It never fails to amaze us when renowned creatives showcase multiple talents beyond the one that they’re most well-known for. Individuals like the late Sir Terence Conran, whose influence can be felt in all corners of design, as well as bestselling author and avid jazz hobbyist Haruki Murakami, are some notable examples.
In an interview with the Financial Times, talent psychology consultant Karen Ward stated that many of life’s high-achievers juggle multiple interests. These individuals share a common personality trait: each of their interests is fulfilled to a high standard. “If a gifted person is motivated to do something, they have the capacity to work very long hours. That’s how they energise themselves,” she explains.
For a new generation of musicians, merely making music isn’t enough to channel their creative flair. By expanding their talent into design, illustration or virtual reality, they can continue to gain traction and speak to a larger fanbase. Like the age-old ‘chicken and egg’ argument, this begs the question: which came first? The artist or the musician?
KENSHI YONEZU: VOCALOID-ILLUSTRATOR-SUPERSTAR
If you’re into J-music, you’ll definitely have heard of Kenshi Yonezu. In 2018, he dominated the charts on Billboard Japan, Oricon and iTunes, bagging numerous awards and even performing at the iconic year-end music festival Kōhaku Uta Gassen with his hit song, “Lemon”, which currently has 626 million plays on YouTube. Yonezu can be dubbed as one of the most accomplished millennial singers of today, but his rise to stardom was no accident.
In 2009, under the stage name Hachi (meaning “number 8” in Japanese), Yonezu was already uploading songs using Vocaloid, a singing voice synthesizer best known for creating the voice of virtual pop idol Hatsune Miku. Three years later, Yonezu “debuted” with diorama, using his real name and his own voice as opposed to the Vocaloid albums from his Hachi days. Entirely performed, written, produced, arranged and mixed by Yonezu himself, diorama became one of the top independent releases in Japan in 2012.
Even the album cover was hand-drawn by Yonezu: densely twisting lines form the outline of a whale, carrying a mass of high-rise buildings on its back. Explaining why he took it upon himself to create the album art for diorama, Yonezu says: “I’m not good at communicating with others, so I decided to do it by myself.” Influenced by his mother, Yonezu’s affinity with art continued to flourish throughout his career. His illustrations are featured regularly in music magazine Rockin’ On Japan, and he would go on to publish a collection of monster-themed illustrations in a book called Kaiju Zukan.
At age 20, Yonezu was diagnosed with high-functional autism, which explained his inability to get along with this peers and his lack of confidence growing up. However, through his music, he has been able to spread his message, touching hearts with his positive lyrics and unique melodies. “Lemon” is part of the soundtrack of Japanese forensic drama Unnatural, but also serves as Yonezu’s personal tribute to his late grandfather. The lyrics depict the passing of a loved one and how one comes to terms with loss:
Even through the sadness and pain / I loved it all with you / Like the scent of bitter lemon that still lingers in my chest
TEFLON SEGA: THE 2D ANIME SINGER
South Korea’s largest entertainment company, SM Entertainment, recently offered a glimpse of the future with its newest initiative, SMCU (SM Culture Universe). The first K-pop group to debut under this project was aespa, whose name is a combination of “Avatar x Experience x Aspect”, hinting at a dual-realm experience for fans. Featuring both human and virtual members, aespa is set to give K-pop fans a truly novel experience in the world of music. Whether this will eventually become the norm, or be regarded as a fleeting trend is still unknown – but what is certain is that the boundaries between virtual and physical worlds are no longer clear cut.
Standing at the junction of the two realms is Teflon Sega, a 2D singer who has had more than 19 million plays on Spotify, 10 million plays on Soundcloud, and 15 million plays on YouTube. A self-proclaimed “anti-influencer”, Teflon Sega’s true identity remains a mystery to this day. People know him as an anime character with spiky pink and purple hair, clad in a signature bandana and black hoodie.
His music videos share the same aesthetic: swathes of pink and purple 2D animations with repetitive, almost-dystopian images fill the screen, forming a stark contrast to his haunting vocals that bring each scene to life. Fans can interact with the Teflon Sega brand on Instagram, where he uploads photos of his ventures into the real world, and where they can purchase his merchandise – which includes personally-designed hoodies, sneakers, face masks, and posters.
