YOASOBI: the “ultimate J-pop unit” faces the world

With record-breaking hits including ‘Idol’ and ‘Into The Night’, iconic anime theme songs and an immersive literary outlook, YOASOBI have rocketed to the forefront of Japanese music – and are more than ready to take on the world

YOASOBI are on fire right now. What was a bright flare ignited by vocalist Ikura and producer Ayase in 2019 has, over the course of a global pandemic and several chart-smashing singles, including the global megahit ‘Idol’, has been fanned into a fantastic flame – one that has fuelled their rise to the forefront of Japanese pop and, soon, beyond.

When NME catches YOASOBI for a Zoom conversation on a summer afternoon, however, the Cover stars have just experienced a different kind of heat. “It was like being in a sauna,” Ikura recalls of the Tokyo stop of music festival Summer Sonic, where they played days before to thousands of exuberant – and sweaty – fans.

Militarie Gun (2023)
YOASOBI on The Cover of NME. Credit: John Choi for NME

YOASOBI have never been hotter. They formed in 2019 and have since rocketed to J-pop’s stratosphere, scoring prime placements on festival bills and embarking on their own domestic arena tour. Live videos of the DENKOSEKKA arena tour – which have YouTube views in the millions – show Ikura and Ayase backed by a dynamic six-piece band and a visual extravaganza that matches their vibrant, technical and often uptempo sound: dazzling confetti bursts, massive laser shows and precisely synced visuals.

As a band that debuted as a studio project in a time of global isolation, YOASOBI have relished performing live and meeting the challenges that come with it. “We had a lot of people who listened to our music, and in a good way, that gave us a lot of confidence. There was a lot of excitement and expectation of what kind of live show we could deliver,” Ayase notes. “Not just giving a great performance, but from lighting, visuals, to stage design… the philosophy doesn’t change: we think about how we can surprise audiences wherever we go.”

YOASOBI’s sheer dominance belies their recent origins. Originally from a punk and hardcore background, Ayase first stumbled onto the world of Vocaloid production after medical problems forced the dissolution of his former band. Taken with how the synthesizer software facilitated the creation of fully fledged tracks with minimal equipment, Ayase began uploading his creations online, eventually gaining traction with cuts like ‘Last Resort’ and ‘Happy Ender’.

YOASOBI (2023) by John Choi
Credit: John Choi for NME

In 2019, Ayase was approached by Monogatary.com, an online story-writing platform owned by Sony Music Entertainment Japan, to create musical collaborations inspired by literary submissions published on the site. Looking for a vocalist to helm the project, Ayase eventually stumbled upon covers that Ikura, who had been releasing her own material as Lilas Ikuta, had posted on Instagram. Impressed by her glasslike voice, the producer reached out. Adopting the concept of “novel into music” as their mission, the duo settled on YOASOBI as a moniker. The word stands for ‘nightlife’: a metaphor for the project’s sense of adventure, away from their respective solo careers.

After some experimentation, the duo debuted with debut single ‘Into The Night’, a song inspired by a Mayo Hoshino short story (written for Monogatary.com) about obsession and death. Released just before the world plunged into the coronavirus pandemic, the song’s mix of dark lyrical themes, Ayase’s funky electropop production and Ikura’s soaring delivery proved lightning in a bottle amid Japan’s lockdown-induced malaise.

Soon, it was making history, racking up over 500 million streams in Japan and therefore becoming the country’s first-ever song to be certified diamond on streaming. YOASOBI quickly became household names, going from online shows to performing at the legendary Nippon Budokan venue and Kohaku Uta Gassen, the prestigious year-end music show by national broadcaster NHK.

