In a packed, dimly-lit basement in Dalston only the scant shuffle of feet can be heard as Mitski, just visible through the throng of heads fixed attentively in her direction, preps for the next song. It’s something that’s become an increasingly familiar and yet still arresting reaction to Mitski Miyawaki.
“I think people who come to my shows just want to be lost,” Mitski says when we meet the day after the show on a rare sun-kissed afternoon in East London. It’s been just two years since Mitski harpooned the hearts of fans and critics alike with the release of her third album, Bury Me At Makeout Creek; a record that from its dry-smile title was instantly relatable as it gave the 21st century need to chill the middle figure in favour of honest-to-god songs burning up with anger, love, and desolation against a backdrop of thunderous riffs and insanely infectious sing-a-long choruses.
With the release of her latest album, Puberty 2, Mitski takes the bones of Bury Me At Makeout Creek and binds them with the orchestral intricacies of her earlier work to produce her most diverse and impactful record to date. The uneasy drum machine pulse of ‘Happy’ kicks the album into life: ‘Once More To See You’ scales unseen heady harmonies, ‘Your Best American Girl’ is an unashamed all-out pop anthem, juttered jazz conveys the pleading lament to addiction in ‘Crack Baby’, looped layers enwrap ‘Thursday Girl’, and closer ‘A Burning Hill’ recalls the tenderly plucked refrain of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’. If Bury Me At Makeout Creek was the party, Puberty 2 is the long walk home the morning after; it fully engulfs you in the twist and turns of life that cannot be contained in a simple minor key.
“My last record was focused on keeping it guitar, bass and drums, whereas for this record I think I’ve expanded instrumentally a bit more, Mitski says when describing the record, although it’s not something she’ll be drawn on further as she’s still “too close to the record to really objectively talk about it”. Put together with long-term creative partner Patrick Hyland it did, however, come from a need, which she says was to “block everyone out and just have it be me and Patrick and not so many hands and voices on it."
This desire to regain control is something that comes up frequently during our conversation. In past interviews, Mitski has always been refreshingly vocal talking openly about her own struggles with identity and her views on gender equality and race. However, in an era of click-bait journalism, the narrative around Mitski, similarly to a lot of musicians who happen to be female, quickly narrowed to be primarily about her identity as a woman and an Asian-American. It’s something that has understandably made her reticent to talk about these topics this time around. "I’ve taken a step back,” she says, “because it’s just another form of stereotyping in a way.”
With another critically acclaimed album and sold-out shows scheduled in for the rest of the year, it is tempting to elevate Mitski above the rest of the crowd, but as she says, “I’m feeling something probably millions of other people have felt because I’m human like everyone else.”
DiS: The crowd at your Birthdays’ show was one of the quietest audiences I’ve ever been in. Are your audiences like this at all of your shows?
Mitski: I think it depends on what people go to shows for. I think people who come to my shows just want to be lost and want to be quiet…and get that that’s the vibe. It depends; if I’m not headlining and I’m opening for another audience, it’s usually different. It just depends on what people go to shows for; I think people want my shows to be quiet affairs [laugh].
Are you surprised by how quickly your shows are selling out right now?
I try to not to think about it, because if I think about it I get overwhelmed. If someone tells me about it I’m like: “Great”. I try not to think about it because otherwise I’d get all in my head about it.
You’re due to release your fourth album Puberty 2. How would you describe the album? Is ‘Your Best American Girl’ representative of the record as a whole?
Maybe I’m too close to the record to really objectively talk about it, but I’d say this record is actually very varied in terms of genre or sound - I use different instrumentation for each song. ‘Your Best American Girl’ is probably the most straightforward song, but I think I’m too close to it to really know.
Do you have any objectivity towards your last record Bury Me At Makeout Creek? Would you have done anything differently?
I tend to not think about how I should have done things differently…I’ve fucked up a lot of my life so it’s really dangerous to start thinking in that way. But I do think my last record was focused on keeping it guitar, bass, and drums whereas for this record I think I’ve expanded instrumentally a bit more. I’ve used a lot more metaphors lyrically and a lot more characters, rather than just: “I feel this way”.
Was it a conscious decision to change from writing in the first person to the third person to add a bit of distance between you and the listener?
I think it’s just a matter of maturing as a songwriter. I think you can only say "I feel this" so many times before it starts to feel old for yourself.
What influences did you draw on for this record?
I can’t really tell where I drew my influences from because obviously they come from everywhere, but I think I was much older and mature.
How do you now feel about the raw honesty of your first two albums? Is it like people reading your diaries from when you were still growing up?
I mean my songs aren’t diaries. They’re coming from my personal experiences and sense of identity, but they’re not diaries. It’s not like I felt something and immediately just said what I was thinking - there was some craft involved. I guess the sense of embarrassment comes less from lyrics and more from when I first started recording and I didn’t know much about recording. Now looking back [on] my first two records I can tell for myself I was still learning to record at that time.
