Vocaloid producer Iyowa on influences, songwriting process
This interview was originally conducted by singer-songwriter and movie soundtrack composer Yo Irie and published on April 20, 2022 on the Soundmain blog at https://blogs.soundmain.net/13297/.
Reflecting the fun of playing the keyboard within songs
Irie: I personally became a fan of your work because of the unusual impression that the natural and danceable groove combined with the unique avant-garde sound creates. The first thing I’d like to ask about is if you remember the moment when you first became conscious of music.
Iyowa: I went to a kind of rhythmic, “playing with music” class when I was around kindergarten age. They also offered piano lessons, so I started learning the piano that way. My father has always been a music lover, so I imagine I was listening to music unconsciously since even before then.
Irie: What kind of music does he like?
Iyowa: Mainly Western music, but he doesn’t just listen to the oldies. He’s the type of person to go down the iTunes rankings and listen to each song in order, so he’s not picky. He tries a lot of different kinds of music.
Irie: Did you continue piano for very long?
Iyowa: I continued lessons for about three or four years. I had to stop when we moved, and I threw a tantrum about it. After I stopped, though, I spent more time than that playing around on a keyboard at home, so I think I learned more that way in terms of practical skill.
Irie: So, you played songs you liked?
Iyowa: Yes, I played Vocaloid songs when I was in grade school, and I also picked up a bit of the music that my older brother listened to, so I remember playing artists like Shonan no Kaze and Maximum the Hormone by ear.
Irie: Listening to your music, I get the feeling that the fun of playing instruments may have strongly influenced your writing, like how your energy rises or falls while playing.
Iyowa: For sure. I often make a song all at once when I’m listening to a rhythm or chord progression that I like and think of a fun phrase. I tend to create by exploring while playing.
Irie: Have you ever performed with multiple people, such as in a band?
Iyowa: I did a cover band for a culture festival in high school. I played the keyboard, of course. I joined a light music club in college, too, but the experience taught me that performing with others may not be right for me. It’s not that I didn’t have fun, but it was a lot of pressure to have to not make mistakes, and I just enjoy the process more when I can mess around with songwriting however I want.
Irie: I see! When you make music on the computer, do you play a lot of it by hand?
Iyowa: I basically play everything except the rhythm tracks by hand. The way I’ve always made music is by playing my keyboard with different sounds and recording it, so I think I play things by hand during the process more often than most people.
Irie: How do you make your rhythm tracks?
Iyowa: Sometimes I use the drum sounds that come with my keyboard, but that can come out sounding cheap, so I’ve been using GarageBand for iOS lately. It has a lot of electronic drum sounds, and it’s convenient enough to use on its own like that. Sometimes I also cut and paste things like loops and put them together with my main beat and export that as an audio file, throw it into my DAW, and record more instruments on top of that. It makes the process faster, so that’s how I’ve come to do things often.
Irie: The fact that you play by hand may be the source of the natural groove I feel in your songs. Do you edit after you play?
Iyowa: Quite a bit. When I have a difficult phrase, sometimes I play it in small chunks and then edit it so it flows together. Sometimes I also take a drum track I already made and finger drum a new rhythm with my keyboard on top of it. The way I do whatever I feel like with the audio and look for what feels good is the same for both the upper layers and the rhythm tracks.
Irie: There’s something thrilling about the unique sense of rhythmic displacement and the way the sounds clash and become dissonant, which feels really good. Is this more due to chance or improvisation?
Iyowa: If I play a set phrase and accidentally play a note a half step off, I might use that if I think it sounds good, or if I play something that I don’t like, I might play it backwards and use that if I like it that way. I often cut and paste and mix things around and discover good phrases that way, which helps me create things I never could have imagined. I sort of record a bunch of things, look through them, and pick the ones that I think sound interesting.
Irie: Your process sounds really fun just from hearing about it. Incidentally, what keyboard do you use?
Iyowa: A Casio CTK-7200. I’m still using the same one I bought in my first year of high school. I also have a Nord Electro 6 that I bought with my earnings from music in my first year of college. I don’t use instrument plugins very much, so I’m particular about my keyboards. I mainly use those two for my work now. The Casio has a relatively lighter, more keyboard-like sound, whereas the Nord sounds more like a grand piano, so I switch between them depending on the purpose.
Thoughts on chord progressions and a “concept-first” songwriting process
Irie: Are there any artists you’ve been especially influenced by in your composition?
Iyowa: I was really into Gesu no Kiwami Otome around middle school. I went through a phase where I painstakingly played all of the chord progressions from Enon Kawatani’s songs, including his other projects such as indigo la End. I still use a lot of those chord progressions when I make songs, so I think that’s been a big influence on me.
Irie: I do think that comes across in how easy it is to get into the fundamental harmonic flow.
Iyowa: When using tricky sounds, I think there has to be a strong chord progression underneath to support it, something fundamental that can appeal to emotions, or it falls apart. When it comes to the chorus melody as well, even if it’s wild, it has to be based on a phrase that flows well, or it all collapses and just sounds bad. I think that philosophy is definitely influenced by Kawatani’s music.
