CHAI’s third LP, WINK, is out now on SubPop Records, and like their past releases, the music carries with it a message which emboldens bravery and inner strength, often with small acts of subtle defiance and spirit.
In the past, their inspirational message and music encouraged fans to think of themselves as cute, or rather, to understand themselves as worthy of love and respect, an exercise that required the audience to look to themselves and meditate on their own experiences, gifts, and abilities in order to grasp what makes them unique and irresistible.
The message of positive self-affirmation is still a central part of the continuing dialog that they have with their fans, but on their latest album, CHAI have offered something more: a firm suggestion to move behind themselves. to venture beyond one’s self and invite others into your world, as well as to respectfully ask to enter the world of others. It’s an invitation to seek one’s own freedom and encourage others to join you in a laboratory jamboree. One day, one gesture, one connection at a time. What is this act you might ask? Well, it’s in the title! WINK!
You can stream and buy CHAI’s latest album, WINK, below, and then keep scrolling to read our entire conversation with the band:
Interview conducted via email on May 17, 2021. It has been edited slightly for the sake of clarity.
Why is it important for people to have fun music to relax to in 2021?
MANA: I feel like the existence of music in itself has become even more important and that makes us really happy. Just like many of you all, having had that extra time at home allowed me to re-evaluate what music means to me, what kind of music makes me feel at ease, and relax! The answer to all of this was music that is your “friend”. That “friend” that knows you better than anyone else, always is by your side, caring and understanding…the “friend” that allows you to cry as much as you want to, you can tell anything to…that’s the kind of music I wanted to create. That’s exactly what our new album WINK is!
KANA: We were all in our homes last year due to the pandemic and started creating this album, that “fun yet relaxing” music at the start of it. A lot of the music that I loved listening to during that time and inspired me, is definitely expressed on WINK.
Up until 2019, we had been creating our albums in between tours and also imagined what our songs would sound like live on stage when creating them. This was the first time we created an album without thinking about live shows but instead with a focus on what we wanted to hear while at home, what kind of songs are the soundtrack to your life…and ultimately, we felt that was an album that is your “friend”. That’s why, for 2021, we want WINK to be your “friend.”
YUUKI: To have “fun” and to “relax,” I think there’s a connection there. When you’re having too much fun, you can get worn out, and sometimes that can lead to stress. It’s this stay-at-home time that the pandemic provided that made me realize the value in enjoying yourself to the fullest, and which ultimately showed that relaxing, taking a step back, is very important. It’s those moods we were in during that time that inspired this album.
It’s because of what inspired us and the creative process behind these songs, that expresses our overall message of “self-love”. The message we all need to hear in 2021 and at any time.
YUNA: Having spent so much time at home, I realized the power of music even more! How it soothed me, gave me energy, and all! WINK is what came out of this time. It’s an album that knows you the best! The closest to you! Your friend okay?!
Why is winking so much fun to do?
MANA: I think winking is equivalent to the biggest, most amazing smile. It’s beautiful, not easy to do, your face gets sort of distorted when you do it, but it also allows your heart, the inner you, to communicate with everyone! That’s what winking means to us. We think it’s the greatest form of communication! I want everyone to wink at others and make them laugh, make them feel at ease.
KANA: A person who winks is free, they can afford to receive or not receive it back. To be able to do that to someone is the ultimate smile to me! I, too, want to be that kind of person.
YUUKI: One of our tour managers’, Scott, always adds a wink whenever he communicates with others and I think it’s super nice and super cute! Even if it’s as simple as a “that’s amazing!” or “roger that!”, he makes sure to always add a wink to the message. It’s that positivity, that love that the wink adds, that makes the person doing the winking and the one receiving the wink, both enjoy whatever it is that they’re doing!
YUNA: To wink is to be full of confidence and full of love! I realized during the stay-at-home time, how important it is to accept yourself for who you are and to love yourself, even if it at times it may seem hard! To be able to wink at any and everyone, not only wraps you but others with love! That right there is amazing to me! I want to become that kind of person.
What do you do if you wink at someone and they don’t wink back?
MANA: “How cute!” is what I would think! Even if someone doesn’t wink back, if we can laugh from the bottom of our hearts together, that works too!
