Few creators in the world of anime are truly recognized as icons in the industry. Yoko Kanno is one such figure who most anime fans would be immediately familiar with, and if they don’t know her by name then they definitely know her work once they hear it. As a producer who has worked on countless legendary properties over the year, crafting masterpieces for shows like Cowboy Bebop, Macross Frontier, Vision of Escaflowne, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and more, she has shaped the way that anime fans appreciate the soundtracks in the medium and has created songs that transcend the label of “anime song”. For our debut online convention event, OTAQUEST CONNECT, we were beyond fortunate enough to count Yoko Kanno among the many guests, something which is made extra special by the fact that she does not often grant interviews in general. Although she requested to not be visible in the video, she dove deep into her history with music and gave amazing insight to her creative process during her talk session with OTAQUEST co-founder and m-flo producer ☆Taku Takahashi. Since we are unable to provide an archive video of her appearance at the event, we present to you the full transcript so you can read this amazing conversation.
☆Taku Takahashi: Today, I have the opportunity to sit down with a legend. She has made a bunch of great music for series such as; Macross Plus, Macross F, Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, so much great music. We are very honored to be able to speak with her: this is Yoko Kanno. Ms. Kanno, thank you for being here.
Yoko Kanno: Thanks for having me.
☆Taku Takahashi: To start, I want to hear about how you first encountered music as a child. For me, I went to a Christian school. That was the first kind of music you heard, right?
Yoko Kanno: In kindergarten.
☆Taku Takahashi: Kindergarten? And when did you first start making music?
Yoko Kanno: It started when I was around two and a half years old. That was the first time I ever played a piano, at a relative’s house. It felt so good, and I was so tiny, of course. I couldn’t really reach; it was an upright piano. But the sound, I can still remember how it felt to hear that sound come out.
☆Taku Takahashi: You still remember it.
Yoko Kanno: I really do. After that, I started making up songs about things I saw in my neighborhood that I thought were cool. Kids do that, right? Like I’d make a song about a rabbit, because I saw one. I’d sing words like ‘stupid, stupid!’
☆Taku Takahashi: That was how your songwriting process began?
Yoko Kanno: Right. Kids always do that. Like they’ll sing basic things like ‘This is delicious!’ I started doing that a lot, just elongating my words. I loved the piano, so my parents bought me one. That’s how I started playing originally.
☆Taku Takahashi: You enjoyed playing, so did you start taking lessons?
Yoko Kanno: I went to the place everyone goes at first to take lessons, Yamaha. But I hated it. At Catholic Kindergarten, we’d sing hymns, you know?
☆Taku Takahashi: Of course.
Yoko Kanno: Our teacher wasn’t great at playing the organ, so I would do the accompaniment instead.
☆Taku Takahashi: You’d play it?!
Yoko Kanno: Somehow, I did it by ear. I still play by ear now.
☆Taku Takahashi: After taking piano lessons for a short time, didn’t you want to continue?
Yoko Kanno: Not at all.
☆Taku Takahashi: You’d had enough?
Yoko Kanno: I didn’t want the pressure. I went to school because I had to, I didn’t want piano to feel the same way. I didn’t want it to be something I was forced to do. I wonder how I managed it, really. It was all by ear.
☆Taku Takahashi: What about the chords?
Yoko Kanno: If it sounded right, I knew.
☆Taku Takahashi: So, you thought ‘if I play this and this and this together, it sounds good.’
Yoko Kanno: Right. And this sounds really condescending, but I couldn’t understand how everyone wasn’t like that.
☆Taku Takahashi: You couldn’t explain it.
Yoko Kanno: They’d play a note and ask us what it was, right? I’d think ‘how could you not know?’ ‘Why would you ask something so obvious?’ They’d ask me, and I would be so sassy. It’s obviously this! I’d wonder why they were asking, but I also wondered how I knew. I didn’t even know how I knew!
☆Taku Takahashi: You just knew. You knew the terminology.
Yoko Kanno: I knew the words.
