Name: Nao Yoshioka
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Recent release: Nao Yoshioka's new single "Tokyo 2020 (acoustic)" is out via Sweet Soul. For the remix version of the same song, go here.
Recommendations: I’m going to recommend not two limited works, but rather one contemporary artist and one painter who have influenced me.
Yayoi Kusama (Japanese contemporary artist)
I have loved her work ever since I was a student, the energy, freedom, and scale of her work allows me to feel the beauty of this world.
Tanaka Isson (Japanese painter)
My sister is also a painter and she is the artist who inspired me to take up painting. There is an art museum on Amami Oshima Island, and when I saw Tanaka Isson’s paintings and read a book about his life. I was impressed by the beauty and seriousness of his life that he devoted everything to his painting.
If you enjoyed this interview with Nao Yoshioka and would like to find out more about her work, visit her official homepage. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
In elementary school, I was very shy when it came to singing, so I used to sing when no one was around to hear me.
My family was into the arts and I went to art school, and I didn’t sing in public until I was 15 years old, but the moment I sang in front of people for the first time in my high school light music club, I knew this was for me. I had already been writing but it wasn’t until about two years after my debut that I started writing lyrics and melodies in English. I had something I wanted to convey and I started writing lyrics and melodies in order to convey it more clearly to people.
I was shocked because it was completely different from the music I had heard in Japan. I didn’t even understand English but I started to cry. There was something that transcended language, and I wanted to know what it was, so I started to listen to more and more soul and R&B music.
When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?
When I listen to music, I feel as if I am watching a movie and the scenery unfolds right before my eyes. Not only the sounds but sometimes the scenery opens up in response to the words. Sometimes I see people, sometimes a city, sometimes a beach. Sometimes I get goosebumps when I can feel what the person was feeling when they wrote a song.
Because of this experience, I can see the same scenery when I sing. The scenery changes in response to the words I say. For me, a live performance sometimes feels like watching a movie.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
My growth as an artist has run concurrently with the spiritual growth of my life. Why was I born and where did I end up? I am very interested in finding out why I was born and where I ended up. This self-exploration has led to my growth as an artist.
For me, the past few years have been a time in my life when I have had many challenges to face in my relationships with my family and in my personal relationship. I thought that I was experiencing problems with my partner, but in fact, the trauma was caused by my father, and the process of going back to the deepest part of me and resolving each issue has had an impact on me as an artist.
By understanding the root of the pain of my family and loved ones, I was able to stop blaming them. I was able to forgive myself for the pain I felt. It was a catalyst for me to want to sing songs again that can be close to the pain and loneliness of many people.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
I feel that my identity is that I am a person who delivers optimistic and hopeful music.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
I would say “self-inquiry”.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
No, I’m not really interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”. I create what I feel at that time as I see fit. I’m sure people will inevitably influence me because we live in the present time. I don’t dare to make music that is stuck in the future or the past.
I value deepening myself and exploring my possibilities to the limit. Maybe in the process of deepening myself, when I get closer to my true self, I will come closer to what I am trying to portray here.
Personally, I am not interested in innovative or cool music. For me, music is about digging deeper into myself, deepening the music that is uniquely me, and communicating the music that only I can create to the maximum limit of my potential. I feel that as I get closer to my true self, originality, innovation, perfection, and timelessness will follow.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
I am a vocalist, so I guess you could simply say that my instrument is my throat. But I am not just a vocalist, I am a soul singer. In fact, my strongest and greatest weapon is my self, my soul.
I had a very interesting experience: even though I didn’t sing on stage for a year, I grew tremendously during that period and I refined my soul. And how did I do that? By facing myself and not running away from what I saw.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.
I wake up in the morning, shower, grind beans, make coffee, do my makeup while watching videos on YouTube. Then I go to a café to start what I need to do, or I go to the studio to practice my singing or my live performance body movements. These are my routines.
I often get ideas when I move around or take in a different scenery, so when the weather is nice I go for a walk while listening to music.
I usually come up with lyrics while walking, or lately, I’ve been listening to music in the sauna and thinking about lyrics. I try to get into the zone. When I am in a state of nothingness, it is easier for my true feelings to come out.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?
Live shows and the start of making an album are always the same: I start by drawing concept notes. From there, I write down what I want to express. I then clarify the reason why I want to make the album and why I want to write about it. I share my ideas with the producer and writers, and then I start making arrangements for the live performance, or tracks for songs.
It’s not that I do music for fun or just for the sake of doing it. It’s more like I know what I need to do because I have a meaning for it and it makes my thoughts stronger.
Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?
I have grown by being involved with others and by creating things together. That is why I find co-creation meaningful, so I have only worked with people I can relate to.
When I have co-created, I have been fortunate enough to collaborate on commercial endeavors that were not my intention. I think most of the time it started out as a spontaneous or chance meeting, spending some time together and bond, and create something together. Then the music would sound inevitable.
How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?
As I mentioned, my music is a reflection of the emotional growth I am experiencing in my life. What happens in the world has a huge impact on my life and at the same time, music plays a big role as a tool to help me overcome it. Music is a powerful creation that can change people's minds and even their way of life.
I believe that music has the power to save lives and give courage beyond words. That is why I believe that what society needs now is music that makes people believe in the possibilities of this world again.
Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?
I think people listen to music that connects with their inner energy. When I was depressed and out of school, I liked dark, hopeless music. I wanted to listen to music that was angry, rock, and burnt out.
Despair drove me to leave for America where I came across Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”, and every time I sang it, it gave me hope to live in spite of my despair.
How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?
I have a scientifically-backed vocal training program that has helped me as a vocalist and allows me to perform better using scientific techniques. It's been a wonderful experience for me to be able to sing dramatically easier and clearly understand the condition of my throat because of it. But I don't want the scientifically correct way to sing to limit my expression.
My vocal coach uses scientific phonetics and acoustics to teach me, and she always says, “I think science is getting better at understanding things, but I don’t think musicians should fall flat in front of science”. I trust her because she respects my expression very much.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
For me, I do not consider music to be a part of my daily life, like everyday tasks. I feel that music is a very necessary and special moment for me.
Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation of how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?
I don’t think it’s important why is makes us feel something but I think that the point of music is that it does make us feel something. It’s like magic and to try and explain it takes away from the magic.