The drag and drama of pop's adventurous star, Rina Sawayama

The drag and drama of pop's adventurous star, Rina Sawayama

Rina Sawayama’s combination of 00s-Britney-meets-Evanescence is enough to give you whiplash. That’s exactly what she’s after.

Rina Sawayama’s music is difficult to describe. Seven years ago, the Japanese-born, London-residing musician emerged with slow-stepping indie-pop that moulded influences in 90s R&B together with the ongoing indie-pop explosion occurring in Britain (which also gave us some of her Dirty Hit label mates, particularly The 1975 and Wolf Alice). Since then, however, her sound has drifted between TLC-reminiscent grooves (Cyber Stockholm Syndrome, and later much of her 2017 debut EP, RINA) and saccharine sweet hyper-pop (2018’s Cherry and its more low-key follow-up, Flicker), bound together by nostalgia for the 00s and her ability to bring these sounds forward into modern-day.

In saying that, STFU! - her 2019 single that began the journey to her now-released debut album SAWAYAMA - was an unexpected slap of metal-pop completely altered Rina Sawayama’s course. It kept certain qualities that built the backbone of her past work - the almost-maximalist layering of melodies on Cherry; the nostalgia for early-00s pop culture - but gave them a chaotic new edge; bridging gaps between genres that others wouldn’t think to combine. At times, the track twinkles with the bright-eyed pop of Britney Spears’ Toxic. Elsewhere, the track layers the push-and-pull vocals of emo-pop pioneers - Evanescence, No Doubt, Avril Lavinge - with the vicious instrumental snarl you’ll expect from Korn or Deftones. It’s an amalgamation of sounds you’d never expect to work, but with that signature Sawayama glue piecing them together, they fit like they’d never been distanced apart.

It’s a combination of sounds that don’t feel out of place amongst the chaos of Rina Sawayama’s debut album, which in the space of 13 tracks, attempts - and achieves - genre combinations just as daring, and just as satisfactory to see pulled off. Album highlight XS feels like a modernised rehash of ‘uncool’ commercialised pop - the fluttering guitar that backs the track could almost be plucked from an old Holly Valance or NYSNC song, albeit injected with crashing rock breaks - while songs like Love Me 4 Me and Chosen Family unite Sawayama’s adventurous brand of pop music with shadings of R&B and country respectively.

While SAWAYAMA may be abrasive to a casual listener, those familiar with Rina Sawayama’s story could’ve foreseen the album’s daring combination of sounds. In the past, she’s spoken about the mish-mashing of cultures that have defined her upbringing - born in Japan, she moved to England with her mother when she was five years old, while her father stayed behind - and SAWAYAMA reflects this, albeit in its most maximalist form. The grand and triumphant movements across the album are synonymous with J-pop’s somewhat notorious fascination with maximalism, and as someone who had to brutally familiarise themselves with pop culture as a child to avoid racist bullying, Sawayama felt drawn to the flashes of ‘uncool’ virality that defined that time period - from the confrontational nu-metal of Limp Bizkit shown through STFU! to the glamorous ‘flop pop’ of musicians like Ashley Tisdale and Girls Aloud, who find themselves as influences on XS.

This builds into the larger narrative of SAWAYAMA, which one track at a time, explores different facets of Rina Sawayama’s identity and the intricacies that build who she is. On the album-opening Dynasty, she explores intergenerational pain - “I'm gonna take the throne this time,” she sings, taking ownership of her narrative - while Akasaka Sad builds on Dynasty and the intergenerational pain navigated within; pondering the familial roots of depression and how this follows her, regardless of whether she’s in the UK, Japan, or anywhere else in the world. STFU!, in another example, is a moment of cathartic release for Sawayama; years of microaggressions and racist comments building into frustration and anger that STFU! hopes to unleash - although you probably know that already, if you’ve seen the single’s very great video clip.

Elsewhere on the record, Sawayama looks into her current self and reflects on those who have aided her in getting there. Chosen Family - a phrase adopted by queer people when talking about the family they must build around themselves, often when their own family shuns them for their queerness - is a love letter to those Sawayama surrounded herself with while experiencing the same feeling: “We don't need to be related to relate / We don't need to share genes or a surname,” she sings.

The themes explored within SAWAYAMA are not just reflected on Rina and the journeys she’s taken across the years, but they’re also synonymous with the new generation of pop music that’s as inclusive and diverse as ever. In a Spotify playlist exploring the influences for XS, for example, a large number of the popstars Sawayama references are white and heterosexual; not a comment on Sawayama’s taste, but more on the artists that labels would pinpoint for ‘relatability’, as they didn’t want anything that would ‘scare’ families into not playing them. Now, however, Rina Sawayama - and musicians she’s often acquainted with, such as Dorian Electra and Pabllo Vittar, the latter being someone who worked with Sawayama on a remix of Comme des Garcons - are quickly becoming the popstars of the future, and changing what the face of pop music may look like.