☆Taku Takahashi: From that point on, despite playing almost entirely by ear, I’ve heard that you began entering a ton of composition contests. How did you decide to start doing that?
Yoko Kanno: For the first composition contest, it was through school. Our school would push all of the musical kids into participating. Honestly, I never said that I had much interest in participating to start.
☆Taku Takahashi: You were just someone who liked music. You did like it, didn’t you?
Yoko Kanno: For me, I remember hearing music before I remember hearing words. I grew up in a strict house, and it could be hard to express myself in words. But if I had a piano, I could just channel my emotions and thoughts into music instead. I’d play music about what I liked or what I hated. I would play so loudly, to the point where I’d be fussed. Before words, there was music. That’s how I felt. Even now, I feel like I’m much better than arranging music than I am arranging words.
☆Taku Takahashi: It’s how you express yourself.
Yoko Kanno: It is. I feel like I’d rather introduce myself through music too.
☆Taku Takahashi: That’s interesting. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Yoko Kanno: My parents worked strict jobs at a newspaper company. They’d edit stories and things like that. I thought I’d end up a writer or doing something in literature.
☆Taku Takahashi: So, a novelist or a journalist, that’s what you wanted to do?
Yoko Kanno: I thought so.
☆Taku Takahashi: And you pursued that.
Yoko Kanno: I did start going in that direction. Not music, but writing.
☆Taku Takahashi: I thought so. During that time, were you still playing music?
Yoko Kanno: You might understand this, but you go through periods of loving music and hating music.
☆Taku Takahashi: You do.
Yoko Kanno: It really is a back-and-forth. In middle school and high school, I really didn’t like music that much at all.
☆Taku Takahashi: That’s usually the time when kids like music the most, too.
Yoko Kanno: But I was good at music, so I did it. I was in brass band, and I’d write arrangements.
☆Taku Takahashi: For brass band?
Yoko Kanno: They didn’t have any cool songs to play, so I’d write the music as best I could. That was crazy.
☆Taku Takahashi: Was the teacher mad?
Yoko Kanno: He never said anything. Thinking about it now, it was rude, right? I’d write it and tell them to play it. There was nothing I really wanted to play in particular, so I’d just take turns playing whatever they needed.
☆Taku Takahashi: Not piano.
Yoko Kanno: It was brass band, so things like piccolo or oboe. The unpopular instruments. Depending on the song, I’d play anything. I learned to play a ton of instruments that way! Like I said, I’d write cool songs since there were none, and I’d play along. But I only did it because I was good, not because I wanted to.
☆Taku Takahashi: You were writing cool music, but were you listening to any cool music at the time?
Yoko Kanno: Not at all.
☆Taku Takahashi: None?
Yoko Kanno: You know the songs they play in brass band, they’re so heavy and boring.
☆Taku Takahashi: They’re usually really dull.
Yoko Kanno: At the time Lupin the Third was really popular, but we didn’t have a score. So, I wrote it and we performed it.
☆Taku Takahashi: By ear?
Yoko Kanno: By ear.
☆Taku Takahashi: That was in middle school?
Yoko Kanno: It was.
☆Taku Takahashi: You wrote the score for Lupin in middle school?
Yoko Kanno: Just because I could.
☆Taku Takahashi: Write it?
Yoko Kanno: If I heard an A, I’d write ‘A.’ Just like that. I didn’t think of making it look like a proper score at all. I just wrote it to be easy to read.
☆Taku Takahashi: You’d hear a sax, so you’d write a sheet for the sax player.
Yoko Kanno: Then after I’d realize it hadn’t been a sax. It sounded like a sax, but maybe it was something else.
☆Taku Takahashi: You didn’t know.
Yoko Kanno: No idea.
☆Taku Takahashi: And you’d hand these out.
Yoko Kanno: I would, and some would tell me their instrument couldn’t make a certain note. So, I’d have to fix it.
☆Taku Takahashi: Lupin was popular on TV. Were there any other popular songs you liked?
