On Sept. 7, RIKIMARU released his first full album, CLOWN OR CROWN. After serving as a member of boy band INTO1 through the WARPs PROJECT, it’s the first release from the solo project he launched this summer which also shares the same name. In this interview, Billboard Japan spoke to RIKIMARU in depth about the artistry his fans can expect from his solo project and album.
You’ve said that your newly launched solo project would be a “mutual sharing of philosophies between you and listeners as well as an embodiment of the reasons you create as an artist and a way to pursue your goals.” What led you to attempt this?
In the past, the images associated with my music were “freshness” and “youth.” That was fun, in its own way, but looking at myself as a person, it felt like that image didn’t truly connect to the real me. I felt like an image of “craziness” would be a closer fit. That’s why I decided to make an album whose image is more along those lines. Through my songs, I wanted to examine societal issues and interpersonal relationships, not romance. I wanted to make songs whose themes would resonate with listeners, which is why I launched the project.
You’ve released your first full album, CLOWN OR CROWN. Why did you choose that name for the album?
I had this mental image of a deaf clown and a blind king. The deaf clown is a symbol of freedom and craziness. He is totally immersed in his own world, which is why he can’t hear others. The king lives in a dark castle, and he doesn’t know what kinds of lives people outside his castle are living. The album’s themes revolves around these two people, whose outlooks on life and whose perspectives on the world are so totally different from each other. Based on that foundation, I wrote songs as stories of what I myself have seen and felt, and what I’ve heard from others.
So it’s something of a social satire.
Right. But it’s not just a deep, heavy album — it has a lot that will also resonate with listeners. The stories could be interpreted differently if taken in different ways. CLOWN OR CROWN has this deaf clown and this blind king sharing information and their own sensibilities, so I want listeners to also share their own ideas and impressions.
I’m getting the feeling that album is encouraging people to broaden their perspectives.
Right. For example, I think about 80% of what I read online is fake (laughs). The majority opinion isn’t always the truth. Sometimes the minority view is correct. And not everything you see is real. It’s up to you to determine what to accept and what to reject, and if you change your perspective, you can get insights into all kinds of different worlds. That’s one of the things I want to convey through the album.
I know exactly what you mean.
And the difference between “CLOWN” and “CROWN” is just the difference between an “L” and an “R.” In China, I’m known as “Liwan,” and in Japanese my name is “RIKIMARU.” I often hear that “When you’re just chatting, you’re ‘Liwan,’ but when you dance you’re “RIKIMARU’.” Looking at the first letters of the names I go by, it’s an “L” and an “R.” I only noticed that afterwards, but it’s an interesting coincidence.
It sounds like an album that provides people with insights into various aspects of your character. You released “TALKIN’BOUT,” a single from CLOWN OR CROWN, on July 27, before the album was released. What is the meaning behind the song?
Recently there have been a lot of people struggling with bullying or violence online. It’s also common for the people making these abusive comments to be faceless. You often don’t know who they are. Even if the people around you are saying positive, uplifting things, sometimes it just doesn’t get through. The theme of this song is that you need to turn your attention to the positive. If people want to criticize, let them criticize.
That’s a problem that’s become particularly prominent as of late. So on the album, you’re focusing on that issue.
Some of the people who criticize others online are doing it because they’re stressed. If you get in their crosshairs, it’s almost like an accident. I realize it’s easier said than done, but I think the most important thing is to not let it get to you. If you let yourself get affected by negativity, you lose sight of yourself, right? That’s what I wanted to communicate. I want listeners to make their highest priority being true to themselves.
It feels like this is a theme song for your entire solo project.
That’s true. I wanted to make it kind of a table of contents, a declaration that “I’m going to talk about things that are going on today.” That’s why I made it the first song on the album.
I heard that you’ve made numerous revisions to the song, refining it into its final form.
Until I started working on the album, my voice sounded…childish, I guess? Lacking in artistry. It felt like I was just singing. When I played it to people I knew in the music industry, they said “Your singing technique has improved, but there’s no emotion in your voice.” I didn’t feel that my voice was artistic, either, so during the recording of the song, I recorded each line, line by line, over and over again. In the past, it took me about three hours to record an entire song, including the chorus, but this time it took me five hours just to record the melody line alone.
You were really a perfectionist.
We only had ten days to record the whole album. So there were times when I’d go in to the studio a little after lunch, record all night until 10:00 the next morning, get four hours of sleep, and then go back into the studio again. I did the recording in the US, and the producer said “I’ve never had a recording session continue through the entire night before” (laughs). But everyone pulled together and contributed, making the recording a success.
You’ve also uploaded a music video for “TALKIN’BOUT” to YouTube. What are the highlights of the video?
The dancers are blindfolded, which represents the faceless people I talked about earlier. There are scenes where the dancers are approaching me from behind, or in which it looks like they’re looking at me, but they don’t truly see me. They’re just haunting me. It’s interesting seeing the reactions of people who watch the music video, reading their novel interpretations.
One of the appeals of the song is how much depth there is to explore its meaning. The choreography was done by YUMEKI, right?
YUMEKI’s been doing a lot of great work lately, and his dancing is really cool, so I asked him to choreograph the song. I want people to pay especially close attention to the dancing in the chorus and in the dance break that follows. This was a new experience for me — it was the first time I had one of my former students do my choreography. I thought it would be perfect for giving my dancing a different feel and showing a new side of me.
The lead song is “I am Riki.”
This song is in a totally different genre than my past songs. In the past, I’d danced straight through all my videos, but this music video has zero dancing. Instead, it’s like a short film of a story I created, and I did a lot of acting.
What was your story about?
When I get stressed out, I sometimes think “What am I? Who am I?” I don’t truly understand myself. When that happens, it’s like the world goes dark. I get disoriented. “Why am I here, doing what I’m doing?” My story depicted that feeling.
I’m sure that before writing the story, you’d thought about just who you were. What kind of conclusions did you arrive at?
I didn’t arrive at any conclusions (laughs). I never arrived at an understanding of who I was, or what my own ideal self would be like. But I did realize that a darker approach, like CLOWN OR CROWN, was a good fit for me. Also, I’m really fickle. Who knows, maybe when I listen to the album again later it’ll feel like a comedy (laughs). But I want to concentrate on myself as I am here and now, and I want to enjoy the moment, without thinking about the future.
All of your songs, including the two that we’ve discussed, have clearly defined themes. I’m sure there were a lot of things that you paid special attention to, and you faced a lot of challenges.
I really focused on the themes. Even if an album has an overall theme, it’s rare for each individual song to have a sense of story and to match the overall album theme. I spent about half a year thinking about that.
As far as challenges go, the English was a challenge. With this album, I wanted for people around the world to discover me, so most of the lyrics are in English. When you sing, if your accent’s off, the emotion doesn’t come across. The nuance might change, as well. So I sang with an American, who provided input like “If you sing it this way, the singing matches the story” or “The emotion doesn’t really communicate well if you do it that way.” Making all those adjustments was difficult.
You really put your all into the album. In closing, do you have any message you’d like to share with your album listeners?
This album is like a fairytale. Each song tells a story, so I’d love it if you listened to it in the same way you’d read a storybook.
—This interview by Azusa Takahashi first appeared on Billboard Japan