Miyavi on his evolving artistry and “NO SLEEP TILL TOKYO”

Sweater, pants and shoes Bottega Veneta

Photography by
Dyan Jong

Styled by
Shaojun Chen

Director of Photography
Andrew Yuyi Truong

Perhaps best known for his signature finger-slapping style of playing guitar, legendary Japanese musician, actor, and philanthropist Miyavi bridges cultures with his music and raises awareness for the refugee crisis through his work as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. Also known as the “Samurai Guitarist”, Miyavi gained international recognition for his unique guitar technique and has gone on world tours in 30 countries across five continents. His acting career includes playing complex villains in the films Unbroken, Bleach, and Stray, and most recently, landing his first non-villainous role in the 2019 film Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. In 2015, Miyavi visited a refugee camp in Lebanon and performed his song “The Others” to the people he met there, later releasing the music video featuring the faces of refugees from around the globe. Since that initial visit, he has traveled to more camps in Thailand and Bangladesh, where he bonded with refugees through his music and heard their stories of desperation and hope. Moved by the refugees’ resilience, Miyavi continually uses his voice, talent, and platform to educate the world about their cause. Following the release of his new solo album “NO SLEEP TILL TOKYO”, Miyavi spoke with The Laterals about his evolving artistry and the joy and message he hopes to spread globally through his music and UNHCR ambassador work.

How are you evolving as an artist?

I am known as a guitarist but I would credit acting for helping me evolve as a musician. Acting allows me to express myself in ways that I am unable to as a musician. As an actor, the process of learning a character’s role, has had a profound effect on my artistry. Getting into character as an actor is an out of body experience unlike when I play myself on stage in a concert. I am always watching videos of my performances so I can focus on the things I need to improve upon. For example, every time I record an album, I want it to be unique from the last one. I need to challenge myself in order to know what I am capable of accomplishing.

The element of surprise in my music is what motivates me to evolve as an artist. I never want to do the same thing over and over, even if it’s safe and easier for marketing purposes. I want to keep moving forward just like the artists I was influenced by like David Bowie and Beck, they never stopped evolving. That’s my responsibility and mission as an artist.

You stated before that one of your missions as a musician now is to inspire people and change the way they think through music—what ways of thinking are you hoping to change?

I can only hope to change people’s mindsets with my music. My goal is to support people. I was saved by playing the guitar when I was young. When I was 14 years old, I was injured playing soccer and my dream of playing professional died on the field. I didn’t have any hope after that. I went from chasing a soccer ball everyday, to being unable to play. After the injury, I lost my passion for soccer and I wanted to quit. I had to leave the team. It’s really tough to live without something you truly enjoy. But then, I started playing the guitar without anyone to teach me. I just wanted to kill time or fill that hole in my heart. And so I have made it my life’s mission to bring joy to people’s lives through my music.

This is one of the reasons why I became an ambassador to UNHCR. As an ambassador, I might be able to deliver a message of hope to people through music when other means fail to grab their attention.

Do you have a vision of what kind of artist and person you want to be in the future?

No, not at all. I never expected to be visiting refugee camps as an ambassador. I just wanted to play the guitar. I have exceeded the vision I had for myself when I was young. In the future, I see myself working more in music education or education in general. While at the same time, it’s hard to predict the future. My life’s journey up to this point has been very unpredictable and that’s likely how the rest of my life will play out.

“I have made it my life’s mission to bring joy to people’s lives through my music. This is one of the reasons why I became an ambassador to UNHCR. As an ambassador, I might be able to deliver a message of hope to people through music when other means fail to grab their attention.”

You wanted to deliver a message of forgiveness through your role in Unbroken as well as through your music—why is that message so important and meaningful to you?

Yes, but not through my character. My character was a villain in Louis Zamperini’s story. Louis was an American hero who forgave the people that tortured him for a very long time. As a Japanese person, I was hesitant to tackle a role that portrays a dark chapter in Japan’s history. I never want to represent the country in which I was raised in a negative way, but when I met Angelina Jolie, she told me she wanted to deliver the same message of forgiveness that Louis Zamperini carried throughout his life. And also a message of resilience. You cannot forgive people if you are not strong enough. So on that level, forgiveness is really a strong message that I could get behind. To be able to deliver that message to the whole world as a larger part of this film convinced me to take on the role. You need shadow to show a light. Revenge is easy, but forgiveness takes great strength.

You mentioned in an interview earlier that you experienced an incredible amount of isolation after moving to Los Angeles five years ago—could you tell us more about that experience? How did you adapt or overcome the difficulties you faced?

I was able to overcome my fears and insecurities because of the support I received from Americans who welcomed me with open arms. Despite the cultural differences and language barriers, assimilating to a new environment takes time. Moving to a new country requires a strong sense of self. You need to be confident in who you are. After five years, I finally feel that I overcame any fears I had about living in America.

How has getting into acting influenced your music or other aspects of your life?

The process of learning someone else’s life was a completely new experience for me. The stronger the character, the greater the experience. As I prepare for acting roles, I need to approach the role from a neutral position and be prepared to absorb the character’s personality. The emotions of the role evolve within the flow of a story, which helps me evolve as an actor. Of course, musicians are also storytellers, but the acting experiences help me build more depth as a musician.

(Left) Top Yohji Yamamoto

(Right) Sweater Maison Margiela; Pants Comme des Garçons

“The element of surprise in my music is what motivates me to evolve as an artist. I never want to do the same thing over and over, even if it’s safe and easier for marketing purposes. I want to keep moving forward just like the artists I was influenced by like David Bowie and Beck, they never stopped evolving. That’s my responsibility and mission as an artist.”

