Interview with Ayane Yamazaki: “It’s hard to be fluffy about it”

Ayane Yamazaki, whose rise can just as much be attributed to her oneiric and ethereal dream pop as it can be to her ear for relaxing beats, can very finely trace her own artistic journey. Having started young, she first performed at Fuji Rock Festival 2016 and released her debut, indie-rock-infused album, Metropolis, the following year.

Her pivot from indie rock was nevertheless an integral part of her growth as an artist. While certainly within the tradition of Japanese city pop (with a satisfying Shibuya-kei twist), her music nevertheless defies categorisation and rather, as she herself explains, is as much a personal endeavour as it is inspired by recent global events.

Transcending language barriers and transcontinental time differences, SPIRAL hopped on Zoom with Ayane and her crew to discuss her latest singles, astrology, and solution-less problems. A huge thanks to Takomi Shimano, a good friend to Ayane and our translator, for his help and for transcribing our conversation in detail.

Equipped with a guitar and sometimes accompanied by a band, like many, Ayane’s first debuts were low-key live sessions. “I think it's only in the last three or four years that I've approached the sound that I have now,” she shares.

The initial indie rock sound marks Ayane’s musical beginnings. But as with many, recent worldwide events (and not to mention the inscrutable process of an artist’s evolution) have seen an emphatic vibe shift in her output. Metropolis, her first full-length album, feels like a million miles away:

“Why, it's a feeling I don't have anymore. I was making it then. Now It feels like something my own sister made. I've been playing guitar and singing for a long time. I was young then, and I'm young now, but I was young then, too. I was very influenced by what I liked at that time, and I wanted to do that. So what I wanted to do and what I could do, or what would suit me, were pretty much in conflict.”

What changed between “then” and “now”?

“I think the singing has a lot to do with it. I started to confront the way I sing and my voice after I made Metropolis. I'm not talking about a sing-songy, passionate approach to singing, I'm talking about singing as if you're talking, or singing as if you're whispering, or something like that. It suited me.”

Life, a 6-track EP she released in 2019, bridges the gap between her novel approach to vocals and the emergent electronic sound which would come to mark her musical output. Her two most recent songs Phase - Extended Version and Saturn and Unicorn certainly fit the bill: metropolitan, half-sung, half-whispered electro-pop tunes each in their own, relaxing language.
“Phase is the song originally included on Ribbon, and the Single Version was released this year as an NFT. Then, like in an evolutionary system, there’s the Extended Version. We have three themes now, three phases of music. I think the original version of the song has a light rhythmic tempo, while the Extended Version is quite ambient and free. I wanted you to enjoy the difference and provide a kind of blank space, or a margin of time, by having songs like that in our daily lives. So I wanted to offer that person something in their own time. Now, you're incredibly busy, with social networking and all the information that's out there - just by being alive. But when I listen to those songs, the flow of time returns to normal.”

“Phase”,  for Ayane, fulfils a very specific purpose in this regard as a means to catch one’s breath, and all three versions provide different kinds of relaxation like settings on a massage chair. Just like its creator, it’s constantly evolving. By far one of her softest and fluffiest tracks, it comes as a counterweight to both her previous style and the contemporary context. As for anyone else, recent events like the pandemic have impacted her in more ways than one.

Ayane’s recent song, Saturn and Unicorn, was also written in the context of these chaotic times of crisis. Taking a moment to think back to the pandemic - a time most will remember as one of boredom and anxiety - she reaches for her own musical touchstone as a means to explain how she felt and how it influenced her.

“One of the lyrics says Not here, somewhere else, I won't say it anymore… It's hard to be fluffy about it. It's not like a fantasy, a fantasy of being somewhere else. Not here, but somewhere else. I feel like I have to decide how I'm going to live my life, and I have to make a decision. Personally, I felt that kind of atmosphere”.

Ayane seems a little unsure. “Do we have to face that reality? With that fluffy, kind of reassuring - against the fact that we're not in a state where we can do more dream chasing, like fantasy and that kind of thing? We're in a world where we can't really say that. So, I think that's why I'm trying to say: let's remember the world we've been living in. It's more of a movement, a call, to bring back that fantasy.”

Like many, the pandemic gave Ayane a lot of time to herself - and an opportunity to delve into new topics and modes of thought. This, as for many, meant also broaching more personally significant topics. As we chat, Ayane points out the large astrological tapestry hanging behind me and I ask her whether astrology has influenced her music.

“In the last three years or so I haven't been able to get out much. I don't see people as much anymore, and I started reading a lot of books about psychology, about the art of being a teacher, and Sensei Jutsu.”

That’s why she asked about the tapestry, Takumi tells me, and I get the sense that the pandemic really got a lot of people into these more esoteric kinds of topics.

Having dug a little into Ayane’s inspirations before our chat, I got a sense that she enjoys reading, and so I ask her next what books and poems influenced her and what she’s reading right now. She swiftly gets up from her seat, revealing a neat apartment and extensive bookcase behind her. She comes back holding two books; the first, she explains, is Astrology: New Format Edition by Lulu Labua - a hefty tome promising insight for the uninitiated and horoscope connoisseurs alike.

The next one, Ayane tells us, is one by Hosei Hayabusa called Negative Capability: Ability to Endure Unanswered Situations. A book about problems without answers, the title refers to poet John Keats’ assertion that the greatest writers can objectively pursue their artistic vision even if it leads to confusion and contradiction. Keats held Shakespeare as a prime example of a writer possessing negative capability. For Ayane, negative capability represents an approach to a world that’s already complicated and contradictory.
“When you have a problem with someone,” she explains while holding up her copy of Negative Capability, “most things don't get answered right then and there, right? But if you just look at it, and you don't know, and you don't try to do something about it, and you don't get the answer, then you're not going to get the answer.”

A lot of life’s problems really don’t have an answer, I’m told, and the book begs the reader to confront this sense of uncertainty. The book’s philosophical underpinning suddenly makes sense to me when thinking about Ayane’s more recent music - the kind that confronts the stressful and confusing aspects of modern life and suggests that we embrace them rather than constantly chafe against them.

And as with any good Zoom call from pandemic-days’ past, we were all getting a little philosophical towards the end.

“So, you know, I’ve been thinking about it lately, and I’ve been thinking about these things. I’m very confident about the next song, “Saturn and Unicorn”.” But here she takes a moment to think, looking for words to describe her musical drive. ‘‘I’m having a hard time. How to say it? Wow, it’s starting to sound like philosophy. It’s difficult, isn’t it?”

“The most important thing,” translator Takumi summarises, “is that the next song by Ayane is very good!”

There are lots of things going on and complex problems that don’t have a quick solution. But in a way that’s okay… you have to find a moment to be able to accept that not everything has a simple answer.

photos by Masahiro Yanagisawa, provided by the artist