Hype List 2019: Rina Sawayama

On Rina Sawayama’s debut EP, released little over a year ago, she fused the joy of early 2000s pop with a more political and future-forward outlook. She’s no ordinary superstar.

With a new year, comes the weight of expectation on a new batch of artists, thrust into the spotlight and expected to set the agenda for the twelve months ahead. That’s what The Hype List is about – a series of interviews, profiles and more highlighting who we think will be making a noise in 2019.

On Rina Sawayama’s debut EP, released little over a year ago, she fused the joy of early 2000s pop with a more political and future-forward outlook. We caught her at the end of her first tour, and with almost all of this year’s wishes coming true, she’s prepping for a massive 2019. She’s no ordinary superstar.

Hiya Rina, how’s life?
I just finished tour, so I’m knackered. I feel like I’ve been touring a lot, but I love it, I love it so much, it’s like my favourite part of it, so I like instantly miss it, but I’m really tired.

How’s 2018 treated you?
It’s been absolutely crazy; it’s been really mad. It’s gone so quickly. Even compared to the beginning of this year – it’s only been a year since I released my EP and I’ve done so much, I don’t even know where to start.

What’s been the biggest change for you since that came out?
I guess I was able to do music full time. Before I was doing two part-time jobs and making ends meet, but now I’m able to focus on the music and really fine-tune my songwriting and collaborate with some exciting people, like cool people who’ve got in touch directly. And because I’m doing this without a label, like the tour and everything I haven’t received label support, it’s just been me and my team killing it. Every single person on the team has just smashed it; they’ve been working so hard.

You funded the EP yourself, right?
Yeah, I saved up. I didn’t receive any help from my mum or anything either, haha. I had to prove to my family that I was taking this seriously so I didn’t wanna ask them for help, I just did it all myself, I worked my butt off and saved up. Just kind of beg, borrow, steal in the beginning, did everything on the cheap. I recorded everything in my bedroom, and now I’m kind of annoyed because now I’ve been in sessions and stuff I know how you record stuff properly. My room isn’t treated for vocals so I can’t mix it properly. I love my EP still, I’ve just learned a lot since then.

A lot of your lyrical concepts are super fresh, is it important to you to do something different to the usual in pop?
I just really want my identity to be there in the songs, and to me like a lot of things are still political, and I find it hard to write a straightforward love song, still. So my next single is about – hate the word, but – it’s about empowerment, and it’s taken from when my primary school teacher couldn’t say my surname. I remember when she was taking the register, and I remember being so embarrassed I asked them to just say my first name when they said the register, because they’d just butcher my second name. I only remembered that recently and it is a conscious decision to put my surname in my stage name, I mean it is my real name obviously, but I didn’t wanna just call myself Rina. It was important that that part of my identity was always present, so I wrote a song about that. But it’s also a wider message of remembering who you are, even though for me it’s specifically about my name.

“I’m doing this without a label, it’s just been me and my team killing it”
Rina Sawayama

Do you think the influx of, say, more queer pop artists is making it easier for those lyrical themes to come through?
It’s just reflecting what the kids are like these days. When I was young, just the understanding of LGBT people was completely different, and of course, gender is so, so different. Artists have always reflected what’s going on grassroots, and I do think it’s to do with trends as well. The whole world’s not the most welcoming place for LGBT people, or any marginalised group really, and artists always respond to that to facilitate, to create a safe space for people who are marginalised.

In a similar vein – you’ve mentioned before that some of the reason you went independent was because labels didn’t have another Asian pop star to model you as – do you think the popularity of K-Pop is changing that?
In a weird way it’s all sprung up at the same time. I’ve followed BTS since about 2013, right, and they’ve just in the last year exploded worldwide. But that coinciding with Crazy Rich Asians coming out in the same year and Sandra Oh getting an Emmy for Killing Eve, the representation is just going up. 

It seems like it’s all at the same time, but everyone’s been struggling. When one sprouts, another one starts sprouting. The industry’s not just there to be like ‘lol’, it takes a lot of people to invest in you financially, and as a fan, so they wanna see a prior example of someone like you succeeding, and now there are so many people like me succeeding, which is fantastic. 

The understanding of what I’m trying to do as an artist has become much better. The fact that BTS can sell out two nights at The O2, and all their songs are in Korean; it’s massive. It is all changing at the same time; I just happen to be part of it. I was watching an interview I did a year ago, and I was like wow all of these things have kind of come true in the past year – obviously there’s still a lot to go.

So who were some of your favourite artists growing up?
I loved Kylie; I loved Aliyah. I was even watching Atomic Kitten a minute ago. I loved the Sugababes; they’re like the UK ones. I was so obsessed with Kylie, I still am. Just the way she was able to combine fashion and music together was incredible. I loved Avril Lavigne and The Bravery and stuff. Obviously, I was into Japanese music, like J-Pop. But yeah I was like obsessed with Kylie, and Britney and Justin Timberlake, all that. Just pop. Anything produced by Max Martin and Neptunes as a child, I was obsessed with.

So glad you mentioned Sugababes. Everyone talks about the Spice Girls, but Girls Aloud and the Sugababes like, changed music in the 2000s.
Yeah, they’re so good. Sugababes especially, like the fact that Mutya, who’s an Asian woman, was like the lead singer is like incredible, she’s so rad.

What were some of your favourites from this year?
Ooh, I loved ‘1999’ by Charli XCX. Christine and the Queens – I just love everything she’s doing, I’m trying to get to her gig when she comes. I really love RM’s new mixtape – he’s like the lead singer of BTS, who’s releasing like more niche indie stuff. Troye Sivan’s album I loved, Mitski’s ‘Nobody’ was such a great record. She shouted me out as well, I literally died. She tweeted me like “this is incredible”, and I was like omg I’m gonna die. Did ‘Pop 2’ come out this year? No, that was last year. Oh the A Star is Born soundtrack! I haven’t seen it yet, so it’s probably like a spoiler. Oh and ‘Sweetener’. The Carters’ album was insane; they released it like the day I saw them. I really liked Dua Lipa’s ‘Electricity’ as well. So good. So much good music this year.

Taken from the December 2018 / January 2019 issue of Dork. Order a copy below.

Words: Abigail Firth

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