Yoko Kanno: None. I would hear brass songs in brass band and hymns at home. We didn’t watch TV at home. We didn’t listen to pop music at all. We didn’t even listen to classical music. When I got to middle and high school, I’d hear bands play at the culture festivals. I came in handy then, because if they needed a bass player, I’d do it. If they needed a piano player, I’d do it. I played in a bunch of different bands at once, actually! I’d heard the Beatles were popular, so I’d pen some sheet music to play.
☆Taku Takahashi: You were invited to play. You didn’t dislike it, but…
Yoko Kanno: I knew that most people couldn’t copy music by ear, so I did it. If there was a guitar solo, I’d write it, even if it was super annoying. I’d hand it over, and on the day of the culture festival I’d be so busy! I’d have 20 minutes to write some music down.
☆Taku Takahashi: That sounds rough.
Yoko Kanno: It was rough, but I’m sure it was handy. I’d be rushing around and around. I started memorizing a ton of hit songs then. I’d hear their quirks.
☆Taku Takahashi: Like how they expressed emotion?
Yoko Kanno: Not quite that far, but typically you don’t pay too much attention to the bass, right?
☆Taku Takahashi: Not usually.
Yoko Kanno: But there are a lot of bands that rely on them, aren’t there? At the time, I started writing music for an electric bass. That’s when I realized how important it is for a song. You pay attention to the lead guitar in a hit song, but the bass is just as important in so many ways. I started learning things like that.
☆Taku Takahashi: You mentioned earlier that your house was strict, and that you didn’t listen to any popular music. Did you watch any anime?
Yoko Kanno: None at all.
☆Taku Takahashi: You had just heard of Lupin?
Yoko Kanno: Everyone knew Lupin then, and everyone had heard the song. I asked to hear it from friends, but I never heard it at home.
☆Taku Takahashi: You heard it from friends at school then? And you weren’t even into music!
Yoko Kanno: Not at all. I just felt like I needed to do it. I had nothing to do with like or dislike, they just had no one else to do it.
☆Taku Takahashi: Earlier you said you intended to go into literature, and you even went to college for it. How, then, did you become a pro musician after all of that?
Yoko Kanno: After doing that in middle school and high school, when I got to college, I saw an amazing cover band doing Al Di Meola songs…I think he was a guitar player. At the time, I had no idea they were a cover band. I thought they were original songs.
☆Taku Takahashi: You didn’t know.
Yoko Kanno: No idea. I just thought they were incredible, playing so wildly like that! So I joined their group, knowing nothing about it.
☆Taku Takahashi: Their club.
Yoko Kanno: We went around playing hit songs at beer gardens and things. You know how in college, you feel like the upperclassman look down on you?
☆Taku Takahashi: For sure.
Yoko Kanno: But here they were, asking me to write down music for them. I learned a lot from that. It might have been a song from Onyanko Club, actually, that the seniors asked me to write first. We actually ended getting work playing as backup for some of those popular Showa acts. After the first time, we were a little carried away with it. It feels like I’m here today because of what happened then.
☆Taku Takahashi: Wow. If I’m remembering right, the first time I saw your name credited was on the Nobunaga’s Ambition soundtrack.
Yoko Kanno: The game, yes.
☆Taku Takahashi: Is that right?
Yoko Kanno: Correct.
☆Taku Takahashi: That was the first full soundtrack you composed, right?
Yoko Kanno: Around that time, I had done a few small jobs prior, though again, these were also times where I was asked to write music by the people around me. Someone I knew was acquainted with someone on the Nobunaga team. My friend told them that I’d be cheap and would work quickly. I was still in college at the time, so I went. They told me what they wanted, and I wrote it, just like that.
☆Taku Takahashi: You could play instruments and you could write music. But back then, video game music was…
Yoko Kanno: You had three sounds.
☆Taku Takahashi: Just three.
Yoko Kanno: You had two intervals and the third tone was for rhythm. That’s it. There weren’t any different instruments, so it was just one score to write.
☆Taku Takahashi: You did another score?
Yoko Kanno: That’s right.
