Rina Sawayama Breaks Through The Simulation
In a sprawling conversation, the UK pop star shares how her family history, Lady Gaga, and finally seeing her fans influenced her debut album, SAWAYAMA.
The first time I saw Rina Sawayama was on the internet. She appeared on my Tumblr dashboard as a fully formed cyberspace idol, a vision of hazard tangerine hair with a voice that could pierce through the speakers. She was — as she sings on "Cyber Stockholm Syndrome" off of her 2017 EP RINA — "the girl you want to watch"; a Japanese-British model who mined turn-of-the-millennium pop songs and capped them with coolly observant social commentary about the dark side of identity formation in our wired world.
When I meet up with Sawayama at the beginning of February, she is fresh off of auditioning musicians for her first live touring band. (The tour itself is now in flux as the world continues to grapple with the pandemic.) As we chat in the lobby of the LINE Hotel in Los Angeles' Koreatown, Sawayama admits that she didn't think RINA "would do f*cking anything. I was working three jobs at the time, I didn't know how to [make money with RINA]. I was like, whatever happens, happens. Suddenly, I had this amazing team of people and was touring and was reaching all corners of the world."
Though Sawayama's been putting out music since 2013, her artistic mission has sharpened over the past couple of years. Through a prolific online presence, an IRL circle that includes pop heavyweights like Charli XCX and Dorian Electra, and innovative fan initiatives, Sawayama has built a mutual adoration with her fanbase, #pixels. They gravitate to her not just for the music, but for what she represents.
Her debut album, SAWAYAMA, still interrogates identity, but no longer as a social abstract. Songs like "STFU!" and "Tokyo Love Hotel" explore Sawayama's visibility as someone with Japanese heritage, while her latest single "Chosen Family" invokes a central tenet of the LGBTQ community. One of Sawayama's identities is as a fan herself, a kid who grew up playing video games and skipping school to go to gigs, so she embeds SAWAYAMA with knowing fandom winks; "Dynasty" contains a hair-raising vocal tribute to Beyoncé's "I Care," while "Snakeskin" samples the Final Fantasy games' victory fanfare.
If RINA was about how the digital world complicates your self-perceptions and projections, then SAWAYAMA is all about the blood, sweat, and tears she's shed in the real world and the people who've inspired her, both as supporters and gatekeepers baffled by her ambition and commitment. Running the gamut from rowdy reclamations to earnest anthems, SAWAYAMA shatters the screens, letting the real Rina completely, and totally, own her stage.
Last fall, you met Utada Hikaru, who's the godmother of modern Japanese pop music.
Of my musical influence as well. She's genuinely the reason why I started doing music. We have a mutual friend who's also called Rina, and she was like, "Utada really wants to come to the show." After the show [at London’s Brixton Academy, supporting Charli XCX], I had to do a bunch of pictures backstage and I made her wait for like, 20 minutes. I felt so bad! I don't really get starstruck that much, but her I was like, wow.
She's someone who's tried to break into the American music market several times. It’s a challenge because Western countries still have this weird thing about international pop music, where it’s like, “Oh, if you’re Japanese, then why are you making music in English?” To what extent do you owe an explanation to the public about your artistic and aesthetic choices in your work?
To me, that trope was done. We live in the 21st century, it's 2020. There are people who've literally just grown up looking the way they look but existing in a completely different, Western environment. I'm always trying to balance out, trying not to view the East with a Western lens and hold it to the same account, and vice versa.
My upbringing was so amazing, but when I was taken out of that I was like, I need to understand how the world will always see me. There's a duty of care and responsibility for that. Do I want to keep perpetuating the same stereotypes and not making anything different? I did a lot of shutting out of the Japanese influence when I was in my late teens. When I went to Cambridge, I had to be more covert with it and really not stand out. But in my early 20s, when I started doing music, I was like, what's the music that sparked musical joy in me? And it was Japanese music. And Britney.
There's a line on "Paradisin’" where your mom threatens to send you to boarding school and you're like, "Psych, I know we can't afford it."
Asian parents are like, "You wanna join that family? Go join that family, we'll send you away." And, how?
I feel like there's a really specific dynamic for immigrant Asian parents. Obviously it’s not completely universal but there's a lot of tension about what you are allowed to do and what you can do to represent the family. As someone who's open in your music about your sexuality, how do you weigh this public/private life?
It literally takes parents who support their kids to have a Billie Eilish or Dua Lipa in the world. You need parental support and perhaps that's the reason there aren't huge Asian pop artists. Because you need that support from when they're a kid, and they need to purely believe that this is a viable option for you from when you first express interest in music.
