Naoko Yamano talks about “Sweet Candy Power” and the long career of Shonen Knife

Photo byTomoko Ota
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For nearly 40 years, Japan’s Shonen Knife have been creating infectious punk/pop music that often revolves around food. This past summer they released their 19th studio album, “Sweet Candy Power”, featuring songs such as “Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches”, “Peppermint Attack”, and “California Lemon Trees”.

Frontwoman and only consistent member Naoko Yamano started Shonen Knife in Osaka, Japan on December 30, 1981. Their first album, “Burning Farm”, came out in Japan in 1983 and was released on legendary American label “K” Records in 1985. Highlights from their long career include writing a song for The Powerpuff Girls, touring with Nirvana, and even being the subject of a tribute album. In an email interview, Naoko discusses the new album and long career of Shonen Knife.

The group has been around since 1981. When you first started, did you have any idea that you would still be doing it nearly 40 years later? If not, was there a point in your career when you realized that it a long-term project?

Naoko: I had no idea that I would keep on ROCKing so long. People around me helped a lot and when I get good reaction from our audience, it became energy to continue the band for me. Actually, I’m very busy touring now. I have no time to think “I’m continuing on very long.”. I just cope with things of today.

You’ve cited bands such as The Beatles, Ramones, and Buzzcocks as inspirations for starting Shonen Knife. Could you comment on the music scene around you at the time in Japan and whether that had any impact on your beginnings?

Naoko: We have been very unique from the beginning. There is no band like us. We have very poppy melody lines and fun lyrics. I’m inspired by British or American Rock. I don’t listen to Japanese music. Most all of our lyrics are written in English. We are very special and different from other Japanese bands. In Japan, there were very few all-female bands at overground and their music styles are very different from us.

There haven’t been many Japanese bands who have been able to break into America, and you’ve had success in many other countries as well. Was reaching international audiences a goal from the start? Do you feel there have been particular challenges in that respect?

Naoko: I’ve never imagined that we could be popular internationally. If I wanted to be popular in overseas, I might not have made up a band name like Shone Knife. It’s annoying to explain the meaning of “Shonen” to people. Shonen is a Japanese word and overseas people don’t know it. If people need us, we just go and play shows. That’s it. It doesn’t depend on countries. Everything happens naturally. We just play music and get invitations from overseas. we’re very thankful for it. I have had wonderful experiences in foreign countries.

Being a very unique band, did you feel any added pressure when you started to achieve success? (Either pressure to conform in any way, or perhaps to keep doing the same thing?).

Naoko: I don’t have any pressure. If I feel pressure, I need to quit the band.

What did you think of the “EVERY BAND HAS A SHONEN KNIFE THAT LOVES THEM” tribute album? Did any of the tracks stand out to you?

Naoko: It was surprising and fantastic! I’m very honored about it. I love all the tracks.

You did a cover of Weird Al’s “Eat It.” I know it fits into your tendency to sing about food, but found it interesting that you covered the parody version of a song. Could you comment on that?

Naoko: Shonen Knife was invited to the project. Weird Al is very talented and I often saw his music videos in the 1980s. I also like Michael Jackson a lot. The song “Eat it “is very suitable for me. I sing that song at Karaoke, too. It’s fun.

Do you feel your approach to making music has changed over the years?

Naoko: The basic part of the approach to making music hasn’t changed. I’m always trying to make songs that make people happy and smiling. I listen to more types of music now more than before. Inspired by them, I think I’m improving at writing songs.

Did you have any specific goals going into making “Sweet Candy Power”?

Naoko: Just having a wonderful time with the audience when we play our songs. Actually, we played the title song “Sweet Candy Power” at our European tour in May, many audience members yelled “CANDY!”.

So much of your music is very bright and happy sounding. Do feel that this is something you consciously strive for, or does it just come naturally? Do you ever write things and then determine that they might not fit into that sound Shonen Knife is known for?

Naoko: It comes naturally. I can’t write so many songs. Every song which I write is Shonen Knife.

Do you feel that the many line-up changes have had an impact on the group?

Naoko: If someone would like to be a full-time member of Shonen Knife, she has to tour in long terms. She can’t have a regular job or when she has children, she can’t join the tour. Being a rock musician is very hard. Anyway, each person has their own character. If two people play the same melody line, we make it different.

But basically I have made all the songs and lyrics for more than 10 years. I also make arrangements by myself. Sometimes I get other member’s advice, though.

Has it been a challenge finding new members when the line-up had a vacancy?

Naoko: It hasn’t been a challenge. New members always come from somewhere!

When you started Shonen Knife, was it a conscious decision for it to be (and remain) an all-female band?

Naoko: Yes it was. I wanted to form an all-female band and also include friends and acquaintances right from the start. This way we can not only play music together, but it’s also easy to talk, and we can share a hotel room well.

I’m curious about your lyric writing process. Do you initially begin writing in English, or perhaps start initially shaping ideas in Japanese and then translate?

Naoko: There is no rule. English to Japanese – Japanese to English… It’s like playing catch.

When you write a song about food, such as “Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches,” is the food the basis of the songwriting (initial idea), or do you have the musical idea first and then decide the food matches the feel?

Naoko: The food comes first. The very first step for writing songs is having some keywords. For example “Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches”, were the basic keywords. Then I expand it into lyrics. I write basic lyrics first, add melody lines, then go back and fix the lyrics.

With an extensive back catalog now, how do you decide which older songs to play when you tour?

Naoko: There are some songs which our fans want. I mix these songs and new songs with a good balance. The order of the songs is decided by the songs’ key, tempo, type, including albums and so on. It takes a long time for me to make a setlist.

A lot has been written about your initial influences, but I’m wondering if there is any current/recent music that you find inspiring?

Naoko: I’m mainly inspired by ’70s and ’60s British Hard Rock and American Rock. More recently I like to listen to Disco, Funk, and Soul music at home.

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I also currently contribute to the Please Kill Me website (based on the book of the same name.) Below are some of my recent interviews from there.

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