Newsletter #26 is filled with 15th anniversary material! In this section, we present the first one-on-one talk with Yūho Iwasato, a lyricist who has written many songs for me, including “Gift”, “Platinum”, and the song that brings everyone together at each concert, “Empty Your Pockets”, and many more! Within this interview a rather intriguing conversation of a depth never before explored unfolds on the topic of “writing lyrics”.
Iwasato: The first time we met was for “DIVE”, wasn’t it?
Sakamoto: It was. Ever since my debut you had written lyrics for me, but the first time we met in person was at the planning meeting for “DIVE”. That was when I was 17 or so. Up until then our work together was you sending the lyrics to me and then I would sing them, but when I started making my second album, I thought I’d ask you to join in right from the discussions about what to do for the album’s perspective. Back then, I kept a notebook full of random thoughts and ideas, and the manner in which production went was having Ms. Kanno and you and the staff look through that notebook as we settled on a theme and direction for the album. I also had you look at several of my lyrics, and asked you for advice and about how they looked in a professional lyricist’s eyes.
Iwasato: Right, I remember. But the first time I saw your lyrics was before that, during the work on “Grapefruit”. The lyrics for “Feel Myself” ended up being a collaboration between the two of us, but that was because when you were having a little trouble coming up with lyrics, your staff contacted me, and we finished it together. The impression I got when I saw your lyrics for the first time was, “Well now—this girl can write.” And with “Feel Myself” you opened my eyes to how young people these days set words to music. I was the one who learned something new from it.
Sakamoto: You said before that the way the “nai” of “tsuyokunai” in the chorus was given to one note was original.
Iwasato: Yes, that’s one of the things that stand out. Also, things like reading “heart” as “here” gave me a sense that the mood written into the lyrics was authentic. We’re from different generations, so writing lyrics for you means I take my feelings from a long time ago and match them to what today’s generation feels, but “Feel Myself” really gave me something to learn from. And then for “DIVE”, I was able to write whatever I felt like.
Sakamoto: Ahahaha (laugh).
Iwasato: Songs like “Solitude” and “Yucca” had chaotic syllable arrangements that made me wonder if you could really sing them. With Ms. Kanno saying I could write whatever I wanted, and with my trust in you that you could handle singing them, I experimented quite a lot. I’d write lyrics and send them in, and then sometimes I’d get a phone call from you asking, “How should I sing this?”, and I’d say, “Ah, I was afraid that wouldn’t work. How about we change it to this instead?”
Sakamoto: That’s right. When I called you to ask “How am I supposed to sing this part?” you said, “Now how did that go again? It worked a little while ago when I tried singing it.” (laugh) And thinking about it now, for a 17-year-old singing, it feels like there were several songs that sounded kind of mature.
Iwasato: That’s also something I had fun with. The songs themselves in “DIVE” are very mature and elegant, and since you had a young, fresh voice, I thought that giving the lyrics a slightly mature edge would leave a contrast that might sound wonderful. Ms. Kanno was delighted with the idea, which made me extremely happy.
Sakamoto: One thing I remember well is that my lyrics for “Peace” were serious, and I took this thing that read like something a class representative would say in a fit of hysteria and asked you for advice about what I could do to make it sound more laid-back.
Iwasato: I remember that. I said, “How about flipping everything around?” just off the top of my head (laugh).
Sakamoto: Right, right.
Iwasato: You could take lines like “I hate movies about a dark future” and change “hate” to “love”—“if you turn everything upside-down it wouldn’t make any sense, but what’s wrong with that?” (laugh)
Sakamoto: And do you remember working on “Rule～Unfading Days” from “Lucy”?
Iwasato: That’s the song your mom said she liked the most, right? I like it too.
Sakamoto: I also love it, and since it’s an evergreen kind of song that resonates in your heart no matter how old you get, it’s popular with my fans too, but the first draft of the lyrics was about a snowboarder who was flirted with on a trip to Glendale. They left a strong impression, but they weren’t quite what I was looking for, so I asked you to rewrite them.
Iwasato: Didn’t Ms. Kanno ask at first for some lyrics on a skiing theme? I think winter was the keyword, maybe. I don’t remember at all. Did I really send lyrics like that?
Sakamoto: You did. The artwork on the board was of a triceratops (laugh).
Iwasato: Hahahaha (laugh). Back then my son was crazy about dinosaurs. The house was overflowing with dinosaur toys. There was still snow in the finished version of “Rule～Unfading Days”, but the lyrics were quite a bit more mature. “Tell me about that time”—the lyrics sound like they came from an exhausted salaryman.
Sakamoto: A girl the same age as me told me that this song didn’t strike a chord with her until she listened to it again after almost ten years had passed. I suppose that’s why older people such as my mother enjoy it.
