I am lying on a sofa with my head resting on a pile of pastel-coloured plushies. On the floor beside me is a giant Disneyland mug, filled with fresh peppermint tea. A black Labrador gently pads around the carpet, sniffing somewhere to my right. It feels warm and tranquil, and if I close my eyes for a moment, I could just about drift… But then the sound of nu-metal guitar riffs, pounding live drums and guttural screams blast through the room like a rock show at a library. I sit up, suddenly very much awake.
I’m at Rina Sawayama’s house in southwest London and she’s playing me her upcoming album (still untitled when we meet). We’re in her music studio – once her bedroom, now converted into a neatly stacked space crammed with gear (lights, synth, speakers, colourful backdrops for her YouTube channel), with her bedroom at the other end of the house, away from her work area.
I'm used to seeing Rina in editorial spreads and vids – glitter pressed onto highlighted cheekbones, peach-dyed hair, designer looks – but today she’s in jeans and a t-shirt, makeup-free, hair hung loose. Every time she plays a track, she sits with her back to me at the laptop, head bowed slightly in concentration, bare feet tapping. When each song ends, she swivels her chair around to face me and shares her thoughts, as if brainstorming out loud. “That one hasn’t been mixed yet, so needs a bit of work,” she might say, or, “This one’s my favourite. This is like the ballad of the album.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve met the 29-year-old UK pop artist. We first hung out two years ago, in an east London queer bar, drinking whiskey and ginger ales and speaking about her upbringing (she moved to London from Japan in 1995; her parents separated soon after), background (she studied Politics, Psychology and Sociology at Cambridge University, hated it mostly) and influences (too many to mention, but she was raised on a combo of Max Martin-era pop and candy-coated J-pop.) Back then, she’d just released a mini album, RINA. At the time, I described the eight-track collection of songs as “a concise masterclass in reimagining throwback pop influences for a generation raised by the scroll screen". With its combo of Britney-Madonna-Avril vocals and production, paired with lyrics about citalopram and Instagram, RINA felt like an album custom made for modern times: anxious, nihilistic, nostalgic but flung into the future.
A lot has changed in the space of two years. While RINA amassed a kind of young cult following online (a fanbase Rina calls “pixels”), this time it feels as though she could be on the brink of something bigger. The day we meet, the ink is still fresh on a three-album (!) record deal with indie label Dirty Hit (The 1975, Pale Waves, The Japanese House). Her November 2019 single, “STFU!”, co-produced by longtime collaborator Clarence Clarity, really sealed the deal. The track is like nothing she’s released before – more Evanescence than Britney, heavy pummelling drums, a chorus in which she faux-sweetly whispers “Shut the fuck up / Shut the fuck up / Shut the fuck up / Shut the fuck up.” Dirty Hit loved it. “Yeah, it was one of those fairytale things where you just go in and they love the song and want to sign you straight away,” she tells me now. “We started working together pretty much immediately.”
To relay the story like that makes it sound easy, but it wasn’t. Rina and her team had been playing her new album, 80 percent finished at the time, for a few different labels. Very swiftly she went into negotiations with one label, that Rina doesn’t name. “We were really far into it. We were discussing video budgets and all this,” she says. But then she showed them “STFU!” and they freaked out. It was too metal, too off-the-wall for their tastes. But Rina was steadfast in it being her first single. Why should she waver? “They told my manager straight up: ‘I don’t like the song,’ and then emailed him like, ‘Given this, we’re going to cease negotiations’,” she remembers. That’s kind of iconic, I say. Rina laughs. “Yeah, but what fucking pissed me off is that it cost me legal fees, which I’m still paying now. Because then you have to pay lawyers.”
The irony of certain labels being freaked out by “STFU!” is that it’s one of her most powerful songs to date; a thunderous clapback to the subtly racist situations that women of colour find themselves in all the time, as seen through the lens of Rina’s East Asian heritage. As Gal-Dem put it recently, the track is “an explicit response to racist, fetishistic and infantilising microaggressions that the artist has encountered as a Japanese woman in the West”. In the video, directed by Ali Kurr and Rina herself, you watch Rina on an excruciating date with a sort of Tinder Everyman – beard and round glasses – whose casual racism and lack of self-awareness grows increasingly painful to watch. When he puts chopsticks to his eyelids to pull them back, Rina finally lets her rage out, swiping the camera lens with her hand, her manic laughter turning almost operatic over the sound of thick, face-melting guitar.
“I was thinking, what are moments where I’ve thought about saying ‘shut the fuck up’ to someone?” she says, her chair swivelled towards me, my tea now fully drained. “And for a lot of definitely women, women of colour, queer women, there are so many times where you have to smile on the outside and scream on the inside.” She cites times when she’s been asked about Japanese restaurants she’s never been to, times she’s been repeatedly asked where she’s from (“No, but where are you really from?”), times when she’s been compared to Japanese people who have nothing to do with her. These experiences fed into the video, a visual representation of the sort of unaddressed racism that simmers within the UK like a virus. “I wanted to put it in that context. Where they’re saying it in this tone that’s supposed to be flattering, like: ‘I’m so fascinated, tell me more about yourself!’ But actually it’s just deeply offensive and so insensitive and also boring.”