☆Taku Takahashi: Did you imagine certain tones to sound like certain instruments?
Yoko Kanno: I really couldn’t. The only sound you hear is like ‘piiii.’ I thought if I kept developing it, I might be able to create something that sounded like more than three tones. In the end, I just did as I was told. They’d ask for a song to be so long, I’d write it.
☆Taku Takahashi: Actually, I didn’t graduate college myself. I dropped out to pursue music. Did you graduate?
Yoko Kanno: I’m the same as you, but I bet you lasted longer. I left after a week.
☆Taku Takahashi: A week?! That’s so quick! You went to study literature, and…
Yoko Kanno: I joined a band instead.
☆Taku Takahashi: As time went on, you were more and more interested in music then?
Yoko Kanno: I think so.
☆Taku Takahashi: You didn’t hate it and you didn’t love it.
Yoko Kanno: I didn’t, but it felt like I had to choose. Listening to my peers, I was a little pressured.
☆Taku Takahashi: There are times like that.
Yoko Kanno: That’s how it felt.
☆Taku Takahashi: So, you met more and more people, and before you knew it you were a professional musician.
Yoko Kanno: Up until recently, I’ve still felt that way. Even though I’ve come this far and done so many things, it’s not ever something I intended to do. It just happened this way before I knew it.
☆Taku Takahashi: Hearing you say that makes me think you’re a bit of a strange person. You got into this because other people asked you to do it. You never intended to do this yourself. How did you go on to write so many original compositions?
Yoko Kanno: I don’t know where the originality came from.
☆Taku Takahashi: Wow.
Yoko Kanno: I have no idea.
☆Taku Takahashi: For a lot of people, when we hear your music, we immediately know you made it.
Yoko Kanno: I wonder how, honestly. I don’t even know what part of it sounds like me.
☆Taku Takahashi: Is that so?
Yoko Kanno: I don’t have one particular sound, I think. If I’m feeling excited, I’ll put that in. If I’m feeling blue, I’ll put that in. There’s no telling.
☆Taku Takahashi: You’ve worked in so many genres, too. Starting with Macross Plus, which has a real techno sound, I’d like to ask how you decided on that particular style of music. Actually, what was the first anime you worked on?
Yoko Kanno: This isn’t anime exactly, but the first thing I did was a video using scriptures from the bible. They moved. It was for an album called The Creation, and that was the first music video I had worked on, and the songs had that hymn kind of feel, they weren’t too far off. The songs were about how God created the world. After that, I did one song for the anime series Please Save My Earth. And after that, I was asked to compose the entire soundtrack for Macross Plus.
☆Taku Takahashi: Back then, how did you go about starting to write music for a show? What’s your process?
Yoko Kanno: For Macross Plus? The show takes place in a world with virtual idols, and I was fascinated with that. I thought it was ridiculous, it’s nothing I could have ever thought of myself. Today, the world has actual virtual idols, of course. But back in 1994, that wasn’t the case. These virtual idols can actually use their songs as weapons. I actually went to go watch planes taking off with two of my close male friends. I know nothing about that, honestly. I didn’t know much, but we saw American planes and things like that.
☆Taku Takahashi: You went to see them.
Yoko Kanno: I did. We went to this place where we could really get close to them and get a real feel. Like a desert. I wanted to really understand. We couldn’t really get to Mars, but this was close enough. The director, he rode one, a fighter jet. I didn’t, though I probably should have. I went to watch that and get a feel for what military planes are like. After that, I felt I could really conjure an image in my mind of what a virtual idol was like. I could get a sense for what it would sound like when they brainwashed people. It was this low-pitched sound that you couldn’t really hear. Even though you couldn’t hear it, there was this powerful reverb. When I felt it, I felt really sick. I put that in the music. I probably went too far with that, but if I was going to write that music, I wanted to understand how a weapon like that would feel.
☆Taku Takahashi: The director left the musical direction up to you?
Yoko Kanno: He did, completely. I didn’t even have to ask.
