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Japanese Band CHAI On Their New Album 'WINK' And Subverting Cultural Norms

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Rock, pop, punk and fun - these are some of the flavors Japanese band CHAI captures in their genre-fluid music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PING PONG!")

CHAI: (Singing) You and me, racket and ball.

CHANG: This quartet has been making waves here in the U.S. since their first album came out four years ago. CHAI's songs are playful, but they're also political at times. At its core, their music is about challenging traditional notions of feminine beauty. Last week CHAI released their latest studio album, called "WINK," and I spoke to two members of the band - lead vocalist and keyboard player Mana and bassist Yuuki. We began our conversation by talking about this Japanese concept of cuteness called kawaii. It's an idea that fuels a multibillion-dollar industry in Japan. Here's Mana.

MANA: (Through interpreter) Kawaii typically means having features like large, round eyes, a pointy nose, a slim face, beautiful hair, fair skin and being thin - Western features, in a sense. You see lots of those people on the covers of magazines and in Japanese media, so girls try to look like them. That is changing a little by little, but everybody aspires to be like them.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, when you were growing up, did either of you feel like you fit into this idea of kawaii?

MANA: (Through interpreter) I grew up not fitting into the idea of kawaii to the point that it would piss me off. It made me angry. Boys have actually said to my face that I wasn't attractive or that my eyes are too small. But that's what music did for me. Music was my outlet. These kind of experiences of not being considered kawaii - that is what made us make music unique to us. Only we can make this music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KARAAGE")

CHAI: (Singing) We need five minutes of love.

CHANG: Well, I totally relate to that, not looking cute in the traditional Asian way. How about you, Yuuki? When you were growing up, did you feel like you fit in with kawaii, the concept of kawaii?

YUUKI: (Through interpreter) Yeah, so I'm the same as Mana. Growing up, I didn't fit into the definition of what kawaii is, at least how Japan defines it. But I actually remember wanting to be like the people I would see on TV who did fit into kawaii. At one point, I asked myself why I admired those people, and I eventually stopped caring about it. And I realized that as soon as I stopped caring, people would naturally tell me I was cute. And I thought, ah, this is interesting.

CHANG: (Laughter) Naturally.

YUUKI: (Through interpreter) Yes. Like, I was told that jet black hair was part of Asian identity. But now I don't even think about that.

CHANG: Yeah.

YUUKI: (Through interpreter) I do what I want. Like, I dyed my hair blonde.

CHANG: I see that. I lighten my hair, too, out here in California (laughter).

YUUKI: (Through interpreter) Yeah, we're the same. We're the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WISH UPON A STAR")

CHAI: (Singing) La la la la, wish upon a star. (Singing in Japanese).

CHANG: Well, CHAI, I know, subverted kawaii by turning it into a new concept in your music, a concept called neo-kawaii. Tell me what neo-kawaii is.

MANA: (Through interpreter) Well, with neo-kawaii, we are not trying to deny kawaii necessarily, but we are saying that definition or standards that kawaii sets are too narrow. In Japan, the only way to call people other than those considered kawaii are busu, which means ugly. I wanted to give those people a positive message or positive word. Everyone has their own kawaii, so we thought, why don't we call it neo-kawaii?

CHANG: Hear, hear. Well, Yuuki, I understand that you wrote the song "Maybe Chocolate Chips."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAYBE CHOCOLATE CHIPS")

CHAI: (Singing in Japanese).

CHANG: You have said that this song is about self-love. I want to understand what inspired you to write this. What does the song mean to you?

YUUKI: (Through interpreter) Yeah. So "Maybe Chocolate Chips" is a song about my moles. Actually, I have a skin type that tends to develop more and more moles over the years. And I know I could get procedures to get rid of them if I wanted. If I spent enough money, it would be like they never existed. But instead of that, I started thinking, why do that? This is what I was born with. These are my chocolate chips. And you know what? Chocolate chips taste really good. What's wrong with that? And that actually turned my mood around. It made me happy about my moles. So just by changing my perspective, I was able to change my feelings, too. So then I thought, I've got to tell this to everyone, which is why I wrote the song "Maybe Chocolate Chips" to this warm and mellow tune - so maybe people could understand the message and feel how I felt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAYBE CHOCOLATE CHIPS")

RIC WILSON: (Rapping) See; I just want to see you do what they said you could never undo. My chocolate chip, they can't get a grip. They can't define you with beauty myths. The world is moving, so move with it. Your moles are what make you whole.

CHANG: I love how all of you reject the need to have a certain kind of figure, how you will not be scared of food, because I know reading about your band that you and I share a very common passion. We all love to eat, and I love how you embrace food in your music. Tell me about the song "Donuts Mind If I Do."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DONUTS MIND IF I DO")

CHAI: (Singing) Don't mind if I do. Doughnuts mind if I do.

YUUKI: (Through interpreter) Yeah, so this is Yuuki again. So I learned this phrase, doughnuts mind if I do, when we were on tour in the U.S. And in the hotel lobby, there was a sign that said, free doughnuts. And then we also saw the sign written as, doughnuts mind if I do. And I thought it was such a funny and cool pun with a sense of humor. But at the same time, it made me feel warm inside. And on top of that, we love to eat because eating is directly related to how you live. And that's a theme of the song. You know, I think it's a bit sad to suppress what you love, like by going on a diet, for example. So the song is really about, you know, no matter how old you get, you should live your life prioritizing the things you love, and that could be a doughnut. So that's what I put in this song.

CHANG: (Laughter) I love that. Well, tell me why you call this new album "WINK." What does a wink mean to you?

MANA: (Through interpreter) I really love to wink and also love to be winked at very much. The reason we called our album "WINK" is partly because the kind of woman who wink are the kind of woman we want to become. You wink because you're confident in what you're doing. You wink because you are fun and full of self-love.

CHANG: That makes me want to wink a whole lot more now.

(LAUGHTER)

MANA: (Speaking Japanese).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIRACLE")

CHAI: (Singing in Japanese).

CHANG: That was Mana and Yuuki of the band CHAI. Thank you so much for being with us all the way from Tokyo. I had such a great time speaking with both of you.

MANA: Thank you so much.

YUUKI: Thank you so much. Bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIRACLE")

CHAI: (Singing) Come on, boy. I will make you mine. (Singing in Japanese). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.