He’s known as the samurai guitarist, a natural-born performer with an unconventional style and a huge on-stage presence. Playing in front of adoring fans around the globe, Miyavi looks like he was born to be a rock star; yet, if it hadn’t been for an unfortunate football injury suffered during his early teens the Osaka native’s career may have taken a very different path.
By Matthew Hernon
“Kicking the ball was everything to me when I was younger,” he tells Weekender. “I played for a professional youth team and I was serious about making it as a pro, but I got a bad injury when I was 14 and wasn’t mentally strong enough to come back. It felt like I’d lost everything. When you are pursuing a dream you feel alive: with that gone it just seemed so dark.
“The guitar was my light. To this day I still don’t know why I picked it up. I didn’t have any role models, or any particular goal: it just filled a void I guess. I found the creative process similar to playing football; it gave me a freedom to express myself.”
While many aspiring musicians set out to be like their heroes, Miyavi was determined to carve out his own identity. As the words inscribed on his upper right arm—“Tenjou tenga yuiga dokuson,” (throughout heaven and earth, there is only one me)—suggest, he is very much his own man, an individual who doesn’t like to be labeled or pigeonholed—and the same goes for his music. The self-taught guitarist developed his own style from a young age, a distinctive slapping technique without a pick that is usually adopted by shamisen players.
“I guess my music doesn’t have what you’d call traditional roots,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to categorize it, saying it was rock or pop. It’s more instinctive than that. It’s not my aim to be some legendary artist; I’m just trying to produce songs that are both spiritual and heartfelt.
“For me music is like a language; it’s a form of communication with a beat. The guitar is then the bridge that helps me get my message across to the fans. Of course I want to spread that message to as many people as possible: that is why I started studying English eight years ago.”
With few Japanese artists touring outside of Asia, Miyavi saw an opportunity to make history. In 2008 he began what was the most successful international tour ever made by a musician from this country. Since then he has completed three more world tours, playing around 200 shows in more than 30 countries on five different continents. The recently released DVD, Slap the World Tour 2014, gives an interesting insight into his life on the road.
“I have two kids, so it is hard being away from them and my wife. But at the same time I am doing something I love, something people would give anything to be able to do,” Miyavi says. “When I am on stage everything is white: it is an indescribable feeling. On top of that I get to visit all these amazing places. I particularly love going to South America. The passion the audiences show there: it really pumps you up as an artist. They are so rhythmical—it’s like I’m playing in front of lots of musicians! Then I will look down at the floor and see them singing my songs back to me in Japanese: it gives me goose-bumps.”
These days a large number of Miyavi’s songs are written in English including his latest release, “Real.” A rocking, upbeat track that urges listeners to step away from their virtual world, get on the dance floor and “feel the moment,” the single was co-produced by five time Grammy award winners Jam & Lewis. The pair, who have created chart-topping hits for the likes of Michael Jackson, Beyoncé and Sting, released a statement revealing their admiration for the Japanese guitarist, though they believe he has even more to offer.
“We’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the world’s most talented and influential musicians and artists. [What] they all have in common is a desire to not settle for normal but to push the boundaries of excellence in unusual and provocative ways. Add Miyavi to our list of artists truly pushing the envelope. Mixing virtuoso guitar skills with a totally unorthodox technique of applying them he is truly one of a kind. The truly exciting part is we feel we’re only scratching the surface of his incredible potential as an artist.”
A huge character, Miyavi seems to leave a big impression on everyone he encounters. Earlier this year Weekender caught up with Yoko Narahashi, who was waxing lyrical over her latest discovery, saying that he had blown her away when they first met. The renowned casting director, who gave Ken Watanabe and Rinko Kikuchi their first big breaks in Hollywood, introduced Miyavi to Angelina Jolie who then cast him as villain Mutsushiro Watanabe, aka “The Bird,” in Unbroken, her upcoming film about the Olympic athlete turned prisoner of war, Lou Zamperini.
“Yoko’s like my mum in this industry; she has done so much for me,” Miyavi says. “She came to my office and started asking me about my goals, what movies I liked, and who I’d most like to work with. I told her Angelina Jolie. At that point she hadn’t mentioned anything about Unbroken. A few weeks later she told me about the possibility of playing “The Bird.” I was reluctant at first, it was a big role and I’d never acted as another person before (he did play himself in the film Oresama ). On top of that, I didn’t want to represent the negative side of Japan in a war movie.
“After meeting Angie, however, I knew I had to do it. She explained to me that her goal wasn’t to glorify America and vilify Japan, but to try and make a bridge between the two countries. Ultimately it’s a global story about honor, forgiveness and the unbroken spirit of Lou Zamperini; it’s not a typical war movie.
“Being my first time in film I found it tough. Angie [Jolie] helped a lot though, as did the rest of the cast. It was great to work with them all including Jack [O’Connell] who was amazing as Lou; that said, I couldn’t understand his accent at all! I actually had a jam with him and some of the other members at the wrap-up-party: we played a few songs, including ‘Angie’ by the Rolling Stones. It was nice to be able to unwind after weeks of hard work.”
Jolie, who is said to be a big fan of Miyavi’s music, has been to see him perform since: she went to his LA show with husband Brad Pitt earlier this year. Having such influential followers will no doubt help boost the singer’s growing international profile. Constantly looking to evolve and improve, the 33-year-old has already made quite a name for himself around the world; yet something tells us Miyavi’s best years are still ahead of him.