KANA: Most likely, when you wink at someone, they won’t return the favor! Ha! I still want to continue to wink though, without expecting the receiving end to wink back!
YUUKI: Do we even need to think about getting a wink back? <3
YUNA: It wouldn’t bother me at all <3!
What are some of the new influences we are hearing on WINK?
MANA: My inner thoughts! Knowing it’s alright to have confidence in myself, to tell myself “you are it!,” and to also be worried about believing in myself so much. If I ever worry about what a true “friend” is, I know my go-to is WINK.
KANA: I consider WINK the first of many revolutionary CHAI albums to come. We challenged ourselves in many ways and I think everyone who listens can feel where CHAI is right now. It’s that album that before you know it, it’s right next you. It’s the album that will carry you through. When you’re faced with a challenge or want to take one on, or even want to make a move, listen to this album! I hope it can become the root of something amazing for you.
YUUKI: “Oh that’s right, I am amazing!” is the inspiration behind this album, so I’m sure when you listen, you will realize that you’re amazing too.
YUNA: Relaxation and Self-love! No matter what how you’re feeling, this album will be right by your side! <3
I heard that this record is more inspired by music that you listen to at home? Who are some of these artists and records?
MANA: “Waterfalls” by TLC, “Good News” by Mac Miller, “sugar” by BROCKHAMPTON are a few of the records that inspired WINK overall. I love all of these records! From the nostalgia you sense from TLC, to the awareness and freedom you feel from Mac Miller, and the comradery and friendship that exudes from BROCKHAMPTON, they are all simply amazing.
Who are some artists that you love but who you think people might be surprised to learn you like?
MANA: Plus-Tech Squeeze Box! It’s a Japanese band! Their music is super artistic!
I really like the guitar lead on “Miracle.” The melody is really sweet as well. Can you tell me what inspired these specific sounds?
MANA: With this album, we really held onto the feeling of “nostalgia”. “Nostalgia” has a sound, even if I wasn’t alive during a specific era, it’s that feeling that I thought we really needed right now. I made “Miracle” with that in mind! The importance of that “nostalgic” feel!
KANA: Perhaps Bruno Mars, whose songs are also inspired by a specific era. It’s that nostalgia, the good vibes you feel, that pop! I love it!
Some of the chiptune sounds on “Ping Pong!” make me think that you’ve been playing video games while in quarantine. If this is true, what games have been your favorites this past year and a half, and why?
KANA: To be honest, I don’t own or play any video games but it’s something about that classic Nintendo System, in Japan it was called Famicom, but there’s something really cute about the gaming culture in Japan! It’s because we never imagined ourselves creating a video game-like feel for a song, that made us wanted to take on the challenge even more!
YUUKI: I don’t have any video games at my current house, but when I was little, I used to play a lot of video games with my Dad and younger brother. I just remember how fun those days were! We played a lot of Super Smash Bros.!
YUNA: I haven’t played any video games recently but I am into download game apps on my phone! It’s just something about those cards aligning in Solitaire that brings me so much joy. Perhaps we should create our own video game?
Why was it important to you to work with producers and artists from outside of Japan for this record?
MANA: We wanted to surpass what we thought we could do and turn it into something, we really challenged ourselves on this album! Trying new things, that’s what CHAI is! A new form of CHAI! To collaborate meant expressing ourselves authentically with this album so it is very important! It’s all about challenging yourself and incorporating the new. That’s the amazing part about music! People from different place, different backgrounds coming together to create one piece that expresses all! It’s magic!
KANA: We wanted to exceed our potential! We thought there was no better timing than now. It’s collaborating with others that not only teaches you things but broadens your reach, your world, the people that hear your music, and it’s all fun! It’s opened us up to new and more ways of exploring music but yet still CHAI. That’s what’s most important.
YUUKI: In order for us to grow, it was important for us to mix and match our abilities with that of others! The chemical interaction between what CHAI can do and can’t do, along with mixture of others is what gets me excited and I love it!
Just as we did with WINK, we want to continue to evolve into the many forms of CHAI!
YUNA: Being able to collaborate with producers and Artists from overseas really brought out another form of CHAI and I’m super thankful! I think it’s because we’re CHAI, that we’re able to challenge ourselves and continue to be ourselves yet evolve. We want to continue introducing all kinds of CHAI and stepping outside of Japan on this album was one of those steps.
