Diana Yukawa was only 14 when she first stole hearts in Japan. It was her emotional musical tribute to her father, who lost his life in the Japan Airlines Flight 123 disaster of 1985, that struck a chord with the audience and led to her releasing her debut album in Japan not long afterwards. A second solo violin album followed, after which Yukawa broke free from the confines of classical music and began experimenting with the ‘modern electronic classical’ sound for which she is now known. Ahead of the release of her new album ‘Spaces Between Shadows’, we caught up with the genre-busting musician to talk multicultural identity, inspiration sources, and dogs in strollers.
What was life like for you growing up?
I was born in Japan shortly after my father died. A few months later, my mother moved us back to London, which is where she is from. My father had wanted us to grow up and go to school there. Being in such a cosmopolitan city, we had a mix of cultures at school and I completely felt like a Londoner.
Do you feel Japanese, British or a bit of both?
When I’m in Japan, even though I can only speak a little Japanese, I feel like this is my other home and it just feels completely natural for me to be here. But when I go back to England, that equally feels like my home. It can be quite confusing, but then I remind myself that I’m incredibly lucky to be able to have two cultures; to have heritage from this side of the world and the other.
Why did you choose the violin as your instrument?
It's that unexplained chemistry you feel when you’re attracted to something or somebody. I started playing the violin when I was five and totally fell in love with it. I also studied the piano when I was younger and would do lots of music competitions in school. One time I entered as both a pianist and a violinist, and I actually beat myself – although it was the piano playing that came first! So I don’t know, maybe I chose the wrong instrument [laughs].
What was it like to record your debut at 14, and why was it originally released in Japan?
I feel incredibly lucky because, as a child, it was my dream to make CDs and to perform. I think a lot of the interest in me had to do with the fact that I come from a human interest story, because of my father dying in the aeroplane crash. The first time I performed at the mountain [in Gunma, where the plane crashed], there was a lot of press interest about 'this girl from the UK and her violin'. And at the same time, I really wanted to be in Japan because I felt like it would help me learn more about my father, who was this man I never knew. There was always this pull and I always wanted to come to Japan to learn more about myself. The debut album was all classical music. It was released in Japan and then I took it to the UK – actually, everyone at home thought I was Japanese and people would ask me, ‘Do you speak English?’ and I’d reply ‘I can’t really speak any other language.'
Since then, you've shifted genres...
Yes. All of those experiences helped me to realise that I wanted to start writing my own music. I didn’t want to become a classical musician. Lately, I’ve been concentrating a lot more on doing things in the West first and then bringing them over to Japan. In the past. it was the opposite way round.
What do you most like about Japanese culture?
I love the appreciation of beauty. There are some Japanese words that describe something in an incredibly poetic way and for which there’s no English translation. I really appreciate the way Japanese people look in between the spaces, in between gaps, at things that we normally take for granted or overlook. It’s very poetic and artistic, which makes me feel at home.
Is your new album ‘Spaces Between Shadows’ inspired by that feeling?
No, I think it’s just a coincidence. People sometimes say my songs sound kind of Japanese or Oriental, but it’s not an intentional thing. Music is my language and an expression of what is going on inside. I can’t deny that I have two cultures, though, so it naturally comes out that way.
Are there specific things that inspire you or does inspiration just strike randomly?
It does strike randomly. I know a lot of people say this, but sometimes in the middle of the night, I wake up with a melody in my head. Although I haven't managed to get myself up from bed to write them down! I might have to work on that.
What do you do when you’re not playing the violin?
One of my favourite things to do is yoga. I’ve actually found that it's helped my creativity and my performance. Sometimes when I perform live, I get cramp in my feet, but since I started practising yoga, I feel a lot more grounded and centred. Other than that, I love going for walks with my dog.
Oh, what kind of dog do you have?
I have a dachshund. He’s absolutely mental. I wouldn’t recommend a sausage dog to anybody because they are hard work, but I do love him. I have dachshund memorabilia everywhere in my house, even jewellery! This is what happens, they take over your life. Speaking of which, one thing I don’t understand about Japan is why people push their dogs in buggies. That drives me a bit nuts. Maybe it’s the Londoner in me, but I think dogs really should be on the ground [laughs].
Your album is about to launch, so what are you working on next?
I am working with a media company that represents the Dubai Autism Center on a very unique project to raise awareness for autism through music. I’m creating an album inspired by the EEG brain scans of children and thought this was an interesting way of loosely combining science and music. When I’m writing music, it’s usually just for myself, but now I’ve been trusted with something incredibly special, which is to show that children with autism have beautiful minds even though people don’t think that they fit into normal society.
Lastly, any tips for aspiring violinists?
Don’t be pressured into following what’s considered to be the norm. That’s something I faced a lot when I didn’t want to do classical music any more. If you’re going to choose a profession like being a musician or an artist, you just have to remain true to who you are. I really believe that if you’re sincere and genuine about something, it will work out in the end.
Get 'Spaces Between Shadows' here.