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Interview: MIYAVI, The Responsible Rockstar

by Cindy Sibilsky,

The artist presently known as MIYAVI just may be the most responsible rockstar of our age. He's been active on the international music scene since 1999 and solo since 2002, MIYAVI has catapulted to global success and notoriety pretty much on his own terms, always evolving and transforming with relentless energy matched only by his strict samurai-like discipline. He's equal parts guitarist, singer/songwriter, model/fashionista, actor and activist. In our interview, MIYAVI professed an enormous sense of responsibility he feels as an artist. “As a Japanese artist, I feel responsible to represent my country and culture,” he reflected then added, “Everything I do is for the fans and audience — from facial expressions, interactions, improvisation and the show's flow. My role is to offer new experiences, to rock and entertain people. A show is an exchange of energy, like sex, it takes mutual participation and engagement. I could be performing to a crowd of fifty, five-thousand or fifty-thousand. Nothing matters as long as everyone is having a good time.”

Born in Osaka but raised in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan (known for being where the 105-year-old, all-female Broadway-meets-Vegas but better Takarazuka Revue was established and resides), where he never felt he belonged. But the boy who would become MIYAVI didn't take to wielding the guitar as a weapon for good until an injury forced him to stop playing soccer that he was so impassioned about, and redirect his intense ambitions elsewhere. “I felt a gnawing lack of fulfillment and purpose until I found guitar. Guitar satisfied me like soccer did and also served as my passport out of there.” (His feeling out of place and not belonging is reflected in his latest material — read on). MIYAVI elaborated, “When I began to play guitar I also started listening to music more critically. I knew even then that I wanted to give the world of music something new and different as a Japanese artist.”

MIYAVI has come a long way from his early days on the music scene with visual-kei bands like Dué le quartz and the supergroup S.K.I.N., during which he projected the epitome of arrogance as his stage persona. He's grown up a lot since then (he's a devoted husband and father of two daughters, after all), so has his music, and it seems like there's no lack of fans who are willing and able to keep up with the ever-transforming creative chameleon.

First and foremost, MIYAVI is a guitarist. He repeatedly mentioned that he'd rather “sing with my guitar,” which is perhaps why he has teamed up with so many varied vocalists — to relieve some of the singing burdens (particularly in other languages than his first, Japanese). And while he'll happily thrash about onstage, he's less interested in complicated choreography and would rather be, as his lyrics indicate, “dancing with my fingers”.

Reflecting on being in bands vs going solo, MIYAVI calls himself “a lone wolf” and though he sometimes misses the “electric chemistry when you're all on the same page” felt from being part of a group, he still prefers the freedom and flexibility that being a solo artist affords him. Although MIYAVI may have gone solo, he is rarely alone musically — his multitude of collaborations range from DUCKWRTH to Grammy-nominated R&B artist Gallant, a litany of Japan's chart-toppers, Malaysian-born songstress Yuna and even Samuel L. Jackson. And that's only the tip of the iceberg from his most recent album out December 2018, Samurai Sessions Vol. 3 — Worlds Collide. Since Prince is now out of the question, MIYAVI, when asked about a dream collaboration, declared that working with Lady Gaga could be a lot of fun. With her own penchant for unusual and unexpected musical bedfellows, this kind of match might not be so unlikely a paring for either of the multi-talented actor/musicians — the fantastic fashions and stage antics alone would be a delight to witness.

But it looks like MIYAVI may be taking a slight hiatus from his constant collaborations. At his recent performance at Anime Boston over Easter weekend, MIYAVI announced that his new solo album No Sleep Till Tokyo, the first non-collaboration project since his 2016 Firebird, will drop July 24 with worldwide touring dates to support it. He thrilled the eager audience with several songs off the not-yet-released album, which he confessed, “took years to make,” honoring those attendees as the first to hear them live in concert. “We were going to save these for the Japan tour but decided to share them with you first,” The new songs are catchy, and mark a return to the glory days that first propelled him to international acclaim. They are a blend of both the neo-futuristic electro-pop sounds from Firebird and MIYAVI's original style of heavy guitar R&B intermixed with high-pitched wailing shrieks courtesy of his “cyborg guitar”, a highly-customized Fender Telecaster, complete with a whammy bar, high-output pickups and a Sustainer, as well as a new “weapon” as he calls it — an acoustic/electric hybrid Fender Acoustasonic Telecaster, which the American guitar manufacturer launched at the 2019 NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Show, featuring demonstrations and a concert by MIYAVI.

