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CHAIPhotography Yoshio Nakaiso

CHAI’s jubilant quarantine record is ‘an album for all of us’

With WINK, the ‘neo-kawaii’ Japanese four-piece have made the ultimate comfort album, but it tackles important themes too

Winking is a versatile little form of non-verbal communication, with a meaning that oscillates between cultures and contexts. Sometimes, it’s an affectionate gesture, an invitation to flirt; other times, it signals a joke or some tongue-in-cheek deception. For Japanese rock band CHAI, the wink is a sign of easy-breezy self-assuredness – and they‘ve never sounded more sure of themselves than on their effervescent new album, the aptly-titled WINK.

Formed in 2012 and composed of four friends (twin sisters Mana and Kana, lead singer/keyboardist and guitarist, respectively; drummer Yuna; and bassist Yuuki) over the past near-decade CHAI has worked to dismantle the restrictive conformities surrounding ‘kawaii’ culture in Japan, reshaping it into something more inclusive (a concept they refer to as “neo-kawaii”). They’ve also inspired themselves, as well as listeners, to lean into radical self-love: on their first album, 2017’s PINK, the group laid out their their musical manifesto – to become more confident and own their individualism in the process – and on their 2019 sophomore effort, PUNK, they encouraged their fans to embrace their own perfectly imperfect quirks and eccentricities.

For their third record, which was recorded at the height of the coronavirus lockdown, the Nagoya-formed dance-punk foursome set out to craft the ultimate comfort album... with a twist. Drawing sonic inspiration from electronica and R&B, the result is a sugar-dusted feel-good album that features CHAI’s most chill, playful songs to date. But as irreverent as the music sounds, the band’s messaging is complex as ever, with lyrical themes that explore the rejection of modern beauty standards (“Maybe Chocolate Chips”); embrace one’s desires and autonomy (“Donuts Mind If I Do”); and herald the power of protest in the face of social injustice (“ACTION”).

According to CHAI, WINK has two meanings. “The first meaning is about self-love. A person who winks is someone who is confident, who is flexible, who is free. She's doing it because she wants to,” Mana tells Dazed over a delightfully chaotic Zoom call. “Winking is another form of smiling at somebody, while being so confident in yourself that you’re not worried about the other person's reaction. We want to be the same way. We strive to be women who can wink at somebody and feel free, and not have to worry about being judged.”

As for the other meaning? “Up until this point, we’ve created three albums. The ‘i’ in PINK represents the ‘I’, the self, telling us as CHAI to be confident. The ‘u’ in PUNK is telling ‘you’ guys to be confident in yourselves, to love yourselves. And then the ‘we’ sound in WINK represents ‘us’. So, we went from I to you to now we – this is an album for all of us.”

Below, CHAI open up to Dazed about navigating beauty standards in Japan, balancing light-hearted music with heavy themes and messages, and what it truly means to take action.

Women in Japan, much like countless women all over the world in their respective countries, face many societal expectations. But CHAI is redefining what it means to be “kawaii”, taking control of your bodies and how you present yourselves to the world. And then there are women such as Naomi Watanabe, who are proving that all bodies deserve respect and visibility, and Naomi Osaka, who are speaking out against racism and sexism. What does it mean for you to feel empowered as women in 2021?

Mana: I'm very proud to be a woman right now, today. I think a lot of times people will say, “Yes, we've gone through a lot of different things compared to male artists and men in the business and whatnot”. And that is definitely true, but for us personally, we feel like it's because we were able to go through those challenges that we are here today. Not that we’re saying we needed those challenges or that type of mistreatment or those differences in the business as far as how women are treated – we’re not saying it’s a good thing – but in every situation, we try to apply our neo-kawaii personality to take something that we consider negative, and what the world may consider negative, and turn it into a positive. So, we take the type of stuff that goes on in the business as far as how women are treated and we turn that into a positive for our experience. That's just how we’ve always been.

