Rina Sawayama built a cult following with the gleeful 90s pop of her ‘RINA’ EP, a record exploring the beauty and anxiety of growing up where media is social, while a string of follow-up singles – the pan-sexual pride of ‘Cherry’, the anti-rose thrust of ‘Valentine (What’s It Gonna Be)’ and ‘Flicker”s anthem for the outcasts – saw her as a pop star with a big heart and a fearless voice.
That continues through debut album ‘Sawayama’, but in ways you’d never expect. After touring with Charli XCX last year (“Charli’s just bought together so many freaks of the pop world, and I want to count myself in there as well”), she announced her signing to Dirty Hit and dropped ‘STFU!’ which was a world away from the reworked nostalgia-pop of her past. A glass-shattering industrial attack that deals with the daily microaggressions she faces as a Japanese woman growing up in the west, it has more in common with Korn than Britney Spears. It was a bold first step that took no prisoners.
The rest of ‘Sawayama’ is just as different, just as shocking, as it does away with expectation and lives at the cutting edge of pop. “My last single was ‘Flicker’ which was so happy and such a huge contrast to ‘STFU!’,” explains Rina. As soon as it dropped though, “my faith was restored in people, and I was feeling very confident. Ok, I think these people can handle this album.”
Her plan was always to shock, but it made things difficult. “I knew ‘STFU!’ had to be the first single, and that really whittled down the options in terms of labels. A lot of them didn’t really get it.” With 80% of the record done independently, Rina began to shop it around to various labels, but they turned her away or wanted change. That made Rina question her own decisions. “I wasn’t very confident at all. There were times where I felt like this album was shit or I’d listen to me EP and feel like I’d never write anything as good as that again. If something really captured the imagination of a group of people, you worry that they’ll never like anything else you do.”
But ‘STFU!’ turned heads and sent a new wave of fans Rina’s way. It happened again with ‘Comme De Garcons (Like The Boys)’, a smart hunk of dance-pop with the attitude turned up, the slinking decadence of ‘XS’ and the rose-tinted glitch of ‘Bad Friend’. Every piece of the puzzle offered something different as Rina owned her art and refused to play by anyone else’s rules. “For my own mental health, I can’t look at what other people are doing or listen to what other people want from me because it’s just not fun. When I dropped ‘Cherry’ people then wanted another ‘Cherry’, and I’m not going to do that. When I dropped ‘STFU!’, people wanted more metal, and while it comes back with ‘XS’, it’s in different forms. The record has this identity throughout, but the singles were challenging people in a way. They were all such different genres, I was tweaking peoples taste to get them ready for something that is so broad.”
And it worked. By the time ‘Sawayama’ dropped in its entirety, there was a very real visceral excitement around it. “I can’t believe people love it as much as they do. I’m surprised people have understood the journey that I was trying to take people on with this album. The excitement has been way bigger than I ever expected, so I’m super grateful. I feel glad I can release something in this time but I just couldn’t not.”
Two and a half years in the making, Rina says she couldn’t be happier with the record. “If you are an alternative pop artist, people think that’s just a little phase you’re going through but to be respected for my first record is awesome. I’ve been listening to it non-stop since it was finished three months ago. I love the album. It’s really good to be at a place where you’re so happy with the album, you don’t care what other people think. But luckily loads of other people love it as well. Now I’m just sharing in the love for it, which is awesome.”
Right now, because of lockdown and culture being on pause, a lot of people are listening to the music that soundtracked their teenage years. Rina is no different.
“It’s always been my comfort blanket, and whenever I feel a bit stagnant with inspiration, I go back and listen to music from back then,” she reflects. “Music really helped me through my teenage years. Going to gigs was something that helped me forget a lot of the things that were happening in my life.”
It’s a stance also reflected in her extracurricular work, such as taking part in Skullcandy’s Mood Boost alongside Rico Nasty, Gus Dapperton and Cuco; a campaign that aims to improve mental health and help people who are struggling with depression, addiction and suicide.
“I shared a room with my mum until I was 15, so headphones were essential to get a bit of privacy,” she explains. “My outreach has always been about people who have been struggling or who need a lift, whether that’s LGBT or young people. Skullcandy has always championed that, so I really love that.”
This feeling of nostalgia is why ‘Sawayama’ takes influence from all over, too. “I like rediscovering all these not cool genres from the noughties and making it into something cool. They were the songs I was inspired by when I was younger. There’s something really powerful about combining lyrics that express your upbringing and having the soundtrack to that upbringing be the inspiration musically as well.”
From the opening retro thrash of ‘STFU!’ through ‘Paradisin”, an anthem about living your best life alongside 80s sax and pop sparkle, to the alt banger swagger of ‘Love Me 4 Me’, Rina takes the soundtrack of her adolescence and revamps it. The album cycles through phases but never feels confused. “I wanted it to sound connected and part of the same world but push the sonics to occupy different spaces.”
And the wild shuffle of the album is never without purpose. ‘Who’s Gonna Save U Now’ doesn’t sound like Lady Gaga onstage at Glastonbury to give the song something to do. Initially, it sounded like a 90s Max Martin pop classic, but then Rina decided: “I’ve done this before on ‘RINA’. I stan Max Martin but I don’t want to rehash what I’ve already done. I watched Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born in the same week, and that inspired me. There’s strength in numbers.
“The whole point of that redemption-style song is that we’re all in it together. It sounds like you’re on stage with me. There’s no need for vengeance, we can just stand on this stadium stage and sing together. If it transports people into that space for four minutes, that’s mission accomplished for me.”
Rina wanted to offer something real with her debut. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep it up for another five albums, but for my first album, it was important because there was a lot for me to say.” It’s got plenty of bangers, but they all hit differently. “When you have an album that’s trying to have so many singles, it can sound really shit and boring. It’s trying too hard. I feel like I satisfied both things; trying to write really big songs but also have it artistically satisfying.”
‘Sawayama’ is a deeply personal record for Rina, putting her relationship with family, culture and friends under a microscope and holding nothing back. “It was really therapeutic,” she offers. “The whole record is about family and identity. [Opener ‘Dynasty’] is about breaking the chain of intergenerational trauma, pain and depression”. It’s an idea explored throughout the record. ‘Fuck This World’ and ‘XS’ look at the horrible state of the world alongside dealing with your own shit, and ‘Love Me 4 Me’ struggles with the idea of self-love.
“I’m emotional in all my songs, whether that’s good emotion or bad emotion, and I bring that into my vocal performance to make it powerful.” Taking inspiration from Lady Gaga, she says: “She’s not scared of theatrics in songs, and that’s something I definitely wanted for this record. I didn’t shy away from it. ‘Dynasty’ is very much a 2000’s pop opera, but that’s what I thought the record needed, so that’s what the record’s going to get.”
The majority of ‘Sawayama’ deals with Rina’s feelings of being an outsider and not belonging but ‘Chosen Family’ finds her making peace. “It’s this semi-resolve around the idea that family can be whatever you make it. In the LGBT community, that’s a really important concept to heal. If I write a song that I feel like young me would have loved or cried to or whatever, that’s the most important thing.” She knows it’ll mean something huge to others.
“I wanted people to feel something. There’s a lot of emotion in this record, and that’s something that I love in pop. I think good music should just make you feel a certain way, whether that’s restored, calm or energised. I hope this record makes people feel all the emotions.”
Taken from the June issue of Dork. For more on Skullcandy’s Mood Boost, visit skullcandy.co.uk. Rina Sawayama’s album ‘Sawayama’ is out now.
Words: Ali Shutler