With the coming out thing, I never came out to my parents. In Asian households, you don't talk about sexuality or sex, or you don't watch anything that has sex in it, you know what I mean? I was speaking to someone else that this coming out moment is perhaps a very Western thing. I have a couple of friends who've decided not to come out to their parents, and that's their decision. They've got a good relationship with their parents, but it's a very typical Asian relationship where there's distance, very much respect.
That's what "Paradisin" was about though. I was sooo rebellious when I was a teenager. But you grow up really feeling like your parents worked really hard. You feel it so deep in their soul that it's a very different level of respect.
[My family’s] supportive now because I'm financially independent, which we know is a really big part of it. As soon as I got back from university, my room that I'd grown up in was now 400 pounds a month. [My mum was] so savage, like, "You've got a degree now. Go on, earn your own money. Your room is not free anymore." I was like, "Ah!" But I respect it. To get respect in their society is to be financially stable. They want you to have that before you can have your fun.
"It literally takes parents who support their kids to have a Billie Eilish or Dua Lipa in the world."
You've said before that you want to be an album artist, with all of the big ramping up production that entails. One of those things means you'll be touring with live musicians for the first time. How's all that going?
[The musicians] are sick. It's an amazing queer POC band. I'm so proud of it. My plan for “Comme Des Garçons” is to extend it at the end and get all the entertainers to do a catwalk, or get local people to do a catwalk. It's gonna be crazy good. It'll be such a step up.
I grew up listening to albums; there was no other way to listen to music when you were a music fan, growing up. Now, people just dip in and out but back then, you had to f*cking commit because you were paying $13.99 for an album. The original iTunes sampler was when I used to go to Virgin Megastore and stand there and listen to albums. They'd give you a minute per song and I'd spend hours there. I feel like that's what, to me, makes true connection to your fans. If they can go on that journey with you and understand exactly what you're about.
On this record, you’re singing complicated vocal runs over a ridiculous range. How have you been training your voice and how do you plan on taking care of it?
I've been training my voice because I literally hated the way I sang live. So I looked up Lady Gaga's training method. She does this thing called "bel canto," which is an Italian operatic exercise; her voice has gotten so deep over the past couple of years. I know that's not the trend with pop vocals at the moment but I don't really care about sounding exactly the same as the album. I'd rather people be like, Whoa, her voice is so much deeper and better. For the record, I've gone a bit more treble-y, more breathy. That's weirdly the thing that cuts through on pop vocals but live, it's so uninteresting to me.
SAWAYAMA has a much more explicit focus on your relationships with the outside world. What prompted you to write more about family, friends, fame, fans, and places?
Touring. It really taught me about what songs I want sung back to me live. A lot of my fans, I can see that they're baby versions of my friends. Before, I was too scared to write about myself so I wrote about societal things.
With this record, I wanted to see a different interpretation of Japanese culture. So songs like "Akasaka Sad" and "Tokyo Love Hotel," [the latter] especially is trying to compare how people treat Japanese culture like casual sex. Like, you're having casual sex about my culture, you don't give a sh*t about the people. And "Dynasty" is for sure about my family. My granddad was very wealthy and when he passed away, it completely tore apart my dad's side. I'm a bit estranged with my dad and I grew up with that relationship. You feel that in immigrant families, this generational pain being passed down.
Working with lots of other songwriters helped me bring that out. A lot of this [album] is shared between other incredible songwriters. With any skill you have to learn, it's always other people, collaboration. You can't do everything yourself.
There are a lot of screaming and cheering motifs throughout the album; "Who's Gonna Save You Now?" literally opens with a stadium chorus. Does that motif relate to what you've been talking about as your new responsibilities as a figurehead?
In this album, there needs to be a moment of redemption. In the beginning it's angry, then it becomes kind of weird from "Comme Des Garçons" through "Paradisin"; quite reflective. I was watching A Star is Born and I was like, Yes, that's how I want it to sound. That magic of stadium rock and that imagination. When I was getting bullied and stuff, I never resorted to hitting back or shouting back. I was like, I'm gonna f*cking show that I'm gonna be more successful. I'm gonna make something out of this so they can see. That is [“Who’s Gonna Save You Now?”], for me.
On "Akasaka Sad," you sing a bar in Japanese. Considering the proliferation of the Japanese "aesthetic" within pop music especially, how has that guided your music-making process?
I go into meetings and tell people, this is the song. Dirty Hit was really the only label that was like, "Yeah, we love it. We'll do exactly how you want it to go." But... you can just tell that people love and appreciate Japanese culture and they wanna use it for a font in their cover art, and tattoos, and fine? I get that people have a real spiritual connection with a country that's not "theirs" and that's fine; I don't wanna live in a world where there are so many walls between countries and cultures. But for me to do this record, I needed to so deeply infuse my culture within the Western music that I'm making in a way that felt new and authentic, instead of having a load of kanji and katakana and sh*t like that over my artwork. That's such an easy way out.