It takes an unusually elliptical pop star to turn the whey and whetstones of raw humanity into appetent groove experiments. Japan’s Mirei Touyama, known professionally by her nom du disque, MIREI, is one such littérateur of the louche. MIREI draws ornamental inspiration from street tragedy, and all of the adrift omens and plague stories that comprise the forensic psychology of love, spinning them into an evenweave fabric that showcases the godly optics even in the grotesque. Her songs are smoke-infused R&B-trance entities, spirits of a heady and horrorful heaven cast in charoite colors.
At just 23 years young and with an aesthetic that is equal parts Tokyo and Times Square, MIREI takes an almost Jungian approach to the death by dragon sacrifice that is facing the shadow side of life and self, producing lyrical meditations that are reminiscent of Aaliyah in their unabashed femininity. Under her cylindrical croon, even the nymphs of the nefarious become accepted, even valued, aspects of the nostalgic narrative.
Enjoying the deserved success following the release of her English-language debut album, Take Me Away, MIREI took QRO through the true-to-life origins of the album and her multi-cameral method of making her mascarpone music.
QRO: “Sell Me Your Love” is an incredible story-song about a tragic, real event that occurred in Kabukicho (the red-light district of Tokyo). Can you tell us the backstory within that song?
MIREI: This song is inspired by an incident in which a woman stabbed a man. They were dating at that time, but their relationship was very complicated since they were living and working at Kabukicho. There’s a cultural phenomenon there where hosts and hostesses provide the same kind of companionship you’ll provide to an intimate partner for money – it’s like buying the company of a lover. In this incident, the man was working at a host club and the woman was his regular customer who also happened to work at a similar host bar. While reading the news and the trial records, I started to see the tragedy of her romance behind the incident. I was so moved and I started writing.
QRO: Why did this occurrence speak to you as a woman and an artist?
M: I feel like as an adult, it’s getting harder to build a relationship nowadays. When I was younger, we used to define relationships before holding hands. But in the modern dating world, physical intimacy has lost its emotional value and people tend to treat them as casual hookups. Love and romance have become so fragile and vague – which makes relationships more challenging. I wanted to figure out my own answer for “what really is love” by immersing myself in the incident and writing a song where I can explore the answers.
QRO: What do you hope that listeners will gain by learning from and experiencing the story of this sorrowful event through your music?
M: I don’t want you to force someone to love you or guarantee to love someone. Love is not something you can sell or buy because it’s not a material that you can guarantee to give or get. You’ll never get love from others, but you can feel it by yourself. I want my listeners to enjoy how uncertain love can be when they’re in the relationship and not treat it as a commodity.
Love is not something you can sell or buy because it’s not a material that you can guarantee to give or get.
QRO: Japan is known all over the world for its beautiful culture and the elegant manner of its people. Do you feel that the nightlife scene in Japan can veer toward the dangerous and visceral as a kind of reaction to that more buttoned-up daytime culture? Or is it merely that, like everywhere, people can simply get out of hand when under the influence of alcohol or drugs and then do crazy things?
M: To me, it seems that Japanese polite manners strongly affect the nightlife culture and the incidents happening around it. For the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, one of the key points that Japan highlighted was “Omotenashi” which means ‘basic hospitality.’ We think it’s a basic manner to provide hospitality to everyone. It’s an amazing culture, but on the opposite side, we expect from others the same level of hospitality every time we become a “customer.”
That’s why after hard work, some people go to Kabukicho and pay expensive bills to be the customer. They are expecting the highest level of hospitality with alcohol and attractive companions that don’t necessarily come with sexual services. They’re all tired, mentally, from giving too much so they want the same or even more in return. It’s toxic.
QRO: For a very long time “crimes of passion” such as the stabbing you describe in your song were seen as justifiable by law in many countries. How do you feel about the argument that people in love really are out of their minds at times and how should this reflect on our view of the woman in this story?
M: To be honest, I love how I can go blind and go crazy over relationships because it’s special and fun. But I don’t think we can justify the crimes no matter how deeply you fell in love. If you fall in love with someone, then you should think about your partner’s perspective as much as yours because it’s the only way you can be happy with one another. In this incident, stabbing her lover made her feel like she owned him for a moment, but it can’t be justified.
The mentality of, “If I can’t get a full score, I would throw it away” is so dangerous and meaningless. I don’t think we can be in a perfect relationship since every couple has its ups and downs, but even in the lowest moments, people need to be mindful and not choose violence as an option.
