Yonsei musician Kintaro Akiyama’s newest song, Death By Name, is a haunting but upbeat track, written from the perspective of death, with a message of love and encouragement for those listening to live life to its fullest. Death by Name is available on all streaming platforms on Aug. 13. Photo credit: Miya Akiyama.
TORONTO — Yonsei musician Kintaro Akiyama’s new song, Too Young, is an honest reflection of his first experience with deep and profound loss. The song explores Akiyama’s grief after his father’s passing and things learned about his father, who was also a musician and performer, posthumously.
“I think it’s been probably the biggest change in my life that I’ve ever experienced. I had never really known grief like that before,” Akiyama tells Nikkei Voice in an interview.
The song is Akiyama’s first solo musical venture as “kintaro.” He performed, recorded, and produced the track on his own at home during the pandemic.
“It gave me an opportunity to really work on my own thing and figure out what I wanted to do. And I just felt that the time was right,” says Akiyama. “I have always kind of played this background role or supportive role, and I just felt this was my time. I had a message. It was a very real experience for me, and I want to share it.”
With an 80s-inspired sound, electric bass, synthesizer, drum machine, and layered vocals, the song is distinctly different from Akiyama’s previous work. Akiyama also plays the upright bass and sings in Birds of Bellwoods, a Toronto-based indie-rock band.
Akiyama joined the band after graduating with a degree in jazz bass performance from McGill University. Music, art, and performance run deep in Akiyama’s blood. His mother is a professional painter, and his father, Denis Akiyama, was a well-known Japanese Canadian actor and a musician.
Denis was an accomplished Sansei actor at a time when there was not much space for Asian actors in the mainstream media. He died from an aggressive cancer in June 2018. He was known for his work in Miss Saigon, both on Broadway and in Toronto. As well for starring opposite Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic and as a voice actor. Akiyama acted alongside his dad, playing father and son in the Disney film Eloise at the Plaza.
Growing up in an artistic household shaped Akiyama’s identity as an artist. Music could always be heard in the house, whether someone was playing an instrument or just listening, explains Akiyama. He started playing the piano around six years old. Akiyama’s parents showed him the possibility of pursuing art as a career while recognizing the hard work and dedication it takes to succeed.
Akiyama continues to work with Birds of Bellwoods, and the band has been working on their second album, after their debut album, Victoria, was released in 2019. In the summer, the group usually hits the road, performing shows and in festivals across Canada, which of course, was not possible this year.
Instead, this year has been a time of deep reflection, says Akiyama. He returned to a song he wrote during the year his dad passed away, Too Young, one of the many songs he wrote to process and understand his grief.
“When he was still in this house, but he was quite sick, at that point, I didn’t really understand grief. I wasn’t really that sad. I knew he was going to die, but I wasn’t really that sad about it, and I felt really emotionally barren. I felt almost irresponsible, why am I not reacting to this?” Akiyama explains. “Through his passing, it hit me quite intensely, the song describes that journey to both sides, and it has been kind of therapeutic for me, I think just to get those ideas out, and then release it to the world.”
The song’s 80s-inspired sound comes from a box of old cassette tapes Akiyama found while sorting through his father’s things last year. A treasure trove filled with his father’s recordings, music, songs—both finished and unfinished—voice notes, ideas, and even recordings of Denis practicing his one-man play.
Akiyama began going through and digitizing the tapes, knowing they would disintegrate and cease to exist if he didn’t. He has digitized 40 hours of tape so far. They are decades old, some recorded even before Akiyama was born. The tapes became the inspiration for the sound of Too Young, paying homage to his father and the generation of music he came from. Akiyama also used some of his father’s guitars and keyboards on the track as another way to pay tribute to him.
“Though there was so much heaviness and intensity in these tapes, the overall theme was joy, positivity and love for music and art. You can see [his] creativity just being pored into these tapes,” says Akiyama. “He was just creating them for the sake of creating them, and there’s so much beauty in that. I’ve tried definitely to encapsulate that in just enjoying things for the sake of enjoying them. I think [being] an artist as a profession, sometimes you can get lost in that and become career-driven or monetarily-driven, and then you lose sight of what you’re truly supposed to be doing, which is creating for the sake of creating.”
Over the last two years, Akiyama has also begun acting, which came to a grinding halt with the pandemic, he says. Now, he has been exploring voice-acting work, which he does at home. His father was well-known for his voice-acting work and had a thunderous voice, says Akiyama. It has become another way his career seems to be paralleling his father’s.
“My dad never really gave me a ton of formal music lessons or acting lessons, but I think just vicariously from being in his presence, I hold a lot of those skills and that kind of presence. I see it now, and I try to channel some of that,” says Akiyama. “He was a lot to me, a teacher, a friend. Over the past few years, I’ve been really reflecting on that, and his death was probably the single most impactful thing that has happened in my life. I try to kind of carry on his legacy in a way that he would.”
Kintaro Akiyama’s song Too Young is available on all streaming platforms, such as Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube now.
Listen to kintaro’s newest song, Death by Name, below: