How J-Pop Duo YOASOBI Turn Novels Into Chart-Topping Songs
Taking little-known books and turning them into hits.
“Monster” by YOASOBI is one of those songs that makes you appreciate great music. It starts off sly and reminiscent of Billie Eilish’s “bad guy,” but bursts like a firework on the hook. Over less than two minutes, it morphs into a Las Vegas EDM pool party fist-pumper, a trap banger, and a tender piano ballad. It proves how the idea of Japanese pop music (or J-pop) is ever-expanding, and why the genre has become massively popular even with those who don’t speak the language.
It’s hardly an anomaly for the duo, who began working together in 2019 and quickly found a rabid global audience. On the surface, YOASOBI continues the long lineage of male producer, female vocalist duos which has been a staple of pop music around the world. Ayase makes the instrumentals and handles the brunt of songwriting duties, while Ikura (aka Ikuta Lilas) takes the melodies, written using the singing synthesizer program Vocaloid, and gives them human warmth. It’s a futuristic spin on the traditional music creation process, but it’s far from the only novel thing about how YOASOBI works.
Their tracks are inspired by fiction published on Monogatary.com, a hub for aspiring writers online. The chart-topping “Yoru ni Kakeru'' explores the fraught connection between young love and self-harm with the deftness of Mayo Hoshino’s original story. “RGB” captures the frenetic quality of a romantic reunion, drawn from the writing of Yūichirō Komikado. Last November, the duo put out E-Side, which saw them translate some of their best material from previous releases into English.
Here, Ikura and Ayase talk about their first time playing together for a live audience, translating lyrics to English, and how they choose which stories could work as songs.
[The interview with both Ayase and Ikura was conducted over ZOOM with the assistance of translator Kanako Tanabe, who has answered on their behalf.]
How did the group choose which songs to record in English for E-Side?
They didn’t have any criteria of how to choose the songs for the English version, but they did take into consideration the sound structure. These are originally sung in Japanese, so there should be a vowel that stands up or that you can really hear. They chose the songs that would not interfere with the original and still would be able to be understood in English.
In terms of the actual lyrics, was it more about maintaining the song structures or getting a very literal translation of what they would mean in English?
Not only [was] the sound structure [important], but the translator, he’s brilliant. He knows English. He knows Japanese. So what you’re hearing in English really reflects what’s written in Japanese. That’s what Ayase really felt good about.
Part of the reasoning behind the name YOASOBI was that Ikura and Ayase have separate musical projects and this is a side project, almost like their night job. Obviously, the group has become hugely successful in the last two years. Do they still think of this as this side project or has that changed with their growing popularity?
Right, it’s no longer moonlight. It’s like sunshine. They said it in a very interesting way: Day and night, it’s 50-50 anyway. It’s even. So, they started out as a secondary project, or maybe they were just moonlighting. But now, day and night is 50-50. It’s part of their lives, both of them.
They had their first-ever concert as YOASOBI in December with the “Nice to Meet You” show. I’m curious what that experience was like for them and if it affected the way they’re planning to do more live shows in the future?
They started out their career as icons from the Internet, but they’ve always been thinking of themselves as physical beings doing live shows. It took a bit of time, but their feeling was “Finally we’re in front of people. Finally we’re connecting.” They’re still not sure how many times or places [they can play], no details are confirmed right now, but they’d really love to go on a tour or do festivals. Ikura mentioned that it was just an incredible experience to share the moment with the audience. They’ve been getting good at sharing moments in cyber spaces or sharing emotions, but physical connection meant a lot to her.
Some of the other English language interviews the group has done focus on Ayase and Ikura’s different musical origins. What is the music that they really connected over when they were first starting to work together? Where was the common ground?
J-pop. But, the definition of J-pop is so broad these days; they loved the legendary pop stars: Yumi Matsutoya, Southern All-Stars. Both are great musicians that could write a very strong melody that would stick in your mind and you could sing along forever. If you go to karaoke in Japan you will hear somebody singing it.
For Ikura, songs like “RGB” and “Yoru ni Kakeru” seem incredibly vocally demanding. How is doing this music as a group a different challenge than what she’s done solo, like the country-esque “Sparkle?”
When Ikura has to sing as the vocalist of YOASOBI, she has to be really focused. She has to be really there, because the song is based on a novel, and a novel is something you read and understand what the characters are feeling, but she has to let people know by the sound. They’re not reading. They have to feel it through her vocals [and] the sound, so that’s what she really focuses on. She gets the demo, she reads the book. She has to know what the characters are feeling. She’ll get immersed into the world of the novel and then when she goes to the recording session, she’ll bring more than one way of singing to the studio. There are so many dimensions to what she does as an individual, but that is the reason why she can bring so much to the studio and Ayase can choose the right [production] for when she sings.
That’s an interesting way to frame it. What she’s doing is almost like voice acting, where you’re furthering a narrative and embodying a character. It’s not just putting lyrics to a melody.
Ikura also said that if she hadn’t been with YOASOBI, she would have never thought that she could expand this much. If this was her individual project, she would just stick to what she’s really comfortable [doing]. But she has to open up and expand in order to have multiple dimensions of the world to fit with the concept of YOASOBI.
Ikura brought up reading the novels and figuring out how the songs come to life from there. I’m curious how they settle on what story will make a good song and whether that process has changed at all from the early days of YOASOBI?
First of all, they still don’t choose by themselves. They won’t say, “Okay, that novel sounds good so let’s just make music out of it.” That’s not their style. Of course, there are sometimes YOASOBI contests or something, and in that case, they will maybe be in the judgment process. But basically, they’re still positively passive about the novel, which means they won’t think about the music in advance. They just read it and simply want to know if they feel it. They read it and enjoy it and then they start thinking about music. At first, it has to be good as a novel and they have to be the reader before being the musical artist.
Between the Vocaloid software the group writes with and the novels-into-songs concept, it seems YOASOBI has hit upon a pretty consistent creative formula. Have they experimented at all with working on music in a different ways, whether it’s writing songs completely from scratch or not using the Vocaloid software?
People kind of assume that they have this certain method or process and everything. Since they made such a huge success in the concept coming from novels and it has this nice, fashionable complication. What they are trying to do is make music happily with fun all the time. It’s not as complicated as we think.