Since breaking out in 2018, CHAI have been associated with explosive joy. At their live shows, the Japanese four-piece of identical twins MANA (lead vocals and keys) and KANA (guitar), drummer YUNA, and bassist-lyricist YUUKI have become known for buoyant displays of eclectic and clever songwriting, impressive musicianship, matching outfits, delightful choreography, and sheer relief. At the core of their music, CHAI have upheld a stated mission to deconstruct the standards of beauty and cuteness that can be so oppressive in Japan. Following the release of 2019’s second album PUNK, CHAI’s adventures took them around the world, to music festivals like Primavera Sound and Pitchfork Music Festival, and touring with indie-rock mainstays like Whitney and Mac DeMarco.
Like all musicians, CHAI spent 2020 forced to rethink the fabric of their work and lives. But CHAI took this as an opportunity to shake up their process and bring their music somewhere thrillingly new. Having previously used their maximalist recordings to capture the exuberance of their live shows, with the audiences’ reactions in mind, CHAI instead focused on crafting the slightly-subtler and more introspective kinds of songs they enjoy listening to at home — where, for the first time, they recorded all of the music. Amidst the global shutdown, CHAI worked on Garageband and traded their song ideas — which they had more time than ever to consider — over Zoom and phone calls, turning their limitations into a strength.
Their third full-length and first for Sub Pop, WINK contains CHAI’s mellowest and most minimal music, and also their most affecting and exciting songwriting by far. While the band leaned into a more personal sound, WINK is also the first CHAI album to feature contributions from outside producers (Mndsgn, YMCK) as well as a feature from the Chicago rapper-singer Ric Wilson. CHAI draw R&B and hip-hop into their mix (Mac Miller, the Internet, and Brockhampton were on their minds) of dance-punk and pop-rock, all while remaining undeniably CHAI. Whether in relation to this newfound sense of openness or their at-home ways of composing, the theme of WINK is to challenge yourself.
WINK is a fitting title then: a subtle but bold gesture. A wink is an unselfconscious act of conviction, or as CHAI puts it: “A person who winks is a person with a pure heart, who lives with flexibility, who does what they want. A person who winks is a person who is free.” YUUKI noted that “With this album, we’re winking at you. We’re living freely and we hope that when you listen, you can wink and live freely, too.”
The lead single “ACTION” was a response to watching the Black Lives Matter protests unfold across America and the world in June of 2020 while the band was in Japan. “Seeing how the world came together during the protests really moved me,” said YUUKI. “I wanted to dedicate that song to the year of action.” In a sense, the flipside is “PING PONG!”: a laserbeam ode to a social activity that CHAI love but cannot currently partake in. In Japan, CHAI would often play ping pong after visits to the public hot springs, called onsen. “PING PONG!” also features YMCK, who brought a gaming feel to the production, which CHAI wanted to match.
“Nobody Knows We Are Fun,” meanwhile, was inspired by an at-home activity: YUUKI was watching 2019’s Booksmart when she had the idea for the song. (The movie’s whip smart protagonists decide to attend a party before high school graduation after realizing, “Nobody knows we’re fun!”) “I thought, ‘We, CHAI, can really relate to that scene,” YUUKI said of the song, which the band describe as “a mix of screaming our annoyances — why don’t you guys notice us! — while trying to be cute and sexy.”
CHAI’s past albums have been filled with playful references, in the lyrics, to food, and WINK’s intimate single “Maybe Chocolate Chips” offers an evolution of this motif. YUUKI wanted to write a self-love song about her moles: “Maybe if people would look at their moles as chocolate chips they would see them positively,” she says. “Maybe Chocolate Chips” features the Chicago rapper Ric Wilson, who they initially connected with at the 2019 Pitchfork Music Festival, and who brought additional layers of depth. CHAI’s adventures on tour — and love of food — also seeped into the single “Donuts Mind if I Do,” inspired by a bit of serendipity in a hotel lobby where free donuts were on offer with the sign “Donuts Mind If I Do.” “Free donuts, how cute. You never see this in Japan,” YUUKI thought, looking at the sign. “But what does it mean?” CHAI’s tour manager explained that it was a play on “don’t mind if I do,” which only stoked YUUKI’s curiosity further: What does that mean? “I looked it up and realize, you really don’t hold yourself back with ‘don’t mind if I do,'” YUUKI said. “CHAI has always been about living freely and doing as you please,” and that spirit of abundance informed this sticky-sweet song.
Towards the end of WINK, CHAI’s move towards mellowness shines with two of the sparest and most stunning songs the band has ever recorded. YUUKI wrote the penultimate “Wish Upon a Star” as a lullaby of sorts: What kind of song would I want to listen to before I go to sleep at night? she wondered. (KANA had been experiencing sleep difficulties at the time.) She set out to craft a bedtime ballad that promotes comfort, warmth, and relaxation. Meanwhile, the glowing closer, “Salty,” penned by MANA, is a beautiful exploration of nostalgia and memory: a song about “holding onto a memory and putting it into taste” and what taste can do psychologically. “You bite into a rice ball and you taste the salt and immediately you think of that memory,” MANA says, noting that she was inspired by her kitchen, where she wrote and recorded it.
With these two songs especially, and WINK as a whole, CHAI came to see the album — with its home-y feel — as a collection where each song is like a new friend, something comforting to rely on and reach out to, as the album was for them throughout 2020. “When you can’t sleep at night, you can go to ‘Wish Upon a Star,'” the band says. “When you need to go down memory lane, you can go to ‘Salty.'”
This impulse towards connection is in WINK’s title, too. After the “i” of PINK and the “u” of PUNK — which represented the band’s act of introducing themselves, and then of centering their audiences — they have come full circle with the “we” of WINK. It signals CHAI’s relationship with the outside world, an embrace of profound togetherness. Through music, as CHAI said, “we are all coming together.” In that act of opening themselves up, CHAI grew into their best work: “This album showed us, we’re ready to do more.”