KANON WAKESHIMA: THE GOTHIC LOLITA CELLIST
In 2008, Kanon Wakeshima became the first Japanese artiste to debut as both a singer and cellist. Born into a music-loving family, Wakeshima’s first name has a musical meaning: it is a variation of the word “canon”, and the Kanji characters mean “the sound of flowers”. She started playing the cello at just three years old, going on to appear in a variety of recitals and concerts at school. After winning a contract with Sony label DefSTAR Records through an audition, her talent caught the eye of visual kei star Mana of Malice Mizer fame (of which GACKT was also an alumnus).
Intrigued by Wakeshima’s potential, Mana produced her debut single “Still Doll”, which was also used as the ending theme to the popular anime series, Vampire Knight. The electronic new wave-meets-classical waltz sound showcased both her talents and, coupled with her Gothic Lolita aesthetic, Wakeshima quickly became a popular icon in the visual kei scene.
Another thing that sets Wakeshima apart is her love of drawing and painting. In autumn of 2008, her first exhibition as a visual artist was held at Laforet Harajuku, a major fashion mall in Tokyo. As she catapulted into international fame in 2009, she held another exhibition at Royal-T Café in Los Angeles. In 2018, she wrote, illustrated and self-published THANATOS, a manga depicting the story of ex-soldier Lyle K. Evans and his bodyguard, Thanatos. Accompanying the launch of the manga were two original songs, “One Last Time” and “Roses”.
The past couple of years have been productive for the prolific artist. With her 2019 album Odd String & Intrigue, Wakeshima’s music took on a more mature tone, but still stays true to her multi-faceted Baroque Pop style. Earlier this year, to the delight of Wakeshima’s fans, THANATOS 2 was released, alongside its new soundtrack Poolside, which features two brand-new concept songs.
TYLER, THE CREATOR: A F***ING WALKING PARADOX
Call him what you like, but Tyler, the Creator doesn’t want to be labeled as a “rapper”. With over a decade of experience in the music industry, he is a musician, songwriter, producer, actor, streetwear brand owner, and visual artist. Simply referring to him as a rapper seems to take away the importance of his other accomplishments, making light of what he fought so hard to achieve.
Born in California, Tyler Gregory Okonma started to make imaginary album covers – complete with tracklists and song lengths – at the tender age of seven. At 14, he taught himself how to play the piano. As a keen skateboarder, he picked up skills by watching the game Pro Skater 4, but preferred to stay under the radar at school. Over 12 years, he would go on to attend 12 different schools, later holding down jobs at FedEx and Starbucks before deciding to make music his full-time profession.
In 2007, Tyler formed hip-hop collective Odd Future together with a group of rappers, DJs and producers. In addition to the common themes of violence, sex and drugs, Odd Future also addressed relatable issues like teenage depression in their music. Tyler’s first self-released mixtape, Bastard, featured lyrics describing feelings of shame, anger and powerlessness; while Odd Future’s track “NY (Ned Flander)” expressed the jealousy and eagerness to prove oneself, striving to climb up the ladder of fame while being bombarded with temptation.
Tyler’s controversial single “Yonkers” from his Goblin album further cemented his desperate determination to be himself without bowing to the power of the establishment. Released in 2011, it earned Tyler the Best New Artist award at the MTV Video Music Awards in the same year. The lyrics of “Yonkers” are full of self-praise (“I’m a f***ing walking paradox”), but come peppered with self-doubt and insecurity. The black-and-white music video itself brims with tension: Tyler swallows a cockroach and begins to vomit, then proceeds to undress and take his own life.
However dark and disturbing his music is, Tyler seems to balance it out with explosions of colour in other aspects of his life. His skateboards are emblazoned with vibrant graffiti, while his streetwear brand Golf Wang (a play on the collective’s name: Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All) is loudly and proudly vintage American. Through his sneaker collaborations with the likes of Vans and Converse, you get a glimpse into his love for contrasts: donut prints on a bright blue background, rainbow midsoles, colour-blocking meets checkers, and even pink-on-pink suede.
Whether on his self-designed album covers (2015’s Cherry Bomb and 2017’s Flower Boy) or in his personal style, Tyler’s penchant for surrealism translates across everything he touches – a testament to the infinite possibilities of his amazing talent.
This article was originally published in Chinese on Sound of Life on 30 November 2020.
Cover Credit: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic / Getty Images
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, animal videos and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.