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Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Rina Sawayama: queen in a quiet town

She emerged from Lockdown 1 as a global-TV-ready superstar. Now Rina Sawayama chats to Time Out about music, dogs and why she quit Animal Crossing

Written by
Zing Tsjeng

‘Ah shit, my laptop’s about to die – hang on, let me get my charger,’ a slightly grainy Rina Sawayama shouts from her screen. Welcome to interviewing pop stars in the time of Covid – a process facilitated by Zoom, a piece of technology none of us had heard
of a year ago.

As Sawayama frantically scrambles to plug cables in, I’m treated to a view of her new place in south-east London – or at least, the ‘glorified shed’ that the 30-year-old Japanese-British musician is currently calling her rehearsal room and gym. Like many of us, March’s lockdown precipitated a realisation that a houseshare is not the optimal place to spend a pandemic. Like fewer of us, she was able to do something about it. ‘I was like, “I can’t live here any more,”’ she says, widening her eyes in mock distress, ‘and then as soon as [lockdown] lifted, I was like: Right, I’m out.’

She might be in nesting mode – our chat is prefaced by a warning that she’s got painters in and they might accidentally cut off the wifi – but right now Sawayama is one of the most hotly tipped acts to emerge out of the UK. A day after we speak, her worldwide TV debut on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’ is announced. She hits 100 million streams on Spotify a few days later.

It’s all because of ‘Sawayama’ – her dizzyingly extravagant debut album. It’s a record that leapfrogs genres with the dexterity of a mid-concert Gaga costume change, spanning glamorous house and anthemic queer balladry and sampling everything from a Beethoven sonata to Final Fantasy IX. To call it ‘ambitious’ is a bit like calling the Shard ‘quite a tall building’. No wonder Elton John proclaimed it his record of the year.

Photograph: Andy Parsons

I just miss festivals so much: being in a big crowd of people

That’s not to say Sawayama’s 2020 has exactly gone to plan (whose has?). The singer has spent the last seven years building up to this one. In 2013, she released her first solo track. In 2017, her EP ‘Rina’ put a voice to the bleakness of life online. Meanwhile her formidable army of fans – ‘Pixels’ – stanned harder and harder, generating droll memes comparing her favourably to Karl Marx and painting her into ‘Ghost in a Shell’ movie posters.
This year, Sawayama was meant to cruise from her April album release and straight into a UK and North American tour. She even shot this week’s Time Out cover at an eerily empty Barbican – looking like a ‘Blade Runner’ replicant at Chelsea Flower Show. Now all her concerts have been rescheduled to next year, with a Roundhouse headliner pencilled in for November 2021.

At some point in Lockdown 1, she found herself on her couch, watching the documentary ‘Blackpink: Light up the Sky’ on Netflix and feeling a dull ache in her chest as she watched the K-pop girl group perform at Coachella. ‘I just miss festivals so much,’ she says mistily. ‘Just live music, being in a big crowd of people. I can imagine that I’m not the only person who’s missing that.’

In March, as the gigs were pulled and the video shoots were cancelled, she tried to maintain a sense of perspective about the whole thing. ‘Rina, there’s a pandemic, like, chill out,’ she remembers telling herself.She played Animal Crossing on Nintendo Switch until she realised it was ‘evil’ (‘You owe money as a mortgage… then you get a bigger mortgage that you have to work extra hard to pay. I was like: This is so depressing.’) She read Ocean Vuong’s ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ (‘so good’) and ‘Sour Heart’ by Jenny Zhang (‘probably one of my favourite books of all time’). She hung out with her dog, Kaya; impulsively pre-ordered the new PS5. ‘I was stressing at the beginning,’ she says. ‘I was like, fuck, Taylor [Swift] has written another record, Charli [XCX] has written another record during lockdown. Why am I not writing? But then I was just like: Everyone, just calm down. Just do what you can. I think some people are very inspired by this sort of feeling that this time has given them and some people are just so not inspired. And that’s me.’

Photograph: Andy Parsons

I’m worried about the whole music industry collapsing

Sawayama’s in a pensive mood today, huddled over her laptop in a Nike basketball hoodie and oversized specs that look a tiny bit Steve Urkel. There’s an enormous swiss cheese plant, the trademark of millennial apartment living, lurking in the background. If it wasn’t for the empty magnum of Moët behind her – a present from Vogue Japan – and the two guitars visible in the back of the frame, I could be on a Zoom call with any London office-dweller into their seventh month of working from home. She exhales loudly. ‘I’m just worried about the whole music industry collapsing, basically.’

Like most of us during lockdown, Sawayama has had a lot of worries. Big existential ones about the whole economy crumbling and relatively smaller, but no less troubling ones, about the government’s treatment of the arts. ‘Yeah, artists can just go away and then come back,’ she says, putting on a spoilt posh baby voice. ‘Encouraging people to retrain – how many people are actually going to be able to come back to this industry?’ Sawayama half shouts, tossing her head so hard that her plaited hair almost comes loose. ‘Literally, what would I do?’

