meta-scriptFrom Tokyo To Coachella: YOASOBI's Journey To Validate J-Pop And Vocaloid As Art Forms | GRAMMY.com
YOASOBI kneel in a pose for a portrait
YOASOBI

Photo: Kato Shumpei

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From Tokyo To Coachella: YOASOBI's Journey To Validate J-Pop And Vocaloid As Art Forms

YOASOBI, blending J-pop and Vocaloid with narrative-driven songs, is capturing a global audience through their performances at major festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza, marking a significant moment for Japanese music on the international stage.

GRAMMYs/Apr 9, 2024 - 04:37 pm

For decades, Japanese music has been one of the hardest to access as a foreigner. Even with the popularization of cultural exports like anime and the emergence of streaming platforms, it is still considered a niche, and fans often have to dig deep in order to find albums, translations, or any kind of content at all.

"There weren’t many opportunities for Japanese music to go out into the world until now," says YOASOBI’s producer and songwriter, Ayase, over a Sunday morning Zoom from Tokyo. "If we were to break into the mainstream, I think there’s a lot more work to do. Being a part of Coachella is one of them."

The duo, composed of Ayase, 30, and vocalist Ikura, 23, is gearing up for their first performance at the mighty Californian festival next weekend, plus two sold out headline shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In August, they are set to play at Lollapalooza in Chicago, IL. 

"Performing at festivals like Coachella was one of our goals when we put our live team together, so I believe that it will be a place for us to grow further,” says Ikura, who lived in Chicago as a kid and considers these opportunities a "full circle" moment.

Read more: 10 Must-See Artists At Coachella 2024: Skepta, The Last Dinner Party, Mdou Moctar, Cimafunk & More

Formed in 2019, YOASOBI found overnight success with their debut single "Yoru ni Kakeru," a bright-sounding but harrowing tale that topped Billboard’s Japan Hot 100 chart for six non-consecutive weeks. They continued to rise further, recording five EPs (three in Japanese, two in English), the opening theme to Netflix’s anime series "Beastars," 2021’s "Kaibutsu," and their magnum opus so far: "Idol."

Released in 2023, "Idol" became a massive hit, placing No.1 at Billboard's Japan Hot 100 chart for 22 weeks and counting — an all-time record break. It was also the nineteenth best-selling song of 2023 worldwide, according to the IFPI. With these accolades, it’s easy to understand why the duo is fully booked, but what makes their music so enticing to global audiences? 

Listening to YOASOBI is like entering a rabbit hole. First, you get hypnotized by the glistening synths, bursting like fireworks, and the rock riffs taking melodies to full-speed. Then, you discover their adage is "novel into music," and all songs are based on fictional stories written by various authors. There’s also the animated music videos, each with a different style, giving their sounds another layer for interpretation. And finally, there are Ayase’s and Ikura’s (under the name Lilas Ikuta) own solo careers — treasure troves ready to be unearthed.

"I don't know, to be honest," says Ayase when asked about their growing popularity. "I guess the fact that a lot of Japanese [exports] have been prevalent around the world had to do with it. But also, maybe it's because people are experiencing this combination of music with storytelling that is interesting to them." Ikura agrees, adding that YOASOBI allows fans to "enjoy this bigger world that we are part of in a more three-dimensional way."

The experience is similar to how they create their music: mining, collecting, mixing, and transforming different threads into a new fabric. From fictional stories, Ayase transmutes his feelings into beats on his laptop with Logic Pro, then inputs melodies and lyrics through Vocaloid softwares like Hatsune Miku. Ikura listens to the Vocaloid demos, and then adds her own feelings and flair into the interpretations. For English-language tracks, they work with translator Konnie Aoki, who is "very mindful of phonetic sounds," and Ikura listens to the Japanese versions up until it’s time to record, so that she can have "the right emotions set."

It’s such a natural process for them that Ayase is surprised to know that there are still people who don’t consider Vocaloid as "real" music. “Those people probably don’t know what music is,” he says with a laugh. “Do they think that instrumental music, where there's no human singing, isn’t real music? There’s really great Vocaloid music out there, and it’s basically [voices] created through synthesizing softwares. It's very different from AI, which is auto-generated music. Vocaloid is humans creating music using these softwares. That's the only difference from a human singing a song.”

To Ikura, who maintains her burgeoning solo career in tandem with YOASOBI’s busy schedule, Vocaloid allowed her to broaden her talents. "It is my first time singing songs that somebody else wrote, so it was an opportunity to challenge myself with things that I wouldn't necessarily write, or sing in a tone or voice that I wouldn't come up with myself." She says that these experiences influence her solo works all the time, in a "synergy" that allows her to "have more colors to work with in my palette."

"I started producing music through Vocaloids,” adds Ayase. “And it truly broadened my ideas and imagination when it comes to creating music. It allows creators to come up with melodies that a human singer may not come up with. It's a fascinating culture. The possibility I feel is infinite, and it really makes the impossible possible, in a way.”

Read more: It Goes To 11: How One Piece Of Technology Makes YOASOBI's Musical Vision Come To Life

Endless possibilities are also a big allure in AI technologies, but Ayase doesn’t see this as a threat. With the right boundaries, it’s just a tool — like Vocaloid, Logic Pro, and the internet — that can be used positively. "However, as a creator myself, I really hope that creative works come out of the imagination and ideas of the human mind. In that sense, [AI] may not be 100% a positive thing for us," he shares.