You recorded with Patrick Hyland. How did you go about making the album?
It was just him and me for this record. We worked together on two of my last records, so at this point we understood each other’s rhythms, we understood how each other worked. We divided up instrumental duties between us; we both played everything except he played the drum set as I can’t play drums yet. I just liked the process of just having him and me and no one else’s hands on it.
Did you consider working with more people than just Patrick?
For my first two records, I had full orchestras, so I have the experience of working with a lot of people and I think that’s why I wanted to keep it to two people this time. For what I wanted for this record I didn’t need more people; I knew I could play the parts and what I couldn’t play, I knew Patrick could play. If I wanted orchestral instruments of course I’d get different people, but for this record I kept it at a bare minimum.
You’ve said in the past that you stripped back the orchestration due to the practicalities of touring. This time was it out of a practically as well as for artistic reasons?
It was both for artistic purposes and for practical purposes…The more I do this the more people get involved and I think I was in the mindset of having so many people’s voices in my head at the time. I think I needed, just for the music aspect, to block everyone out and just have it be me and Patrick and not so many hands and voices on it. I think I just didn’t know how to deal with so many people involved in my project.
Did you feel any pressure making the album after the success of Bury Me At Makeout Creek?
Thankfully, when I write music, I have this thing of just blocking it out and going into my own world. Maybe that’s why I enjoy it so much? Everything else goes quiet and I can just focus on writing the song. Before I went into writing it I was worried about that, but then when it became time to put the record together it didn’t affect my writing at all.
A lot of the reviews of Bury Me At Makeout Creek heralded you as a savior indie and put you on a pedestal. How does that feel?
To be put on a pedestal? It’s not comfortable; it’s really scary because you stop being a person. You become a symbol and a representation of something and other people start to decide what your identity is…you become something to either be for or against, instead of a complex human being. That’s made a lot of people be for or against me blatantly because I’m not a person; I’m like a thing or an idea you can either agree or disagree with.
You’ve been open about discussing the topics of identity, race, and feminism. However it does seem to be that every interview now ends up being about just that and not about your music.
My observation, obviously I’m not a journalist or a writer, is that I think that's just how journalism functions now; you need keywords and trending topics, and that’s fine, that’s how it works - it’s just easier that way for people.
Do you still feel comfortable talking about these topics or have you now taken a step back?
Yeah, I’ve taken a step back because it’s just another form of stereotyping in a way. Talking about how great it is that I’m an Asian-American person is just like: “Well, I am”. That way I’m reduced to a stereotype again, a representation, instead of being an artist. I am an Asian-American person and therefore I have to represent every Asian-American person now in America, when obviously I can’t.
It’s made me step back a little bit because I’ve realised talking about it often doesn’t benefit me or other people of colour - it’s just about making the publication look good. The readers feel like they’ve done a good thing reading about it and then they go about their day being the same. I’m not averse to talking about it, but I’ve become more selective about how and when to talk about it.
It’s good to talk about being a woman in music, but it can result in being pigeonholed and only being asked about that topic.
I think it comes down to pure practicality. The writer has a deadline and they need to write something really quickly and they need to put out something that’s interesting and will be read. If I was on a deadline I’m not going to actually listen to the artist's whole discography and go into into the nuances of talking about artistic process. That’s just so much when you could totally just focus on these bullet things and get the article. That’s not anyone’s fault, that’s just how it functions.
I think that’s why the ‘woman in music’ thing just won’t go away. It’s not the writer’s fault, it’s nobody’s fault, everyone has to make a living. Eeryone has to function within the industry, and if the industry is asking you to put that out, you’re going put it out. I think it’s just probably easier.
What do you think about the recent widespread adoption and celebration of feminism by the mainstream popular culture?
I think the reason why feminism became such a trending topic is because companies or people or whatever started to realise how to profit from it and then it became trending. The danger in that is now feminism - instead of being an ideal, a philosophy, or a theory - becomes a brand or something to make people consume more. It’s been accepted now in the mainstream on the condition that it's marketable and can sell things. It’s not moving towards being constructive, because that doesn’t actually help consumerism; what helps consumerism is the very façade or the catch phrases you can get out of it.
'Your Best American Girl’ is about not fitting into white America. With the success you’ve had, have you had more acceptance or sense of belonging?
No, I don’t think I’ve found a sense of belonging [sighs]. I don’t feel like I’ve been accepted into any collective or scene. I think more people who feel solitary have started to support me, but it’s not like a scene - it’s people.
In your Twitter bio you had the statement “Don't DM me, do it yourself”. Do you feel people connect to your music and then look to your for direction?