MIREI’s video for“Sell Me Your Love”:
QRO: The video for “Sell Me Your Love” features Kanon Yamazaki, who also shows up in your visuals for “Lonely In Tokyo”. What are the other connections between these two songs and the way that they showcase the particularly unspoken realities of nightlife in Tokyo?
Actually, Kanon appears in almost all of my music videos and they’re connected in terms of the plotline. In my music videos, she’s a woman who’s in Tokyo who is lost in her dream, just like me when I first came here. Tokyo is a place that has everything both material and non-material, but you always have to buy it with something you have – sometimes it’s money and sometimes it’s selling yourself. Through my music videos and songs, I tell stories about it and Kanon is the one who captures them visually. These music videos can be watched as a short, dramatic series with her in the main role.
QRO: Your English-language debut Take Me Away was released in January of 2020, just before the onslaught of the pandemic. The record deals with many themes relating to mental health and I wonder if you feel that those themes now have a special or enhanced significance due to COVID?
M: 2020 was a tough year for me, but my music and my fans helped me get through it. Recording this album in NYC in the previous year felt like I was going back to the days when I was chasing my dream all by myself in NYC before I made my professional debut in Japan as a teen. That’s why I feel like I could talk about the struggle that grew inside of me while I was lost in Tokyo.
During the COVID lockdown, I became literally ‘lonely in Tokyo,’ not able to go back to my home city, Osaka or NYC. All of my projects were paused and all I had was my tiny room in the dormitory, the internet, and the album I just released. Luckily, my album got many reactions and I gained new fans all over the world. They’re people who understand the dark, imperfect side of me and gave me a sense of security and peace that I needed to get through such a tough period.
Tokyo is a place that has everything both material and non-material, but you always have to buy it with something you have – sometimes it’s money and sometimes it’s selling yourself.
QRO: Why are issues surrounding mental health and social pressures important to you as a person and as an artist?
M: They’re important to me because I struggled and continue wrestling with those issues like many other people. I have been a perfectionist since I was young. I always worked really hard to show the best of me to everyone around me. After all of the hard work and successes, I realized how empty I felt inside and the never-ending nature of chasing perfection. That’s when I started learning about mental health issues.
When I look back on how I lived my childhood with that kind of mentality, I can’t begin to imagine how much pressure all the children like me were under. The exam scores, the need to impress adults like our parents and teachers. Furthermore, when I was in elementary school, smartphones were released and everyone started using social networks. Now we can see and compare each other in real-time. More and more, I feel like society is adopting useful technology, but becoming more competitive at the same time. Now, luckily I have a voice and platform where I can help spread my own story as well as find others who feel the same way.
QRO: Your beautiful work has elements of everything from J-Pop to alt-R&B and even a bit of electro in it. How would you define your genre of music in your own words?
M: I would call it Mi-bop. Mi comes from MIREI and bop because not only does it mean a bop, but has a pop element to it. I grew up in a household surrounded by a wide range of music thanks to my parents. I’m super proud of the depth of my music and the fact that it’s not limited to one genre. That’s why I love the word “pop;” being popular means it’s loved by many people and influenced them. A bop pop music coming from MIREI. How about that? Is it cheating to put my name in it? [laughs]
The best moments are those where you’re so immersed in the fun or company you’re having that you forget your phone or social media.
QRO: Not at all! You should put your name all over it because it’s very much yours. I’ve been extremely impressed with the way you highlight the intersections of modern consumerist culture and notions of contemporary love. When David Bowie was singing his own song about “Modern Love,” I believe he was talking about the very same thing, only without the influence of the internet yet. Tell us a bit about your views on the way social media and online aesthetics are changing human relationships for the worse and for the better.
M: For the worse, it shows you the numbers of everything you express. Views, likes, shares–everything has a number–and it’s basically scoring what you put out. There were already toxic standards before social media existed, but they’ve amplified and become more ingrained into our culture due to social media. That’s why our standards, especially for beauty, have become way high and even unrealistic.
For example, in Japan, when TikTok released a filter that makes your mono-lids into double eyelids, it became super controversial. One influencer girl even said “There are no human rights for people who have mono-lids” on the livestream. That was kinda extreme, but still, now everyone’s following the same beauty standards such as having bigger eyes, which leads many Asians to have eyelid surgery. A smaller face, a skinny but curvy body, and so on. There’s no room for personality and flaws anymore in our beauty culture since we constantly compare with one another.