But that’s something for the future. Now, YOASOBI is focusing on their very real, very tangible events ahead. "Finally, we have this opportunity where people around the world are discovering our music. So, performing at festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza, or doing our solo shows, I think it's important that we communicate with the audiences and maximize this opportunity as much as possible," says Ikura.

And it’s not just YOASOBI getting all the attention: according to data and research company Luminate, J-pop in general is on the rise. "I’m very proud, as a Japanese person, for that situation. For us, it’s really about taking it one step at a time," says Ayase. “Our ultimate wish is to have our music or reach as many people around the world as possible, and so we will continue to work hard every day."

9 Essential K-Pop/Western Collabs: From BTS And Megan Thee Stallion, To IVE And Saweetie

RIIZE press photo
RIIZE

Photo: SM Entertainment

interview

K-Pop Group RIIZE Detail Every Track On New Compilation 'RIIZING – The 1st Mini Album'

In an interview, the rising K-pop boy group discuss the creative process behind each track on their brand new EP — including the album's new song, "Boom Boom Bass."

GRAMMYs/Jun 18, 2024 - 01:37 pm

While RIIZE might be a more recent addition to the K-pop scene, you wouldn’t be able to tell. 

RIIZE took the industry by storm last September with their debut single "Get A Guitar." The catchy, retro-synth pop song sold over a million copies in the first week of its release.  

From their debut in 2023, RIIZE was determined to carve out a space for themselves in the expansive K-pop landscape by performing "emo pop" — emotional ballads that still manage to be danceable, evoking the sounds of older gen groups like Got 7 and Super Junior — while also experimenting with other genres. The brightly alluring "Love 119" and disco whirlwind "Talk Saxy" allowed RIIZE to continue their ascent, and netted the group Favorite New Artist and Rookie Of The Year honors at multiple Korean award ceremonies last year.  

On June 17, they'll release RIIZING - The 1st Mini Album. The compilation record features all of the rookie group's releases plus an additional song "Boom Boom Bass," and demonstrates their versatility and willingness to experiment with genres. With their output compiled, it's easy to see that RIIZE's youthful energy and distinct personalities truly shine. 

Learn more: 11 Rookie K-Pop Acts To Know In 2024: NCT Wish, RIIZE, Kiss Of Life & More

"We wanted to reflect on how far we’ve come from our debut days and growing as artists," Anton tells GRAMMY.com over a video call from L.A. "[The album is] a culmination of our journey and experiences as young adults who are pursuing their dreams."

It’s clear that RIIZE are enjoying the ride they're on together. They laugh at each other's jokes and finish each other's sentences, demonstrating that there's deep friendship behind their already tight harmonious connection. The group is in the midst of an international fan-con tour that runs through the summer — an experience that will, likely, deepen their already close bond. 

In an interview, RIIZE’s Sungchan, Anton, Wonbin, Sohee, Eunseok and Shotaro offer a track-by-track breakdown of RIIZING - The 1st Mini Album, including the creative process behind each song, how they keep themselves motivated, and their musical dreams for the future. 

"Siren" is your pre-debut song and was one of your most anticipated releases. Can you share a bit about the creation process and how it felt to release this song to the world? 

Shotaro: We have a lot of fond memories when we think of "Siren" as it reminds us of our trainee days. We recorded the song while we were still rookies and shot the video in L.A. I remember being in the studio and encouraging each other to give our best deep voices to make our voices shine. 

Eunseok: I think a large part of why people like "Siren" so much is the rhythmic drum beats and soft piano riffs that creates this high rush vibe. The chorus is my favorite, and was the most fun to sing as it’s very addictive to sing along to.

Your most recent song, "Impossible" is a house track about being determined and never  giving up. Were you nervous at all venturing into a new genre? 

Anton: Growth and youth is a huge part of our music, and that’s something we sought to achieve with "Impossible." House music is a genre that is not usually seen in K-pop, but this is something we wanted to experiment with. So we learned firsthand from long-time house music creatives and input their suggestions into the recording. It was a new experience that allowed us to deep dive into a genre we wouldn’t normally be familiar with.

Sohee: The recording was a little difficult at first, because the vocal keys were a bit higher than our usual pitch. But I feel like we successfully encapsulated the genre very well.

Your new song — the special addition to the EP — is called "Boom Boom Bass." It's a disco-influenced track about playing bass guitar; does anyone in RIIZE have experience playing that instrument?  

Wonbin: We do have experience playing the bass guitar. Getting to recreate those moments in the studio was awesome, and you can hear the excitement in our voices. The song also showcases a totally different side of us that fans haven’t seen before: it’s disco but funk and still pop.

"Love 119" is one of your most successful songs. Can you take me back to the day you recorded it? 

Sungchan: "Love 119" captures the feeling of falling in love for the first time in a dreamy and melancholic manner. We decided to recreate that in the studio and put a lot of our emotions into it by channeling good energy. 

Wonbin: The song samples a beloved Korean song, "Emergency Room," released by the band called IZI in 2005. The song captures the distinct charm of emotional pop, offering a different appeal compared to "Get A Guitar," "Memories," and "Talk Saxy."

Shotaro: We aimed to create choreography that many people could follow. While brainstorming in the practice room with Wonbin, he and I came up with dance moves like the "1-1-9" gesture, that you see in the video. The song has a really bright vibe, making it fun for us to perform. 

Can you detail the creative process behind "Talk Saxy"?  

Sohee: We started creating "Talk Saxy" right after performing at KCON L.A. in July last year and we learned the choreography almost immediately.

We wanted to embody a more confident and breezy sound but still within our niche genre of emotional pop. It took a few weeks of practice to get the perfect take and I think the song helped expand our musical sound by a large mile.

