Welcome to the first proper issue of Create Playlist, a newsletter where I ask people about their Spotify playlists. My first guest is Kayla Medica, author of the excellent marketing-focused newsletter Mehdeeka and mum to an adorable dog called Major.
I asked Kayla about her playlist J Indie, which is full of Japanese bops. She explained how she got into and keeps up with Japanese music, how it differs from Western music, and, in one of my favourite tidbits, revealed the excellent fact that there’s a musician with a magazine column where he meets up with models and then writes a poem about them.
You can listen to the playlist here as you read:
What is J Indie? What's the theme or the vibe?
J indie is my very broad playlist of Japanese music from bands rather than idols or groups. In Japan (and more well known, Korea) 'idol' is a whole genre of music which can pretty much be summed up by groups (and occasionally soloists) who don't have much of a say in their music, and are better known for being performers. Sometimes Jpop and Kpop groups do eventually make their own music and have a say in production, but that's usually reserved for "senior" performers who've proven their worth.
I have playlists for that as well, but J indie is more focused on the "musician" artists - bands or groups that write their own music and perform it using instruments. Honestly a lot of it is just me going to an artist and adding their entire discography rather than carefully curating the playlist song by song.
A lot of these groups I've been listening to for 10+ years and I've seen them go from being buskers that finally had a big break to being industry leaders who are inspiring younger generations to take up instruments as well, so I'm quite fond of a lot of them.
In terms of the sound, I really like Japanese music that has a jazzy or funk influence (see Indigo La End), strong all-girl groups (see SCANDAL or Shishamo), and singers that open their mouths really big when they sing (see Gesu no Kiwami Otome [same vocalist as Indigo La End] or a more recent find, Ryokuoushoku Shakai which has a female vocalist).
Why did you start the playlist?
A lot of the time I listen to an artist or a single album, so I made this playlist for when I generally want to listen to Japanese music and have it play all day.
Is there a particular time/moment/mood you need to be in to listen to the playlist? Or does the playlist help to put you in a particular mood?
I definitely go through phases where I listen to music in English, get sick of it, then listen to Japanese, and repeat. I studied Japanese from year 7 through HSC, and then did a B.Arts and majored in Japanese, so I also tend to listen to Japanese music when I feel like I've not interacted with any Japanese media for a while. I really love that Japanese media/genres are really unique and combine influences in ways that are different to Western media. I find that for me they have longer staying power, I might suddenly think "I haven't listened to X in a while" and go listen to an album from 2013, but I don't do that as often for Western artists.
Japanese artists are also a bit more comfortable with really abstract concepts and lyrics. I always say the reason I don't like TSwift that much is because all of her songs are about the same thing - herself. But with a Japanese artist, they could have a whole song that's about a colour, or the way the sky looks at a certain hour in the day, or some sort of specific emotion that occurs at a specific occasion. I like listening to those songs when I don't want to hear about how boys are dumb.
What makes a song worthy of being added to this playlist?
To be honest I could probably be more selective with what goes on here, like sometimes there is a song on an album I don't vibe with as much as the others, but it just gets bulk put onto the playlist. As long as it meets my criteria of the artist performing the instruments and singing, it goes on.
How do you find new songs to add to the playlist? (and more broadly, how do you follow Japanese music? How much of it ties into following Japanese culture, and how do you do that?)
Ok so like way back in the day, I was a lot more into the online Japanese community (aka torrenting and forums) and discovering new artists was really easy then. A lot of the artists I found back then I still follow today and I keep up with their new releases through Instagram, Youtube, or Spotify. Unfortunately, Japan is really strict about IP and a lot of songs or artists are missing from legal services like Spotify. They still have a huge CD culture in Japan, and a lot of music is only available through CD purchase or iTunes, which I don't use.
I used to check the Oricon chart pretty religiously back in the day, which is the Japanese equivalent of Billboard. Unfortunately I haven't found a reliable online source of it, or it's like months out of date. I think Line (the Japanese Whatsapp) may have a chart as well but I haven't looked into it. I probably should!
Good ways to find new artists for anyone interested though, is through who's making film/anime soundtracks (see Radwimps and their 2016 album which was the entire soundtrack for the blockbuster animated movie, Your Name) as these are often how bands blow up or make their mainstream entrance (e.g. SCANDAL who I mentioned earlier). You can also just fall down the rabbit hole that is Youtube and keep going through recommended videos until you start getting to the smaller, more online artists. And of course, if you ever go to Japan you can check out Tower Records (the music store chain) where you can listen to CDs, look at the new release displays, etc.
