CHAI on new album ‘WINK’ and Neo-Kawaii
When CHAI performs live again, “END” could be their reintroduction. One of the best manifestations of their buzzing energy, sometimes banana, on all WINK, the Japanese group’s third and final album, it is confident and overflowing with shameless challenge, animated by a sonic rhythm with a purpose to dance. The unexpected emotional chords the song pulled for MANA, the band’s lead singer, believe in the bubbly exterior, however. “END,” she says, is actually directed at bullies who used to hurl sexist slurs like “stupid” and “bossy” at her and her twin sister KANA, who plays guitar at CHAI. MANA doesn’t tend to write lyrics for the band – she likes to say she finds it easier to communicate through the music herself – but staying at home indefinitely during the pandemic has given her time to think about it. “So many things I wanted to say Normally I couldn’t. By recording the song with the rest of the band, MANA finally imagined giving these boys their comeuppance in their own way: “Shut up! Refresh your head! she screams. “I might have shed a tear or two,” she recalls of the catharsis, through her translator. “But I think I needed this to make this song.”
“END” doubles as one of the latest expressions of the neo-kawaii spirit that has guided CHAI since its inception in the early 10s. Kawaii is Japanese for “cute,” but the same language has been used to narrow and narrow down to a single aesthetic, often referring to thin women with unblemished skin and large eyes. CHAI pushes this point back by making soft cotton candy music to invite everyone to find room in neo-kawaii, detached from any look. “You’re so cute, pretty face, come on, yeah!” MANA declares on the track “NEO”, the second track from CHAI’s debut album in 2017, PINK. But four years later, on WINK, CHAI must have figured out what neo-kawaii means to them now that self-love is more mainstream, as are the group’s audience. Another difficulty: they had to do some of this quarantine work separately in Japan.
We are now at the beginning of May 2021, and MANA is on video call in the morning in Tokyo with YUUKI, CHAI’s bassist who also writes most of the band’s lyrics. At this point, Japan is in the midst of yet another COVID-19 ban, where some non-essential businesses are closed and people are encouraged to stay indoors. MANA says people in Japan became more forgiving to go out and see others (masked and distant, of course) as the pandemic continued. This includes MANA, KANA, YUUKI and YUNA, the drummer of CHAI, who had previously spent two months apart from last spring. (All four members use nicknames or first names for confidentiality reasons and do not disclose their ages.)
The band broke that spell when they reunited to film the music video for the single “Ready Cheeky Pretty,” released in early May and featuring the band performing in front of colorful, painted backgrounds. “It was weird,” YUUKI recalls from the meeting, “but also it was just refreshing.” Before, CHAI members usually saw each other at least twice a week for rehearsals. They had always been a tight knit group – identical twins MANA and KANA met YUNA at their high school music club in Nagoya; YUUKI completed the quartet when she moved to town for college. They bonded by a love of music outside of J-pop, and later Western music. At PINK, released for the first time on the Japanese label Otemoyan Record, CHAI has built playful American new wave groups like Devo and the Tom Tom Club, with hip-hop films, while pointing their neo-kawaii message to Japan. But CHAI ended up developing fans across the world and reissued PINK early 2018 on American and British labels. At PUNKSequel to 2019, the band dug their heels into their rock influences while channeling a more rebellious spirit into neo-kawaii (cute without the e, If you want). They became known for their energetic live productions, with matching pink outfits and choreography. (The keys may be reminiscent of J-pop girl groups, but the group prefers to name their heroes in Devo.) They finally took this show on tour with indie rock mainstays like Mac DeMarco and Whitney.
Live performances became one of the best ways for CHAI to get its message out – often the members gave short, stimulating speeches between songs – so the band found themselves recording the kind of music they thought they would. to be best translated on stage. At WINK, that wasn’t an option, especially not when recording to GarageBand and collaborating on Zoom. These restrictions allowed the group to explore. “We actually have to focus on the sound – just listening,” says MANA. She found herself delving into American hip-hop music like Mac Miller and Brockhampton, and wanted a way to infuse it into CHAI’s music. “I took this time to re-evaluate what music meant to me, why I fell in love with music, what music do I really want to do?” she says. “I said to myself, Oh, that’s what I want. I want people to be able to take this music home with them. “
WINK opens with a jarring shift everything CHAI has done before, on the groovy and understated “Maybe Chocolate Chips”. Following its R&B brilliance, it is the first song from a CHAI album to feature an outside artist, Chicago rapper Ric Wilson. The group simply thought the song needed a rapper, and they remembered Wilson, whose performance they enjoyed at Pitchfork Festival 2019. YUUKI marvels at how well Wilson got the message of the song – wondering if people would love their moles more if they imagined them as chocolate chips – all while working remotely and in English. “When he added his piece to it, it just made more sense,” she says. The group had worked on feature films for other artists before, from Gorillaz to the R&B collective MICHELLE, but hearing someone on one of their songs was a rewarding new thrill.
CHAI knows they’re not the only ones spreading neo-kawaii, even if others don’t call it that, or don’t have (or don’t want) the vocabulary for it yet. “We kind of said this post for a while, before it even got a bit – I wouldn’t say trendy, but before people actually cared,” YUUKI says. “Now I feel like the times are catching up with us.” It is also a modifiable idea for the group. At WINK, they took neo-kawaii from a physical project to a mental one. As important as it is to love your moles, they realized, it’s just as important to see the distinctions of others. in the same way. YUUKI adds, “If we can change this thinking, you will be beautiful and you will also look at others in a beautiful way.”
Lots of songs on WINK find that CHAI is actively changing its own mentality. The album may be rooted in sounds that gave the band comfort, but achieving a similar sense of personal peace was a journey – a journey that at times made the band uncomfortable, like on “END”. YUUKI Recalls Having Another Breakthrough Watching Teen Comedy Directed By Olivia Wilde In 2019 Booksmart. “The two protagonists of this film are happy with their own world, and they actually see everyone as, not so much as enemies, but as people who don’t understand them,” YUUKI says. “But it’s just their perception, it’s a misunderstanding.” The film inspired the single “Nobody Knows We Are Fun”, not because CHAI struggles to show their fun side to anyone, but because the band realized that maybe they tried too hard to do it. appear fun for everyone. “You are naturally you, expressing yourself naturally in your own world – the world will gravitate towards you,” YUUKI says. In other words: just the act of making loud rock music and doing exaggerated concerts doesn’t prove anything, the least of all that a group must tick these boxes to be considered fun.
As happy as they may sound, CHAI’s music has never been all about optimism – take “sayonara complex”, a PINK song about how hard and lonely it can be to aspire to the traditional definition of kawaii. Part of the mental work of WINK also involves coming to terms with negativity. “Wish Upon a Star,” a YUUKI lullaby wrote after learning that KANA had trouble sleeping, does not dismiss how crippling insomnia can be or treat these feelings as abnormal. “The dark nights will come for anyone / But it’s for the beautiful tomorrow”, assure the lyrics, translated into English. “It’s not so much that we want to denigrate the negative, it’s rather that we want to find new ways to appreciate it,” YUUKI says. “Because the sun is there, we also have the moon.”
After all, she notes, the group’s positive outlook only comes once from being “girls with insecurities.” And as hard as this moment and these feelings can be to relive, they are markers of the distance traveled by CHAI, as individuals and as a group. Wait and see, stupid, Thought MANA, facing his antagonists years ago. We’re gonna break out someday, we’re gonna be famous someday. Watch.