But also, something that definitely hit us personally are the beauty standards in Japan. That's something we’ve actually experienced – we really did not fit into what was considered kawaii in Japan. None of the features that they describe as being beautiful (represented) us or what we had. Being that we actually experienced and felt the pains of that, I think that’s what made us stronger and enabled us to be who we are today. And that’s why we are CHAI. I think CHAI and neo-kawaii wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t us four. It would only work if it was us four because it’s only a message that can come from us four.

Yuna: I think a lot of the time that we go through things, we tend to look at it as, ‘Aw, man, we’re going through this thing and it sucks’. But instead, if we take a second and look at it like, ‘You know what? It sucks but this is why I am who I am today,’ that will change your perspective and I think that’s what we try to do. The neo-kawaii world we created was just to show everybody that there’s all types of forms of cute, not just one. Given that in Japan, kawaii is such a strong word – it's not just, ‘Aw, you're a cute girl,’ it’s more like beautiful and it’s the highest of compliments in Japan – we noticed that a lot of women in Japanese society live for this word, trying to make themselves fit into the standards of kawaii. Even though we didn't fit into that (standard), we realised by watching so many women work so hard in their everyday lives, putting in their all into fitting into this kawaii standard, why not do it the opposite and show the real kawaii? And that’s what we're doing now, pretty much – living our lives through neo-kawaii.

Yuuki: And this message is not just for women but for everybody! We just want everybody to know that because we are women, we can only speak on what we know as women. But we don’t want people to think this is just for one type (of person). Men and women, everybody and anybody: Neo-kawaii is for all. We hope that this message spreads everywhere to everyone.

Watching footage from your live shows on YouTube and social media, it seems like fans get a lot of power from CHAI. 

Mana: We actually get power from them! 

You tackle some serious topics on this album, from self-love and body acceptance to the power of protesting, but you do so by taking a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek approach. How does this dichotomy of playfulness and empowerment represent CHAI?

Mana: We definitely think – I mean, at least I do – that the fun part of music is that you can take something really serious and still get your message out while having people groove to it at the same time. That’s the beauty of it.

Yuuki: In Japan in particular, many people in their daily conversations avoid hot topics like politics (and) things that Americans tend to talk about wherever. As a Japanese person, it really bothers me that people resist talking about these types of things, so putting it into our music is our way of actually talking about those (topics). That way, we can keep that balance of the light, poppy sound and fun type of feel mixed with the more serious messaging of what we have to say.

And we’re not trying to make light of any message or do anything like that. It’s just our way of expressing ourselves because personality-wise, it’s just how we are. But when we’re writing lyrics, we’re always conscious and thinking about that. I’m always listening to the song to make sure: ‘Okay, this poppy, lighthearted track can definitely go with this message,’ or ‘I can put this message on this track’. But yes, that is definitely CHAI.

One of my favorite songs on the album is “Maybe Chocolate Chips”. I love how it celebrates something that society may see as an ‘imperfection’ (skin moles) by reframing it as something beautiful and sensual and wonderful. What inspired the message behind that song?

Yuuki: The theme is very important to me because I tend to grow moles gradually every day as I get older for some reason. I don’t know if my skin type is just that way, but I get brown spots and moles and I just grow more and more of them. In today's age, you can actually just take them off with lasers. But I realised that’s not the part that I need to be focusing on. The truth is, that’s what I have right now and I need to love that. I feel like self-love needs to start from you finding a way to love every part of yourself. 

And so I thought, ‘Wait a second, these moles on my skin that I grow every day, they're not moles... they're chocolate chips!’ Like, what am I talking about? I'm thinking about laser removal and they're just chocolate chips. I realised that if I kept telling myself that; if I could come up with these creative ways to express my insecurities; and if I could share ways to turn insecurities into creative ideas, it would make the world a better place. I think everybody can find a way to love themselves more, just like this song became a way for me to take another step towards loving myself for who I am, and loving my moles for what they are. 

“We were looking for a sound that was more like what we wanted to listen to at home, that would give us a nostalgic feeling – music that felt like a friend that you could go to when you were angry, sad, or happy” – Yuuki

How did you end up incorporating more of an R&B sound into WINK?