Irie: I know you also make your own MVs. What order do you usually make the music and visuals in?
Iyowa: I make the MVs to fit the song after the song is finished. If I don’t think of what I want the concept of the song to be before I make it, though, I get stuck sometimes. So, the song comes before the video, but the concept comes before the song.
Irie: By concept, do you mean like a story or a character?
Iyowa: Yes, like what color I want to make the MV overall, or whether I want the character to be a child or an adult, vague ideas like that. Keeping these things in mind can make the whole songwriting process easier.
Irie: Do you ever use your own life or reality as a theme?
Iyowa: It really depends on the song. Sometimes I have a distinct story about a character that I thought of in my head, but sometimes I take inspiration from other works, and sometimes parts of it overlap with my own feelings. All of those are true. I try to be able to use input from anywhere.
Irie: I think another characteristic trait of your work is how you use multiple Vocaloids. How do you choose which one to use where?
Iyowa: Each Vocaloid has a completely different selection of vocal tones, so sometimes I make files with multiple different Vocaloids singing, put each one against the track, and pick the one that I think fits best, but sometimes I set out to use a particular vocal and write the song to fit that voice. Either way, I pay close attention to how the voice suits the song.
Irie: Is it like choosing a tone of instrument?
Iyowa: Pretty much. In that sense, I’m glad that there are so many Vocaloids in existence.
Realizing the scope of the Vocaloid scene
Irie: Do you have any impactful memories of breaking through a concern that formed while you were working?
Iyowa: It bothers me when I’m having trouble completing a work, but with that type of concern, the only thing to do is keep working, so it doesn’t change what I end up doing. I’ve gotten rather good at switching over in those cases. More than that, it’s having to put my works out into the world, and onto the Internet at that. It’s like having to throw myself into a competition. That may just be how things are, but I don’t really like competition itself. I want to do things freely. In sports terms, I like practice, but I don’t like meets. (laughs)
Irie: I see.
Iyowa: I feel bad when things get too competitive. That doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong; I just don’t like it. I try to keep my distance from that sort of thing and protect my own values around creation as much as possible.
Irie: There are all types of people, some who are fueled by competition and some who dislike it.
Iyowa: I’m not really able to envy others or be envied. I don’t want to make myself feel bad by resenting someone else’s success. I want to celebrate people’s successes, and I can just be happy about my own successes for myself. Envy and competition don’t really translate into motivation for me.
Irie: Has anything in particular helped you establish your own style?
Iyowa: Ever since I started releasing songs in a style similar to my current one, I felt like they would have a deep impact on the small subset of people who are like me, as opposed to impacting a lot of people. I got some feedback that motivated me, but I also had some resistance from early on. I never forced myself to make things that would have mass appeal. I just kept making things that I liked best and felt impactful to me, and they happened to be received well, so I think I’m very lucky in that regard.
Irie: The Vocaloid subculture seems very permissive and even actively encouraging of unique works, which I think is great about it.
Iyowa: I feel the same. I’m glad I found such weird people, and I mean that in a good way. I get really excited myself when I see someone doing something new or interesting on NicoNico. I think I was discovered in part because of that excitement for the unknown.
Irie: Is there anything you want to see happen in Vocaloid culture in the future? It can be as far away as 200 years from now, but it can be short-term also.
Iyowa: I think the more things people can do within the Vocaloid scene, the better. There have been more and more ways that light shines on the Vocaloid scene lately, with some producers moving on to major labels and some songs blowing up on TikTok and social media. I hope there are more developments like that in the future.
I don’t have any specific ideas, but I hope more people have the chance to realize how good Vocaloid is and start listening to it, so the culture grows. I would be glad to see broader awareness of the unique ways you can create with and use Vocaloids. It’s because of that breadth that I made it this far.
Irie: So it can be a place where people who want to make music freely have breathing room.
Iyowa: Personally, I’m not a fan of styles that are shooting for popularity from the beginning. I think it’s a valid way to work, but I don’t want the only thing people are conscious of to be that they could debut at a major label and make a lot of money if they make it in the Vocaloid scene. I would be happy if there were more people like me, so I just have to keep working in the hopes that people will look at it and think “this guy is doing cool stuff.”
Also, if I can influence the future generation of creators in the slightest, that’s another reason for me to keep making music. I would be happiest if people thought “this guy’s been in this scene forever, I kind of like it.” Right now, I want to cultivate a mindset where I can continue to feel the same way about creating even if people stop listening as much as they are now.
Irie: Lastly, could you say a few words about your second album, watashi no heritage?
Iyowa: I made a doujin album before called sleeping pink noise. That album was mainly based off fiction, or stories I’d made up. The songs on this album, though, are more based off the personalities of the characters or my own personality. All of the songs I wrote with that sort of realistic approach from 2020 to 2021 are on the album, so it’s like a record of my work. I’m glad that I was able to leave that behind as a new album, and I hope that people who feel the same as me can listen and feel supported, or have it inspire feeling in them. I’m embarrassed after talking so much about it now… (laughs) But I’m proud of my work on it.
You can find Iyowa’s Twitter at @igusuri_please and Yo Irie’s at @irieyoo.