For the better, we’re now connected and can communicate anywhere anytime. That’s such an amazing thing for me since I’ve been able to express myself to different people all over the world. During the pandemic, I could continue singing because I had my audience across my socials. While I was stuck in my room, the only help I had was my livestream with my fans. Also, social media made it possible for anyone to say their own opinions. So now it’s much easier to voice your opinions as well as learn from others. If there are no socials, I have to be approved by the mainstream media and release my songs through conventional means. I might not be able to release it or say my honest thoughts since I would be limited in terms of platforms. So, from that perspective, I am grateful for social media.
QRO: Can friendship, intimacy, or real love ever truly be quantifiable the way that this current generation tries to cast it?
M: I think the values of people are not going to be so different from other generations. We have the literacy for social media, so we know that how close we are can’t be measured by how many posts we have together. The best moments are those where you’re so immersed in the fun or company you’re having that you forget your phone or social media. Actually, I always forget to take pictures when I’m with my closest friend because we’re all enjoying being in the moment. As part of Gen-Z, the existence of social media doesn’t affect the actual value of a relationship. But it does really affect our self-esteem in my opinion.
QRO: What connections do you see between the way modern lovers regard and disregard one another in this clinical, measured way and the way that modern fans relate to the artists they adore? What dangers do you see in the popular trend now of blurring the lines between fan/artist relationships by encouraging para-social feelings through social media interactions?
M: I feel like in both relationships, there’s not enough distance between both ends, and people often interfere too much. Since we can communicate with each other anytime anywhere, it’s so hard to say we don’t want to. We need some personal space between us, but sometimes we lose it because we love each other too much. I don’t like texting or talking on the phone 24/7 while being busy. I would rather think about the person by myself and write a song about him, but nowadays for some people, it’s seen as not enough effort.
It’s much more complicated and toxic when it comes to the relationship between fans and artists. I only communicate with my fans publicly such as through the comments and livestreams. I try to interact with as many people as I can. The most worrying thing about being public on social media is the direct messages, to be honest. I often get direct messages where the other person, who is a complete stranger, wants to be in a serious relationship and often goes overboard with messages. After I ignored it for a while, they got so angry that Instagram blurs the sentences because it’s too violent. I feel so scared when people react like that. Sharing a part of me is something I enjoy doing, but I also have boundaries.
The Asian music industry is becoming an idol industry to be honest, which has made it more competitive than ever.
QRO: I’ve seen those exact “sliding into DM” danger-zones up close and personal myself, I’m sorry to say. I know exactly the kind of rabid desperation and insanity you are referring to there. Even the phrase itself is revealingly oily–a sickening set of words for what, ultimately, is always a sleazy act. What particular topics do you feel affect the Asian music scene that the rest of the world may not see?
M: I think the Asian music industry, especially in Japan and Korea, is strongly affected by idol culture. Idols in Japan sing, but they also appear on variety shows (i.e.. talk and game shows) and TV dramas. Their fans are not only fans of their music but their personality and other talents. Music, particularly CDs, is one of the ways that fans can support them. Understanding that logic, a producer in Japan added a benefit in the CDs where fans could meet those idols for five seconds per disk. Not only did it boost the sales of CDs, but it made the music industry much bigger and more demanding.
Since then, Japanese CD sales charts are always filled with idols and it doesn’t reflect the popularity of the songs as it did before. K-pop follows the same system and makes it more competitive. Their albums are like a photo book and contain a random trading card of members so that the fans can collect them. Also, Korean idols are more globalized. Instead of doing meet and greets, each member calls fans all over the world. The Asian music industry is becoming an idol industry to be honest, which has made it more competitive than ever.
QRO: You have worked with an impressive retinue of gifted international artists including Selan (singer/songwriter and keyboardist for Adele, Chic, Stevie Wonder), DJ Shiftee (two-time DMC World Champion), Dai Burger (Lil Mama tourmate), DJ Sliink (Jersey club king), and also Zak Leever (Diplo-endorsed and classically trained). What special value do you see in collaborating with your peers in this globalized way? What comes out of those rehearsals and writing sessions that could not be achieved on your own?
M: I love sessions so much for both performance and writing/recording music. They always give me new ways to enjoy making music. Especially during writing sessions, I get many new perspectives from Shiftee and Zak since we all grew up in different backgrounds and we enjoy our differences and gaps. Our customs and cultures are interestingly different! I love how our usual talk becomes discussions and turns into writing/recording sessions.
I love electronic music because they’re always experimental and I always discover something new.