☆Taku Takahashi: You put a lot of emphasis on real experiences and observations. You want to feel things, not just read about them. With Ghost in the Shell…
Yoko Kanno: Where would I experience things from Ghost in the Shell?! (laugh)
☆Taku Takahashi: That’s true.
Yoko Kanno: But with Ghost in the Shell, even if I’m not a cyborg, I could easily imagine it.
☆Taku Takahashi: You put yourself in her shoes.
Yoko Kanno: I really imagined it. I thought of people out there who are unable to move their bodies, but who can still think clearly. I thought of them. I did my best to myself into that mindset. I read books written by people in that condition.
☆Taku Takahashi: Did you talk with Director Kamiyama about it?
Yoko Kanno: I didn’t, he just left me to my own devices. He’s a mysterious person. He’s a book nerd too.
☆Taku Takahashi: He’s really smart.
Yoko Kanno: He doesn’t have the same reaction to cutaneous sensations as I do.
☆Taku Takahashi: Cutaneous?
Yoko Kanno: I’m someone who’s sensitive to touch and smell and temperature. He’s never said this, but I don’t think Mr. Kamiyama is like that.
☆Taku Takahashi: You use your senses.
Yoko Kanno: He’s good at imagining things, and he’s very aware of things around him.
☆Taku Takahashi: Sure.
Yoko Kanno: But he goes from point A to point B so quickly.
☆Taku Takahashi: What do you mean?
Yoko Kanno: How should I say it…He just sees the facts. The facts are up here, he just gets to it. There’s all this space in between.
☆Taku Takahashi: The middle?
Yoko Kanno: Right. He’s up top. I’m not at the bottom, I’m in the middle. I’m like an animal, I use my nose and my hands and my sense of smell, and rely on my senses. Things like the cold. It’s not emotion, it’s raw feeling.
☆Taku Takahashi: I see.
Yoko Kanno: Things that you need to feel physically.
☆Taku Takahashi: With Stand Alone Complex, some of the music sounds very religious, while other tracks sound ethnic. How did you arrive at that?
Yoko Kanno: I imagined how a cyborg would perceive God. Where is God? What is God? While I was thinking of how a computer would ask these questions, I imagined that hymns would enter as data. If I’m a computer, God’s music would come through like that. It wasn’t a hymn that I wrote, to me. It was a hymn being perceived as data. When I’d write it, I’d imagine I was experiencing God. More than being a hymn itself, it was just something shaped like a hymn.
☆Taku Takahashi: That’s imagination.
Yoko Kanno: I tried to express how incredible it would feel, and how a hymn could be expressed in data.
☆Taku Takahashi: Wow.
Yoko Kanno: I tried to capture the sound of a cyborg race. I took a tribal sound and infused it. Once I figured that out, I express so much by using so little.
☆Taku Takahashi: I can see that. It seems like you constantly talk about feeling things. When you wrote for Macross, you went to the desert to see planes. Do you like traveling?
Yoko Kanno: I love it.
☆Taku Takahashi: You do it a lot?
Yoko Kanno: I do.
☆Taku Takahashi: With Bebop, you used a brass band, which might be related to what we discussed earlier, but when you wrote for Bebop, did you know you were going to write jazz?
Yoko Kanno: I was told to do jazz, yes.
☆Taku Takahashi: Had you worked with jazz before?
Yoko Kanno: Not once.
☆Taku Takahashi: Right? So then, how did you start? What do you see as your brand of jazz?
Yoko Kanno: It wasn’t jazz, though! When Director Watanabe told me to do jazz, I told him jazz wouldn’t sell.
☆Taku Takahashi: Did you really?
Yoko Kanno: I did, seriously. He mentioned jazz, and I immediately said; ‘it’ll never sell!’ At the time, I wasn’t aware of any top-selling jazz records.
☆Taku Takahashi: True.
Yoko Kanno: And while I knew that a lot of people liked jazz, I had never heard of anime fans being big on jazz. I thought it was a dangerous choice.
☆Taku Takahashi: You said it out loud.
