Photo: Yoshiki Foundation America
Yoshiki On Teaming With MusiCares To Address Mental Health & His New Disney+ Special
Drummer, pianist and X Japan bandleader Yoshiki has lived a life that countless musicians dream of. His band has sold more than 30 million albums globally, toured across Asia and Europe, headlined Madison Square Garden, and sold out the massive Tokyo Dome a record 18 times.
Still, he's aware of the plight of others far less fortunate than himself. Eleven years ago, Yoshiki founded the Yoshiki Foundation America for the purpose of aiding in various causes, and since the X Japan documentary We Are X came out in 2016, he has been open about his personal struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts after his father committed suicide when he was 10 years old.
His latest endeavor with MusiCares is an annual $100,000 grant from his foundation to aid those in the music industry who are coping with or have been affected by depression and suicide. Funds will be used to help those coping with depression or suicidal thoughts as well as survivors of suicide loss.
Yoshiki spoke to GRAMMY.com about the grant and his recent Disney+ special, "Disney My Music Story." He also discussed his YouTube Originals concert and upcoming documentary "Under The Sky" featuring guest performances by St. Vincent, The Chainsmokers, Sarah Brightman, Scorpions and other artists.
For many years, you've been involved in philanthropic endeavors. When did you realize you could use your rock star status for good deeds, and what was the cause that compelled you to action?
There was the Kobe earthquake 25 years ago. It was a pretty big earthquake. Over 10 schools lost their buildings, so we [X Japan] donated pianos for their music classes. I think that was the first time we did something. Since then, if an earthquake or something happens, I donate here and there. Then, in 2010, I created my own foundation to keep supporting people [in various ways].
You've given money, but you've also given something of yourself. Ten years ago, you donated the crystal piano that you played at Tokyo Dome shows with X Japan for victims of tsunami and earthquake devastation. How hard was it to let go of something so personal?
Around that time, I tried to figure out: what's the best way to support people? With people like us, it's not just that you're donating something to someone. What we do can also spread, right? Artist A did this, Artist B did that.
So because we are in the position that the media can talk about this, and also the way we do it, people can understand who needs some help. By donating such a memorable piano, people around the world can notice, "Those people need support." I thought that was a very effective way to support even more than what I could do.
Your current MusiCares partnership is a grant to raise awareness for mental health issues and suicide prevention. What inspired you to create this grant?
Since my father committed suicide, I became very suicidal. I was looking for the moment to die, but I couldn't kill myself. I was already playing piano when my father was playing piano. I was composing already. I just used this darkness and pain and converted it into art, so that's how I've been surviving.
Then, my band member [Hide] also passed away. And another member, Taiji, committed suicide, and it really hit me again. Again, I became suicidal. I've always been suicidal. When I help people, somehow I'm also being helped at the same time. That's supporting me too. I have my own problems.
How does the grant work?
As of now, I donate a certain amount of money every year so that music industry people can have a counselor or a psychiatrist to support them – somebody who has suicidal thoughts or depression, or somebody who lost their family member or close one to this kind of problem.
Because committing suicide is not only one person's problem. The people around the person have to live with that pain, and I'm one of them. The cause can support those people as well.
You've said it before: For the people who are left behind, what do they do?
Exactly. It's very different than if somebody… Death is death, after all. [People can] die from some kind of an accident or sickness. But committing suicide is their own choice. So if your friend or family member [did it]...why couldn't I stop that?
In my father's case: Was I a bad son? I still think about it [after] all these years.
How hard has it been to discuss these issues in your own life? And then how else do you want to get the word out about dealing with them? Do you want to do public speaking?
Well, before the film We Are X, I did not talk about that much. It's not something cool to talk about, right? But after the film was out, a lot of people came to me and because of that, because of my story, I decided to live. I decided not to take my life.
Like, wow, my story or the music or combination is supporting people. It's still painful to talk about it, but the story can support people and help people's lives... I don't know, I'm not good at making speeches in front of a lot of people. I'm good at rocking. [laughs] I would love to support more people's lives.
You said you've channeled some of your pain into your music. Do you channel that as much into your classical music as you do your rock music?