Sakamoto: Along with mature, womanly lyrics, you can also write lyrics using the boyish version of “I”, can’t you? That makes me wonder what I’d have to do to be able to write from different perspectives like that.
Iwasato: Actually, I bet you can write like that too. I’m sure of it. After all, you still remember what it felt like to be a child, don’t you? Just because you’ve turned 30 doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten what you felt when you were 15 and wearing a school uniform—it’s surprising how much you remember. People, no matter how old they get, never change on the inside. Lately I’ve realized that a person’s intrinsic qualities stay the same as they were in childhood all through her 70s and 80s and all the way to the grave. That’s why you can write about any time in your life.
Sakamoto: So actually, as you get older, you can write about more and more.
Iwasato: Exactly. But the times change. The things people experience in life are similar, but if you were to write about how you felt at 15 today, you’d have to strike a balance between your memories of when you were 15 and the fact that it’s 2010 now.
Sakamoto: Writing lyrics is so fascinating. When I was young I got all kinds of advice from you and Ms. Kanno, which taught me a lot, but I’ve never properly studied how to write lyrics, and I’ve never consciously thought to myself about how I should go about writing. I’ve come all this way without knowing how to deal with those times when I can’t write the way I intend to or when I just can’t think of the right word. But a career lyricist can’t survive like that, right? You have to write lyrics to fit different requests, and there are deadlines to meet. Working as a lyricist is a job I dream of having in the future, but thinking about those things makes me worry that it’d be impossible for me.
Iwasato: It’s not as if a career lyricist can write anything, you know. If you look at me, I think I’m a pretty selfish lyricist. I feel like I’m writing about the world only through what I’ve felt. So I might be fairly biased.
Sakamoto: I’m sure you might be able to look at things without passing them through your personal filter and write anything with a certain kind of irresponsibility, but if you look through your own experiences and feelings and try to put what you want to say in your own words into lyrics, there have to be some areas where you can’t compromise, right?
Iwasato: I think about what to write inside the subject matter and theme I’m given. I’m constantly mapping out plans for what words would be best to have someone else’s voice sing the things I’ve noticed or want to say. I think over how if the melody goes like this, I can say that, I can write that. As a lyricist who doesn’t have a voice of her own for singing, that’s the philosophy behind my method.
Sakamoto: I see.
Iwasato: So when you write lyrics for yourself to sing, our ways of writing might be fundamentally different, but I think we share a desire to write out what we’re thinking. Speaking of which—this is something I felt from early on—even though your lyrics are written for you to sing, they have a strong sense of objectivity, don’t they?
Sakamoto: A long time ago, I heard the same thing from Ms. Kanno.
Iwasato: I guess you could say that your method is to write in details from an outsider’s point of view, and then build on those details. Especially a long time ago, you really tended in that direction—for instance, you take a straight word like “love” and try very hard to express it in a different way, don’t you?
Sakamoto: I do. I can’t stand writing that way, and lately I’ve been thinking I’d like to give it up forever (laugh).
Iwasato: I can tell you’ve changed. The lyrics for “Look at the Sky” and “Let There Be Light” have a core to them. The choruses have bold phrasings that make them even easier to deliver, but on the other hand you have songs where it’s as if you don’t want that core, where you dare to paint a vague picture, and I feel like you have these two distinct writing styles. But your songs from a long time ago include a lot of nouns that stand out on their own, and you described the theme in a roundabout way by adding detail to detail. When you wrote “Pilot” I said I thought it could be better, didn’t I? “It’s called ‘Pilot’, so what do donuts have to do with it?” (laugh) How did the lyrics go again?
Sakamoto: “I can’t eat sugary donuts like I used to anymore.”
Iwasato: That’s it. That’s about becoming an adult, isn’t it? But in “Pilot”, you wrote “Although I got closer to them”, but not “adulthood”. What innocent, sincere lyrics, I thought. When I realized that, I felt frustrated and lonely for saying “It’s called ‘Pilot’, so what do donuts have to do with it?” (laugh) Today, they’re such amazing lyrics that in my mind, Maaya Sakamoto’s lyrics begin with “Pilot” and end with “Pilot”. Although you’re still not finished yet (laugh).
Sakamoto: I was 18 at the time, wasn’t I? Those lyrics are so delicate that I look back from today and wonder how I managed to write them. I didn’t want to take the direct route, and I think I probably couldn’t have. I had a feeling if I wrote “adulthood” it would turn into something entirely different, and “them” was all I could write. From my teens into my early 20s, I was really conscious of the fact that I have the sort of personality that can’t take the direct route. But—and I’m not sure if this is because I’ve become an adult—today I think like, “I’ll write what I want in the verse and pre-chorus and make just the chorus easy to understand,” or “I’ll write this entire song the way I want,” “This song ties in with another production, so let’s make it catchy,” and I’ve learned how to mentally change modes in my own way.