Yuuki: We created this album while we were spending more time at home during the pandemic. Up until that point, we had always created stuff with live shows in mind. This time we were looking for a sound that was more like what we wanted to listen to at home, that would give us a nostalgic feeling – music that felt like a friend that you could go to when you were angry, sad, or happy, no matter what. That's what this album became and so the sound for it just came to us organically. 

During that time we were at home, we noticed that what gave us the most comfort was R&B-like music, and so perhaps that's what made us gravitate towards that direction for the album itself, as well as on songs such as “Maybe Chocolate Chips”. 

We realised the song was funky and we thought a rapper would sound great on it. We didn’t think that we had any rapper friends but then we remembered Ric Wilson, a really cool rapper who had performed before us at the Pitchfork Musical Festival in 2019. Thankfully, we had exchanged contacts at the festival, so we reached out to him and he made the song ten times better than it already was, and here we are today. 

I love all the food puns and references in your music. On this album alone you have songs called “KARAAGE” (Japanese fried chicken), “Maybe Chocolate Chips”, “Salty” (which references rice balls called onigiri), and “Donuts Mind If I Do”. Does CHAI want fans to feel hungry?

Mana: We just love food (laughs). And we know eating is important, it’s a natural thing people do every single day. Well, some people don’t eat every day, they do fasting. But for me especially, I wanted to show that not only do we love food, we appreciate it. We appreciate its origins and the fact that we’re even able to eat a delicious meal when it’s in front of us.

For example, with the song “KARAAGE”, I just love karaage and the fact that somebody created this concoction! It’s just about my love for eating. I just appreciate what (food) does for me every day. I look at food as the way of life. It’s pretty much our energy, our core.

“ACTION” was written in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. What other causes or issues do you think we all need to take action on? And what does it mean to truly take action? 

Yuuki: I was so inspired after seeing the Black Lives Matter movement. For somebody like me who is living in Japan, and not physically there to be amongst the protestors, to still actually know what's going on... I mean, everything I saw was just through social media or on TV. But I noticed something really important at the end of the day, which was that there were several different types of people protesting. At the same time, the root for all the protestors was one message: pain. People were in pain. People were hurt. And I noticed that some people reacted in rage and some people reacted – even while they were shedding tears – out of love. They continued to react with love in spite of what was going on, in the hope for a better future for (their) children.

When I took that in I realised that wow, humans are amazing. Because we all have this one pain, this one emotion, but we react in so many different ways. But at the root of it all, what we all want, our goal is for a better future. When I saw that it really moved me and it made me realise the importance of action. I think in Japan, we don’t see that too often, so that might have added another layer to why I reacted in that way. 

"That's the amazing thing about humans. If we did more out of love, what would the world be like?” – Yuuki

As for me, what would I do to make a better future? I think that's what I put into this song. I choose love and I choose to continue to live out of love. And I think that's what this song actually encompasses. Yes, it was inspired by unfortunate events and seeing certain things that weren’t exactly positive, but again, we try to make negatives into positives. So I took what I learned from that situation and put it in a positive way into this song in the hope that people who listen to this song can continue to share the love that I tried to put into it. At the end of the day, I think the protests were definitely something that pulled something from me as far as standing up and taking a stand about how I feel. That's the amazing thing about humans. If we did more out of love, what would the world be like?

The artists and bands who worked on albums during the height of the pandemic last year had a unique experience, to say the least. What sort of challenges did you face while working on this record? And how did you overcome them?

Mana: Even though it was a negative situation, given that so many lives that were lost and everything else that was going on at the time, the pandemic actually gave us time to think. It gave us time to reflect on ourselves and our music and what we wanted to actually create going forward. We’re still in the middle of it, in a sense, but at the beginning, because we were home all the time, we had nothing to face other than ourselves and our four walls. During that, you’re literally forced to look at yourself and rethink your priorities and values. Like, what is it you want to create as an artist? What music do you like? 

