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In 'Souvenir' Jonah Yano Explores Identity, Loss and Reconnection


In the song "Shoes," Toronto-based musician Jonah Yano sings about a memory of his absent father.


JONAH YANO: (Singing) It's what I wonder. It's what I wonder. It's what I wonder...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yano's father, who lives in Japan, is also a musician, and these lyrics about a pair of shoes his father once bought him when he was a child are set to his father's music. Jonah Yano's debut album is called "Souvenir," and it tackles themes of identity, loss and reconnection. And he joins us now from Toronto. Hi, there.

YANO: Hello.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you remember that episode when he bought you those shoes?

YANO: I think I was, like, 3 years old, but what I remember my mom telling me is that, like, I asked for a specific pair of shoes that were themed after a Japanese superhero called Ultraman. And they specifically had, like, light-up heels. And yeah, he got them for me. And I wore them. His lyrics in Japanese are the song he originally wrote back when I was, like, a very young child.


MURAOKA TATSUYA: (Singing in non-English language).

YANO: In the recording that he made that I ended up singing over, he left these gaps between his verses. And so I saw those gaps as, like, a place for me to say what I wanted to say. And so all the lyrics that are in English are my lyrics and, like, things I wanted to say to him.


YANO: (Singing) I could see myself in you. I could see myself in...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And did you grow up knowing about this song? When did you discover it?

YANO: Yeah, so my uncle was at that performance of that song at the bar in Hiroshima. And he and his friend engineered the whole show and digitized it to CD for, like, me and my little brother and my mom. And so I've known that song since I was, like, 8 or 9 years old. I remember really always being really attached to that song because when you're a kid, you're like whoa, this, like, song's about me. My dad wrote it. That's so cool.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) You were quite young when you left Japan for Canada. Can you tell us about that move and why it happened?

YANO: So I was 4 years old, and my parents got divorced after being together for 10 years or so. And my mother, who's originally Canadian, decided to, in the divorce, take me and my little brother back to Vancouver where she's originally from because my dad was kind of absent from raising us.


YANO: (Singing) Everything you do, it always puts me to the side, to the side. Everything you do, it always puts me to the side...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk about the song "Congratulations You're In The First Place (ph)." You write from your mother's point of view.

YANO: It was meant to be her talking to my dad sort of after she had made the decision to move back to Canada. And in the last part of the song, it's meant to be my dad echoing a response back to her but inside of his own head.


YANO: (Singing) Circumstance. Circumstance. Guilty consequence of your mistake, my mistake. Everything you do, it always puts me to the side, to the side...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You ended up going back to Japan to see him in 2019. I think it had been 15 years since he'd been face to face. What was that like?

YANO: Honestly really surreal. I felt kind of numb when I got to the train station. I just, like, didn't know how to feel, and I don't think he did, either because I remember, like, when I got in the car and we, like, packed up all their stuff to drive to the little cabin that we were staying in. We stopped at a 7-Eleven. And I remember him asking me if I wanted, like, a juice. And I was like yeah, sure. And he came out with, like, a grape juice box for a child. And I was like, damn, this guy has no idea what's going on, either. And I think we were both kind of in disbelief that it was happening at all.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: This album also delves into complicated feelings that you have about your Japanese heritage. I want to talk about the song "Strawberry." Let's take a listen.


YANO: (Singing) I'm so terrified of everyone around me. See, I don't know if anyone's to blame...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about this song. You said that it's about wishing you were white.

YANO: The whole narrative of the song is sort of young me looking in the mirror wondering who and what I am supposed to be. The lyrics are sort of inspired by this moment that I had when I was a kid and eating dinner at my grandma's house in Vancouver. And for, like, 10 or 15 minutes, I was, like, looking in the mirror. I was like, mom, everybody, look. Like, look at me. I'm white. Like, I look white. And they're like, no, you don't. You're so stupid. Like, you're not white. And I didn't really think much of it until I became an adult. And I was like, wow, that is actually a really dark thing that happened, this, like, cultural dysmorphia, kind of feeling that I had when I was a kid.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So it's Father's Day today in North America and in Japan. What is your relationship with your dad now?

YANO: We still talk a bit on Facebook Messenger, not much. I don't really know what there is to say a lot of the time. I think we're both stumbling on how to integrate each other into each other's lives.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Has he heard this album?

YANO: Yeah, yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did he like it?

YANO: Yeah, I think he digs it. You never really know with, like, your family.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ain't that the truth.

YANO: Yeah, I think they just like that you did something.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Jonah Yano. His debut album "Souvenir" is out today. Thank you very much.

YANO: Thank you.


YANO: (Singing) Isn't it so delicate the way you take up my mind? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.