Yoko Kanno: I did. But he insisted, and I said I’d write one or two jazz songs, but after that I’d do what I wanted. So, I wrote them, and then ad-libbed some funk.
☆Taku Takahashi: The song titles are also the episode titles, and regardless of you saying the jazz wouldn’t sell, Tank…
Yoko Kanno: You’re right, but I still don’t think that’s jazz.
☆Taku Takahashi: Is it funk?
Yoko Kanno: If I had to say, yes. And maybe I’d say brass-funk? But either way, funk. Maybe there is another type of jazz than what I’m imagining, but either way, I don’t know much about genres.
☆Taku Takahashi: But when you heard the word ‘jazz’…
Yoko Kanno: I just think of a stand-up bass. That’s what I picture. Actually, Tank wasn’t originally going to be opening song. It was originally going to be used in a scene towards the middle of the series. It slowly made its way towards the beginning. Mr. Watanabe decided to use it as the opener.
☆Taku Takahashi: My first experience with your music was Cowboy Bebop.
Yoko Kanno: On TV?
☆Taku Takahashi: On TV, it was super popular. I was shocked.
Yoko Kanno: Oh, really?
☆Taku Takahashi: The animation and setting were amazing too, but the music–I couldn’t believe that was the opening song! There was nothing like it back then, was there? Later in the series, you get drum and bass, you get electronic music, there was so much variety in that show. It made me realize it was possible. I was in high school or college at the time, and I was amazed at how it was so creative and free. What made you decide to put electronic tracks in as well?
Yoko Kanno: Originally, someone on staff had the idea, I can’t remember exactly, but someone was there with sound equipment, and the audio was incredible. He helped me to find the perfect timbre, and in doing so, it was the same as having a pro musician there. We were making something really unique. There wasn’t any drums or bass, there was just this new way to express myself. I just played around with it.
☆Taku Takahashi: Wow. And you went on to create for more and more incredible series, like Genesis of Aquarion.
Yoko Kanno: You know a lot!
☆Taku Takahashi: Even though I’ve said you’re a strange person, when you create these popular tracks, like you did with Macross Frontier and Terror in Resonance, which was more rock-based, you work in all these different genres, but earlier you mentioned ‘that isn’t jazz!’ when we talked about Bebop. Do you have a general concept of these genres?
Yoko Kanno: None at all. With Macross Frontier, I imagined myself in that world, and that’s how I came up with the music. Macross Frontier has these female idols, so I wrote these light, airy tracks, and with Terror in Resonance, we went to Iceland to record, because the image of the series was this destroyed city. This emptiness. With Terror in Resonance, I really pictured this vast loneliness, and that’s how the music came to be. It has nothing to do with genre from the start. I try to put myself in the shoes of someone living in that world, one hundred percent. Maybe it will sound like jazz, maybe it will sound like something else, who knows?
☆Taku Takahashi: A theme.
Yoko Kanno: Right.
☆Taku Takahashi: And you base the music off of that theme.
Yoko Kanno: I’ve never been told to do anything else.
☆Taku Takahashi: I see.
Yoko Kanno: The closest I’ve gotten is Mr. Watanabe asking for jazz.
☆Taku Takahashi: He’s knowledgeable though.
Yoko Kanno: He loves music, for sure.
☆Taku Takahashi: You’ve explained a lot about your background and how you got started. You’re enjoying it now, right?
Yoko Kanno: I am. If I hadn’t been pulled in this direction, I’d be a little sad. Like, there are times when I think about how amazing the future will be from other people, and I’m still totally uninterested. And yet when I imagine a robot thinking of God for the first time, I’m totally invested.
☆Taku Takahashi: Interesting.
Yoko Kanno: That’s the way I think about things. Once I get something in my head, I like to dig deep.
☆Taku Takahashi: When you get invited to work on a project, you’ll decide what to do based on how it grasps you?
Yoko Kanno: With Macross Plus, it was a weapon. Music was a weapon.
☆Taku Takahashi: The girls were.
