A Conversation With MIYAVI

As a guitarist, vocalist, actor, model and humanitarian, Japanese artist Takamasa “MIYAVI” Ishihara is a hyphenate extraordinaire, thrilling audiences worldwide with his unique and virtuosic slap-style approach to the guitar and his passionate performances in films such as 2014’s Unbroken (directed by Angelina Jolie and co-written by the Coen brothers). The 37-year-old MIYAVI shows no signs of slowing down, as he has a new LP (his 11th), No Sleep Till Tokyo, due out July 24, a summer North American tour and a role in the Jolie-starring Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil, in theaters this October.

The new album is fantastic. The lead-off track, “Stars,” seems like a quintessential MIYAVI song, with funky slap guitar, huge choruses and a synth-like 8-bit guitar lead. Your last two albums were collaborative efforts with other artists. Please talk a little about your vision for this LP. Does the title No Sleep Till Tokyo have anything to do with the fact that between recording, touring, acting and your other work, you seem like a man always on the go?
Thank you. My last two albums were collaborative projects, and it was an inspiring process to learn from such a diverse group of talented and innovative artists. As a guitarist, I have always enjoyed performing with great singers/rappers. However, for this new record, I wanted to focus on creating something 100% within MIYAVI’s world. As a Japanese artist, I have kind of been rediscovering the greatness of Japan especially after I moved to Los Angeles. Moving away gave me a new appreciation for how great and unique Japan really is. For example, I have tried to sing in English in the past but realized that I prefer to sing in my native tongue. I am encouraged by hearing songs in Spanish and Korean on the radio today. As long as a track has a high sound quality, foreign audiences are more willing to be open to your music in a different language.

In the videos I’ve seen online, your slap-guitar technique always catches people off guard; it’s so innovative. I believe you developed this style of playing pretty early on and that you might have been influenced by the sound of the shamisen. Is that correct?
Yes, I got the fundamental idea from the shamisen, which is a traditional Japanese guitar. As a Japanese guitarist, it was important to me to find my own distinct style different from any other guitarists, and so I started slapping the strings. I was also influenced by great bass players such as Marcus Miller, Larry Graham and Louis Johnson. It’s all about the passion you put into every slap. 

Your music is very original but also blends many styles from funk to hip hop to rock … I even hear some blues changes in an older song like “What’s My Name?” Please talk a bit about how you compose songs and your approach to mixing different influences together.
It’s important to evolve as an artist and to continue to challenge myself to record new styles of music. Otherwise, I run the risk of getting stuck in a box, and that would be boring.

“Butterfly,” from the new album, really grooves. I don’t think of you as an artist who writes songs for the dancefloor, but that’s probably putting your music into a box. I’m guessing you don’t think of your music as belonging to just one genre. Is that the case?
Correct. I just go with the flow. It’s all about a message and a groove. People wanna sing and dance. As a creator, it’s my job to capture the listener’s attention while relaying a greater message across through my music.

The song “Samurai” talks about “doing it like a samurai” and that it’s “all or nothing ‘til I make it.” The word “samurai” conjures up certain images among western audiences that are probably not culturally accurate. I know you are sometimes billed as the samurai guitarist. Are you talking about yourself on the track, your audience or both? And what’s the meaning behind this particular tune?
An attitude. “Samurai” is such a serious word for us Japanese, and I don’t want to use this word without any purpose. On this track, I just wanted to sing about an attitude and determination. Focus and dedication. Loyalty used to be the most important value to my people, but that’s changed. True value is always inside you, and a dedication to that life motto is the beauty of Japanese culture.

As a guitar player, you embrace a wide variety of tones from acoustic to Telecaster twang to the processed sound on your leads. Am I hearing the new Fender Acoustasonic on some of the tracks?
Yeah, the Fender Acoustasonic is an incredibly unique instrument that has both acoustic and electric qualities. When I first played the Acoustasonic, I was blown away by this guitar’s potential.  Throughout music history, there has always been cooperation between artists and guitar brands to create new tools. I really appreciate Fender’s creative spirit and the company’s desire to challenge musicians by developing innovative products. 

When it comes to percussion and beats, you’re not afraid to use acoustic or programmed drums. Is it a question of using whatever best suits the song? By the way, I love that you added in the early-’80s Syndrums on “Under The Same Sky.” So cool!
Thank you. I have been trying to make some new guitar-oriented music for the current generation. It’s hard to make rock ‘n’ roll fresh, and so I try to innovate while also paying respects to all the rock stars who paved the path for us. Now it’s our responsibility to record music that can be a bridge to the next generation. On “Under The Same Sky,” I tried to sing mostly in Japanese as a message to all my fans who have been so supportive over the years. Even if you are away from whom you love, you feel close when you realize that we are all under the same sky. Sometimes we share pictures of our skies so that we feel close knowing that we are living on Earth.

Speaking of percussion, in the more recent live clips I’ve seen, you have a pretty minimal setup with just a drummer, a DJ and backup singers. That would seem to put a lot of pressure on your guitar work, which has to cover much of the rhythm and melody parts by itself. What attracts you to this arrangement?
I’m not afraid to use any recorded track for my shows. The most important thing for me to share with the audience is passion and explosion at every single moment through a performance. I play the guitar, sing, perform, jump and dance. Everything I can do to be connected with the audience. That’s my mission every time when I hit the stage. I’m not just a guitarist. 

OK, last question. Who do you think will win in next year’s Godzilla Vs. Kong movie? It’s too bad they couldn’t find a way to bring your Kong: Skull Island character Gunpei Ikari back from the dead for the sequel!
It’s really cool to see iconic Japanese brands like Godzilla cross-over culturally. Feel free to start a petition to bring my character back from the dead!

—Bruce Fagerstrom