Read more: 9 Thrilling Moments From KCON 2023 L.A.: Stray Kids, RIIZE, Taemin & More 

One of your more recent singles, "9 Days," focuses on your journey as a band. Did you find yourselves feeling nostalgic in the studio?   

Sungchan: "9 days" has a more natural feel because while we were making the song, we had to reference back to our trainee days in practice. The lyrics are a very detailed description of our trainee days and who we were before debuting.  

Anton: I would say we had a fun time in the studio because it felt like we were finally telling our story ourselves and being able to share that with our fans is the best.  

"Honestly" reminisces about past love. What, or who, were you thinking about while recording it? 

Wonbin: I think we really aimed to capture the theme of putting yourself first and saying a final goodbye to someone you thought the world of. That resonates throughout the song, especially in the lyrics. It’s an emo pop ballad at its core.

"One Kiss" was RIIZE's first foray into emo pop and sets you apart from other groups as you highlight your vulnerability. How did you go about finding that sound?  

Anton: I see "One Kiss" as a song made with our fans in mind, we had a hands on approach with making the video as we wanted it to come from our hearts. 

Sohee: I would not say we have found our sound yet as we are still growing and experimenting. We hope to create more good songs like "One Kiss" in the future.

You’re in the midst of a fan-con tour, what has been your favorite city to tour so far?

Shotaro: We love every city equally, we started off in Korea and felt right at home. In Japan, we had so much eye contact with the crowd as they were very hands on. Previously, in Mexico, the crowd's energy was infectious and awesome.

What are your plans for the second half of this year?

Sungchan: We plan on finishing off our fan-con tour by the end of August. Our fans can expect to see us at end of the year award shows with bigger and better performances from last year.

11 Rookie K-Pop Acts To Know In 2024: NCT Wish, RIIZE, Kiss Of Life & More 

 

TWICE's Nayeon On Embracing Authenticity For 'NA'
Nayeon

Courtesy of JYP Entertainment

interview

The ABCDs Of Nayeon: How The TWICE Member Embraced Her Authenticity On ‘NA’

With her second solo release, K-pop idol Im Nayeon is unapologetically confident and boldly experimental. Out June 14, 'NA' contains English and Korean language tracks alongside collaborations with prominent Korean artists.

GRAMMYs/Jun 13, 2024 - 05:20 pm

K-pop idol Im Nayeon is a pioneer with many firsts attached to her name: She was the first to become a member of TWICE, the first from the group to go solo, and was the first-ever K-pop soloist to enter the Billboard Top 10. Now, Nayeon is the first member of TWICE to release a second solo album. 

Nearly two years after her solo debut, Nayeon arrives with a new mini-album, NA —  the title a play on her name and the Korean word for "me." The seven-track record highlights the singer’s unapologetic nature, exploring themes of self-confidence, romance, and tenacity. Nayeon has certainly had to be tenacious in her road to the new EP.

"I don’t know if you can tell, but I really can’t believe that this moment is [finally] happening," Nayeon tells GRAMMY.com. "I really wanted to showcase myself as a confident woman this time around."

NA contains a mix of English and Korean language tracks alongside collaborations with prominent Korean artists. Throughout, the singer tackles pop, R&B, dance and electro-pop with ease. Lead single "ABCD" takes inspiration from 2000s era pop divas, adding hints of hip-hop as Nayeon teaches the A-Zs of love with witty lyrics and a magnetizing rhythm. While Nayeon has previously sung about love with flirtatious undertones, "ABCD" shows the singer's straightforward intentions. 

It seems becoming a superstar was fated for the Seoul native. When she was young, Nayeon caught the attention of agents at JYP Entertainment from a modeling contest — however, given her age, her mother refused to let her sign with an entertainment agency. At 14, Nayeon defied her mom's decision and snuck out of her home to attend JYPE’s 2010 open casting, where she passed the audition and ranked in second place. With her strong ambition to pursue an idol career, Nayeon decided to join JYPE as a trainee that same year.

After three years of training, she was slated to debut as a member of a girl group 6MIX. However, the debut was scrapped afterJYPE was unable to find replacements for members that exited the project. In 2015, Nayeon was chosen from a pool of trainees to enter JYPE’s survival program "Sixteen," and became the first member chosen for nine-piece girl group TWICE. Nayeon is the group's face, as well as its eldest member, lead vocalist, and dancer. 

Nayeon has since become one of the most recognizable members of TWICE, best known for her impressive vocal range and warm essence. Her public image became the epitome of an animated K-pop idol, always exhibiting her youthful personality and sunny disposition to everyone she encounters. Over the course of nine years together in TWICE and hundreds of releases later, Nayeon has proved herself to be the spine of the global girl group. 

Read more: TWICE Reflect On Milestone Moments & Latest 'With YOU-th' EP

Nayeon introduced herself to the world as a soloist in June 2022 with her debut album IM NAYEON, a high-spirited and feel-good summer EP that showcased her perky identity. The album hit No.1 on Billboard's Top Album Sales chart — the highest-selling album in the week of its release — and debuted No .7 on the Billboard 200. Lead single "POP!" has since turned into a fan-favorite, and remains a singalong anthem at TWICE’s concerts two years later. 

While IM NAYEON built off her easy going nature, NA will leave fans enamored by Nayeon’s artistic awakening and newly matured chapter in her solo career. The album’s trailer and concept photos unveiled Nayeon’s assured, hip and hot appeal — a side she has yet to show as a soloist. 

