Pop iconoclast Rina Sawayama: ‘Drag is turning trauma into entertainment. That’s what I’m doing’ | Music

I’m not sure exactly what I expected the hyper-glam, gleefully camp indie-popstar Rina Sawayama’s opening gambit to be, but it’s safe to say it wasn’t an update on her current mortgage rate. “It went from 1.4 to 3-point-something,” she tells me incredulously, moments after I enter the glass terrace of the London members’ club where she is eating breakfast. The repayments on the house she bought in the south of the city a couple of years back are “literally going to double!” she exclaims between mouthfuls of porridge. “I was like: what the fucking fuck?!”

The cost of living crisis probably won’t be the first thing that springs to mind when you dive into Sawayama’s world, where arch genre-blending meets enormous choruses and rawly emotional lyrics. Yet in another sense, Sawayama’s choice of conversation topic seems fitting. The 31-year-old Cambridge graduate’s current heights – critical adoration, a Brit nomination, nearly 5 million monthly Spotify listeners – are the result of a lonely, exhausting and expensive decade-long climb up a music industry ladder that she had to build for herself. You don’t become a self-made pop powerhouse without being across the details.

Sawayama began making music full-time at the age of 27 – “ancient for a pop artist”. She had spent her post-university years striving for success but mired in creative confusion. “I was going to lots of different producers and trying to find a sound,” she admits. Meeting producer Clarence Clarity was her breakthrough moment. Clarity’s maximalist sensibilities immediately chimed with Sawayama and the pair quickly established a distinctive new sound, first showcased on her 2017 EP Rina: a fusion of 90s R&B, pop-punk, industrial, 80s digital funk-rock and super-slick Y2K pop. They perfected it on her 2020 debut album, Sawayama, a wildly entertaining collection of songs that brought sax-spiked new wave, droll Eurodance, synthpop, cheesy 00s chart fodder and metal into an already mind-boggling eclectic mix.

Rina Sawayama at the Coachella festival in April. Photograph: Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella

Despite her formidable onstage presence, Sawayama radiates matey approachability and self-effacing candour, and she is transparent about her creative tactics. By melding genres that are “out of fashion,” she says, her music sounds fresh to jaded ears. “I’m just so aware that if I’m inspired by anything that’s out there now then it’s going to make me sound dated, so I turn it on its head. Like: what’s no one doing? No one’s doing stadium rock, I’m going to do stadium rock.”

It’s an approach that is clearly yet to run out of steam. For her brilliant forthcoming album Hold the Girl (which also bears the imprint of British super-producers Paul Epworth and Stuart Price), Sawayama has taken the same tack, this time picking “genres I don’t feel like I touched in the first record”. Official influences include Madonna’s Ray of Light and Music, Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson, “the Irish coastline” (ie the Corrs) and country music. (I can also hear trance, Mariah, Mazzy Star, math rock and Toxic-era Britney, but you might not: at some point the melange becomes a sonic magic-eye picture.)

There’s a postmodern thinking to Sawayama’s sound that’s probably best summed up by the outfit she has on today: diamanté-encrusted Juicy Couture T-shirt, diamanté-encrusted Vivienne Westwood orb necklace, lip-liner – totems from the early 00s worn not exactly with ironic distance, but with the tacit acknowledgment that they were considered desperately un-chic just a few years ago. Many of her contrarian musical influences are also styles that were popular during her turn-of-the-millennium tweendom, and if, like me, you’re the same age as Sawayama, the cocktail she creates feels like catnip: the heady glow of tweenage wonder remixed into something funny and unexpected but also comforting.

Sawayama posing on a red themed set
‘There were things that I allowed to happen because I wanted to fit in’ … Sawayama. Photograph: Thurstan Redding

Not to imply that Sawayama’s appeal is age-exclusive: her debut – the bulk of which was recorded without record company support, though later released on the label Dirty Hit (Wolf Alice, the 1975) – won over swathes of listeners and critics, and was voted the Guardian’s third-best album of 2020. It was so popular, in fact, that many were confused when it wasn’t included on the Mercury prize shortlist that year.