I think a combination of both. So yes, sometimes I keep playing the piano to contain my sadness, but also playing drums or even breaking drums to just contain my anger. Because of that environment, I was kind of saved, I guess. If you go out and start smashing things on stage, people like it, but you cannot do it in real life.
You've teamed up with MusiCares a few times before. Why is this alliance so important to you, and why do you feel such a connection with this organization?
They support the music industry to which I belong. Sometimes, people may have a hard time understanding our situation. We are not special, we are the same as you, but the way we act and perform on stage, people may think we are something different.
At the same time, our image is supposed to be bigger than life. We don't have to live that way, but we are also as vulnerable as anyone. In this gap, I sometimes get lost. It's so hard to just show a weaker side sometimes. All those MusiCares activities, [from] education to disaster relief to other things, I think they are doing amazing things.
Many musicians quietly deal with mental health issues. It's the same thing in Hollywood. There are a lot of actors who are dealing with them but don't tell others. People don't often like to show "weakness." How do you think MusiCares will be effective in working with this grant program to reach out to the music community about these issues?
Musicians [and] artists are supposed to help people through music or through art or film, but we also have problems. MusiCares supports the artists, the artists can support people, so it's a very important role MusiCares has especially right now. Our hope is towards the end of the tunnel, but we still haven't left the tunnel yet.
Yoshiki presenting a check to MusiCares. Photo courtesy of Yoshiki Foundation America.
I've been hearing that the pandemic has been very hard for people struggling with depression and addiction. You and I are used to being hermits when we work. You can sit in the studio, I can write in my office. But other people are struggling with not having that human contact. Zoom calls are great, but it's nice to see people in person. Has anyone mentioned that to you at all?
I'm kind of used to the isolation, being alone [in] the composition process. I haven't gone out to eat in one year. It's very strange. I thought I could be just by myself, like one year without seeing anyone, but it's feeling strange. If I start feeling like that, I can imagine other people. I love loneliness. I used to love loneliness. But this is strange. I talked to some of my musician friends who were acting fine on Zoom calls, but I could see through it.
You've talked about your suicidal thoughts and mental health issues. Do you think that more musicians will be inspired to open up about those things seeing that there are major figures such as yourself being very public about this? And have you noticed that?
Yeah. Sometimes we also see musicians kill themselves. I think that being on stage and being off stage, we get lost in between somehow. When I met David Bowie a long time ago, I asked him, "Where do you draw the line [between] your real life and life on stage?" He couldn't answer it. He said, "That's a good question."
The Yoshiki Foundation America is based in the States, but you have an international reach. You've donated to earthquake and tsunami relief, COVID relief, childhood cancer research and Meals On Wheels. Are there any other charitable causes that are close to your heart that you want to get involved with?
Oh, yes, we are also donating to environmental issues, sustainability issues. We are learning more and more how important they are.
I've heard that when Hide was alive, he had been helping out an X Japan fan who was terminally ill, and then you took over following his unexpected death. Could you tell us about that story?
I think the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Japan approached Hide. There was this huge Hide fan named Mayuko who had bone marrow disease. [After] Hide passed away, I didn't know what to do. I was organizing some disaster relief, but I took over the position. I started supporting her to the end of her life. Hide inspired me. She was very strong to the last minute. She was very inspirational.
I believe you're the first Japanese music artist to have a Disney+ special in America which includes two of your Disney covers, "Let It Go" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." I'm curious how that came about?
I'm very grateful that Disney+ approached me to do my life story and incorporate the Disney story. That documentary is almost 90% Japanese. I thought it was created for Disney+ Japan but Disney+ picked it up, and I was kind of surprised by that. I think my fans requested it. I don't know how that happened actually because it's almost like a foreign film [with subtitles].
I feel like Japan and other Asian countries have done well in response to the coronavirus. What do you think we can learn over here about the Eastern response to the pandemic?
This COVID-19 situation is all about, not "I'm first," [but] "I care about you first.". So wearing the mask or staying home is not for you [but] for your friends. That kind of thought. Some diseases [like smallpox] completely disappeared because our ancestors [were] vaccinated. That's why we don't have to deal with that.
So, we are doing this for the next generation, or your friends or your family or people around the world. That's most important. Then secondary, also your life. That's how I think. I'm not saying you should it do this way, but those are my thoughts.