The album also features more songs in his native tongue — Japanese. “I trust my fans to support me in my journey as a bilingual singer as well as a guitarist,” extorted the artist who admitted his challenges with singing English even going so far as to admit jovially, “Singing in English has traumatized me, but I wanted to offer in a language all can understand so I sing in Japanese, some English and mostly with my guitar.” As far as the visual themes go, the performer worked with his friend Sui Ishida, most known for the Tokyo Ghoul series, to design the artwork. “It's really cool and I respect him a lot,” MIYAVI beamed, “This album is Japanese in texture and taste but it's universal — we created a whole new world. It's 120 percent MIYAVI.”

Including “No Sleep Till Tokyo”, he played four songs from the new album giving fans a rich sampling of what to look forward to. “Tears on Fire” is a thick, bass-laden tune. “This is a track about memories,” MIYAVI explained as he launched into “Can't Stop It,” with fluid and sensual, liquid electric sounds that transitioned into intense guitar riffs — sonically personifying the sometimes painful, haunting persistence of memory. “This next track is very dark,” he warned about “The Other Side”, which is also the name of his tour of Japan May 3-June 2, 2019, “I used to feel like I didn't belong and you might feel that way too so that's what this is about.” His warning was merited because it is certainly the darkest song on the new album, and one of the best, that featured heavy EDM/BDM with rapid rapping over lyrics spliced with gothic and industrial overtones and screaming guitar howls. In contrast, “Fragile”. played as part of the encore performance was a toned-down, tender tune with Prince-like falsettos and elements of smooth R&B — striking a balance from all the intensity and showcasing his ability to seamlessly transition between genres. True to form, MIYAVI's music offered a bit of something for everyone and fan favorites such as “Long Nights”, “Firebird”, “What's My Name” and others made the concert a well-rounded sonic and visual extravaganza.

This kind of orchestration of an event is carefully crafted: “My plans for the track order of a show is like a chef preparing a multiple course meal,” he compared, “it has a particular flow to it intended to explode on the palette at the right times.” Further extending upon culinary metaphors he examined how his genre-jumping styles might confuse fans seeking the same kind of sound from an artist who is anything but predictable: “It's risky to go into a restaurant when you don't know the menu, especially if you are looking for something specific, like a fish dish perhaps, it can feel frustrating not knowing what you're going into. But if you trust the chef, then it's a shared experience. I follow my instincts and feelings, sometimes with no ‘menu’ and hope the fans will trust to take those risks with me and share in the energy and the journey with me.”

But MIYAVI's adventure and interests expand past music. He an activist and was appointed an official UNHCR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) Goodwill Ambassador in 2017. He recently returned from North Kenya and Lebanon where he performed with refugee children. Sharing no common tongue but the universal language of music, they jammed, danced, played and even created a song together, “Hands to Hold.” It wasn't easy though, as he recounted the painful rounds of vaccinations he was required to take and admitted, “It was pretty chaotic but the energy was awesome. I feel it's my role as an Ambassador to show these truly talented kids the paths they can take and inspire them to envision what they can do and accomplish.” He takes his responsibilities as an Ambassador and global figure even further stating, “I feel responsible to pass along the knowledge and awareness to Japan and the world about what's really happening with issues such as global warming, gender inequality, and the refugee crisis.” Taking it a step (or leap) forward into the future, he mused that perhaps one day, “I'm interested in possibly getting involved with politics and education.”

For someone who eases so seamlessly into many roles and is comfortable wearing many hats, it's no surprise that acting is another fine fit with which to focus his numerous passions and inexhaustible energies. “I think acting will continue to be a big part of my life,” he stated. Known for predominantly playing villains, he's had few but memorable appearances in films such as Unbroken, Stray, Kong: Skull Island and the 2018 live-action adaptation of BLEACH, where he added a bit more humanity and another dimension to the ice-cold brother of Rukia, Byakuya Kuchiki. “The director (Shinsuke Satō) and I had a lot of conversations about it,” MIYAVI unfolded, “I feel it's important and more interesting to show the humanity of a villain, even though it's a more complicated way to get to the point.” He added, “I have a little sister too, so the part took on another layer of meaning to me.” But it wasn't all serious acting explorations, “I had to learn to confidently work with a sword and I've only ever held a guitar so that was a fun challenge.” For his upcoming adventures behind the camera, MIYAVI made a very exciting announcement — he will be reunited with his pal Angelina Jolie in Maleficent 2, for a role that is a first for him in a couple of notable ways — but we can't quite reveal why just yet. “My character is all white with big horns,” MIYAVI relished, “but the makeup process took at least 3-4 hours per day, so I perfected the art of taking a nap during that process.”

Our thanks to MIYAVI for this interview.

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