Yoko Kanno: I didn’t think of them as girls, I thought of them as weapons. They brainwashed people, they destroyed things, their music was so powerful, and I was so fascinated by it. I really overdid it.
☆Taku Takahashi: You mentioned that the reverb from the plane was crazy.
Yoko Kanno: I honestly felt so sick, and the feeling really stuck with me. I thought ‘this is a real weapon.’ If I think about doing it now, it makes me a little sick. I wondered why I felt so sick, but really, it’s something that I needed to feel to understand. That soundtrack was dangerous.
☆Taku Takahashi: It had emotion.
Yoko Kanno: It did. You can still go and hear that low pitch today.
☆Taku Takahashi: We’ve talked all about how you make music, and I might be lacking in information, but not many people know that you write music for other artists.
Yoko Kanno: That’s true.
☆Taku Takahashi: Lately, you’ve been performing. You invited some musicians, including me, to do a cover of Tank, and I really wondered what I should do. We chatted about it. With performing, have you been more into it lately?
Yoko Kanno: I honestly never want to perform.
☆Taku Takahashi: Is that so?
Yoko Kanno: Around March, I did a show as a producer, and I worked with one other producer, Mr. Fujita.
☆Taku Takahashi: The president.
Yoko Kanno: And the other one was me. In that instance, I was being recognized as a producer. Up until that point, I had just done a couple of compositions.
☆Taku Takahashi: You had worked with Maaya Sakamoto.
Yoko Kanno: But even if people were seeing me as a producer and calling me a producer, I still didn’t see myself that way. That was the very first time that I was judged as a producer, in March. I had never once seen myself that way!
☆Taku Takahashi: Never about yourself.
Yoko Kanno: Even when I had worked with Maaya Sakamoto and arranged her songs, I had never thought of it that way. But I thought if I put myself in this box and don’t accept it, I’m limiting myself. It wasn’t all about me, it wasn’t about my music. Now with coronavirus, musicians really don’t have work, and I wondered what I could do as a producer. If I can get these people to work, that’ll be useful. That’s how I started organizing these shows on YouTube. It’s nothing to do with me wanting to perform, it’s all me wanting to be a good producer. It’s like I’m playing producer.
☆Taku Takahashi: You’re not playing!
Yoko Kanno: It still feels that way, like there’s a ton I don’t know.
☆Taku Takahashi: As a producer, if you make a good song, the money will flow in.
Yoko Kanno: That’s true. If I do this, they’ll get work. I don’t know where we’ll be in another half a year, but that’s the mode I’m in right now. That’s what I’m doing.
☆Taku Takahashi: Back in the day, we had CDs. Music is more digital now, and people around the world are more connected. We’re glad to have you here too, participating in this. The world has changed so much. Even back in the day, when you created music, were you envisioning it for purely Japanese audiences? Or were you more global-minded?
Yoko Kanno: Honestly, I never once thought about who would hear it in the end. I did a lot of commercials, so of course, I thought about who would be buying the product, and that was Japan-focused, but more ‘what age?’ Now, I’m
incredibly happy that people in America and people around the world have heard my music. I never really intended to aim my music towards global audiences. I still don’t think that way.
☆Taku Takahashi: When you write, you’re just focused on the music.
Yoko Kanno: Right. I want the music to reach the person who needs it most.
☆Taku Takahashi: Foreign directors want you to focus your music that way too, right? Your music has been getting popular worldwide, especially in America.
Yoko Kanno: It’s amazing.
☆Taku Takahashi: Have you been to America?
Yoko Kanno: I have been.
☆Taku Takahashi: Did anything there make an impression on you?
Yoko Kanno: When I first went, I liked walking around a lot at night, getting that Cowboy Bebop kind of feel, but what I like about America is their entertainment. I love seeing shows. I remember going to see shows in Las Vegas. I saw some very adult ones too. I went to New York’s Broadway too, and I loved it. There are so many shows and so much to see.
☆Taku Takahashi: You don’t like being stuck in a rut.