GRAMMY.com caught up with Nayeon via Zoom to learn more about the creation of NA, and how the past two years have impacted her as a soloist and individual. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Is there anything that feels different in terms of releasing NA nearly two years after your solo debut album?

Because my first solo album was the first solo work ever done by a member of TWICE, the pressure was pretty high. There was fear in me, as well, to try something completely new. But since [NA] is my second album as a soloist, I did [my best] to enjoy the ride more this time around. 

I can't say that I'm completely comfortable right now being a solo artist. But compared to [IM NAYEON], I'm much more at ease about it. 

Is there anything new you wanted to showcase this time around in NA?

The performance for the title song "ABCD" is quite different from what I have typically been showing [as TWICE]. So [in that essence], this is what’s new and challenging for [NA].

The performance itself is very powerful, and I wanted to express a bold and cool side of me. Of course, I have shown that side of me [before] during TWICE concerts or performances, but with "ABCD," I want it to be different from [IM NAYEON] specifically, which was just a totally different vibe [in comparison]. 

Does it feel easier to showcase this bolder side of yourself now that you've been a soloist for a few years?

Since I have been working as one of the members of TWICE for so long, I think it feels more meaningful if I show a different side of me through my solo work. So [while] it's new and fun, I can't say that it's easier.

I think it'll be fun for our fans. They receive it really well when we show off a different side of [ourselves]. [Our fans] encourage us a lot so I think it's a great change of pace.

You collaborated with a variety of artists on NA, including American singer/songwriter Sam Kim and K-pop artists Lee Chan-hyuk (AKMU) and Julie (KISS OF LIFE). How was that experience for you?

When I work as [TWICE], there are so many of us that it's really hard to collaborate with other artists. We don't really get that opportunity that often. But when it comes to solo work, it's a really fun and rewarding experience to work with many different artists. 

I haven't really gotten the chance to meet and talk with the artists featured on my album, but it was me who initiated the collaboration process. I specifically asked Lee Chanhyuk, Julie, and Sam Kim to collaborate with me. [That] was a really new experience for me and it just felt great.

I’ve been a huge fan of Lee Chanhyuk for a very long time, so that’s why I specifically asked for him to [help produce] in ["HalliGalli"]. For the song "Magic," we were looking for a female rapper and I had my eye on Julie from KISS OF LIFE. After seeing her perform, I loved [her]! So I very strongly suggested my opinion to have her feature with me on this track. 

Read more: 11 Rookie K-Pop Acts To Know In 2024: NCT Wish, RIIZE, Kiss Of Life & More

It seems like you’re revealing more of yourself with NA. Would you say that this new album is an extension to IM NAYEON?

Oh, of course! The concept and overall theme is much different from [IM NAYEON]. But since both [albums] focus on me as an artist, I think you can say that some parts are an extension while other parts reveal a different side of me.

Were there any expectations or challenges you faced during the album-making process?

Although "POP!" also featured intense choreography, "ABCD" demands a different kind of expression — prompting me to focus more on the performance aspect. 

Additionally, as this is a solo album, I must exert more energy compared to performing with a group. I have to command the entire stage alone for one song. Consequently, I am somewhat concerned that people may perceive me as exhausted, though I will do my best to prevent that! 

Since the release of IM NAYEON, how have you evolved as a person and an artist?

Many people saw that [IM NAYEON] really suited me and my public image. In [NA], I’m revealing a more confident and new side of me. The performance and concept challenged me to evolve [as an artist] in that aspect. 

I have grown a lot as an individual. I released my first solo debut album, and in TWICE, we just completed a huge scale world tour. Next year marks the 10th anniversary for [TWICE] as well. These past few years have been a period of self reflection with the opportunity for [more] growth. 

I have really come to realize why I chose this profession. That realization became a drive as an artist to keep moving forward and improve [upon] myself. 

Read more: Inside SoFi Stadium At TWICE’s Record-Breaking L.A. Show

Over the course of your career, are there important lessons or insights you’ve learned?

I think one of the biggest insights I’ve noticed in the past few years is how valuable the members of TWICE are [to me]. There are things that I cannot do alone but am able to do because TWICE are right beside me. I realized that my fears go away when I’m with the TWICE members. I have come to appreciate them even more over the last few years. I realized even more now how important their existence is to me while working as a solo artist. 

It seems as if TWICE are your encouragement and driving force.

Yes, they really are! 

TWICE's Jihyo Takes Steps Into Her 'Zone' On Debut EP

Atarashii Gakko! press photo
Atarashii Gakko!

Photo: James Baxter

interview

On 'AG! Calling,' Atarashii Gakko! Declare That Youth Is Never Lost — No Matter Your Age

"Our concept is for everyone. It does not depend on how old you are as long as you're living and enjoying the moment," Atarashii Gakko!'s Kanon says of the group's raucous new album.

GRAMMYs/Jun 10, 2024 - 01:31 pm

As is with most legends, there are different accounts of how the members of Atarashii Gakko! met.

Some say they met in a supermarket aisle when they all reached for the last pack of discounted sushi, others say they’d known each other as kids. Yet others claim that the hallowed halls of their to-be-company Asobisystem were hard at work to rescue humanity. Whatever the story, the wheels of fate were turning to put together a foursome poised to fight the invisible but omnipresent monster of boring, soulless adult life — armed only in their sailor uniforms and chock full of sizzling energy.