We realised just by being at home what types of sounds we were listening to and what made us feel good in our houses; we found that those were the sounds that we had to create, that might make other people feel good listening to as well. Even though the pandemic itself was a negative situation, I think it allowed us to have a reset and really reevaluate what we wanted as a band. Sometimes I feel you need some kind of negative emotion in order to create some great music. Because of this situation, it helped us create this album and create this sound that we've never had before.

Yuna: This process for creating WINK was a complete 180 from all of the other albums we created up until this point. Every other album we created in the studio, and this one we were at home – using GarageBand, sending tracks back and forth. Even though people tend to do that nowadays anyway, we still used to go to the studio and this was the first album that we had to actually do everything at home for. So, not seeing people as much (in person) was a very different dynamic. This time we didn’t use as many instruments; it’s more electronic production-based. Just the sound in general is different. So yes, I think the pandemic was a very negative and unfortunate situation, but it allowed for us to birth a new form of CHAI.

How has CHAI changed or evolved since first getting together in 2012?

Mana: We aren’t conscious so much about evolving. Every time we’re creating an album or creating a song I think we’re just in that moment and that’s how we are in general. We don't really think, ‘Okay, next time we're going to plan on doing this’. When we get to that moment, sometimes it’s like, ‘You know what? We feel like doing this instead today’. Tomorrow we might feel like doing something different. And maybe in five minutes it’ll be nothing like what we’re doing right now and we’ll completely scratch everything and start over. I think that’s what we tend to do: go with what we feel in that moment. I will say though, from the beginning, from ten years ago, our message hasn’t changed very much. 

Yuuki: From the beginning, we had this one thing we used to always say, which was that your complexes are art, your insecurities are art. At one point I thought, you know... Are you basically caring about what other people think if you listen to that message, because you’re telling other people, ‘Yeah, I’m concerned about my insecurities, but it’s art’? After we put that message out, I wondered if maybe we were thinking too much about what other people think. But ten years later, I think our message still stands. I don’t think it’s a message that has gone away or a message that people don’t relate to anymore. It’s a message that people can relate to forever, no matter what. So, I think in that sense we haven’t evolved as much. Maybe just our sound, but that’s something that changes every time depending on our mood. 

Yuna: I don’t think we purposefully evolve but I think naturally that’s what we do because we are getting older and whatnot. But I will say I think that over the last ten years, we definitely learned to love ourselves more. That's what's definitely changed the most – putting out all of these songs and going on tour and getting to talk with people like yourself in interviews. I think the process of getting our message out there and getting more notoriety in a sense is helping us learn to love ourselves more.

Kana: While it’s been ten years and we’re getting older – it’s actually crazy to think that it’s been ten years! – when we make music, sometimes people don't realise that we're actually creating music (to say things) that we wish somebody would tell us. The things that we’re writing about in our lyrics are actually things we wish that somebody would say to us. When we create those songs, yes, we want you to hear it, but it’s also a way for us to boost our... not ego, but in a sense, to make us feel better about our insecurities and what we’re worried about at the time. So, the songs are not just for everybody but are also to help us feel better. And like Yuna said, it’s helped us become more self-confident and love ourselves more. I think the biggest part of the evolution of CHAI would be learning to love ourselves more.

“We kept saying to ourselves, ‘CHAI is cool, CHAI is awesome’. It boosted our confidence for sure” – Mana

How did you react to getting signed to US label Sub Pop, which has released for artists such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Sleater-Kinney?

Mana: Not to quote Biggie Smalls, but it was all a dream (laughs). It’s all I can say about that. It’s a dream come true to be able to release an album with Sub Pop.

Yuna: I actually covered “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana on my own before we had the contract. So personally, being a drummer, this was literally like, ‘Oh my God, it was meant to be’.

Mana: We kept saying to ourselves, ‘CHAI is cool, CHAI is awesome.’ It boosted our confidence for sure.

CHAI's WINK is out on May 21 via Sub Pop