Yoko Kanno: I don’t. It’s inspiring. It really is a business. You’ll see a musical on Broadway, or even in London, People in Broadway, no matter how you look at them, they are perfect. It shocks me every time.
☆Taku Takahashi: In Japan, you’ll see people playing music in the street just like anywhere else, but when you go to America, you can’t believe that people on the street play music so well!
Yoko Kanno: So true.
☆Taku Takahashi: You came to America and got to feel it and smell it and taste it. Cowboy Bebop has that typical western style. When you did the Bebop album, did you have America in mind?
Yoko Kanno: Before I did Cowboy Bebop, I was super into New Orleans.
☆Taku Takahashi: Oh, really?
Yoko Kanno: The food is delicious, and it was my favorite city. I’ve heard it’s changed a lot, but I used to go all the time. I saw a kind of brass band on the street, some young boys, and I still wonder where they are now. They were probably in elementary school a snare drum and a tuba; it was five of them. When I heard the beat, it really resonated with me.
☆Taku Takahashi: You mentioned previously that you had played pretty much everything but the drums.
Yoko Kanno: The beat on the one snare drum was that kind of marching band beat, but a little off-kilter. I learned afterward that what they were doing was called a ‘second line,’ one of the kids told me. It wasn’t jazz, it was something else. I was just enthralled. They seemed like a family playing music together, and that has really stuck with me. I think that a global view is important. New Orleans has that French feel too, and that is what I channeled into Cowboy Bebop. Also, a little of that New York rush.
☆Taku Takahashi: You’re most inspired by having real experiences. You used to be into literature, does that ever inspire you?
Yoko Kanno: Not anymore. Reading books means seeing the words and using your imagination. You can’t feel it or smell it.
☆Taku Takahashi: I see.
Yoko Kanno: Sure, if I use my imagination, I can see anything I want. But when I was in New Orleans, I had actual goosebumps. I could smell the donuts in the batter, I could smell the catfish, I could hear the Mississippi river flowing. All that input, to me, is what counts. I can use that. To this day, I still rely on my senses entirely. I don’t get anything from books.
☆Taku Takahashi: That’s unexpected. Lately, you’ve been doing compositions and working as a producer.
Yoko Kanno: A real producer!
☆Taku Takahashi: You’re more focused on being a producer, and with COVID, you’re helping other musicians. Lately, you’ve been participating in online live shows as well, which have been incredibly successful. Do you have plans to keep doing these live shows into the future?
Yoko Kanno: Right now, we can’t get together and do live shows. I want to hurry up and get back to normal, but in the meantime, this is the best alternative. The band members are playing from their homes now for the most part, but I want to go beyond that and do things that we can only do BECAUSE we’re performing online. There are things we don’t have right now, like people cheering in the audience, you know? Live shows are a little different right now.
☆Taku Takahashi: Well, when you have more information, the global fans would like to know, so please tell us.
Yoko Kanno: I’d prefer to really be ‘live.’
☆Taku Takahashi: To go somewhere, you mean. Have you thought about going international when the rules ease up?
Yoko Kanno: That would be nice.
☆Taku Takahashi: You’re not a fan of public appearances, though.
Yoko Kanno: I’m not, but on stage in a theater it’s okay. When I’m on stage, it’s not just me. I like the idea that people might answer their phones, or that life will go on. I have total peace of mind, I’m relaxed. I’d love to perform, as long as it’s like that. I like that relaxed feel. I don’t want to perform that much, but honestly, I’m okay with people looking at me.
☆Taku Takahashi: Even on stage.
Yoko Kanno: I don’t think of people as an audience. I don’t want them to stay quiet, I want them to express themselves. I want to see what they think, I like that.
☆Taku Takahashi: More and more things are moving online as a result of COVID. Ms. Kanno, it’s not too often that fans hear from you, so we’re extremely grateful. So, to end, can you give a message to your fans?
Yoko Kanno: Thank you for always supporting me. I hope that I’ve been able to convey how powerful music can be. Please stay safe, and I wish you all well.
☆Taku Takahashi: Thank you for your time.