This shift may seem unimportant for someone who has never had to find themselves in pop culture, but for someone like Rina Sawayama - who in the past, had to awkwardly navigate foreign pop culture in search of someone who looked like her, sounded like her, acted like her or told stories her and her family could relate to - it’s a shift worth celebrating.

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I wanted to start by talking about the album sonically, because it's very unexpected. You listen to the album and there’s the pop you’ve become known for, but there’s also nu-metal, R&B, country, and a lot of other sounds. I was reading that a lot of this came from the variation of what you were listening to growing up, but what made you want to bring that nostalgia to this album? 

It's quite a personal album, and because I'm talking about my past and my family, it kind of only felt right to frame it within the music that I grew up listening to. It was really important to me that the songwriting at its core was always pop, and that it was always digestible even if the production was a bit crazy or a mix of genres. Even though the album goes in some crazy places, I wanted it to still be joined together by pop songwriting in the centre of it.

Was there any struggle - internal or external - when it came to balancing having that pop core with everything else you were throwing at it?

Yeah, the tracklisting definitely took a while. It is hard to balance things and the last month of the process was just doing 10+ revisions of the tracklist and then fitting in the intros and outros to some of the songs. The beginning of Paradisin’ was one of the last things to go in for example, and the end of Fuck This World into Who’s Gonna Save U Now? was another. One of the final touches was adding my mom's voice through the recording of that conversation at the end of Snakeskin which finishes the whole album.

All of that little detail that not many people might notice [took the longest time], but it was important in joining the album together. For me, it’s like icing on the cake.

Was there a reason why you wanted to include that phone call onto the final version of this album?

I talk about family a lot on this album, but a lot of it is about my mum and I traversing between Japan and the UK, and how mum dealt with living in the UK, so she was always a big part of it. I pretend to be her in Paradisin’, and Dynasty is directly about family. It only felt right weirdly when I was recording it - when I was able to go to Japan and have an amazing chat with her which I recorded, which is that sample you hear at the end. It's just about how she feels about life now, and how we really didn't get on between when I was 13 and probably around 26 - there was a big chunk of time where I hated living with her, and we had that tricky relationship. It felt really amazing to reclaim that and feature her on this album in a meaningful way. 

I've read about your difficulty in going to her and talking about assimilation and everything you experienced when moving from Japan to England. Was there any sense of therapy in being able to do that? 

Oh, absolutely. It was really nerve-wracking because with my mum, we always had quite awkward conversations - we just never really got on. With my Dad's side of the family, I never really got know much about them - I knew that they were very wealthy, but I didn't know why or to what extent or anything like that. Being able to go to my grandmother and asking her to show me pictures of my Dad as a young kid, I was able to piece things together - he was always in this kind-of high society - and it's interesting, because neither my Mum and I were ever exposed to that, or what it felt like. 

This whole thing about seeing your parents as kids is quite interesting, and asking about the history of your parents can be really rewarding and empowering. I would highly encourage people to talk to their grandparents and ask about your parents and what they were like, because sometimes, if you're not getting on with your parents, figuring out that they had their own struggles as well can be very therapeutic.

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There's a lot of themes about family on this record, and there's also queerness and family in the sense of a chosen family, which you have the song [Chosen Family] about. Did you feel like a debut album was the perfect space to explore your identity and put everything out there in such an open space?

Yeah, from the beginning I had benchmarks on what I wanted the album to be like. I really wanted it to be personal and I wanted to be proud of how authentic it was. After the EP, there was some part of me that was like, "Oh, maybe like I should write more songs that are streamable on TikTok" or something, but I wanted a career for myself that was based on authenticity and really pushing things to the next level, yet still being like digestible and accessible.

I just wanted to tell my story - or not even necessarily my story, I think people can take from it what they want - but I wanted it to feel like a film or a book, and one that you'd want to watch and read over and over again.

You mention that there was a bit of reflection after the release of the EP, which made you really want to be authentic and tell personal, open stories on this record. Do you feel like that's something you couldn't do on the EP?

I was just in a completely different headspace and I think my whole life was the internet, and so that was like my reality. Once I was kind of able to get though it a bit, I went to therapy again - which was really a big part of my songwriting for this album - and I was able to mend that relationship with my mum which was a big thing, and before the EP, I genuinely couldn't afford to go to Japan at that point. I hadn't visited my family in like two years, because my family are savage and are like "we're never going to help you financially, like ever," which is great, but also slowed down the process a bit. There were a couple of years in my mid-20s that had a lot of different things happen, and being able to visit my family, chat to them and have them play a big part in terms of the album topic really helped.

