Few things inspire the kind of glee that finding a piece of the past in the present brings. Finding an old diary buried in a corner of a ratted box in the attic, happening upon a small establishment so old that even the neighbours wonder whether it has always been there, or the crackle on a vinyl before the music kicks in – the past inspires something visceral, yet comforting in us, as if a thread stretches across time to provide silent reassurance in the present.
Seeped in dreamy pastels, sparkling lights and flares, twinkling synths, jazz and horns, the city pop sound and vibe of Yukika’s music imparts a similar warmth – more accurately “timeless”, as the singer describes: “I think of city pop as an almost timeless piece,” she says during our conversation, dressed in soft white and slipping between Korean and her native Japanese with ease.
“Rather than thinking of it as an old genre or old piece, when I listen to any city pop song, it sounds like a recent song. To me, it’s literally timeless. That’s the part of city pop that I like the most.”
It seems like an apt descriptor for the genre, which went from mainstream Japanese music in the ’70s and ’80s to barely surviving in niche corners of the internet, before being resuscitated into popularity, much to do with YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, it seems (and, before that, sample-heavy genres like vaporwave). Songs like Mariya Takeuchi’s ‘Plastic Love’, Takako Mamiya’s ‘Midnight Joke’ and Miki Matsubara’s ‘Stay With Me’ have become the gateway for a younger generation to discover the genre, but long before the advent of the internet, city pop was one of the primary sounds of ’80s Japan.
In an ironic journey of art reflecting life, the sparkling, shimmering Goliath of city pop boomed during an era of economic prosperity in Japan, where upward mobility for people came with the proliferation of music that emulated the easy-going, luxurious, futuristic city-based lifestyles that people became used to. Inspired by western jazz, funk, disco and lounge music, city pop was the proverbial glitter filter on the musical representation of an era, invoking images of driving by an ocean or going dancing on a hot, humid night.
The bubble, however, burst just as quickly as it had appeared. When the financial crash of the ‘90s hit, people found no need for music that invoked images of a lifestyle that was now out of reach. city pop faded away, until corners of the internet – admittedly fueled by interest in Japanese pop culture – brought back the genre. YouTube algorithms, and perhaps a nostalgic urge for simpler, brighter times, did the rest.
Yukika was born just as the moon of city pop started waning, but the genre became a soundtrack for much of her childhood.
“My parents really liked music,” she reminisces. “They listened to everything from regular pop music to all the Japanese music from way before, to more recent things. So it was [common] in my family to listen to music, to have music around me. It wasn’t something that I got into. It was always something that surrounded me.”
In middle school, she started venturing out and buying her own CDs, developing her own palette, and when she came over to Korea, it seemed natural for her to gravitate to the genre.
“City pop was relevant in my family and in Japanese music since way before. It’s something that I had already been naturally listening to and actually liked already,” she explains. Combined with climbing interest in the genre and numerous labels putting out compilations of old hits, it was easy for her to make the choice.
With funky grooves, orchestrated symphonies and a classic 4:3 ratio music video complete with vintage filters, Yukika’s 2019 debut single ‘Neon’ felt like a loving tribute to the genre she had grown up with. As the beat kicked in on a soothing instrumentation, her voice emerged to create a musical time capsule – “The tangled memories of the time, would they be emptied? Would they disappear?” she sang, tickling one’s fantasy about whether she’s actually talking about a bygone era. Despite its immediate impact, however, Yukika wasn’t entirely satisfied with ‘Neon’.
“City pop may be considered something timeless or retro, [but] I don’t consider it ‘old music’ like others would. When I sing, I don’t think of myself as singing ‘older music’. When I sing, I think of myself as singing current music.” Therein lies the challenge: in breathing modern life into a prolific genre that birthed some of present-day pop’s most recognisable sounds, including the kind of neo-city pop sound that Yukika has pioneered. A kind of bootstrap paradox, if one would, where the old birthed the new, and the new invoked the old.
It was a full year later, however, on her first solo album ‘Soul Lady’, that the singer fully materialised her vision, presenting a concoction of sounds and visuals that delighted in their freshness, but still inspired characteristic nostalgia. On ‘Soul Lady’, Yukika was a starry-eyed girl “full of curiosity”, new to Seoul and dazzled by the “endless lights”’, ready to “discover another me”. Her personal story – her journey from Japan to South Korea – became the gateway to an evolved version of herself, where she used her Japanese roots as a sounding board to explore sounds above and beyond.
“The story for ‘Soul Lady’ is technically only about me, from the point of someone from a foreign land who goes to Korea. That’s where it kind of ends.” She explains, emphasising that this transformation into the ‘Soul Lady’ was the final step in a musical evolution, which continued on the rest of the album.
“My involvement comes in through me talking with the songwriters and the team. We sing a song together and figure out where and what we can change, what we can add to the songs together,” she says.
It took a lot of hits and misses on their part, and not only because they wanted to do justice to the source material while still keeping it relevant. Anything that ventured too far out posed the risk of misinterpreting her artistry altogether.
“City pop is a really difficult genre,” she explains. “It’s really sensitive in the fact that [a song] could be very close to what city pop is, but then it might be too much like [an] idol song. [But then] if it’s too ‘city pop’, then it doesn’t really appeal to other Korean music fans.”. Of course, this isn’t meant to be a critique on idol culture, plainly because Yukika did not set out to be a K-pop idol when she struck out solo.
“When I was starting off solo, we were actually gonna go with a concept [that had] no relevance to the idol image, where I wouldn’t really go on any broadcasting stations or anything like that to perform. I wasn’t really gonna do anything in the K-pop idol realm,” she says, before emphasising that the first order of business was simple: just do what she liked.
“We were like, ‘Let’s put out music’. People that are into that niche genre or niche category will follow as we do,” she says.
So, was she satisfied with ‘Soul Lady’, or the other releases that followed? “This isn’t just for my music, but for my life as well: once you’re satisfied, it’s all over,” she laughs, before clarifying that she doesn’t mean to be irreverent. “I do feel satisfaction but it’s not ever like a 100 per cent.”
“[Once] you reach a 100 per cent, it’s almost like closing the chapter on something. I would never reach that 100 just because that would basically end that chapter. So, because of that [dissatisfaction], I’m able to want more, have more goals. I want to do more things and reach further.”
Yukika’s latest single, the Japanese-language ‘Tokyo Lights’, is out now.