“The philosophy doesn’t change: we think about how we can surprise audiences wherever we go” — Ayase

YOASOBI’s appeal has since proved diverse and wide-reaching, reaching both literary-minded audiences – their last project, ‘Hajimete no – EP’, draws inspiration from commissioned short stories by prize-winning authors – and children, thanks to ‘The Swallow’, a theme song for a kids’ television programme. “Beyond just novels, we are active across all forms of media and provide many points of contact to all these stories,” Ikura says. “I think that’s one of YOASOBI’s huge strengths.”

But no song quite encapsulates YOASOBI’s range quite like ‘Idol’. The opening theme of hit anime Oshi No Ko, its lyrics reflect the inner monologue of protagonist Ai Hoshino, an idol navigating the multi-layered façades of Japan’s entertainment industry. Mirroring the complex narrative, Ayase whirls the track through a tornado of diverse sounds: gritty sub bass, orchestrated choral hits, K-pop-esque rap breaks – all before a cathartic chorus bursting with colourful synths that conjure up the technicolour pop of Japanese icons like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Steering the ship above the sensory overload is Ikura. Beloved for her sweet, clear voice, on ‘Idol’ she goes from deep sarcastic snarls to rapid-fire rap verses, powering effortlessly through the hectic pace. “Every song is a new challenge and discovery, but this time, I felt like I had to come up with a voice that I had never had,” Ikura says.

“To respect the setting of ‘Idol’, l had to sing with the confidence that I was the world’s cutest idol – and to express the mindset of singing as an idol myself, I had to express that kind of ditzy voice. Generating that kind of cute voice was a big challenge for me.”

YOASOBI (2023) by John Choi
Credit: John Choi for NME

Ikura may have had to take a leap of imagination to sing ‘Idol’, but YOASOBI are arguably already idols in Japan – superstars slowly but surely making their bid for the world’s biggest stages. Their fame has followed them: last month, while in Los Angeles for their maiden American date at 88rising’s Head In The Clouds Festival, the duo found themselves recognised by fans on their off days in Hollywood.

“To be honest, we had wondered how much we would be known in America,” Ayase says. “We had insecurities about that, but we felt really welcome.” Ikura adds: “We didn’t know if people would be actually waiting for us. But then we heard people calling out to us when we were prepping backstage, and when we finally got out on stage, we were met with this huge applause. We were honestly relieved.”

If there is one goal YOASOBI has right now, it’s reaching out to the world – whether that’s attracting new listeners or forging ever more meaningful connections with existing fans. It’s an ambition they’ve had for a while, exemplified in their 2021-2022 ‘E-side’ releases: two English-language EPs with tracklists the duo carefully curated with translation in mind. Rendering the English versions sensitively with translator Konnie Aoki, the duo made mirroring the Japanese language’s sense of rhythm and pronunciation a priority. “I wanted to convey and preserve the original cool of these songs, even if I sang them in English,” Ikura explains. She took time learning English pronunciation line by line, refining her singing with the help of native speakers.

YOASOBI (2023) by John Choi
Credit: John Choi for NME

YOASOBI see ‘E-side’ as a “greeting” to their English-speaking listeners – something that can help their audiences abroad “understand us with a broader scope and range”, says Ayase. “Of course, I believe there are things that can be fully expressed with just our music in Japanese alone – but we believe that if we can express ourselves in a language closer to them, we can become a more familiar presence too.”

Naturally, YOASOBI also acknowledge the power of anime and the role it’s played in their international success. After all, the band have strong ties with the globally popular medium: their music videos are largely animated, and many of their hits are anime tie-ins – from long-running institutions like Gundam (‘The Blessing’) to cult favourites like Beastars (‘Monster’) and of course, Oshi No Ko and ‘Idol’. But YOASOBI are passionate about establishing J-pop as a global force independent of anime.

“No matter what form, we are really happy that there are people in the world coming into contact with J-pop, thinking that Japanese music is cool. But we feel that without the power of anime to push it up, there aren’t many chances to come into contact with Japanese music,” Ayase says. “In that sense, we do think there is a wall, and a test for Japanese music. Borrowing the power of anime, I think we’re still at a stage where we’re spreading the gospel.

