- 03 Jun 20
Rina Sawayama is fresh off the back of releasing her astonishing eponymous debut album. This interview is part of a feature on women in pop music in this issue of Hot Press.
Rina Sawayama and I are both thriving in isolation. “I’ve been watching trash TV!” she chuckles down the line from her London home. “I love being at home, and I travel a lot, so this is quite nice - although it’s crazy how much this is affecting the rest of the world. I’m very mindful that I’m lucky.”
After chatting about Rina’s lockdown entertainment choices – including hit reality show Too Hot To Handle and Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – we properly get down to business. The singer’s debut, Sawayama, is one of the most intriguing and compelling pop albums of recent years.
A subversive and eclectic affair, its broad palette also incorporates elements of nu-metal, electronica and stadium rock, alongside Britney-esque vocals. Although there are obvious differences between Rina and the Queen of Pop, she doesn’t resent the comparison.
“It’s wild!” she enthuses. “I would argue that everyone in pop sings like Britney – she really set the precedent. Everyone wants to compare every singer to Britney.”
Thematically, Sawayama focuses almost exclusively on family and identity. Rina says that writing the album allowed her to forgive – and empathise with – her mother’s experience of parenthood.
“When you reach your mid-twenties,” the singer reflects, “you’re finally like, ‘Imagine being this age, and having a child, and being alone,' she laughs. "Fuck that! I could barely have a dog. I can’t imagine having the sleepless nights, and then they become teenagers and you think you’re all good, and that’s when they start smoking and doing crazy shit.”
Raised in a single-income household, Rina and her mother shared a room until she turned 15, and the two of them battled it out as she began experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
Her album systematically picks apart all that comes with being a child of immigrants, and the complexities of generational trauma (“I’m a dynasty / The pain in my vein is hereditary”), even as it maps out Rina’s own journey to finding her place in the world.
“I wanted it to be like a family photo album,” she notes. “It was my chance to tell my story. Because I’ve always felt like I was stuck between my Mum and Dad’s narratives about our family situation.
“I grew up quite confused. ‘Dynasty’ sets the tone, then it goes through this angry stage, which turns into more of a confident, self-loving phase.
The story's redemptive arc comes in the form of ‘Who’s Gonna Save You Now’.
"Then I’m literally shedding it and commercialising it, which is what ‘Snakeskin’ is about. It mimics the fashion industry – as well as artists in general – shedding pain and selling it. And hopefully feeling something different from it.”
So this all begs the question: do her parents like the album?
“Mum loves it,” Rina laughs. “I’ve told her to stop reading interviews, and she just can’t. She’s constantly thinking about what she should say on her Facebook to announce the album release. During the time when I was showing her the demos, she said for the first time in her whole life that she was proud of me. Which, for an Asian parent, is unheard of.
“That meant a lot, because this is her story as well. A lot of women have certain feelings that over time they’re made to feel aren’t valid, real, severe or serious. I think me understanding my Mum’s story has made her feel validated.”
One thing is certain: Rina Sawayama is an open book. Her YouTube channel RINATV almost makes profiling her obsolete, because her personality is there for everyone to see.
“Part of my decision to create that channel is that there’s such a mysticism around creative industries,” says Rina, who uses the space to share behind-the-scenes footage of music videos and talk shop with fans. “I’ve learned so much from YouTube that I wanted to create some kind of educational content. A lot of the time, especially being on social media, you can overstate the talent aspect. There’s so much more that makes a career in music. Maybe that makes me look a bit naff, but I don’t really care”.
The track on Sawayama that sold Rina to Dirty Hit – also home to The 1975 – is its weirdest. ‘STFU!’ has a glittering pop chorus interrupted by shred-happy metal riffs and a dramatic emo scream, courtesy of producer Clarence Clarity. Rina and her manager were about to sign to a different label, who “ceased negotiations” after hearing the track for the first time.
Dirty Hit, though, just laughed – and promised they weren’t interested in changing anything about the song. Instead, they gave Rina the creative freedom to realise her artistic vision.
The music video for ‘STFU!’ finds the singer raging against micro-aggressions from a well-meaning white date. They sit over dinner at a Japanese restaurant as he tells her, “I’m quite surprised you sang in English”, before stabbing at a salmon roll with one chopstick. It escalates rapidly from there: after regaling her with the fact that he’s “writing a fan-fiction from the perspective of a little Japanese woman”, he then uses his chopsticks to pull back his eyes.
“On a date, everything is meant to sound flattering, and all of these things have actually been said to me in a flattering way,” explains Rina. “Except the eyes being pulled back at the end – that was something that my friend experienced. A date is a perfect scenario where all of this fetishism tends to come out.”
This is brilliant – you don’t even need to be a woman of colour to relate to being on a bad date.
“Right?” she says. “And you feel kind of dirty afterward... the majority of that was said right before I started crafting the script, while queuing at a pizza stand, by this guy in his fifties. He also asked me about five different Japanese restaurants that he loves around his area, to see if I knew them”.
Gross. But Rina’s laughing again.
“I’m not gonna lie,” she continues, “I really have come to appreciate moments like that – of rage-inducing awkwardness – because it can be so inspiring for people to do something about it. I saw some comments on the video from people being like, ‘Oh god, I am that guy.’ People just checking themselves. That thrilled me.
“I sometimes try to entertain myself by going along with those conversations. Even in a satirical way, to put myself in that person’s shoes: ‘How are they seeing this, and how can I make the situation more ridiculous?’”
I’d almost pity the clueless people who direct their ignorance at Rina Sawayama – if it weren’t so rewarding watching her turn those same situations into great art.
• Sawayama is out now on Dirty Hit.