Also, I think I've grown in confidence with touring as well. To start with, I was playing shows with songs I recorded in my bedroom, because I just couldn't afford a studio in the UK. At that point, I was doing headline shows of like a 1000 people, which may not sound a lot, but when you think about it, is a large audience to grow in the space of just a year, and it really gave me a lot of confidence to keep me going and keep experimenting with pop formulas. That didn't so much help the lyrical content of the album, but definitely the sound. It gave me confidence to keep pushing the boundaries with digestible pop.

Maybe it's just because I'm a bit older and experienced now, too. I feel more confident and knowledgable in my skills as a songwriter and producer to oversee a big project like an album.

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I've seen you talk about drag a lot online, and I find that interesting considering your album reminds me a lot of drag culture. It's serious, but really fun and joyful. It's cool, but not afraid to revisit or reference things that aren't cool. It's also very extreme and very maximalist, which I think is something that really drives a lot of drag. Is there anything in drag which influences your music? 

I think in the way of self-expression, I'm really inspired by my friends who do drag. I kind-of hate the word brave, but... they really push the boundaries, and they've taught me so much - they've really opened my eyes. Just living authentically genuinely puts them in danger of their life, and yet they still do it. Honestly, when I think about drag and I think about the queer community, there's this idea that life is too short. You gotta live your best life and also as someone that has been through the pain of losing friends, for example, there's a certain power in humour and this intense pain and trauma that people go, then being able to satirize it and make light of it, which I think is like such an important thing. That's something you can only do when you have either a physical community around you, and those shared experiences with your family. You can see how the references between that and my album, I think.

A lot of my friends are drag artists and I've seen them be so incredible and beautiful on stage and then, on the way home in full drag, they're scared of their life - they get attacked on the street. I think the humour, the beauty, the glamour and like the ridiculousness of it all comes together, and then compare that with the intense pain and the reality - that is something that exists in a lot of the songs on the record, definitely Dynasty and Who's Gonna Save U Now?. There's something incredibly powerful in being able to make fun of your pain.

There's another way I see drag intertwine itself with this record too, and that's in the drama of it. Drag artists really dramatise things like lip syncs, for example, and there's a lot of drama captured in this record not just because of how extreme it is, but also the crowd shouting 'RINA! RINA! RINA!' at the start of Who's Gonna Save U Now?, and in the skits that sit within the album. Do you feel like this side of drag finds itself in your music, too? 

Yeah, absolutely. I feel like a lot of LGBT+ people, especially performers like me, literally live life for the drama and are very inspired by that. Even just queer humour on Twitter... I feel so honoured to be a part of that community and it really makes me feel like I have found my family in that sense, and I think that does, of course, play a big part in this record.

My friend Tom Glitter - Crystal Rasmussen - wrote a book and I did an interview with them for Rina TV, and it's just like ridiculous in the best of ways - it's just full of drama. The thing that they talk about a lot in the book is these non-queer female pop icons, which were the thing that made them feel valid, and made them feel powerful - Celine Dion, for example. I think that is such a special thing, and your music should not try to be timid in the way. I always want to reach people with as much positivity as possible, especially in the current situation right now. A lot of these drag artists can't afford to pay rent because of everything; magazines are going under; all these people are losing their compassion and drive into their creative careers. I feel like music can lift people and expand their imagination, and I hope this album does that for people too. It's my wildest fantasies.

Is that what you wanted to pass on to people through this record? 

Yeah, I love when people are like "Why did you do that?".

Your album definitely does give that, even to people who have known about you for a while. I think STFU! gave me whiplash, but I love it. 

Thankyou! And that's exactly it. Behind the scenes, when I was talking to labels, I really wanted to sign with a really good record company for the album, because it's a big undertaking and your support and team mean a lot. I did so many meetings were people thought my music was cool, but they just didn't know how it would pan out. Dirty Hit absolutely loved it, and it ended up working really well. STFU! was my little tester, I guess. It was the black swan trying to throw people off, but in the right way.

A lot of discussion about you has been tagged with things like "pop's next big thing" or the "popstar flipping pop music on its head." Is there anything you'd like to see in pop music change as a result of this record? 

That's really interesting. Maybe I'm quite old school with how I consume music, but I used to stand in the Virgin mega-stores for hours listening to albums, because otherwise they costed money. 

I think it's that sense of valuing something, and valuing the artist as well. I was looking at what Grimes was saying about the people around her passing away and then making songs out of it... I think in terms of creating this sort of music, I went to some really dark places not just for me, but for my mum as well. This is just my personal opinion, but I think pop is the most wonderful vehicle for stuff like this.

I just hope that people appreciate the amount of love and work and real-life trauma that went into writing this. Even though the album may feel a bit light at points, the backbone of it - the blood and DNA of it - is all about trauma and identity, and I hope people appreciate how much effort has gone into that.

Rina Sawayama's debut album, SAWAYAMA, is out now via Dirty Hit / Sony Music Australia.

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