayase, too, was drawn to music from an early age. As a boy in elementary school, he liked to imagine himself as a part of EXILE, a popular boy band with 19 members. He wanted to become a singer, inspired by Aiko, and then he discovered rock music. At 16, he formed a band, and it was only after the band broke up nearly 10 years later that he started making Vocaloid tracks and uploading them to Niconico, an online video-sharing platform. He took interest in the genre because his sister was a fan and he picked it up quickly — although he admits there were challenges. "It was difficult," he recalls. "When I was in the studio [with the band], I was making music in a very analogue way. So I went from a studio to my laptop and punching in all of those signals was a delightful change. There's a joy in being able to see the music taking shape."
Ayase still makes everything on his laptop. It's where he composed the group's debut EP, The Book, released earlier this year, and he says he has hundreds of partial demos on his hard drive.
"I feel the future in this type of music."
"I feel the future in this type of music," Ayase says. "I know how challenging it was to create one album in the studio, but now, digitally, the moment you come up with something you can do something with it if you have a laptop. The speed, from creation to distribution, is incredible. You could make it and then upload immediately. It's the future."
This is what makes YOASOBI's music so compelling. It's where tradition meets futurism. "We're using the Vocaloid technology but at the same time, the base is very organic," he says. "It's the warmth from the novels combined with music made from a machine."
With E-Side, the message is clear: "This is YOASOBI," Ayase says firmly. "We're not trying to appeal to overseas fans. We're trying to extract the essence of YOASOBI and bring it to a global audience." For Ikura, she wants "the world to know YOASOBI as a J-pop artist."
Ayase adds, "Maybe people will start listening to our music from this EP. But if you've ever felt anything towards the music, you might start reading the original novels and that's how you can enjoy this project fully." It all goes back to the idea of connection — how one work inspires another and another after that, in an endless loop of art and interpretation.
Japanese or English, it doesn't matter — YOASOBI is fluent in the language of creation.
Photos courtesy of YOASOBI