Rina Sawayama is a name that has defined alternative music throughout 2020. With her excellent and deeply reflective debut album SAWAYAMA, released by Dirty Hit, the UK-via-Japan singer-songwriter completely shattered people’s expectations of her, and people’s expectations of pop music in general.
SAWAYAMA is an album that is anchored in her intersections as a queer woman of colour. It is dramatic and theatrical from start to finish, transcending nu-metal, R&B, electronic, pop and more, without missing a beat. She lets herself exist in all her facets, and that freedom boosts her conviction. Rina Sawayama can do anything is the message she’s pushed from the beginning, so it came as no surprise that – on her debut album – she did everything. And she hasn’t even had the chance to tour it yet.
Now, in the dwindling days of this hell year, Rina sat down with Music Feeds to discuss the reception to the album, being able to call Elton John her biggest fan, and the forthcoming Australian shows that she has revealed are in the works.
Music Feeds: SAWAYAMA came out over eight months ago now. You’ve had time to let it simmer, and it’s still so highly regarded. Do you think the way it has been received, and what people are getting from it, is an accurate depiction of what you were trying to do when making it? Did you feel that people would have this reception to it?
Rina Sawayama: Usually, I can gauge how things are going when I’m on the internet and stuff. I can see the articles and I’m like, ‘Oh my god this is crazy’ but you really feel it when you do the shows or you see a fan on the street. But because I have not left the house, I haven’t seen a fan or met a fan this whole year. I haven’t had any real way to gauge it in person, because it’s all been online.
It’s been so hard to take in, because I’ve just been here. My life hasn’t really changed that much but it’s just wild, it’s wild! I’ve just been so full of life just been so grateful. I mentioned when I released SAWAYAMA that this is my first record, I don’t know who’s gonna listen to it. When I was going round and showing people – labels and stuff – the record, ‘STFU!’ was like my litmus test upon showing them. This is what I wanted to be the first song off the record, and a couple of the major labels that I saw were like, ‘oh I don’t think this is right’ and they didn’t think it would stream well etc.
I always think I’m trash so I was just like ‘I think people aren’t going to care about this record so let me just do what I like’ and I wanted a label that’s just gonna support me in that. And lo and behold! As always, my philosophy is just ‘be yourself and stick with your uniqueness’.
I think that’s just a resounding thing in the queer community anyway and it’s definitely a hard thing to do. I’m so glad I hung in there. It’s just been phenomenal, it’s been wild. It was the point when Elton John called me and said it was his favourite album of the year that just had me so floored.
MF: I think he still thinks that. He might be your biggest fan.
Rina: It’s just insane. It’s just insane! I mean, who would ever expect the FaceTime video call from Elton John? He’s just so warm. He just called me recently and said ‘I saw you in this magazine and I’m so happy it’s going well for you’. It’s a three minute phone call, just to let me know he’s happy for me.
MF: Obviously he’s a pop music icon. Does that feel reassuring to you that you’re doing the right thing and on the right path?
Rina: Absolutely. Absolutely! Because someone like that has seen so much. He’s seen a lot happen, seen a lot of trends and a lot of artists come in and out. The fact that he specifically really loves my songwriting is so special to me. He and Bernie together – they’re one of the best songwriting duos. Period. Him as a performance artist inspires me. Him as a songwriter, obviously, inspires me. For him to say my songwriting is good, it’s just amazing.
MF: Do you see yourself as a songwriter before anything else?
Rina: Right now I do, yeah. When I’m on the road, I’m an artist and a performer, do you know what I mean? When I’m writing I have to focus on the songwriting because it’s all about the song – like nothing else matters if the song’s not there first. I think the production is obviously important but that for me is just a third of the song, really. The other two thirds are the core of the song and I realized that making this record. Before this record, even up until just before it came out, I didn’t think I was a very good songwriter. I think I hid behind a lot of the production. Now, my brain just lets me write what I need to write.
MF: The reception must be affirming for you because the album is so deeply and uniquely personal, right? You unpack some real shit in those tracks. Was that a hard process to look so far into yourself and pull out those nuggets of grief and triumph and struggle, etc.?
Rina: To be honest, I just find it hard to write a heterosexual love song. I try, I really try. I just cannot do it.
MF: It’s for the best, there’s too many of them anyway.
Rina: There is a lot, and there’s a lot of queer people writing about heterosexual love. And I just thought, ‘you know what? If the song’s good, the song’s good.’ If it’s good, everyone will get on board with the lyrics and stuff, whatever they may be. As long as it’s good, and I’m speaking my truth, it will resonate with someone.
MF: One of the most endearing things about SAWAYAMA is that there’s not a lot of songs about love in there, at least in the traditional romantic sense. But you do touch on other aspects of love – for your family, for your heritage, for your friends. I wanted to steer your attention to ‘Bad Friend’, which for me is the album highlight. There’s a level of accountability there that we don’t see in our own lives that often, let alone in pop music. It’s hard to admit that you’re wrong, but was it hard to then convert that into song?
Rina: It’s actually the opposite. After I write the song and I leave the studio, I feel like I’ve just verified that incident. I feel like I have a real good closure about it, because at the point that I wrote that, I wasn’t in the thick of it. That’s the whole point – it’s the reflection of your friendship or past friendships. I think friendships teach you so much about who you are, and so much about what you like, your overall conflict resolution style in life and what’s important to you.
I wrote ‘Snakeskin’ and I had my Mum talk on the end of it – that was just a tiny snippet of our conversations I had with already set questions and it was on her 60th birthday. I flew over to Japan, and it was genuinely the first time I could afford a flight to Japan on my own. When I was little, like my parents would obviously pay for my whole family, but I for a long time was fed up with my Mum.