Iwasato: There were certainly parts in your lyrics where I thought it would be better if you were a little more direct, but I felt the sense of balance you set up without being told anything was exquisite. I’m sure when you start to think that you want to make things a little easier to understand, you’ll find new ways to express yourself. I think you’ll come up with things that are even more interesting from here on out. In your recent singles like “The Rain Falls” and “A Jet Waiting for Wind”, you’re testing the waters of being straightforward, but in the end they’re still your lyrics. It occurred to me that you don’t bring the things you most want to say into the chorus.
Sakamoto: No, I don’t (laugh). I have to admit I still hesitate to put myself in the open like that. I take the things that I could just as well say in the chorus and move them to the verse and pre-chorus.
Iwasato: You leave aside the issue of whether that reaches most people, but I think that right there is the spirit of Maaya Sakamoto.
Sakamoto: There are certain songs out there where the chorus is something that doesn’t register anything particular in your mind when you listen to it casually, but if you listen carefully to the whole song, you realize for the first time what it’s really about. I think it’d be nice if that’s how people interpreted my music as well. Once I start thinking like that, I might be heading in a subcultural direction.
Iwasato: I happened to think of something today: your lyrics have the “blanks” that the movie director Miwa Nishikawa talks about. I seem to remember her talking in an interview or somewhere about how “movies are completed with the blank spaces intact” or something like that. In fact her movies have a lot of scenes that can be interpreted in any number of ways depending on how you watch them, and she films in such a way as to have the audience fill in those blanks. That sensation of sorts, that degree of obscurity, of not saying things clearly, is really close to your lyrics, I think. And I mean this as high praise.
Sakamoto: Thank you. I’m happy to hear that.
Iwasato: While I was reading the lyrics of songs like “Weathervane”, I could really sense those blank spaces. Daring to leave those unwritten parts out of the finished song is extremely hard, and it’s not something just anyone can do.
On being an adult
Sakamoto: In the lyrics that you’ve written for me, there are some like “The Day the Wind Blows”, for example, which resonate with me at any period in my life, but there are some like “Hemisphere”, which I didn’t really understand at the time.
Iwasato: “Ring”, the single I wrote before that, as one of your songs, it was predictably subdued and was missing something. So for the next one I wanted to try something explosive (laugh).
Sakamoto: I sang [“Hemisphere”] around the time I was 21. Thinking back on it, back then I didn’t know what real cliffs were like, and I think that’s why I had a hard time coming up with a mental picture for the line about “the time I was pushed to the brink.” “Hardship clutches at my arms / And I see for the first time where I stand”—I know now what this means, but at the time I had yet to experience that sort of unearthly precipice. It was right before I graduated from college, and everything had gone smoothly until then, but I just couldn’t find the energy to express that from within myself, and furthermore I didn’t have any sense of urgency with respect to that while I sang.
Iwasato: Those definitely might be lyrics that you’d understand more if you were someone with experience. My life is nothing but cliffs (laugh).
Sakamoto: When I was young I had it in my mind that I was pressing on in my own way, but after that I too went through times that showed me what real cliffs are like. That’s why when I sang “Hemisphere” for the first time in a while at the Nippon Budōkan a few months ago, it seemed really fitting.
Iwasato: That Budōkan concert reminded me of all sorts of things and I couldn’t keep from crying. To think that I’ve known you for 15 entire years now.
Sakamoto: How did you spend your 30th birthday?
Iwasato: That might have been a pretty hectic time in my life (enthusiastic laugh). Well, let’s just say it’s reflected in “Night”. “Night” is actually a song about an affair. I wanted to have you sing a song about a lover’s infidelity (laugh).
Sakamoto: “Night” also has an unearthly feeling to it, and I was surprised that I had reached the day when I would be singing lines about “a glass left half-empty.” And at 22.
Iwasato: I was also surprised that I had reached the day when I would write those sorts of lines for you (laugh). But around that time I had started to sense some femininity in you, so I wanted to explore in that direction. In “A Boy Named Alice”, “Midday Snow” is also rather grown-up and vivid, I think.
Sakamoto: Those were lyrics that had an aroma I couldn’t possibly have created with my own words.
Iwasato: I tried waving to you and saying, “Over here, over here.” (laugh) You’re 30 now, so if you carve out honest lyrics from yourself without shying away, you can probably come up with anything. I’d like to see what sort of unvarnished lyrics the grown-up Maaya Sakamoto can write.
Sakamoto: I actually wonder, if I asked you to write whatever you wanted about who I am now, what kind of lyrics I would get.
Iwasato: I emphasize reality, so I’d want to imagine what your personal life is like at 30 while I write. Not even a tie-in production could stop me (laugh).