That’s because it didn’t qualify. Sawayama, who moved from Japan to the UK with her parents when she was five, has indefinite leave to remain but isn’t a British citizen, so she wasn’t eligible. The Brits, also run by the BPI, had the same criteria. Initially, she didn’t want to speak out for fear of seeming pushy or entitled, but then she realised that if she didn’t, she would never get the opportunity to win a mainstream award in Britain. She did an interview on the subject that garnered noisy support online. At first, there was no official response. “It felt like the silent treatment for a couple of months – but that was the risk,” says Sawayama. “It was either: I get nominated for one category [international solo artist] for the rest of my life in a country I’ve lived in for 26 years or I get blacklisted. Both not great options.” Eventually, she had a phone conversation with Ged Doherty, then British Phonographic Industry chair, who agreed to change the rules. Her first Brit nomination, in the Rising Star category, followed soon after.

Watch the video for Rina Sawayama: This Hell.

She may still be very much on the ascent (her only singles chart success is for a collaboration with Charli XCX), but Sawayama has been reflecting on the slog that got her to where she is today. Not just the “hell on earth” years spent striving to establish herself while simultaneously working three part-time jobs and grappling with severe depression, but also the deeper roots of the unhappiness that cast a shadow on her 20s. While her debut was peppered with references to various ordeals (racist microaggressions; her tumultuous relationship with her mother) its follow-up shudders with trauma of a different kind.

Sawayama doesn’t want to reveal the specific details of the experiences she drew on for Hold the Girl – partly because they are still too upsetting, and partly because she wants the album to retain the lyrical ambiguity that allows great pop to connect with listeners. She will say, however, that it mainly revolves around the misguided notions she had about sex and love as a teenager – ideas she later recognised were “so wrong – so wrapped up in trying to be accepted by other people”. She is now horrified by encounters “that I thought were relationships but were actually completely abusive. There were things that I allowed to happen because I wanted to fit in.”

These experiences, she came to understand, “completely destroyed my boundaries and my idea of consent”. (On a track called Phantom, she recalls trying to win friends with “stickers and scented gel pens”, but in the end “gave a little too much away”.) In retrospect, she also felt betrayed by the adults who didn’t protect her. “We grew up in the 90s and 00s when these things were not an issue,” she says. “People didn’t care about women’s rights, people didn’t care about teenagers’ rights and people didn’t have this language to describe things that we do now.” The #MeToo movement helped her grasp what she had been through, as did the emergence of terms such as “slut-shaming” – something she later understood she had been subjected to at her all-girls school.

In her 20s, Sawayama tried to rebuild herself after these experiences: Frankenstein is about a partner she hoped would “love me for ever, fix me right”. But that pressure meant the relationship became dysfunctional in a different sense. “I was expecting him to put me back together whilst also realising that’s not the right thing to do – I should pay for someone to do that.” So she did, beginning a form of therapy that saw her learn to “re-parent” and embrace her teenage self: hence the phrase Hold the Girl – also the title of her hypnotically catchy new single. (It also answers the question: what if Steps did UK garage?) The therapy helped her establish: “What do I want? Who do I want to be? What do I want sexually? What do I want in relationships? All those things I did not know until I was 30.”

Sawayama at a party in London in 2017.
‘I would blame my mother, always’ … Sawayama at a party presented by Ugg in London in 2017. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

Over the years, Sawayama confronted another aspect of this self-denial. Hold the Girl opens with a track called Minor Feelings about how small slights can gradually create a debilitating sadness. It was named after an essay collection by Cathy Park Hong, who “writes about being Asian and having to bury a lot of feelings because you don’t feel like they matter as much to people”, she explains.

Growing up, Sawayama didn’t know what to make of her Asian identity. When her father’s Japan Airlines job took the family to Britain in the mid-90s, the plan was always to return home, but her parents soon noticed that their daughter was “being creative and musical” and felt London was a better place to foster her talents. Shortly afterwards, they separated, and her dad returned to Japan, where Sawayama now has half-siblings.