“Eventually, we hope that even without being related to anime, J-pop can become independently known – and become a music culture that’s properly compatible with the world,” he adds. “We always think about needing to make songs that are powerful enough to rival and not lose to the power of anime.”

“Every song is a new challenge and discovery, but [with ‘Idol’], I felt like I had to come up with a voice that I had never had” — Ikura

YOASOBI are more aware than ever of their role in the presentation of Japanese music and J-pop on an international stage. When they closed with ‘Idol’ at Head In The Clouds, they were joined by Japanese girl group ATARASHII GAKKO! on the song’s last chorus. Flanking Ikura and dressed in their striking schoolgirl outfits, the ebullient quartet launched into precise wotagei dance routines, perfectly punctuating the band’s grand finale.

“When ATARASHII GAKKO! joined in with their cheers, they naturally mixed in with the dance of our song – through just our song ‘Idol’ alone, I felt like we created a force together that represented we were ‘from Japan’,” Ikura recalls. “It was really fun, and I felt a sense of pride as a Japanese person that we could present that together as a unit.”

YOASOBI (2023) by John Choi
Credit: John Choi for NME

YOASOBI have come a long way in a short time. When they started, their dynamic was akin to that of “business partners”, as Ayase puts it: colleagues who met only for work purposes, connecting remotely at that, sometimes through their respective managers. Over the past four years, and as their music has entered the live arena, their bond – as the duo of YOASOBI, and with their broader team – has strengthened.

As ‘Idol’ clears its record-setting 20th consecutive week atop the Billboard Japan charts, it’s natural to wonder what’s next for YOASOBI: what boundaries they’re aiming to break, what collaborations they’re trying to notch. The answer, according to Ayase, is nothing – the field is clear, but ripe with possibility. “We just face the work that’s in front of us. We think of what’s best for the situation every time… We decide in the moment,” he says.

That seems to mirror Ayase’s approach to music-making: a reliance on instinct and intuition, twinned with a carpe diem spirit. Though he acknowledges 2000s J-pop icons like Sukima Switch, Kobukuro and EXILE as influences, if those manifest in his music, they emerge unconsciously, Ayase says. “In the end, the melodies I make are what I feel. With things like the orchestral elements in the background of ‘Idol’, it was very much an in-the-moment kind of decision. I can only make things in that way; I simply create when it is fun to me.”

YOASOBI (2023) by John Choi
Credit: John Choi for NME

When NME asks YOASOBI to describe their magic in their own words, Ayase points to that flexibility and joyous genre-agnosticism, definitive qualities of J-pop.“If you’ll excuse me saying this – I think we are the ultimate J-pop unit,” Ayase says. It’s not a boast, as he goes on to explain: “We don’t approach music as if we have a main genre. We do many genres, and face many challenges in every song. Ikura sings in many ways too, just like how I write different kinds of songs. When I make a track and Ikura sings over it, that itself defines YOASOBI’s style.

“Anything that is already popular in Japan is J-pop – and there’s no genre there. As YOASOBI, we are a unit that expresses that spirit – in that sense, aren’t we the J-pop band?”

Beyond the explosive key changes, beautiful lead melodies, and layered storytelling, YOASOBI are defined by their unshakable confidence in creating in the moment and in their own way. With their third EP ‘The Book 3’, out in October, the duo will no doubt keep showcasing those qualities and blazing their own trail. As NME’s conversation with YOASOBI comes to a close, Ayase states the obvious:

“Plus, if we make even more hits, then that really makes us ultimate.”

Yoasobi’s ‘Idol’ is out now. ‘The Book 3’ is out October 4

Listen to Yoasobi’s exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and here on Apple Music.

Writer: JX Soo
Photographer: John Choi
Hair & Makeup: YOUCA
Styling: Shota Funahashi
Label/Mgmt: Sony Music Entertainment Japan

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