QRO: Who would be on your dream list of other artists to collaborate with in the future?
M: Charli XCX and Lady Gaga. I have loved listening to Charli’s music since I was in elementary school. If I’m being honest, at that time I preferred the Western culture more than domestic culture, but since she showed respect for the Asian culture, I became so proud of my own roots. I think her style of music is changing as she builds her career, and interestingly I’m into her music more and more as she grows. I don’t see such artists other than her, so that’s definitely my dream to collaborate.
Lady Gaga is the reason why I decided to write my own songs and express them to the world. When I was a child, singing was just a hobby and there was no reason to sing. One day, I was watching MTV Japan and they were broadcasting her song “Born This Way” with a Japanese translation. The 6th grader in me who didn’t speak English was so shocked to see how she was proud of being herself and expressed it to everyone. A weirdo who loves music felt approved by her song. She’s the reason why I do pop music–so that I can share my struggles and hopes with the little weirdos like me who love music and don’t know what to do. If I could collaborate with her, I’m sure I’d faint at least once if that were to happen! [laughs]
QRO: She’s one of my greatest heroines as well, both musically and stylistically so I totally get that! She’s definitely worth passing out over! [laughs] You are also reported to be a big fan of Chill House music and that comes through in your song “In The Night Time.” In what way have artists like Daft Punk been an influence on what you do?
M: My love for electronic music started when I was about 3 years old and it goes back to the Japanese rhythm game called “Dance Dance Revolution.” I love electronic music because they’re always experimental and I always discover something new. When I listen to house songs, I love imagining how the song’s gonna build up. Also, Daft Punk’s playful vibes always inspired me and I even wrote a song called “In The Night Time” dedicated to them right after hearing about their disbandment. They’re the reason why I always add little surprises and tricks to my music.
QRO: What do you say to critics of this genre who believe that electro music takes the humanity out of the art in a negligent or diminishing way?
M: I want them to try making songs with the same instruments and software that we’re using. Then, they might know how difficult it is to make it. There are a lot of unique and evolutionary ideas in hit songs of this genre and there’s no difference between it and any kind of musical genre. When you start noticing that and learning the history, you might never see it the same way. Electronic music is full of humanity and rich history.
I love how women in music are becoming icons for other women nowadays. It feels like now women are starting to sing for themselves, not for other men.
QRO: My endless rave soul salutes you and agrees! You did a stunning cover of “No Ordinary Love” by one of my favorite female singers ever, the incomparably cool Sade. What about that song and her spoke to you? What other female musicians do you admire and why?
M: I decided to cover the song while I was suffering from the pandemic. I was feeling so helpless in many ways and I had nothing to do, so I was digging through YouTube looking to discover new music. That’s when I bumped into this song and it felt like she was talking about my love to my fans and my music in this environment. I was stuck in this city while I had many people to talk to all over the world. My love for music and fans is not ordinary and it felt like the song understood it. That’s why I covered it.
QRO: By your experience and perspective, how is the role of women changing in the music industry?
M: I love how women in music are becoming icons for other women nowadays. It feels like now women are starting to sing for themselves, not for other men. In the past, female artists mostly sang about love and men. But now, women are releasing songs for themselves that carry all kinds of empowering messages.
QRO: What do you see as the greatest challenge currently facing women artists in the spotlight?
M: I think body image and fashion are some of the greatest challenges that female artists face. It’s a common thing for female artists to wear something revealing like underwear as a “costume” but they shouldn’t do it if they don’t want to. Women are often highly sexualized and get judged by anonymous people about their bodies. It sucks! I’ve also been criticized for my body after I debuted in Japan, which really has nothing to do with my music. I hope I can express myself and the world of the song by wearing what I like and not be judged by my looks.
QRO: What are your forthcoming recording and touring plans for 2022-2023? Can fans expect new music or to see you perform in their home cities in the coming months?
M: I’m making more new music, so I definitely want you to expect something new from me. I’m not sure when I can tour all over the world, but it’s been my dream since I was very young so I want to make it come true as soon as possible. Until then, I want my fans to come and see me online and tell me who they are!
QRO: Well, here’s one right in front of you, holding a pen and admiring you in that totally-non-slid-DMs way, all the way! Thanks so much for taking time with me today, MIREI. You’re a shimmering goddess and I look forward to seeing you on stage soon! I’ll be the glittery Gaga-wannabe down the front! [laughs]
M: I really appreciate your thought-provoking questions and have enjoyed this interview very much. See you soon!