As a teenager, she “wanted to be British”, while her mother “represented Japan” in her mind. “I was so embarrassed by her all the time. If she pronounced something wrong, it would embarrass me, like: ‘Why can’t you speak good English? You should have become more British by now.’ I would blame her, always. If she didn’t get served quickly enough [in a shop] I was like: it’s because she’s bad at English.”

This resentment was compounded by a claustrophobic dynamic between them. A precarious financial situation meant the pair shared a bedroom until Sawayama was 15, and she describes her mother constantly attempting to keep tabs on her escapades through rather intrusive means, including snooping on her MSN Messenger account.

After university, the pair’s relationship broke down further. Now Sawayama can laugh about her mother’s “savage” decision to charge her £600 a month to rent her old room – “it’s very iconic actually” – but at the time felt like it meant she didn’t “love me any more”. Her mother moved back to Japan in 2016. Nowadays, they are on far better terms: partly because of the distance between them, partly because there have been frank conversations and apologies. “We got to a point in our communication where she was like: I regretted doing that, I wish I hadn’t done this so that I could have been there for you. And I was like: sorry, I was a little shit.”

Sawayama in Portugal last month.
‘The songs I wrote early in my career, I wasn’t talking about anything!’ Sawayama in Portugal last month. Photograph: SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

On Hold the Girl, Sawayama writes about their relationship again – this time on the bombastic yet blissful Catch Me in the Air (she wanted it to sound “like a cool breeze”; it also sounds like the Corrs covering Bon Jovi). A tribute to the pair’s fractious codependency and mutual love, it’s an empathetic, nuanced pop portrait of the mother-daughter relationship.

Despite their differences, Sawayama’s mother always encouraged her daughter’s musical ambitions. At school, she was in a gospel choir and performed Norah Jones covers at Monday mass. In sixth form, she was in a band called Lazy Lion alongside Wolf Alice’s Theo Ellis and rapper Jelani Blackman. “I used to think I was like Fergie because he was rapping and I was singing,” she says with a laugh.

She didn’t perform much at Cambridge, where she studied politics, psychology and sociology, but her time there proved formative. In her final year she made a circle of friends – “a bunch of queers at Queens’ College” – who helped her realise that she wasn’t straight. She never had a classic coming-out moment, she says; more a steady process of discovery aided by the group. “It was like: now that you say that, I did this and this. It was like: maybe you’re bi? And I was like: maybe I’m bi? That kind of vibe,” she says. Today, she identifies as pansexual.

That friendship group was also part of a drag scene, which helped shape Sawayama’s musical modus operandi. “I really think that fun and humour is one of the best ways to get over something, once you’ve done the emotional work,” she says. “Drag is turning trauma into humour and entertainment and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Recently the Londoner has been engaging in a less flamboyant style of performance. Next spring, she’ll star in the Keanu Reeves action blockbuster John Wick 4, playing a character called Akira: unsurprisingly she can reveal no details beyond the fact that she’s “the female lead”. It’s a project that will doubtless catapult Sawayama to a new level of fame; for now, she’s getting used to the relatively unobtrusive but still unsettling experience of being noticed in public. “Before people come up to you they look at you,” she says. “I’m like: oh fuck, what do they want? What’s on my face?”

Finding success later in life has given Sawayama “perspective”, she says. Not just in the sense of understanding her own past – although the insights she’s gleaned about her childhood, relationships and heritage have helped her develop a lyrical depth that a teen idol could never get close to. “The songs I wrote early in my career, I wasn’t talking about anything!” she admits.

It’s also helped her envisage a sustainable life for herself in the industry. Sawayama isn’t willing to run herself into the ground, “trying to do things for numbers”. Instead, she is determined to ensure her fledgling pop stardom only adds to her hard-won happiness. “I reject the status of a suffering artist,” she says matter-of-factly, polishing off the last of her porridge. “I just want to enjoy my career.”

Hold the Girl is out on Dirty Hit on 16 September.

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