Dramatic retelling aside, the quartet — Suzuka, Rin, Kanon and Mizyu — might not be battling titanic fictional villains, but they are up against an equally fearsome foe: boredom. Their recently-released album, AG! Calling, reinforces the quartet’s image as a paragon of fresh, zany energy that sends a shock through sluggish veins. AG! Calling is an escape from the drudgery of the everyday, and Atarashii Gakko! believe it's their "destiny" to spread the joy of seishun (youth) to the world. 

Slotting in perfectly with the group’s core ethos, the "calling" in AG! Calling is taken from the Japanese kanji "Korin," which has a dual meaning of descending, as well as one’s own calling. On their single "Tokyo Calling" — released seven months ago and now included on the album — the group descends upon the concrete metropolitan facade of Tokyo, with Mizyu’s characteristic helicopter ponytails swinging full speed. The group makes an urgent announcement: "Don’t hesitate to move forward! Hope for the future is here!" They repeat this mantra and call forth a ball of light from the sky, leading everyone from mundanity to freedom.  

It’s a proverbial full-circle moment for the group, who heralded themselves as the "Youth Representatives of Japan" — their name in Japanese is Atarashii Gakko no Leaders, or New School Leaders — and championed finding and embracing your individuality in the face of a highly conformist society. Early releases like "Mayoeba Totoshi (If You Get Lost)" confronted listeners with hard-hitting questions: "What is the meaning of freedom? If it’s just acting like an adult, I disagree. Let me find it myself." The eerie and relentless "Dokubana" (2017) bemoaned the fate of an outlier in society, which is "scorned and hated" until it withers in place. 

By the time they got to "Nainainai" — their first release under 88Rising — the group had condensed their ethos into pointed critique wrapped in effervescent eccentricity, representing the unique worldview that the biggest rejection of conformity would be to boldly embrace who you are without rejecting the confines of society outright. With a decidedly '90s-inspired hip-hop sound, the track veered from calling out the pressure students face in school to being miffed about being a late bloomer. Their calling card was their retro-inspired school uniforms, a sound that couldn’t be shoved into a pigeonhole if one tried, and energetic dance moves inspired by Kumitaisou, Japanese gymnastics symbolized by pyramids, which became an extension of the profound feelings on their songs. 

As they have expanded their world — marked by performances on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," a successful debut at Coachella this year and performance at Primavera Sound in Barcelona — and inched further into adulthood, "seishun" has evolved from a philosophy to a way of life. AG! Calling rejoices in its reinvention of everyday tedium and positions them firmly as the cheerleaders of a liberated way of life. 

Below, Atarashii Gakko! talk about AG! Calling, their successful Coachella performance, and how their core philosophy will develop with them. 

You guys just came off of a very successful Coachella set. How was the entire experience? 

Suzuka: We have been together as a group for nine years, and the show at Coachella was like, Ah, that was why we had to be together, we had to form the group The live performance was the answer of the meaning of being together as Atarashii Gakko! That's the kind of feeling we had.

Suzuka, you actually said in an interview earlier this year that participating in Coachella will bring you one step closer to Beyoncé. Once you wrapped up the performance, did you feel that way? 

Suzuka: [Jumps up and flashes a thumbs up.] Yes! I took one step towards Beyoncé! 

Rin, you got the chance to meet Lauryn Hill, whom you have cited as an inspiration and an idol. Do you want to share how Lauryn Hill has inspired you? 

Rin: My father is a hip-hop fan, so when I was a child, I had already started listening to hip-hop music and Lauryn Hill. And then during [our] last U.S. tour, we — because she was playing in L.A. for her 25th anniversary — went to see her live, and I bought a t-shirt and everything! 

And this time at Coachella, we knew that YG Marley, her son, was going to be playing but we didn't know that she was going to be there! So, I was thinking, like, maybe we'd have a chance to see her or whatever. 

But then I accidentally saw her — she had finished the stage and she came out – and I was like Ahhh; I was shaking! She was very... mother-like, and like "Oh, thank you!", and she was smiling and she took a photo! The first time I saw her I was like Oh yes, she's real! She exist!' I was very happy she treated me like a mother.

Speaking of mother, you guys were also featured on Japanese musical icon Sheena Ringo's album recently. She had lovely things to say about you in an interview, particularly that she was "overwhelmed" working with you guys. She called you "reliable" and "dazzling" — that's a glowing recommendation from such an icon.

Suzuka: We're so happy! Of course, she's very big and we are very overwhelmed and thinking [that the collaboration was] the result of not changing our style and not taking the easy way out! We think it's the result of nine years of effort, and we're so happy that she said that.  

Let's come to 'AG! Calling.' When you guys first started singing about "seishun," you were treating it as something light, something you guys were having fun with. But in this album, you're calling it your destiny, which has a finality and weight to it. Can you describe the evolution of this concept?

Rin: This is not like a result of getting somewhere. From the initial stage, we've had seishun as a philosophy, and we were having fun and enjoying the moment. Rather than being a final point, AG! Calling [represents] our nine-year trajectory: all our experiences of having fun, receiving and giving the power [of youth]. It's like a resumé: this is Atarashii Gakko!, and this is our power. This is us now. From this point, we will keep moving forward. That's what we want people to see. That's why we're flying and floating [on the album visuals]. 

On your early releases, your songs talked about problems that teens and high school students have. But now, you've grown into adulthood. How has the concept of "seishun" evolved in this aspect? 

Suzuka: That's also a coincidence because "Nainainai" was kind of like our first record [under 88Rising] — like a presentation of what we were. We were teenagers too. We were more fresh, we were younger, we were going to school and everything. But now we're facing the world. We are speaking to more people, not only teenagers, so we wanted to focus on the world [going] from a child to an adult. Maybe it was just the right timing.