I think it's because a lot of people who listen to my music are younger. I want to stress how I’m not a role model - I make bad decisions all the time, I don’t think I’ve found my happiness yet, and I’m fucked up in a lot of ways. I don’t want people to look to me as someone to emulate or follow - I think that’s really misguided. I don’t know what to do with either, other than to keep reminding people I shouldn’t be put on a pedestal.
What do you think it is about your music that resonates with people? At your Birthdays show there was a broad spectrum of people and ages, not just young kids.
I think a lot of pop music is patronising. Pop music is generally written by a group of writers in a room, who have like two hours together or something, and that environment doesn’t create a personal connection with the music. It’s more like: “We’re writing for this demographic, what do they want?”
Maybe the reason why people connect to my music is because I go into writing music for myself, and I write what I feel and experience without any expectation of other people relating to it. At the same time, I also believe all human beings share, I don’t think I’m special, so if I’m feeling something probably millions of other people have felt it because I’m human like everyone else.
You’ve talked openly about loving pop music like Drake, and you covered One Direction’s ‘Fireproof’. Did you want to make this record more pop?
I’m a big fan of pop music, but by ‘pop’ I mean music for the populace. Also, I went to a music conservatory and so much of that academic aspect of music is really intellectual in my experience. The reason I listen to music is to feel something or to be comforted in someway, I don’t listen to music to analyse... I want to keep making pop music in that it’s easier for the populace of people, but I’m never trying to make pop music in terms of the Top 40 or churning out music.
Pop music can be dismissed by people as unintellectual.
What’s frustrating is because I make quote unquote “simple music”, a lot of time I tend to be infantalised. There was recently a review where they were like: “with her rudimentary strumming and simple melodies” and someone called me emo. That really annoyed me because the point of music isn’t how technically able you are, it’s how well you can express an emotion.
Do you think the reviewer would have said those things if you were a man?
No. I don’t, I really don’t.
On your Facebook page you posted about covering songs about Japanese people, including Weezer. What are your thoughts on Pinkerton, as it’s very problematic album in terms of representations of race and gender?
I enjoy the music, like straight up I still listen to that album. Also, I listened to it when I was younger and maybe more impressionable. I think it’s good music just while I’m listening to it, but I understand it’s fetishising me very specifically. It’s a complex thing; if I only listened to music that wasn’t problematic, then I wouldn’t listen to any music.
I love Drake - very problematic - but I love his music. I’ve learned to take it easy on myself; if I like something I like it, and it doesn’t have to be complicated, I just also have to be aware of what it’s saying.
You’ve talked about not having a permanent place to live when off tour and ‘Jobless Monday’ from your last album is about the struggles of making ends meet. Do you think the rising cost of living in places like New York is killing off or reducing the chances of being an artist? Is being artist in a city is more or less now impossible?
I would say it’s very, very difficult for sure. It’s hard for me to talk about this as I am part of the gentrifying force, there’s no going around it. I’m not natively from New York - I’m a transplant - so I’m part of that life. With that perspective I’ve noticed living there is not only harder for people who don’t have money to make art there, but I find that being in such an environment - where everyone’s thinking about money all the time because you have to pay rent and you have to make a lot of money to live there - the tendency is that the music itself starts to turn into music that can inherently make a lot of money. People’s focus stops being on experiment and starts being on what makes money.
I don’t think that’s a healthy music environment…it doesn’t encourage discovery, it doesn’t encourage experimentation, it doesn’t encourage mistakes - it only encourages what can be consumed, what can be sold.
Major labels in the current environment are very risk adverse, which leads to same music that’s known to sell being signed and released.
Artists have to already be functioning, fully-fledged artists before they’re even signed. I don't want to romanticise the older days of music, because by no means was it healthy - it was unhealthy in different way - but right now I think there’s less artist development. There’s actually no artist development, I think artists have to be matured to be put out there. If there is artist development, it’s like when they’re 9 years old and they’re groomed.
How do you think you’ve made it work?
I don’t know. I’m still in the thick of it so I don’t understand; I think I’ve just taken it very slowly. This next one is going to be my fourth record, and I think I’ve built from the bottom up in that I’ve learned how to do every aspect of it because I did it first myself. I think that’s maybe how I got here and how I’m building a good foundation for myself; I know how to do every aspect of the job so I know when someone who is on my team is doing a good job or I know how things work and how long things take.
For example, people who sing without writing their music are hoisted up without knowing the inner workings of it. If they don’t have their team or labels they can’t do anything, they’re almost trapped. I think what’s been healthy for me is that I know how to do it and I would still be able to do it myself.
What are your hopes for this record?
Like I said, I’m still in thick of it so I don’t quite understand what I want from it. It’s more I wrote these songs and I want to do them justice by having people listen to them.
Photo by Ebru Yildiz