‘A guy wearing a dress is not a sexual thing’: Yohio

Swedish teen pop star Yohio sings in Japanese, dresses like Lolita, and plays guitar like Hendrix. The Local's David Landes finds out more about why most Swedes haven't heard of him – until now.

'A guy wearing a dress is not a sexual thing': Yohio

Among the artists revealed this week as hopefuls to represent Sweden in the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest, there is one name that stands out.


And while Sweden’s Melodifestivalen is known for attracting unorthodox as well as up-and-coming artists, Yohio’s arrival on the Swedish music scene comes via a path even more unusual than most.

Most Swedes may not have heard of the 17-year-old guitar virtuoso who has been compared by some to Jimi Hendrix.

But it’s hard to blame them for failing to notice that Yohio is already a bona fide superstar, as his rise to fame has taken place on the other side of the globe in Japan.

And for those unfamiliar with the gender-bending fashion trends on the Japanese rock scene, the waifish teen’s feminine outfits can make for a jarring juxtaposition for music fans more used to hearing guitar riffs strummed by macho men in muscle tees, rather than delicate doll-like figures reminiscent of Lolita.

But the self-assured Yohio brushes off any suggestion that his embrace of Japan’s “visual kei” genre means he’s aiming to be a sex symbol.

“Some people may think of it as something sexual, but in Japan where the scene was created, there’s nothing sexual about it,” he tells The Local.

“A guy wearing a dress is not a sexual thing. It’s just a stage show.”

Yohio’s journey from the streets of provincial Sundsvall in northern Sweden to the pulsing stages of Japan started casually when he was a young child with “ninjas and samurais”.

Over time, his interest in Japanese culture evolved into a full-fledged passion fuelled by manga and Japanese anime which took Sweden by storm when he was around ten-years-old.

Video for Yohio’s first single in English, Our Story

A breakthrough moment took place after a friend introduced him to a song by a Japanese band called An Cafe, at the time one of several bands popularizing the “visual kei” genre, and featuring look that cast the gender of the band’s members into question.

“I just looked up the band up and thought, ‘Oh, they’re girls’,” he explains.

“Then I looked at the YouTube comments and realized they were all boys.”

A subset of Japanese rock featuring a sound with echoes of heavy metal and punk, visual kei is perhaps most known for artists that don elaborate make up and costumes, often with a rather androgynous look – something with which the young Yohio could identify.

“Even when I don’t wear makeup, people think I’m a girl and it’s always been like that,” he explains.

“When I discovered visual kei style I was very hooked.”

It didn’t take long for the then 12-year-old Yohio to conclude he was going to be a Japanese pop star, enrolling in night classes to learn the Japanese language and honing his guitar skills in hopes of starting his own visual kei band.

While such a precocious, not to mention unusual, career choice might have caused many parents to worry, Yohio had the good fortune to be born into a family that knew a thing or two about a career in music.

“Music in the blood, I’ve always been around music,” says Yohio, who began learning the piano when he was six and picked up guitar when he was 11.

But the 17-year-old’s music roots are deeper than that.

His grandfather, Jan-Erik “Janne” Rehn, was a member of The Panthers, an influential Swedish pop group that churned out a number of hit singles in the 1960s.

In addition, Yohio’s father Tommy plays guitar in the Swedish metal band Corroded, while also serving as his son’s manager.

So instead of being lectured when by his parents when he had his heart set on becoming big in Japan, Yohio was allowed to pursue his dream.

By the age of 14 he’d started “Sweden’s first” visual kei band, Seremedy, before deciding to embark on a self-organized tour of Japan in the spring of 2011 which included eight concerts.

Seremedy’s tour was so successful the band returned in October for six more dates which would prove pivotal for Yohio’s rise on the Japanese music scene.

“At our final show I finally sung by myself in Japanese. I did it for fun because I wanted to try writing Japanese lyrics,” he recalls.

And representatives from Universal Records in Japan took note, signing Yohio as a solo act shortly upon his return to Sweden at the end of the tour.

While Yohio’s star has been rising over Japan, he has remained relatively below the radar in Sweden, with the possible exception of his small hometown.

“If I walk in the streets, people recognize me, but they don’t care and that’s a good thing. They just leave me alone,” he explains.

Growing up in Sundsvall wasn’t always easy, however, as Yohio recalls being bullied and teased for his early adoption of Japanese fashion trends.

“It can be hard in a small town because people don’t accept that you are different, but I always had my friends,” he explains.

“I knew what I wanted to do so I didn’t care.”

These days, Yohio enjoys being able to spend time relaxing in his home town.

“It’s very calming to be in Sundsvall. It’s fun to go around out in the world and gather inspiration and then go back there and make something of it,” he says.

And with the recent release of his first single in English and his addition to the line-up Melodifestivalen, Yohio hopes he can help open the eyes of Swedish music fans to the visual kei style at a time when most Swedes’ fascination with music from Asia has centered on Korean artists Psy’s YouTube hit Gangnam Style.

“I hate it,” says Yohio.

“I’ve never liked k-pop at all. Most of it is just American crap.”

The young Swede adds that he’s against what he calls a “sexual approach” to pop music stemming from the United States and adopted by many artists in Korea.

“I don’t like Lady Gaga because she’s so sexual,” he snarls.

“I think it destroys our youth. I don’t want my sister growing up to be a slut.”

Yohio rejects any claims that his nubile, effeminate stage persona is in anyway sexual.

“I want people to listen to my music and not to give a damn about how I look,” he explains, arguing, however, that it would be “boring” to forego visual kei’s elaborate costumes.