Thematically, “STFU!” is a departure. Earlier songs like “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome”, “10-20-40” and “Where U Are” fizzled with the feeling of being anxious and online, of being lonely but always plugged in, of treating the white-blue glow of an iPhone screen like the warm embrace of a friend. But the tracks on her new album veer away from those subjects. She sings about family, displacement, cities, sadness, feeling the pull of two different cultures. She very rarely sings about romantic love, in the traditional sense. “I fucking love Carly Rae Jepsen, obviously, but I don’t feel like the world needs a love song from me,” she says, when I point this out. “I like to always be quite tongue-in-cheek about my lyrics. I get bored when the melody is banging but the lyrics don’t make any sense at all. This is so often the case! It’s just the same stories, told over and over again.”
She’s switched up the instrumentation too. Rather than flatten out her sound to play the mainstream ‘streamable’ game, she’s flung herself in the other direction. Nu-metal bleeds into stadium rock, live drums hold up saccharine pop ballads. There’s even a dubstep breakdown, some saxophone in the mix. At one point, between songs, you can hear her mini album RINA playing in the background, like a radio changing channels – which isn’t something I’ve heard done before. “With RINA I was using things that people thought were uncool and trying to make them cooler, and I think I’ve carried that on,” she says. “Stadium rock is deeply uncool. But I watched A Star is Born, and everyone got goosebumps, right? So that feeling, that emotion is still there. And nu-metal is so uncool too, but I think the nostalgia associated with what we listened to when we were younger never fades.”
After a while, Rina offers to show me around her place. It’s a minimal, clean house with big windows opening out onto the leafy green suburbs below. A widescreen television for playing video games, which she loves, sits atop a console (“Look how thin that screen is,” she says, touching it lightly with her hand, “I’m obsessed with technology”), healthy-looking plants climb the walls (“I’m sure I saw this one move its leaves the other day”), while paintings dot the corridor (“I didn’t choose most of these; I don’t know what that is.”) In the kitchen she's set aside some pre-prepared falafels, which she's planning on frying later, while a hardback copy of Crystal Rasmussen’s Diary of a Drag Queen lies on the kitchen counter.
I’m not sure what I expected from the home of an up-and-coming pop star (Some sort of L-shaped zebra print sofa? Framed posters of herself?) but this isn’t the 80s, and musicians don’t live like Hollywood actors anymore unless they’re, like, Harry Styles or actual Hollywood actors. She shares with two other flatmates, she says, and pays a similar amount of rent as I do (not much). In other words, she lives like most other twenty-somethings in London: from paycheque to paycheque, not always sure what the next few months might bring or whether she should do a few jobs on the side (which Rina does: she models, and sometimes performs private gigs at colleges in the US, which, she says, pay more than three times the amount of a headline slot at Heaven.)
But again, all of this might just be about to change. Since joining Dirty Hit, she tells me, her fixed costs have gone down and she’s also been given a chunk of money, obviously. After our chat, she’s going to look around a house. Not necessarily to buy, but to get used to the idea that it could be a possibility. A lot of things could be a possibility, soon. “I don’t really want to move out of here, but I want to see what the vibe is,” she says, mulling it over. “It’s free to be shown around houses. I want to know what you can expect and whether it’s worth it.”
A couple of months later, Rina gives me a ring from the corridor of an Indian restaurant in between ordering her food and eating it. She’s spent all day in meetings, sorting out merch, starting to think about the physical ways in which she can prepare for her upcoming tour. She’s decided on the name of her new album, too. It’s going to be called SAWAYAMA. “It’s all to do with family and my identity, so it kind of made sense to do it like that,” she says.
Down the phone, she sounds a touch more energetic than when we last saw each other. It’s not that she wasn’t last time, but she’s had time to relax. Now that her album’s been mixed and mastered, she can breathe a little. “I think last year I was a bit like… I didn’t know if I was ready,” she says. Why? “I’ve never done a full album before, and you put a lot of pressure on yourself. But once the album is done, you’re able to have a bit more perspective.”
When we speak, she says her new single “Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys)” is due out the following week. To me, it sounds like a sharp deviation from “STFU”, although, as Rina points out, “It’s got the same DNA, it’s just wearing different clothes – it’s off to fashion week.” It’s a strutting, Kylie-style house track, this time not produced by Clarence Clarity, but by Bram Inscore and Nicole Morier, the first of whom has written for Troye Sivan and latter of whom wrote a bunch of Britney Spears tracks on Blackout, Circus and Femme Fatale.
With bigger names on board, and a brand new label, I wonder where Rina sees herself in the strange space that is UK pop. Does she wish to remain a kind of cult indie act, producing innovative pop but not mega chart smashes, maybe more like Charli XCX? Or does she see herself reaching further into the mainstream with each album, becoming the sort of pop star who wins Grammys and Brits?
“I always ask myself this,” she replies, her voice crackling down the phone line. “I definitely don’t want to be stuck in… just trying to be cool but staying cool, if that makes sense. I want to write really big pop songs that touch as many people as possible. And that requires being a bit mainstream.” She pauses. “But I also know that I 100 percent don’t even fit into the mainstream. So it’s about doing what I want to see in the charts, and continuing to do so. More than ever, the last two or three years have taught me to never look sideways and to just keep going.”
I let Rina return to eating before her food gets cold, and we say our goodbyes. After hanging up, I’m left thinking about the question I just asked her, and what I think the answer is. It’s hard to tell. There hasn’t been a pop star like Rina Sawayama in quite some time. She’s nostalgic and she’s future-facing. She’s DIY in some ways, and in others ready-made. She’s subversive and she’s palatable and not one song sounds the same as the previous one, or the next. I have no idea where she’ll end up. Which is a powerful position to find yourself in, if you think about it. Because why be a different kind of pop star, when you can just be your own?
Photographed by Chloe Sheppard in London, in November 2019.