What inspired the content for the tracks in your new upcoming solo album “NO SLEEP TILL TOKYO”? You’ve hinted that it will be more vulnerable and personal than your past albums. What message are you hoping to express to your fans?

Depends on the track but throughout the album, I just wanna share hope and to create a feeling the future with a new style of music. This is why I refuse to keep doing the same thing creatively. By challenging myself, I believe I can share excitement and hope with my audience. For this album, we tried to combine MIYAVI’s signature slap guitar technique with a new approach to songwriting. On past albums, I tried to let my guitar do the singing. For this record, I wanted to sing more in Japanese because I sing best in my native language because I can be self-conscious whenever I sing in English. Also, by singing more in Japanese, it allows me to express myself more clearly lyrically. The new global trend in music is to sing in native languages whether the lyrics are in Japanese, Korean or Spanish. As long as the sound quality is global, local language is the key to being unique.

Would you like to see more Japanese artists expand internationally? What advice would you give those artists who are seeking to break into the global market?

Of course, it would be great and that movement is happening now. Even in the film industry. There’s more diversity in the industry than ever before. I’m not sure if there’s advice I can give, but you have to get outside your comfort zone to know what you are truly capable of.

Tell us more about your upcoming role as Udo in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. How did you prepare for this role? What was your experience working alongside Angelina Jolie and the rest of the cast like?

I can’t say a whole lot about the film other than this is my first ever good guy role in my acting career. I enjoyed it a lot and I really appreciate Angie for bringing me on to the project. We had a great time in London.

Top and pants Raf Simons

Tell us more about your friendship with Angelina Jolie—she scouted you for your first big acting role and also inspired you to get involved with the UNHCR. Has she had any other influence or impact on you?

I respect her. She’s a strong woman. While she’s known as an actress, she’s also raising six children. So as an actress, humanitarian and parent, I really respect her. She really appreciates spending quality time with her kids which I have witnessed firsthand. She’s not just a celebrity, she’s a great mom as well.

What are some memorable conversations or moments you’ve had with her?

We have had many discussions about the refugee crisis, which we both want to educate the world about. She told me that solving the refugee crisis is a fight. This isn’t an issue where you wait until it solves itself. The refugee crisis is a cause we need to fight for. It’s not just war, it’s justice. We fight for justice. We just keep doing whatever we can, in anyway possible. I really respect Angelina for her fighting spirit.

You’ve touched upon about your vulnerability and sensitivity before—how sometimes it feels wrong to be too sensitive, especially in social situations where others are very outgoing. Can you tell us more about the process you went through to accept this part of yourself and ultimately recognize it as a strength? What would you say to others who might be struggling to accept their sensitivity?

These kinds of emotional struggles are feelings that everyone deals with. Whether you are a celebrity, athlete or politician, we are all vulnerable. The most important thing is to know who you are and be confident in yourself. Try not to care too much about what other people say or do. Once you are aware of your vulnerabilities, it’s the key to finding yourself. Without those sensitivities, you may never notice what you have or don’t have.

“Through my ambassador activities, I meet lots of politicians but the highlight of my role as ambassador is meeting with the kids in refugee camps. I am always inspired by the smiles the kids have despite their situation. It makes me want to do more.”

Lighting Technician
Kevin Burnstein

Production Design by
Evaline Huang

Art PA
Mike Smith

Production Assistant
Wendy Lee

Groomer
Anny Kim/Exclusive Artists using Weleda Skincare

Special Thanks
EDGE Studios and Johnny Hernandez

Tell us more about your recent Goodwill Ambassador trip to Bangladesh and meeting with the Rohingya refugees there. Were there any moments or encounters that stood out to you?

This was my second trip to Bangladesh. Prior to the trip, I was able to say thank you to the Bangladeshi prime minister for inviting me. Through my ambassador activities, I meet lots of politicians but the highlight of my role as ambassador is meeting with the kids in refugee camps. I am always inspired by the smiles the kids have despite their situation. It makes me want to do more. On this last visit, I learned a local song. I played the guitar and sang with the kids. Also, this was my first time to visit a night camp. At night time, visitors are not usually allowed in, but we got permission for the first time to see how people live at night. I was also able to deliver 120 soccer balls which were donated by Japanese Universities and I played soccer with the local kids. It’s always heart-wrenching to hear their stories and how they left their countries and the process of how they arrived in Bangladesh. Some of the kids lost their parents right in front of them.

How is it parting ways at the end of your visits, unsure if you’ll ever see these people you made a brief connection with again?

I was able to meet some of the people I have met on previous trips. It’s important to visit the same place twice in order to see the progress being made at the camp. Again, it’s kids who I usually have the strongest bond with and it’s very heart wrenching to leave them. At the same time, I have a mission to deliver a message to the whole world through my experiences visiting refugee camps and what I witnessed. My job is to give refugees a spotlight so that the whole world pays more attention to them.

When you are an old man reflecting on your life, what do you hope you would have accomplished by then?

I don’t know if I can predict that, so I will just be happy with however life plays out. If I had to guess, I want to be doing something beyond music like education. Either building a school or developing a learning method.

What kind of future do you hope your children will live in? What kind of people do you hope they will grow up to become?

A future with a clean and safe environment. I hope that they will take on issues that are important to me, like global warming and the refugee crisis. In a perfect world, when they grow up, I would rather they not have to worry about these issues. As their dad, I want to leave a better world for them than the one they came into. When I think about their generation, leadership is going to be important, and I want my daughters to lead by example. I want them to feel they are living on a planet that’s inclusive.

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