How do you think this concept will evolve with you guys over time? Youth isn't something that stays with us forever.  

Kanon: In the first place, the "youth" that we were conveying had nothing to do with age. Maybe you think that "seishun" is only for teenagers, but our concept is for everyone. It does not depend on how old you are as long as you're living and enjoying the moment.  

Now that we're adults, we still have [seishun] because we're putting in all our efforts to live and enjoy to the maximum. Whatever the age, if people can enjoy the moment, that's seishun. That's the philosophy we've had from the beginning, so we haven't changed anything about that concept. 

What was the development of this album like? Where did you guys primarily work on this? 

Rin: We began last summer with "Tokyo Calling." 

Suzuka: I don't know exactly how long it was, because we’ve been bringing demos to LA for about two years. It's all mixed, because there were some demos that we didn't put in the last [album]. So we were like, 'Maybe we can change this song a little bit, we can release that one, can remix an old one or compose new ones." So, it's a mix - some are older, and some are new.

Mizyu: We don’t make demos for [specifically] this album or that record. We keep making trials and demos with our producers in LA and Japan, and maybe [the songs] can be on an album, but our style is always looking for new songs.  

I noticed that a lot of imagery on this album was inspired by heroes. When you performed "Tokyo Calling" on Jimmy Kimmel, the outfits were inspired by Ultraman. There are tracks like "Superhuman" or "Hero Show". What was the reason behind this? 

Mizyu: It's true that we are kind of like superheroes [in terms of] the performance and the uniforms. Maybe from our name as well – Atarashii Gakko no Leaders – you already get the ‘superhero’ vibe because we are trying to just have fun, but we are also helping you if you're sad or tired. We are giving you power. We are helping you, so "Superhuman" and "Hero Show" are the results of that. 

You collaborated with MILLI on the song "Drama." How did that happen? Had you heard her music before? 

Rin: Actually, "Drama" was kind of an old song we recorded by ourselves in LA a few years ago. We had this in stock for quite a long time. We were thinking of releasing it with maybe like a plus [factor] or something extra, so that's why we decided on the collaboration with MILLI. We didn't actually record with her, but for us the [final] song is still a fresh creation. But maybe in the future, we can get the chance to sing together or collaborate. There's more possibilities in the future. 

Let’s discuss "Forever Sisters," which focuses on your bond, especially in context of how much you have grown over the past few years. Did you feel like it was important to remind yourself of your relationship with each other? 

Suzuka: "Forever Sisters" is a very important song for us, because we made this song when we were visiting L.A. and working with Money Mark, and we kept working on it online [between] Japan and L.A. It's very special to us, so when we were thinking about the songs we wanted to put on the album, all four of us agreed that this song has to be on AG! Calling.

And also the message — we are more than friends, more than family. Our relationship is very special and very important. It's beyond anything [I can explain]. So this song had to be on AG! Calling, because we're starting a new journey going global.

Money Mark is a longtime collaborator for you guys, along with yonkey. In some ways, some of these people were there as you were establishing your signature sound. So as you expanded globally, did you have conversations with them about how you wanted to develop your sound? 

Suzuka: Yes, we always keep having these kinds of conversations all the time. And from "OTONABLUE," our Japanese team with Yoshio Tamamura — they have a lot of knowledge about the music and what they want to show as Japanese culture, what they want people to perceive as Japan. [Songs like] "Omakase" and "Toryanse" understand that very well. 

We keep having those conversations. The energy that the four of us have and how to go from this point on, they understand that and give us the sound, and we record it and put our lives into it. It's always a good session. 

You guys will celebrate your 10th anniversary next year. Any special plans?  

Suzuka: We still don't have the details of the 10th anniversary actually, because we are living in the present. We're thinking about this year's concerts, but for sure, we will have something big. Maybe [when] we're reaching the time when we start our 10th year, but right now we're not thinking about it. 

Sometimes, for your shows, you write Shuji calligraphy on paper and stick it all over the venue. In a video in 2021, you did one such exercise where Rin wrote the Kanji for "Dream," Kanon wrote "Diligence," Mizyu wrote "Take a relaxing break," and Suzuka wrote "Life." If you had to do the same exercise again, what would you write? 

Suzuka: [To be honest] We're not sure what we wrote! Right now, if we had to write something, we're not very sure [of that either]. Maybe today, we write one kanji and tomorrow, it might change. That's the reality. We're not very sure what Kanji we will write individually.  

Rin: But [if we had to write something] as Atarashii Gakko!, we're very sure about that. The other day, in an event, we put up a big Shuji [calligraphy], like four meters by six meters, which we put together and we wrote AG! Calling. The word "calling" was written using the kanji for "Korin" in Japanese – that was very suitable, and very real as a group from us. So, as a group, we can say AG! Calling is what we will write. 

10 Neo J-Pop Artists Breaking The Mold In 2024: Fujii Kaze, Kenshi Yonezu & Others 

 

Members Of J-Pop Group JO1
JO1

Photo: LAPONE Entertainment

interview

JO1's Big Year: Follow The J-Pop Group's Rise, From Their First U.S. Appearance To One Of Japan's Biggest Venues

With a new album, 'HITCHHIKER' out in the world, JO1 are on a road to success. The 11-member J-pop act spoke with GRAMMY.com about their impressive past year, and their hopes for the future.

