Listen to modern J-pop and chances are you’ll come across a song produced by Yuki Kojima.
The creator, who records and produces as Yaffle, has become the go-to architect of modern pop music in the country, helping to shape the sound of a new generation. He provided hard-hitting R&B-tinged backdrops for young singers such as iri and Syrupwhile providing more stripped-down sounds for Goodbye. They are also a prolific band in their own right, working with singers all over the world (including linking songs celebrate 25 years of Pokemon).
More importantly, Yaffle became the go-to producer for star Japanese singer-songwriter Fujii Kaze, whose latest album Love them all, serve them all overcame the Billboard Japan Hot Albums Chart behind 142,921 units moved in its first week of release.
The 31-year-old artist, however, feels conflicted about his success and how little impact he is actually having on the world at a time when a pandemic and war are dominating headlines. “I really felt like I was growing as a musician this year. But there have been times when the music industry is still powerless in the face of this sad and cruel global situation. I felt sad about it,” he says. Billboard from an office in downtown Tokyo. “If you look at everything from the outside, it looks like I’m doing really well and having an important year. I have complicated feelings, where I feel like I’m growing, but I also don’t think that I am as influential as I would like.
Although he’s not quite where he’d like to be in shaping society, he’s played a major role in shaping the sound of J-pop. Born and raised in Tokyo, 31-year-old Kojima grew up absorbing jazz and rock, before composing his first songs in the mid-2000s using software such as MuSE and Logic. He enrolled in a music university, studying classical sounds. He then found himself in the underground scene of the capital, participating in the launch of the label Tokyo Recordings (today TOKA). There he developed his approach to pop creation and started working in the industry from around 2015.
What separates Yaffle’s output from the J-pop of the past is its sense of surprise. “What I do is I imagine a Japanese person…or imagine someone I work with in the industry…and I predict what they’ll like. Then I try to avoid just creating that, because it would be too boring,” he says, pointing to his approach to unconventional beats and experimental electronic elements as opposed to familiar J-pop chords to create something. unexpected. Two cuts of Kaze’s latest highlight well – the dynamic”Kirarimute through percussive changes to a sunny melody, whileMatsuri” collides with modern touches such as skitter machine percussion with traditional Japanese sounds via woodwinds.
“I really like his experimentation, since we met eight years ago,” said Nariaki Obukuro, co-founder of Tokyo Recordings. Billboard. “He mainly likes making pop music, although he studied contemporary music at university. I think that attitude makes his sound unique.
Yaffle is keeping busy, recently sharing the new solo song shuffling”I wish you could come” featuring the American singer SATICA, and prepares his own organized music evenearly May. He’s not going anywhere either, as he continues to play a pivotal role in creating a new era of J-pop.
Below, Yaffle speaks with Billboard about his origins, his approach to J-pop and more.
What are your earliest musical memories? How did you get interested in it?
Basically, I think my musical influence comes from my mother. I remember she was listening to a jazz compilation, and I heard the song “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” by Cannonball Adderley. I think that ended up having a huge impact on me and led me to music. Not songs per se, but music and performances. My mum wasn’t even particularly into that music – she was much more into British rock.
Being born and raised in Tokyo, I’ve also always been surrounded by J-pop culture. The things you talked about with your friends were J-pop, so that kind of stuff naturally drew me into that world as well.
What Japanese music did you listen to and talk about with your friends?
It was all that was popular at the time, so a mix of rock influenced by The Offspring or Orange Range, as well as other Japanese bands like Bump of Chicken and Radwimps. It was elementary and middle school, the main groups we talked about. But that doesn’t mean that I particularly liked these artists, they were just trendy.
You thought, “Oh, jazz at home is better.”
[laughs] Of course, my mother shaped my musical tastes a lot, but at the same time, there was the revival of garage rock. The Strokes, The Libertines, Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, bands like that. I really started doing this when I was a teenager. But by the time I entered music college, I was drawn to modern classical music by composers like John Cage.
