Girl’s Rock: Shonen Knife Returns!

The legendary Japanese punk band’s new album, Our Best Place, out now

Shonen Knife (Image: Spotify)

During a recent video call from her home in Osaka, Japan, Shonen Knife frontwoman Naoko Yamano is every bit as upbeat and charming as fans might expect after listening to the equally sunny and amiable songs her band has created for more than forty years.

Our Best Place is, I think, our best album, so I hope everybody enjoys it,” Yamano says, referring to the legendary all-female pop-punk trio’s latest album. “I’m so happy that I could release our new album after three years and eight months.”

It took this long, she says with a laugh, because “Basically, I’m a very lazy person, and I had to write many songs. In these two or three years, I was just staying relaxed because in 2019, I toured so long. I was out of Japan half of the year. I went to U.S.A., U.K., and Australia.”

After that, like many people, Yamano was marooned at home due to pandemic lockdowns, but that wasn’t conducive to songwriting, either. Instead, she spent her time bicycling around her Osaka neighborhood – and cooking, which eventually sparked her songwriting inspiration.

Shonen Knife Our Best Place, Good Charamel 2023

“I wanted write about very a very bright, good side of my daily life from the pandemic,” she says, beaming. “So during [that time], I made food – I cooked a lot. So I wrote a song called ‘Spicy Veggie Curry.’ Or when my younger sister [Atsuko Yamano, Shonen Knife’s bassist], who is living in Los Angeles, came to my house, she cooked taquitos for me. And it was delicious!”

This is familiar territory: anyone who’s listened to Shonen Knife’s nearly two dozen studio albums will know that food has long been one of the band’s favorite lyrical topics. There was, Yamano says, never a moment when she considered writing about the pandemic itself, or any of the other tumultuous events going on in the world. 

“I just want to write songs about the happy things because if I write negative things or very sad things, people might get angry or sad,” she says, “but if I write very easygoing things, people can be happy listening to our music. If people are feeling good listening to our music, I am so honored.”

This upbeat philosophy also informs Yamano’s album title choice. “I hope our music can be people’s best place. So the title became Our Best Place. So our best place can be your best place!”

From Shonen Knife’s formation, the band’s positive, high-enery rock has served as a way to bring listeners out of the doldrums of their daily lives. That included Yamano herself: when she founded the group in 1981, she was working as an office worker at a machinery company. Leaving that humdrum existence behind was clearly the right choice, because the band immediately gained attention with their debut release, Minna Tanoshiku, the following year. Since then, they’ve become one of the most famous bands to come out of Japan.

In a way, Yamano seemed destined to become a professional musician, because she started songwriting so young. “When I was maybe four or five years old, I made a very short song by myself. The meaning of the lyrics was, ‘Second floor is good place for me,’ or something,” she says, amused.

After that early start, though, Yamano hit an obstacle: “When I was a little child, I took piano lessons for three or four years, but the piano teacher was so strict, and I was scared to go to the piano lessons. And I quit,” she says. Next, she tried playing the bass guitar, but that didn’t suit her, either, because the thick strings were too hard for her to hold down. She then switched to acoustic guitar, which seemed better, but still wasn’t exactly the right fit.

After that, Yamano set aside her writing and performing ambitions for a few years, preferring instead to listen to ’60s and ’70s American and British rock music. When, in her early twenties, she felt ready to try creating music of her own again, those influences strongly informed the choices she made.

“The language of rock music is English, I think,” Yamano says. “So I wanted to write my lyrics in English from the first place. But it was very difficult for me to write English lyrics [because] English lyrics have rhyme, and Japanese lyrics usually don’t have rhyme, so it’s very different. So some songs are only Japanese lyrics.”

Besides finding her place through songwriting, Yamano also finally found the right instrument to play: the electric guitar. “When I decided to start Shonen Knife, I switched to the [electric] guitar from the bass because I asked my friend Michie [Nakatani] join the band. She had never played guitar or bass, so I asked Mitch to play the bass,” Yamano says. This time, she found that she could play the instrument easily, and she has remained the band’s guitarist (and lead vocalist) ever since.

Shonen Knife 2023 tour dates (Image: Shonen Knife)

Still, Yamano admits that she finds it “very difficult” to sing and play at the same time. But even though it would make it easier if there was another guitarist in the group, she hasn’t considered adding a fourth member to the lineup.

“For me, I think a three piece band is very cool because it’s the minimum pieces of a rock band,” she says. “Sometimes [there are] two piece bands, but my favorite is a three-piece band.”

Fans will have a chance to see the trio in action starting this month, when Shonen Knife plays 49 shows across Europe and the U.K. As of this writing, there are no further dates, though Yamano promises, “As soon as possible, we will go to the U.S.”

Yamano considers this the band’s belated 40th anniversary tour, since doing it on that actual anniversary proved impossible in 2021. As such, these shows will feature songs from across Shonen Knife’s career, including a few from Our Best Place. Beyond this preview, though, Yamano won’t give away too many details: “Our set list is a secret!” she says with a grin.

No matter what Yamano and her bandmates choose to play, Yamano believes that Shonen Knife’s particular brand of upbeat rock will never be lost in translation. “[Our songs have] pop melody line, very simple, and the topic of lyrics are very universal,” she says. “Everybody in the world can understand the meaning!”




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Katherine Yeske Taylor

Katherine Yeske Taylor began her rock critic career in Atlanta in the late '80s, when she interviewed Georgia musical royalty such as the Indigo Girls, R.E.M. and the Black Crowes while she was still a teenager. Since then, she has done hundreds of interviews with a wide range of artists. She has written for dozens of magazines, including The Big Takeover, Aquarian Weekly, Stomp & Stammer, Creative Loafing, Jam Magazine, Color Red, Boston Rock, and many others. She contributed to two books (several entries for The Trouser Press Guide to the '90s, and a chapter for Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A-Rama). Additionally, she has written liner notes and artist bios for several major acts. She currently lives in New York City.  

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