GRAMMYs/May 29, 2024 - 01:13 pm

Immersed in a sea of lights and basking in the clamor of tens of thousands of fans at the Kyocera Dome in Osaka, one of Japan's largest venues, JO1 felt a profound fulfillment. The 11-member J-pop group brimmed with gratitude at the realization that the road to their shared dream had stretched wide open.
Over a video call from Tokyo,
vocal leader Junki Kono reminisces about the power of JO1's two November shows at the dome — his former employer. "I was impressed by the fact that I was seeing the same view but from completely different sides – from the perspective of a security guard to the one of an artist," he tells GRAMMY.com. "In the next dome concert, I want our fans to be more excited about our performance, and I want to show them something even better."

This sense of conviction has been ingrained in JO1's DNA since the outset. In 2019, each member bet on faith and auditioned for the inaugural season of "Produce 101 Japan," a television contest aimed at creating a boy group chosen by the public. After 12 nerve-wracking episodes, Takumi Kawanishi, Issei Mamehara, Sho Yonashiro, Ren Kawashiri, Junki Kono, Shosei Ohira, Ruki Shiroiwa, Shion Tsurubo, Sukai Kinjo, Syoya Kimata, and Keigo Sato were crowned JO1

However, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the newly debuted group to build from scratch while their fans watched them grow from afar. Their tenacity prevailed and, today, JO1 is at a zenith where collective harmony coalesces with individual projects. 

The past 12 months have been a whirlwind journey. JO1 traveled to California for their first performance stateside at KCON LA 2023 and embarked on their second arena tour, which later expanded to Jakarta, Bangkok, Taipei, and Shanghai — their first concerts outside their home country. The tour drew a total of 200,000 attendees and led to a pair of encore shows at the Kyocera Dome. Moreover, aside from new music, their solo artistry was enhanced with acting roles and other creative pursuits.

And the group has no plans to slow down. "I know that many people have a final destination in mind when planning a trip, but for me and the rest of JO1, I'm not quite sure what that final destination is," says Shion Tsurubo. "I believe what's important is that we can enjoy the process and the journey itself."

The next horizon is their eighth extended play, HITCHHIKER. Confident and lively, the six-track production pulsates with versatility, and its funky title track, "Love seeker," is a sonic adventure where to be enamored is the ultimate goal. Or, as JO1's leader Sho Yonashiro puts it, "love for everything. For our songs, our fans, and our members."

As JO1 prepares to continue running "with top speed," they pull the break for a bit and unravel the most important year of their trajectory so far. Fasten your seatbelt.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Developing Their Artistry From The Stage To The Silver Screen

Ruki Shiroiwa: Seiji, my character [from the film You Made My Dawn], is very free-spirited, but he's also very realistic and believes that there's only life, so he does what he wants and clearly expresses what he thinks. I must say his perspective is very similar to how I live.

JO1's activities are also this way, and each performance is treated as if it's the last one. In a way, I was replicating the strength he has, which somehow also made me feel supported in all the work I did with JO1 [last year]. Seiji felt like a source of power.


Takumi Kawanishi: When [reflecting] on the current music market, it seems like there is a higher demand to create viral or trendy songs. But within that, there is always music and sounds you want to play and things you want to say. [Playing Kiyosumi in Buzzy Noise] made me realize that it's important for me to try my best to showcase the [message] that I want to convey [with my music] as much as possible.

[For my song "Heaven,"] I wrote what Kiyosumi would feel and think, and then tried to capture what I felt as Takumi Kawanishi. I had a slightly strange feeling of being both Kiyosumi and Takumi when I was writing the song, but I think that sentiment aligns with the emotional nature of the film.

Performing Stateside For The First Time At KCON LA 2023

Sukai Kinjo: We couldn't attend KCON LA when we were first invited in 2022 due to [some of us contracting] COVID-19, so when we heard that we could go the following year, we [asked] every member and the surrounding staff to stay indoors and not go outside at all. Going to KCON is a big step, so we asked our managers if we could take a break before the event to rest and [prioritize] our health.

Ren Kawashiri: We performed three songs, with the third one being a cover of "Super" by SEVENTEEN-san, and we felt the crowd's excitement increasing with each performance. Many people might not have known who JO1 was at first, but I think we were able to enjoy ourselves with the audience and have fun on stage that night. We all felt very welcomed.

Shion Tsurubo: There was a moment in the cover of "Super" where we had to lift Syoya as part of the choreography. My first thought was that I couldn't let him fall.

Syoya Kimata: I was very nervous! I could just imagine it would be so bad if I failed on stage [during my first time] in Los Angeles. I took extra care, so I was very happy when I landed [after they threw me into the air], and I continued dancing throughout the performance without worrying or thinking about it.

Junki Kono: I was proud of my members, and we were all satisfied after our performance ended. We loved Los Angeles and we actually did some filming and photoshoots around the city. We met many local people, and it was fantastic. I want to return sometime soon. I miss In-N-Out. [Laughs.]

Expanding Their Musicality On Their Third Album, EQUINOX

Takumi Kawanishi: The "colors" of JO1 have been changing little by little. During the EQUINOX era, we were allowed to produce music with a nostalgic feel, but it also had a "power-up" element. I believe everyone in our group was looking to convey this as well.

Shosei Ohira: This album has a wide range of styles. For instance, "Venus" has elegance in its melody, and "RadioVision" is a pop song with an old-fashioned, retro charm. We also had our unit songs – "Itty Bitty" and "Mad In Love." This is something that we didn't do in our previous releases, so we were able to show a new [artistic] side of JO1.

Sukai Kinjo: I believe that every time we release a new album, my vocal ability has improved a lot compared to the previous one. I will work even harder and try my best to bring my "miracle voice" to the world.

Seeing Asia On The BEYOND THE DARK Tour

Issei Mamehara: It was our first overseas tour, so I was very happy! The experience made me recognize that I love and enjoy performing with our fans, JAM, at a close distance. Jakarta was especially memorable because it was the first show, and even though there were some sound problems, JO1's performance covered it up.

Ruki Shiroiwa: We had some technical issues [in Jakarta] while performing "Venus" that caused the song to stop playing. However, we usually practice during rehearsals in case something like this happens. It became a real situation, so when the sound stopped, we all knew we had to continue dancing. Everyone who gathered in the concert venue also joined us by singing and livened things up, so it feels like a success that we were able to avoid some trouble.

Keigo Sato: The size of the venues was smaller compared to those in Japan, but we could feel the high pressure from the audience, and it was amazing.

Watching Their Dreams Become Reality At The Kyocera Dome

Shosei Ohira: It was our first time stepping onto the Kyocera Dome [as headliners], which was a stage that all the JO1 members admired. The moment I stood on [that stage], I felt my dream come true, and it was an unbelievable time. I experienced many things [in the past], and many people supported me before I got here, so I was really thankful.

Junki Kono: When I was working at the Kyocera Dome, the stage seemed to be shining, and the artists who filled the venue also looked radiant. I remember being impressed by the sound of the concerts — it shook my heart. I don’t know why, but I remember feeling like I could stand on that stage in the future, and I was telling everyone around me, including my colleagues, that I would make it happen.

[Performing at Kyocera Dome with JO1] was the moment when my efforts and words were rewarded. But I also understood that standing at the Kyocera Dome is not a goal but a passing point on the road to my dream. I found a new challenge from this experience — a dome tour.

Sho Yonashiro: When the stage doors opened, I felt like a hero. But at the same time, there was a feeling of nervousness because we were the protagonists [that day]. If we had made a mistake, Ren, our performance leader, would have been angry. [Laughs.]

Ruki Shiroiwa: The concert is now available on Amazon Prime Video in Japan, and I've already watched it. While on stage, I felt that everything went smoothly, and I was really happy. However, looking back, I noticed that there are also areas where we need to improve. In the future, if we perform at the Kyocera Dome [again] or the Tokyo Dome, we would like to increase the quality of the performance. 

Winning The Excellent Work Award At The 65th Japan Record Awards 

Issei Mamehara: During a period when we were looking to make exciting songs, we had the opportunity to do "Trigger," and it received the Excellent Work Award at the Japan Record Awards. We were really honored. I wouldn't go as far as calling it our representative song, but we would like many people to truly listen to it.

Keigo Sato: I'm still skeptical about why "Trigger" wasn't a title track. I knew it was going to go viral. [Laughs.]

Returning To "Kōhaku Uta Gassen," Japan's Biggest End-Of-The-Year Television Special

Sho Yonashiro: "Kōhaku" is a [major] television show in Japan, and we had the opportunity to be invited [to perform] for a second time. There are a lot of K-pop artists coming in [as guests], and we know there are some comparisons between us and them.

All I can think of is that we need to demonstrate we can be competitive and shouldn't be satisfied with our position. After being there for two years, we need to continue expanding our [performance] skills and be more charismatic on stage.

Ren Kawashiri: It would not be an exaggeration to say that our role as top batters [for the White Team] somewhat determined the show's momentum. Back in 2022, we didn't know what we were doing, so we just tried our best, but the second time around, we had more room to think about how to create a good ambience.

Heading Down A New Road With HITCHHIKER 

Keigo Sato: My favorite song [from HITCHHIKER] is "Lied to you" because up until this point, we didn't have a track with this kind of Western-style [flow]. The lyrics talk about heartbreak and the inability to express your feelings, and the singing is really great. It's very similar to an Olivia Rodrigo song.

Junki Kono: The bittersweet atmosphere of [our B-side] "Lemon Candy" illustrates the emotion of "I can do anything for you." These may be extreme words, but I put the message in the lyrics that I feel [about] you that strongly.

When I heard the song, I instantly knew that it was composed by Yonghwa-san [from CNBLUE] because it really conveyed his vibe. He taught me many things during the recording session, such as how to sing with more of my own personality, which made me a little nervous. 

Syoya Kimata: Our title track is called "Love seeker," and I believe our trajectory is like hitchhiking as we search for the love of the audience in Japan and people who don't know about JO1 yet. I hope we can continue spreading our music and gain more recognition, so we will keep working hard to achieve that.

Ren Kawashiri: I feel we have a common understanding that has developed over the past five years. We are taking advantage of the fact that we have 11 members, which, in some cases, may be considered too many people, but we believe that each one of us injects strength into the group.

Steering Towards A Bright Future

Sho Yonashiro: We still feel that we must become more famous – even though we have achieved a lot as a boy group [in Japan]. It's been almost five years since our [formation], and we have gained experience and grown significantly compared to our beginnings. However, when we look outside Japan, many don't know who JO1 is, and I think this is a challenge worth taking over and over again. 

Sukai Kinjo: JO1 is very strong and unique on stage, and that’s where we can show how powerful we are as a group. I think our artistic [essence] resonated well with people in Los Angeles, and we do have the potential to reach more international fans. I believe it will be a matter of time before we go viral around the world. [Laughs.]

Ren Kawashiri: We will be superstars!

10 Neo J-Pop Artists Breaking The Mold In 2024: Fujii Kaze, Kenshi Yonezu & Others