As for following Japanese culture, it can be hard. I do have friends who live in Japan and I'll see what's trendy through their Instagrams or whatever, and pre-pandemic I visited a lot, maybe once every one to two years. I would love to read more, because the literary culture is just 10/10 but I've lost a lot of my reading ability from lack of practice (but there's been a huge wave of Japanese authors being translated into English lately for which I'm extremely grateful). Cinema is also good in Japan, there's some excellent work coming out every year, however it can be hard to access. In Australia the Japan Foundation puts on a Japanese Film Festival in all major cities every year, and they do new + old releases so that's a great way to stay up to date.
Netflix is doing great with Japanese TV releases as well, but I really wish they had a backlog of non-Netflix productions. One time while in Japan I logged onto Netflix and almost cried because my favourite movies/shows that I had torrented in highschool and have not been able to get a hold of since were all there.
What's your favourite song on the playlist and why?
This is so hard to answer. I love giving recommendations, but I usually interrogate the person asking for it first to narrow down the options. Here's a few:
1. A guitar-driven, upbeat song with a female vocal: Itte by Yorushika (ok I wanted to lead with this because Yorushika is a great duo, and no one knows who the vocalist is, she has kept her identity a secret and the musician/composer used to be a Vocaloid producer. If you don't know Vocaloid, they're computer generated idols and the most famous one is Hatsune Miku, who does have a couple of songs that slap, like Lucky Orb which is on my h y p e playlist)
2. A funky, sad-happy(?) bop with a male vocalist: Kanashikunaru mae ni by Indigo La End, probably my favourite from them. I mentioned it earlier but Endo Kawatani (the vocalist) is super interesting and very much so an artist driven by their craft. He also frontmans Gesu no Kiwami Otome (which started as a side project for fun between him and 3 other artists who were all already in bands, and then Gesu took off more than their original bands), and he's in Genie High which again is a side project between artists who are already in bands. Endo is also my gold star for "singers who open their mouths really wide when they sing" which is a genre unto itself. And 2 more points about him; he almost broke up all his bands when he got married and then had an affair with a TV show host which ruined her career as well, and he's briefly in Terrace House: Opening New Doors (available on Netflix) because his Gesu bandmate moves into the house towards the end of the season, and in that I learned he has a magazine column where he meets up with models and then writes a poem about them (probs not the best idea after the affair but love his commitment to art).
3. A ballad-y, rock-y, acoustic-y, pop-y mix with a male vocalist: Wataridori by [Alexandros], they also did a song for the Japanese soundtrack for Tarzan which was very good.
4. A dapper, jazzy song with a male vocalist: Koi by Gen Hoshino, this song went nuts when he came out with it, it is definitely a dapper genre revivalist piece.
5. It's 2008 and pop emo with dramatic violins/strings is back and it never actually left: Nevereverland by Nano. Just know that this genre is alive and well in Japan and the emo bands never stopped. Can also recommend My First Story and the obligatory ONE OK ROCK who are currently trying to make it big in America and have changed their sound to fit the market so their earlier bangers like Kanzen Kankaku Dreamer are not longer being made but still goes fucking hard when you listen to it. Side note: the vocalists of My First Story and ONE OK ROCK are brothers and that's why they both look and sound so similar!
What's the one song you think everyone should listen to off this playlist?
I'm going to answer this with an album instead of a single song. THE BOOK by YOASOBI is not just a great debut work from artists that were busking beforehand, it's also a conceptual masterpiece. The album is literally a book told in music format. Each song is a chapter, and together they tell a cohesive (although pretty abstract) story. They also all have music videos on Youtube with subtitles that'll help you get through it.
They're probably the one group (the duo is ikura who sings and Ayase who does the music + composition) who don't meet my criteria of playing the instruments, but they're honestly just too incredible to pass up. If you only have time for one song, watch their FIRST TAKE performance of Gunjo. FIRST TAKE is a Youtube series where artists only have one take to perform a song, with no rehearsal. Honestly most of the time it's a perfect performance, but occasionally there are mistakes which make for entertaining watching. Anyway, for Gunjo they brought an entire choir in for the performance and it will make your hair stand up when the choir kicks in!
What's kept you coming back to this playlist and Japanese music more broadly?
I think it's just interesting! Insert marge.jpg.
Jokes aside, Japanese music has its own rhythm and own cadence, and while there are occasionally songs or artists that you listen to go and think "wow they sound really similar to [Western artist]" (e.g. BBHF's Tokenai mahou is quite fun. or Bleachers-esque), it's not often that happens. If you're just looking for something a little different to what you usually listen to, and you're ok with not knowing what they're saying, I really encourage you to look into Japanese music! P.S. if you want to sing along, but don't care that you don't know what they're saying, Japanese phonology is suuuuuuper easy to learn. (Almost) every syllable is a constant + vowel, and it's pronounced exactly as it's written, so Kenshi Yonezu (an artist) is pronounced Ken-she Yo-neh-zoo. Super easy to sing along to.