“They create a wider universe around the songs, but the songs are still important,” he adds.

“I want to make people listen to the music but I don’t want to drop the visual style because that’s what I want to bring to the west.”

And with Melodifestivalen’s publicity train getting set to reach full speed, Yohio hopes being a part of Sweden’s most popular music competition will help him do just that.

David Landes

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What are the best concerts in Sweden this autumn?

Now that Sweden has lifted its audience restrictions for public events, The Local's Paul O'Mahony lists his recommendations for the best gigs to attend over the coming months.

Crowd at a music concert in Debaser, Stockholm
Crowds return to Stockholm venue Debaser after pandemic restrictions on events were lifted. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Sweden’s musicians, concert promoters and venue operators have struggled to varying degrees through the pandemic. One surefire way to help get them back on their feet is to give organisers and artists the financial reassurance they need by pre-booking concerts. 

Of course these recommendations only apply if you feel safe attending large events; remember that you should stay home and take a Covid-19 test if you experience any symptoms that could be linked to the virus, even if vaccinated. And make sure to check with organisers if there are any specific coronavirus requirements you need to be aware of. 

Coming up: top gigs in Sweden over the next few months 

As a regular gig-goer, live music is the one thing I’ve missed most over the past year and a half. So it is with some excitement (and, I’ll admit, a degree of trepidation) that I prepare to go see Norwegian band Pom Poko this Friday at Hus 7 in Stockholm. Their melodic art-punk album Cheater sparked the year into life on its release in January. They’re also playing Plan B in Malmö on Saturday night

Plan B is also the venue when Squid hit Sweden with a thrilling dose of post-punk on October 15th. Tickets remain available for the show at the time of writing (an absolute steal at 120 kronor), though that’s sadly not the case in Stockholm where their October 16th gig at Melodybox sold out a long time ago. (Although you can sign up to be added to a waiting list). 

Another artist well worth checking out in October is Gothenburg guitarist and singer Amanda Werne, better known as Slowgold. Her live shows are great and she is embarking on a Swedish tour on October 8th. 

Emma-Jean Thackray, one of the UK’s most interesting jazz artists, will be at Fasching in Stockholm on October 15th

For the best kind of sonic assault, Anna von Hasswolff’s band Bada are scheduled to play in Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg in late October. 

Have any of you ever seen Gothenburg electronic veterans Little Dragon live? I haven’t but might check them out in November when they swing by Malmö, Stockholm and Gothenburg

Amason are also heading out on the road for a Scandinavian tour in November. If you haven’t heard Amanda Bergman’s voice in a live setting before this will be a treat. 

The inimitable Sibille Attar released her superb second album A History of Silence at the start of the year and she’s finally getting the chance to play her eighties-inspired gems live at Slaktkyrkan in Stockholm on November 18th

Cassandra Jenkins long lurked in the background as a musician in touring bands for people like Eleanor Friedberger and Purple Mountains. But this year’s album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature has really established her as an artist to be reckoned with in her own right. She’s coming to Södra Teatern in Stockholm on November 26th

Always popular in this part of the world, The Jesus and Mary Chain return to Sweden for dates in Stockholm and Gothenburg at the end of November

Wry Finland-Swedish indie outfit Vasas Flora och Fauna have some of the funniest (Swedish) lyrics and catchiest tunes around. They’ll be in Stockholm and Gothenburg the first weekend of December

UK experimental rockers Black Midi are also playing Stockholm and Gothenburg on December 4th and 5th. So prepare to travel if you want to catch both them and Vasas Flora and Fauna. 

As if that wasn’t enough, Bob Hund’s annual ‘week 48’ show also takes place on December 4th. But that has been sold out for ages so no decisions to make there. It is also worth noting though that Sweden’s hardest working band has also written a musical that’s going to be performed in Helsingborg (October-November) and Gothenburg (November)

Bonus: For a post-Christmas pick-me-up try to get down to Little Simz at Slaktkyrkan on January 14th if you’re in Stockholm. The UK rapper’s new album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is one of this year’s best releases. 

Selected artists playing Sweden in 2022: Henry Rollins, Sarah Klang, Yann Tiersen, Mogwai, Pearl Charles, Wolf Alice, Lloyd Cole, Lord Huron, Future Islands, Josh Rouse + Vetiver, Tricky, Snail Mail, Porridge Radio, Aldous Harding, Shame, The Kooks, The War on Drugs, Echo and the Bunnymen, Kings of Convenience, Fontaines D.C., Alex Cameron, Lucy Dacus, The Divine Comedy, Mdou Moctar, Iggy Pop, Chubby and the Gang, Sparks, Belle & Sebastian, The National, Sharon Van Etten, Teenage Fanclub, Tindersticks, Suede, Viagra Boys, Pavement. 

For bigger arena shows, Ticketmaster covers a lot of the bases. Big-name acts with gigs in the offing include Ed Sheeran, Zara Larsson, Whitesnake and, lest we forget, ABBA

And that’s just a fraction of what’s going on. Tour schedules are busier than ever now that artists are finally getting back on the road. To keep track of what gigs are coming up I can recommend checking in with Luger, FKP Scorpio, and Live Nation. Follow your favourite venues too: sometimes they cut out the middleman and do their own booking and promotion. I also use the Bandsintown app, which comes with the added bonus of receiving messages from your favourite artists which let you pretend to be their friend. 

Enjoy the gigs, and stay safe! 

Paul O’Mahony is editorial product manager at The Local. In his spare time he plays the best new indie and alternative music as host of the Signals show on Nerve Music.