How did you get connected with Ric Wilson? How nice was he to work with: Super nice or extremely nice?
MANA: We met Ric Wilson at Pitchfork Festival in Chicago. He was performing at a stage across from us and we watched him as we were setting up on our stage. We were scheduled to perform right after him but all I could think was, “wow! He’s amazing!” I remember screaming with excitement, watching him from our stage! He ended up watching our show as well and came over to speak to us once we were done. We all hugged and told one another how amazing our performances were. I can definitely say that Ric is a super nice and happy person! When we finished recording our parts for “Maybe Chocolate Chips,” we agreed that a male rapper would sound good on the track and all we could think of was Ric! His verse is something only he could convey and we love how everything turned out!
KANA: Ric is super friendly, so cool, and cute! This song truly became what it is because of him!
You have a song called “Nobody Knows We Are Fun.” I have a hard time believing that people don’t know how much fun you are. Do you really worry that people don’t think you are fun?
MANA: Yes, I do at times! I want the world to hear us, to know about us!
KANA: No, it’s not being worried but us telling the world, “hey! Have you met CHAI yet? You haven’t heard of them, right?! You’re missing out! They’re awesome!”
YUUKI: I didn’t write this song out of worry but of wanting to create a song that yells, “we’re awesome!” Meaning, “you’re awesome too!” is what I think. Everyone is different and I think the act of complimenting one another’s differences is needed more than ever now! There’s something awesome about each and every one of us! It’s when we complement our differences that we truly become free right?! <3
YUNA: Of course, I have times when I worry or feel like l have come to a standstill in life but it’s those times that I realizing I’m stopping myself and say, “wait! I’m awesome!” That’s exactly what “Nobody Knows We Are Fun” is. Whenever you’re feeling worried put on “Nobody Knows We Are Fun”! Listen to WINK all the way through <3
What is the hardest you’ve had to work to get people to enjoy your music at one of your shows?
KANA: I think at every show, at all different stages, we’re feeling all kinds of emotions. There were times when I felt lonely, being on the road, away from home and all but you fight through it. I’m thankful for those experiences though, because it makes you dust yourself off, move forward, and know what to do the next time.
YUUKI: When on stage, I tend to focus more on getting myself excited more so than the crowd. I think the crowd will go along with whatever vibe the Artist is expressing!
YUNA: We never change no matter where we’re performing or what the situation, so I can’t say I’ve ever had a time like that. I think it starts with you! What you’re projecting from the stage! That’s what’s important!
How does it feel to have had a break from live performances this past year? Were there any positives in your opinion?
MANA: We were set to perform at a few major festivals so I was down about having those canceled but instead what I did get was time to relax! It’s this time that allowed us to grow so whenever we do get to perform at a major festival, we will be the biggest and best CHAI that we could’ve ever imagined! Looking forward to that day makes me nervous but until then, we’ll continue to create more music!
KANA: There was a positive in having a break from performances last year. It was the ability to focus. Focus on creating this album. We really listened this time, honed in, and “listened” to the music. Not imaging what it would sound like live on stage but what was right in front of us at that given moment. I mean, that’s what you’re supposed to do, when it comes to music right?! It became a really important time for me, a time to re-confirm what music truly means to all of us.
YUUKI: I think there were a few positives! It’s because of everything sort of stopped that I was able to really focus on creating this album! It’s like that big jump you get to take after having been crouched down for so long!
We’ve got our feet firm on the ground, ready to take that huge and high leap, so be sure to stay tuned!
YUNA: Of course, you feel like, “wow, no shows?!” but the time I got last year was very important to me. It was time to reflect on ourselves, on life, and on our music.
What is your impression of American audiences vs Japanese audiences? I ask because I heard you got cat-called the last time you played the Empty Bottle in Chicago.
MANA: Totally different! Perhaps it’s because of cultural differences or the way in which we interpret music but every country is different! That’s the most interesting part of it all!
I feel like the American audiences really show you love are good at expressing how much fun they’re having. We really did have a lot of interesting encounters!!! There was definitely a time where a fan almost put his head between my legs when I was performing! Interesting to say the least!
