The first thing you notice about CHAI is just how close they are with one another. On stage, the Japanese quartet moves in tandem—a perfect unit. Twin sisters and vocalists Mana and Kana bring the noise up front, while bassist/lyricist Yuuki and drummer Yuna hold down the rhythm section. Together, they delivered arguably the most memorable performance of Pitchfork Music Festival 2019: A raucous, joyful show of unbridled feel-good energy, one that redefined the iconoclastic concepts of “punk” in their own image.
It seemed like 2020 would only bring more opportunities for CHAI to flex their live powers, but alas, it was not to be. After the pandemic took hold, the four members retreated into their separate apartments in Tokyo to ride it out. As it became clear that concerts wouldn’t return anytime soon, a new kind of CHAI record began to take shape as they traded material back and forth—one informed by the hip-hop and R&B they were listening to at home, as well as new collaborators from their travels. You can hear this in the opening twinkles and neo-soul chords of single “Maybe Chocolate Chips,” featuring Chicago rapper Ric Wilson, or the hypnotic synth-funk of “IN PINK,” courtesy of Stones Throw favorite Mndsgn. Delving into everything from twilight ballads to hyperactive chiptune, third album WINK explodes the idea that CHAI have any genre limitations, proving the four-piece can glide between styles off the strength of their songwriting.
“The distancing was a factor in what makes this album different,” Mana says. “But the pandemic was also a chance to re-evaluate what music meant to us. We’d been touring non-stop and we didn’t envision we’d stop until last year. It gave us the time to actually figure out what kind of music makes me feel really good when we’re at home.” Speaking over Zoom from their apartments, via a translator, Mana and Yuuki explained how artists like Mac Miller, as well as ’90s J-dramas and street photography, inspired WINK.
Mana: Mac Miller’s “Good News” was definitely my most-played song while we were making the album. I heard it in a cafe while we were on tour in Australia, and I had to Shazam it immediately. I know he’s a rap artist, but there’s something about Mac that just exudes rock star. Even with the language barrier, his lyrics resonate with me—it’s the confidence of an artist who knows he’s unique.
Some people might listen to “Good News” and feel bummed out, but it gives me a different type of energy. It’s like an instant beam of happiness, from someone who’s speaking their real truth. I’m so sad he’s gone; he’s one of the artists I really wanted to meet. Mac will always be a true inspiration for me.
Yuuki: When CHAI formed, we came together around this common theme of self-love. A lot of that had to do with our looks—the whole redefining what kawaii meant in Japan thing—and there’s some of that on the record, like “Maybe Chocolate Chips,” but we’re also writing about broader themes and emotions. What inspires me about Vivian Maier’s photography is that it’s so raw and true to life. You can taste the scenes; you can smell the atmosphere. If her portrait subjects are in a car, I can feel like I’m in the car with them. Maybe it’s due to the fact that I dove into her work during the pandemic, while I was at home and couldn’t go outside, but seeing these photos really made me feel a closeness to real humanity. They let me imagine the possibilities of life, and by extension, self-love.
Yuuki: “Maybe Chocolate Chips” was inspired by a conversation I had with one of my male friends, who just so happens to have a huge mole on the side of his lip. We were chatting one day and he said, “You know, this mole right here is actually my chocolate chip.” I was really taken aback—like, wow. He took something that most people would probably immediately notice about him, something that might have been an insecurity of his, and turned it into a charm point, and I loved that. I know I’m going to grow moles as time goes on, and so I thought, you know, if I felt this way from his comment, maybe someone else can feel it, too.
Yuuki: I wrote “Wish Upon a Star” because I heard that Kana was having issues sleeping. As children, we have these songs that our parents or elders sing to comfort us, and it’s normal. But as you get older, you don’t necessarily have anything like that—a lullaby, or someone to protect you and make you feel safe. So I thought, why not create a lullaby for adults? Something for when they’re going through the pains of life, enduring issues.
People know CHAI for telling you to focus on the positive, but we also want our listeners to know that the balance of life is all about having both negatives and positives. You might get frustrated or lonely or sad. Hug those feelings, embrace them, sing them away. Nurture those feelings to sleep.
Yuuki: The title of “Nobody Knows We Are Fun” comes from a scene in Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, towards the beginning of the movie. The two nerdy protagonist girls realize that nobody’s coming to the graduation party they’re throwing for themselves, and that even the cool and popular kids who didn’t study are still all getting into good colleges. They look at each other and say, “Why can’t we do the same thing? We can party, too. Nobody knows we are fun!” And then they start throwing cake at each other and eventually crash a cooler grad party.
The passion and confidence of that scene really got to me—we relate to this, in a sense. Like, we have all this coolness about us, and the world doesn’t know about it. And they need to know. It’s just like these girls said: If you show people you’re awesome, they have no choice but to accept that you are.
Mana: I’ve always been a foodie, in a sense, ever since I was younger. But when we started CHAI, I started thinking about food in a different way. We didn’t have any money in the early days—we were all living in one apartment. Food wasn’t scarce, but we really had to budget out our meals. After that, I really started looking within myself and thinking about what food meant to me, and educating myself on things like the impact of eating meat.
I realized, maybe I don’t need meat. It made me consider that every time I get the opportunity to eat meat, I need to appreciate it more. It shouldn’t be a careless decision. That’s what inspired “KARAAGE”—because even though it only takes five minutes to cook that karaage, if you cook it with care and love, it will taste different. I did ultimately decide to stop eating meat, though.
Mana: Long Vacation is a fantastic TV series from the ’90s about a group of friends and their relationships, and the love and romance involved. I was too young to watch it as it aired, but I love seeing the shots of the girls with their bangs cut short, mini skirts, knee-high boots—just a different vibe that you don’t see nowadays in Japan. The characters in the show feel so free.
I love the nostalgic feeling it brings me. Even though I wasn’t raised in that era, I can sense it by watching the show; I can feel it, I can imagine myself in that time, I can live it. I’ve noticed this type of nostalgia, these eras, they’re always recycled, because everybody wants to experience them, no matter how far into the future we move. As much as technology advances, we still want to look back and reflect on how it used to be.
Mana: Having a twin sister surpasses the relationship you have with any friend or boyfriend, so I’ve always had a weird relationship with the word “friend.” I’ve always felt that communicating with humans is a little difficult compared to music; music doesn’t have the same constricting social guidelines. Being in the house a lot during the pandemic made me reevaluate what music meant to me.
I think music is your ultimate friend. It’s there for you when you’re down, it laughs with you, it supports you through anything. That’s what the best friend does, and that’s what I wanted WINK to be for anyone who hears. The album that you can go to no matter what—when you want to dance, cry, let it all out.