Tops: Mya Made
Words: Biju Belinky
Photography: Jackson Bowley
Photography Assistant: Patrick Dowse
Styling: Valeria Chrampani
Hair: Federico Ghezzi at Saint Luke
MUA: Charlie Murray
In their music videos, CHAI resemble a group of superheroes, like a guitar-playing version of the Powerpuff Girls. Meeting them at a London studio for Crack Magazine’s photoshoot, I tell them as much. “I want to fly!” says Yuuki, the bass player, about her supposed superpowers. “We often all have similar dreams, in which we’re all flying,” she muses.
Whether they have superhuman abilities or not, CHAI exude an electrifying energy, on and off-stage. The four-piece from Japan is composed of twins Mana (vocals and keyboard) and Kana (guitar), and friends Yuna (drums) and Yuuki (bass). Together they are an extremely cheerful dance punk powerhouse, preaching self-love through their guiding philosophy: Neo-Kawaii.
“'Kawaii' [cute, in Japanese] is often a very narrow definition. On TV you only see a certain type of cute, like models and idols,” explains Yuna, sat on a leather couch drinking tea while the others get ready. “But everyone can be kawaii in their own way. That’s what we want to promote.”
All clothing: Oscar Ouyang
The Neo-Kawaii ethos is woven through CHAI’s entire creative process, but the music video for N.E.O., from the girls’ debut album PINK, is perhaps the easiest introduction to it. It starts with a burst of fuchsia and Mana’s high-pitched vocals in all-caps on screen as she affirms: “YOU ARE SO CUTE, NICE FACE, C’MON, YEAH!” The video goes on to show details not often brought attention to – hairy chests, freckled faces, pudgy bellies.
What really drives the message home is the genuineness in which it is delivered and lived by the four girls in front of me. For CHAI, none of this is a marketing device or a disingenuous way to be perceived as “accepting”. It’s a philosophy they are living, creating and learning, both as a group and as individuals.
Jewellery: Loveness Lee
“First, you look at yourself in the mirror and say that you’re cute, and that you approve of yourself the way you are,” declares Kana when I ask about her own process of self-acceptance. “But then also it’s important to tell other people positive things. We give each other compliments and encourage each other all the time.”
Almost as if on cue, Mana and Yuna walk out of the makeup room with wefts of hair swirled around their faces, hearts drawn on their cheeks and disco balls dangling from their ears. As soon as they spot them, Kana and Yuuki shout “cool!” and “so cute!” from our interview couch, sending the pair a supportive thumbs up.
Earrings: Saf Safu
CHAI’s hard-to-miss image – a hyper-saturated, playful and almost cartoon-like take on girlhood – is as carefully curated by the group as their philosophy, with Yuuki at the helm illustrating their website and album covers. Today at the studio they are happy to wear what’s on offer, throwing on frilled neon dresses and metallic silver skirts, taking selfies with CHAI painted across their faces. But onstage the four-piece always rock up in matching pink outfits. The concept was initially inspired by Devo’s kitsch aesthetic, but the choice to wear them at every show goes deeper than that. “Pink is a colour that is often thought as only suitable for little girls,” says Mana, sighing. “We want to change the image of pink, to show that pink can be very cool and fashionable, not just cute.”
Gloves: Oscar Ouyang
Their first album was named after the shade, followed by the latest, PUNK, which the band describes as “the future” of CHAI – a portrait of the band they want to be. It’s cheerful electronic rock, where swirling synths meet an undoubtedly punk rock bass and Mana’s punchy vocals. When asked if they enjoy any punk groups specifically, the band laugh. They tell me the title was chosen due to the similarity of the words, rather than a specific interest in the genre. Instead, they cite the likes of Brazilian group Cansei de Ser Sexy (CSS), tUnE-yArDs and Justice as their musical inspirations. “We like music we can dance to,” explain Kana and Yuuki animatedly. “It’s about the feeling. Not about being cool.”
CHAI’s music is a reminder that the universal experience of girlhood is not about needing to be “cool”. To them it’s about learning to love yourself as you are. For that, CHAI are the coolest girls around.
PUNK is out now via Heavenly