How did music college influence your creative side?
I rather specialized in classical music there. It was old school…no computers, just pencils and paper. It was the opposite of everything I had known before [creating on a laptop]. I learned about harmonization and orchestration, while learning more about artists like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. The university itself was very contemporary, but the biggest lesson for me was the importance of having a concept and sticking to it when creating. It’s something that I apply to my work even today.
One of the most important things you did after graduating was helping found Tokyo Recordings. What are your memories of the beginnings of this label?
Everything was driven by the passion to create. It was a label, so the idea was to find creators, produce music and then sell the artist. I slept in our studio for about a week. Each had different specialties and different approaches to the work we were doing. It was like adolescence – I felt so young. We also didn’t have a lot of money, so to ship CDs we had to do everything. We were handwriting addresses and everything. It was so pure.
What were the biggest lessons you learned from that time?
The biggest influence on me has been [Tokyo Recordings co-founder and artist] Naraki Obukuro. I learned a lot from him about the business. For example, when you’re in the industry, it’s all about going with the flow and hoping someone will buy what you do, right? You somehow devalue yourself. But Nariaki taught me to value myself and spend time with someone who is worth it. It was a huge lesson for me. People tend to sell themselves low to get off the ground. But you have to value what you do.
What is your basic approach to writing and producing a song?
Writing music inspired by existing music is really boring for me. So what I do is when I meet an artist, I want to chat with them, get to know them, and find something that’s unique about them. I then try to convert that into music. Sometimes it ends up being my perception of what they are, so I create a [distortion of] what this artist really looks like. But even then, it creates an unexpected vibe that works, like a pleasant surprise.
How does that approach play out with someone like Fujii Kaze? How do you find his element?
Before its debut, Universal Music contacted me. It was more like a test. We met and talked for a while. We were very different from each other – Fujii Kaze was from the countryside, I grew up in the city, we had very different life experiences. But listening to him, I learned that he loved old-school music, but always followed contemporary trends. I wanted to integrate these two sides into his music. I wanted to do something that reflected modern times while incorporating his love of older sounds.
Is there pressure from the J-pop side? Like, “Hey, you gotta keep up with the hits.”
I’m afraid to write a song based on my own image of what the market is. Like, I’m putting too much pressure on just to keep up with what’s going on.
What is the market at the moment, from your point of view?
I feel like Japan is not good at keeping up with global music trends. There is something at the heart of most Japanese music that is melancholy, sentimental. It’s not about following the rhythm, not feeling the groove.
Your work has a very good rhythm and groove. What is your approach to this element of your music?
J-pop tends to be very conservative. I want something more punchy. Even if I create on piano or guitar, I want to add a percussive element to my songs. Adding that rhythm is just as important to me. I like to put familiar chords in my music, which comfort listeners. But then I use the percussion to surprise them. Playing with rhythm gives me a feeling of freedom.
How was your last solo song “Wish You Could Come” composed?
I wrote it when I was in Los Angeles for the first time. I’ve never seen anything like LA before – it’s not as chaotic as anywhere in Asia, and it also lacks the tradition of a place like Europe, which I’ve visited before. I felt isolated in this new environment and I felt alone. The song reflects this feeling. By working with SATICA, I also wanted to work in a romantic sense on the song. A love song element.
How long did you stay in Los Angeles?
Two or three weeks, for writing sessions. I didn’t have time to do anything [laughs]. I’d be in an Uber or a Lyft, and the driver would say “look at the Hollywood sign!” I didn’t have time to do touristic things. I managed to get to Santa Monica beach. It looked like LA I guess. [Laughs.]
What song would you list as the best gateway to Yaffle?
To see my style, I think it would be “Never Look Back”. It really represents my character: it’s not about individual elements, but the totality of everything – drums, bass – coming together. I think it reflects my style of music very well.