Osaka-born musician Takamasa Ishihara, better known as the samurai guitarist Miyavi, says there’s one moment that stands out in his two-decade career. It was when he played the U.S. national anthem at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles last year.
Even though he has performed his unique style of “slapping” the guitar in more than 350 live shows in 30 different countries across five continents, and has done eight world tours, being asked to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” in his adoptive home was special.
“That was a great opportunity,” says Miyavi, 39. “As a Japanese (person), I wanted to play Japan’s national anthem, but they already had a local Japanese traditional choir for that, so they asked me to play the American national anthem.
“The moment I played the song, I felt so many people — my fans and baseball fans who might not even know me — all singing along together with their hands on their chest. It was a really emotional moment for me.”
Miyavi says he wanted to take the opportunity to show his appreciation for the U.S. for accommodating him and his family when he moved there to launch his acting career in 2014 with his film debut, “Unbroken.”
“It’s not easy to live somewhere else, especially with a different language, a different culture and a different way of thinking. But America welcomed us with a big heart. So, at that moment, I wanted to express my appreciation for America, the country and the people.”
Miyavi and his team had a lot lined up this year, but their carefully laid plans started to unravel in January as COVID-19 infections began to spread around the globe. Miyavi had just returned from a trip to Colombia visiting refugee camps as the UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador when he learned about the seriousness of the pandemic. Still, he has a positive outlook on what has been an unexpectedly challenging year.
“COVID-19 happened, but for me, what I’m singing is the same,” Miyavi says. “Even if the world ends tomorrow, we still sing. Why? Because we sing to feel hope, and to be able to believe there is hope gives you a little bit more power. I believe music can do that. That’s the reason why we do music. That’s the reason why we exist here.”
Miyavi, a father to two daughters, reveals that he and his wife are expecting a third child next year. He says his daughters have been a great inspiration and that the different phases in his life have had an impact on his approach to music.
“We artists are also human beings so, of course, we’re influenced and inspired by many things around us,” Miyavi says. “I started slapping the guitar strings because I was influenced by the shamisen. The reason why I put that technique into my performance style was to create an identity — as a Japanese person and as an Asian guitarist. I wanted to find a distinct way of playing the guitar that was different from other legendary Western guitarists.
“Once you start doing something, you want to be you. You don’t want to be one of many. And that’s what I can show to my fans and my audience — how to be free.”
Miyavi says that, over time, his focus shifted from establishing a unique style to using his performance as a way to bring people together.
“I’ve been wanting to do something more like an embrace,” he says. “I want to embrace the audience with my guitar, my playing style.” After working with producers and artists such as Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, as well as R&B singers including Usher and Mary J. Blige, his style has become more melodic. Miyavi says that Lewis gave him a bit of wisdom he’ll never forget.
“He told me, ‘Miyavi, melody is king,’ a phrase he got from Michael Jackson,” the guitarist says. “I didn’t understand the meaning in the moment, but I realized that the rhythm, my slapping style, not only makes people dance but also represents a specific generation.
“When the generation changes, the beat changes, but the melody stays and they last for a long time in your heart, in your memory,” he says.
Taking into account the current state of the world, Miyavi has turned to technology. He’s already done two virtual performances — Virtual Live: Level 2.0 in June and Virtual Live: 3.0 in collaboration with digital art collective teamLab in August. According to the musician, he had been wanting to try virtual reality as a new form of entertainment for a while, even before the pandemic. “I think most artists or productions do virtual live shows to replace the actual show for money, but it’s not sustainable,” Miyavi says. “For us (his team), finding a new way of communication or way of expression was our priority. As an artist, I just want to find a way to exist and communicate with the audience in the virtual world.
Miyavi adds that VR performances shouldn’t replace the actual live shows, but rather, they should be a tool or form of art that adds to musical expression.
“I’m just trying to find something that could be a template from here on,” he says. “What we do is the same: We put our message and soul into our music and we do our best in our performances, but the platform changes. It’s a challenging time, but it’s also a thrilling time.”
Incorporating technology into his performances has been working out for Miyavi and he’s about to step things up on Dec. 19 with Miyavi Virtual 360, a new live show on Virtual Market 5, an online platform for events. What makes this show special is that he’ll be using pre-recorded footage shot with 360-degree cameras.
“It’s going to be a mix of real and virtual,” Miyavi explains. “People can participate as an avatar and you’ll see that it’s a simple setting. I’m the type of artist who wants to perform in front of art and people to feel the connection, so I think it’s going to be a different kind of experience.”
As for the message he aims to convey, Miyavi says that he wants people to be more aware of the world around them.
“The message I want to deliver are global issues that we are facing now, such as the refugee crisis, global warming, discrimination, poverty and sustainability. We’re trying not to be too preachy, and with this art form, we might be able to make it cool and nice.”
Miyavi has another virtual show scheduled to stream live on Twitch through Amazon Music at the end of the year. He says it’ll resemble a theatrical performance by using extended reality technology to create a digital world through computer graphics and wearables for human-machine interactions.
Moving forward, the artist seems set on continuing down the virtual reality road.
“We planned so many things this year, and especially because I used to travel all over the world, I felt that I lost my wings,” Miyavi says. “In virtual reality though, I see the potential to find a new set of wings.”
Miyavi Virtual 360 will go live on Virtual Market 5 from 8 p.m. on Dec. 19. For more information, visit www.miyavivr.com.
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