Second of all, I just couldn’t afford it. So this was a very special moment for me. I made my way over there, and I was like, ‘I’m going to interview and just talk about your life’. That whole process was amazing and I really think me and my Mum’s relationship is so solid now. It helps that I’m successful!
MF: It’s a real job now, and you haven’t even been able to tour the album yet!
Rina: She’s obsessed with Twitter now and I have to tell her to get off it. She sees all the positivity around the record. The album is about her as well, you know? I think she feels great. It’s so funny, my Dad – who I have a slightly estranged relationship with – was like ‘love the record, don’t like the name record’ because it’s his surname. My family is so stupid sometimes.
MF: Well speaking of ‘Snakeskin’, obviously it’s the closing track which means it’s notable in and of itself. But the idea of a snakeskin – shedding a facade to emerge anew – it almost feels like, from an artistic standpoint at least, that you’re ready to dive into something new. You’ve said what you needed to say, the catharsis has happened. Are you ready for the next era of Rina?
Rina: Oh, the next era has already started! I’m already writing, and the songs are so interesting. Again, as much as I try, cannot for the life of me write a heterosexual love song. Keep trying, I can’t do it. But, I’ve let the pressure go and am just letting myself do what I want, or need. I’m enjoying reading other people’s works and listening to other people’s songs. There was a moment there where I was scared to listen to anyone else’s music because I was in such a weird mental state of comparing myself to other people. But now, I’m free of that. So it’s good.
MF: So there’s no project imminently coming out–
Rina: Well, I mean–
MF: Unless there is, in which case feel free to give us the scoop
Rina: I’ve got about half an album of working songs already. I’m going to keep writing, and I’ve heard that I might be going to Nashville to write which is one of my dreams. That’s important to me because country music and people who write in country – they are so about the story. That’s why I love Taylor Swift – folklore was amazing, she’s such an exemplary songwriter.
MF: So that’s an album that you did listen to?
Rina: Genuinely. I’m a cozy cardigan girl now, and it’s all because of her.
MF: Cottagecore queen
MF: Well that album is all about her writing songs of stories about other people, be it fictional or not. Is that a style of songwriting you’d like to get into, especially considering SAWAYAMA is so personal?
Rina: Definitely. It’s a real hard skill to be able to put that amount of research into three minutes and 40 seconds. You can’t even just write poetry, it’s got to fit in with the melody so it’s really hard, harder than I think people might expect. But that’s definitely one of my goals, and just wanting to train up my songwriting. I know that I like certain types of production but I think that will come after. Before, the songwriting and production used to happen at the same time, like with ‘Dynasty’ or ‘STFU’. So I’ll see where this new method takes, but I’ve already started writing about.
MF: And you seem excited about it
Rina: I am, I’m much less depressed than I was a few months ago, which sounds so silly.
MF: It’s a fucked up year, we’ve all dealt with it in different ways I feel
Rina: Oh yeah.
MF: But, still, the deluxe edition of SAWAYAMA just dropped, and I wanted to talk to you about ‘Lucid’. It, much like every other track on the album, is so different to the one that came before it. Is that the sound you’re sort of wanting to take with your next couple of releases and why didn’t that make the original copy of SAWAYAMA?
Rina: The reason it didn’t make the cut is just because it was so much more important to tell our story from top to bottom without any snags in the record. I knew it was, and it could be a very challenging record. I think it still is. And it’s just great to float from top to bottom.
I had to make some cuts, with songs like ‘We Out Here’ and ‘Bees And Honey’ that I love, but they had to go because I thought they lived in too much of a similar sonic world to another song, even thoughI love them so much. But ‘Lucid’ was weird though because I was a bit hesitant to release a song that was so pop and dance. I thought ‘oh all these alternative people love my music’ or whatever. But, looking back, I’ve set a nice thing for myself because I’m doing so many different genres. People don’t expect anything from me, which means I can give them everything.
I also think that if i’m the vehicle for people to think that the weird is acceptable, and if people are able to accept certain things that they hadn’t before, that’s a real win for me. But like I said, if the song’s good, the song’s good. I hope I never release a bad song, obviously, but I always want to challenge myself and my listeners and my fans to be open to all genres.
MF: Look, obviously, no one’s touring anytime soon. But when you do finally get a chance to do it, will you bring SAWAYAMA to Australia?
Rina: Well, I heard yesterday it’s in the works, so fingers crossed!
But I also need to shout out my live agents. The amount of work they have to do for all the artists. So many live agencies are going through furloughs and there’s so many redundancies. I’m so grateful that they push through. The reason I don’t cancel any of the tours because I want to make sure that the tickets all stay with the promoters and the venues that keep them abreast.
MF: There are many more people involved than just you
Rina: There’s hundreds of people that are involved per show, that aren’t even visible to the fans and those looking from the outside in. There’s a few festivals that I’m playing that I don’t think have been announced yet. To put it bluntly, the record’s not done yet. The record isn’t done until I’ve toured it.
MF: And the hunger to see it live is there too
Rina: The Pixels are so savage anyway. When I do a Thursday or Friday night show, it’s wild anyway. But this time there’ll be a new level of ravenous payoffs that I’m excited to deliver. I want there to be moments of moshing but also voguing. For ‘Comme des garçons’, I want to get amazing people on stage to dance. For ‘STFU!’ I want a proper shouty moment, and for ‘Chosen Family’ I want everyone to cry. I want people to just feel everything, because that’s what I felt when making the album.