On Balance in Songwriting & ‘Hors D’oeuvre’ Album

Billboard Japan‘s “MONTHLY FEATURE” series presents various artists and works that have caught our eye. February’s featured artist is Japanese three-piece band shy taupe, formed in June 2022 by members of a university music club. On April 25, 2023, they released the digital single “Rendezvous,” which became frequently covered on TikTok and other social media, both in vocal covers and guitar-accompanied performances. The song turned into a charting viral hit in August 2023 and in November, shy taupe reached 100 million total streams.

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On their first full album, Hors D’oeuvre, released in February of this year, the band combines pop sensibilities and sentimentalism. The lyrics are beautiful and go right to the heart. The vocals deftly change tone from song to song, conveying the feelings of the persona of each song. It’s an album with a rich variety of tunes that convey the sway of emotions that are part of the human experience. Billboard Japan caught up with the three members of shy taupe on their first-ever nationwide tour and discussed their aesthetics and musical philosophy.

You’re in the middle of your first Japanese tour, right? How’s it going?

So Sasaki (vocals/guitar): We’ve finished playing three of the shows on the tour so far, and playing each venue has been a blast. I’m thinking that our experiences will have opened up new perspectives when the tour finishes, so I’m looking forward to seeing them.

Takatoman (drums): The mood of the audience varies depending on where we’re playing, so each show, I’m thinking “What kind of show should we put on?” Each show, I want to put on an even better performance than the last. Without ever losing sight of that spirit, I want to keep showing the audience new things. I think that, through this process, we’ll grow as a band.

Masaki Fukunaga (bass): Just changing a single song in the set list totally changes the atmosphere of the show. It feels like the more shows we put on, the better our shows are getting, so I’m looking forward to the final show of the tour on March 31.

You formed as a band in June 2022, and now you’ve reached the phase of your musical career where you can’t ignore the potential for viral hits on social media. What do you think about that aspect of the music scene?

Sasaki: I’ve never said “Let’s try to build some buzz and make it big.” When writing songs, I’ve never thought about what kinds of themes or lyrics or melodies would help it go viral. But I do have a strong desire for a lot of people to hear our music. So it’s been a bit of a struggle — I want lots of people to hear our music, but I don’t want to be focused on trying to create buzz.

I can see that. Your lyrics are easy to understand, but it’s also clear that you’ve taken a lot of care to write them beautifully.

Sasaki: That’s right (laughs). I could write lyrics that are super-straightforward, but I prefer more poetic expressions. When you see the lyrics, I want them to look like a poem, not just a paragraph. I guess this will be a conflict that I’ll always be facing. I’ll just keep pushing forward, struggling and using trial-and-error.

During the course of following that vision, in September 2023, “Rendezvous” became a viral hit.

Fukunaga: Listeners have had more opportunities to hear us through songs like “Heya” and “pink,” but it came as a surprise to us to see shy taupe showing up even in rankings we were familiar with.

Takatoman: But I don’t think our attitude or approach to music has changed. The numbers and rankings have changed so much that it hardly feels real, and while we’re happy to have this recognition, there’s also a lot of pressure to become stronger as a band and live up to expectations.

Sasaki: When we wrote “Rendezvous,” it didn’t feel like we’d written a masterpiece. It didn’t feel like a masterpiece when we released it, either. But that’s made us realize that this is what it feels like when you write something that a lot of people will listen to. When people started listening to “pink,” there were a lot of unexpected reactions online. I was surprised to see how people interpreted the lyrics.

That’s not what you’d written the lyrics to mean.

Sasaki: Right. But I’m actually glad to see those kinds of misinterpretations. It’s not all about having listeners receive my lyrics the way I intended. If listeners interpret my lyrics in a different way, and that helps them through hard times, then that’s even better, and it makes me happy that I wrote the song. I write songs partly for myself, but that alone isn’t enough. No man is an island. I think that deep in their hearts, everyone, to some degree or another, wants what they do to benefit others, too.

Your first album, Hors D’oeuvre, which includes “Rendezvous,” shows that shy taupe is a many-faceted band. It feels like you took a lot of care with balancing the album.

Sasaki: I’ve gotten the feeling that it’s become rarer nowadays for people to listen to music in the form of entire albums. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but in our case, we’re going to keep paying a lot of attention to the order of songs on our albums for the sake of the people who listen to our albums as albums. I’d like us to do interesting things with album song order, like making the title track the last track on an album.

Fukunaga: I fell in love with music through the CD albums my parents would play in the car. I also listen to individual songs here and there, but I feel like Sasaki understands what makes albums great, as well, so I agree with him.

Takatoman: When I pick up an album, I feel like I get a sense of something that’s important to the artist that can’t be expressed electronically in the form of a playlist or the like. That’s why I always want to take great care with our albums.

The fact that you place such importance on the expressive medium of albums could be seen as the reason for your creating such a diversity of songs.

Sasaki: When I write songs, balance is very important to me. I don’t want to just keep creating ballad after ballad and being a “ballad band.” I want people who hear “Rendezvous” to pick up Hors D’oeuvre and hear songs with a different feel, like “Burn!!” We picked these songs with the desire to be a band that has a balanced repertoire of different songs. That’s why we chose the title Hors D’oeuvre, because we’re a band with a lot of variety, like a plate of hors d’oeuvre at a party, and because, like hors d’oeuvre, it conveys the sense that there’s a main course to come in the future. We want to live up to people’s expectations and show people that we are versatile — that we write the lyrics we want, the way we want, and we make the music we want to make. I hope we can maintain a good balance and develop along both of those axes.

You’ve mentioned that the songs you write are about things people experience in their everyday life, but many of the songs are about love, about chasing your dreams, and about observations from daily life.

Sasaki: When you boil down my everyday life, it comes down to those three things. That’s why our songs are very true-to-life.

So shy taupe is now serving hors d’oeuvres across Japan, and the best is yet to come?

Sasaki: I think the kinds of songs we should make, and the kinds of songs we want to make, are going to vary every time we work on new music. Those changes themselves can be interesting, and I think we can create interesting music if we reflect those changes in our songs. I’ve always had a lot of admiration for Mr. Children. They’re really good at balancing what they want to do and living up to others’ expectations for them. I want for shy taupe, too, to constantly be exploring, imagining, having fun, and struggling with our music, without ever slacking.

Fukunaga: I think you need to have real skill to do what you want to do. That’s why I’m trying to learn even more musical phrases and absorb even more influences, building up my own abilities so I can do what I want.

Takatoman: The future isn’t all going to be wine and roses. I’m sure there are also going to be hard times. That’s why I need to not only improve my technique as a musician but also to grow as a human. I feel like if you don’t grow as a person, you’ll lose the power you need to keep doing what you want to do, and the power you need to keep making music. That’s why during this tour, and in the future, I want to keep growing while maintaining a good balance.

This interview by Sayako Oki first appeared on Billboard Japan

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