KANA: It’s totally different! I think the people, in general, are completely different. I think it’s definitely due to cultural differences. American audiences tend to be more open with how they express themselves. Whether it’s their body language or shouting out to us! Japanese audiences are a little more reserved, with less people expressing how they feel and instead may shed a tear as opposed to dancing or shouting. There all different but I love it either way!
YUUKI: They are different! I think that’s how it’s supposed to be! Every country is different with their own personality in a sense. The American audience expresses themselves physically! It’s super fun to see when performing on stage!
YUNA: Of course! Every country is different but they all give us great reactions!!! When we tour overseas, I notice that a lot of the fans know the lyrics to our songs and sing along with us! That fills me up with joy!
Your song “Action” is inspired by the BLM movement in the US. What were the general impressions in Japan of the protests we had in the US for racial justice last summer? How would you describe race relations in Japan right now?
MANA: To see that something that’s so deeply rooted in history, still happening today is really unfortunate. We are Japanese, and although we may not have been directly affected by such unfortunate events, we cannot ignore it. Music and many other forms of art have the ability to convey news and of course many things are shocking to hear. In the midst of all of this, we feel obligated to take ACTION! That’s the feeling we had behind this song.
There were all forms of ACTION being taken, but for us, we thought about what we would choose, and realized that’s an act out of love. An act out of love in hopes for a better future, a future where we don’t discriminate against one another. For us, that was music! We chose music to relay this message. We believe in the power of music, and although we know it cannot completely change everything that’s going on, we want everyone who’s hurting to know that from the bottom of our hearts, we empathize with you, we hear you, and that this song comes from nothing but love.
KANA: I think in Japan, the people were divided between those who took interest and those who didn’t. The history of racial discrimination is a rather distant issue for Japanese people but I wanted to know more, I knew I needed to. It’s not something you can really explain in one word and as a band who travels overseas, brushes shoulders with many people, we know we hold a responsibility to understand even more, especially because we are Japanese. It’s important for us to look at one another as equal, as people…to know we are all deserving of the same. In Japan, we may not have issues with racial discrimination, but there are many other problems. If our music could be the catalyst for change…to accept everyone as they are, to think about our Earth and the world more, and could prompt everyone to take ACTION out of love, that would be the ultimate reward.
YUUKI: The current climate in Japan is to not discuss politics in everyday conversation. However, a lot of the youth, a lot of my friends around me really understand the importance of speaking out and getting involved. It’s because of this that I’m seeing more people using social media to express their opinions and as someone from the same generation, it makes me proud! It’s what moves me to want to join in and take steps towards a better future for Japan, a better future for all!
YUNA: I think there were both people who really felt something from this and those that didn’t. My impression is that these kinds of topics are not really mentioned or discussed overall in Japan. Racial discrimination is something that’s been on-going, way before we were born, and yet unfortunately it took seeing this for us to educate ourselves even more. The more I researched the more I uncovered…with many situations, of course, that never made the news. With racial discrimination not being as overt or discussed in Japan, seeing this made it that much more important to know what’s going on in the world. Acknowledging and then educating ourselves further is one step towards taking ACTION out of love.
What do you hope to look forward to in the second half of 2021? Is there anything you are afraid of?
MANA: Right now, I’m feeling nothing but excitement for the release of our new album WINK!
Live shows are slowly coming back and we’re still making even more new music so it’s all super exciting! There are always going to be worries but I’m going to channel all of that in the music! It’s because of those fears or worries that music exists! From this point on it’s the era of “CHAI”! “It’s our time!” is how we feel so don’t worry, join along for the ride World!
KANA: I’m excited for WINK to be heard all over the world and to be able to see people again! Everyone! Let’s WINK together!
YUUKI: I look forward to change! Let’s not move back but forward to a positive future!
As CHAI, we say, “let’s try something new, let’s find a new way to enjoy all the things in life!”
We’ll be at the forefront of this era, with the world by our side! Stay tuned!
YUNA: WINK is almost out and available for tons of people to hear! So exciting!
One listen to this version of CHAI and the world we see is going to change!
Special thanks to my friend and colleague Jessi D for helping me come up with questions for CHAI.
Image courtesy of CHAI.