The fiery, impassioned tone reminds me of the last time I spoke to Sawayama in July. She’d just found out that she’d been barred from going up for the Brits and the Mercury Prize because of a little-known nationality clause that stops people like her – who’ve spent almost their whole lives in the UK on long-term visas but don’t have a British passport – from entering. Awards organisers have said they are looking into the rules, but Sawayama isn’t optimistic. ‘We still are yet to hear anything about a timeline,’ she says bluntly, her voice hardening. ‘It’s a weird situation.’

She equally doesn’t mince words when it comes to the desperate predicament facing the live music industry. ‘There’s literally tens of thousands of people who are out of work,’ she says, punctuating every other word with fury, ‘and it is up to the artists to support them.’

We’re speaking just a few days after the announcement of the first round of funding for arts organisations from the initial £500 million bailout, but as Sawayama explains, it isn’t that simple when it comes to music. ‘Really, everyone in the creative industry is on a zero-hours contract. If you’re a freelancer, there’s no contracts, there’s no obligations. So yeah, I try and support people as much as possible… It’s just brutal.’

Photograph: Andy Parsons

I was so opposed to being stereotyped

In a pandemic, Sawayama’s commitment to honesty and plain-speaking has cut straight through to audiences. It’s why ‘Sawayama’ is – once you strip away all the Clarence Clarity-produced bells and whistles – essentially a deeply empathetic family portrait, one that’s instantly recognisable to anybody who’s struggled with their identity or relationship with their parents, but which takes on even deeper resonance if you – like Sawayama – are of Asian or immigrant heritage.

She grew up in north London, a transplant from Niigata, Japan. Her parents’ marriage broke down and she was raised here by her abruptly single mother. She was embarrassed by her, she says. Her imperfect English was one of many reminders that they were different. ‘London was probably the best place for me to grow up, because there were so many immigrants and so many people from different social backgrounds,’ she says now. That difference got even more stark when she went to Cambridge. ‘I didn’t feel connected to anyone in my college and that was really, really hard.’

It’s a sentiment immortalised in ‘Dynasty’, a maximalist rock opera that finds Sawayama singing about inherited pain and family trauma. ‘A lot of artists believe in things politically, but they may not necessarily reflect it in their work or in their music,’ she says. ‘I went into a session recently and I was like: I want to write about white fragility. The producer thought I was joking. I was like: I’m not joking.’

Leaning into her heritage for ‘Sawayama’ didn’t come easily. At first, she wanted to disavow it – no thanks, presumably, to the racism she encountered in the music industry, which ran from microaggressions like being described as ‘kawaii’ because she’d dyed her hair orange to straight-up prejudice (a music exec calling her ‘Rina Wagamama’ behind her back). ‘I was so opposed to being stereotyped,’ she says. ‘It took me a couple years to acknowledge the other side of things. By shutting out my Japanese-ness, I was shutting out all the experiences I had as a Japanese person.’

Then her mother moved back to Japan. And, in London, oceans away and nine hours behind, Sawayama felt unexpectedly liberated. Today, she turns the words over in her head. ‘I think I felt like I didn’t want to write a record that would embarrass her in a way or reveal too much about our family,’ she finally says. ‘But actually, that was what made it more relatable for people.’

Photograph: Andy Parsons

I was a stan. I’m always a stan

Like many Londoners her age, Sawayama spent a lot of her teenage years queuing outside Brixton Academy on chilly mornings for the sweet rush of being the first to leg it to the front of a gig. In white skinny jeans, of course. ‘I was obsessed. Cajun Dance Party, bloody Bombay Bicycle Club, any band with “the” in front of it,’ she laughs. Every Friday night she’d sneak into Koko, because at the time they weren’t checking IDs. Then Peaches Geldof got caught by the tabloids. ‘After that they got so strict I never went back,’ she says. Her highlight of the era? Making it into the Franz Ferdinand afterparty for their Ally Pally show when she was 16. ‘What a mood – aaaah!’ she screeches, delighted with her teenage self.

Scrawny white guys with guitars are a long way from the average Rina Sawayama show. Even at her earliest gigs – in sweaty venues not so different to the ones she grew up watching bands in – she had the spirit of a superstar: backing dancers, complicated costumes, bum-length wigs and a dramatic stage fan that Beyoncé would be proud of. What had her queueing up to make it to the front of a Bravery gig?

‘Being that close to an instrument and being that close to musicians,’ she explains. ‘I always joke that I was a stan and I’m always a stan. I understand what people feel when they are obsessed with an artist.’ The last time I saw Sawayama perform was at Brixton Academy, where she’d queued up all those years ago. She was opening for Charli XCX in nipple-swishing braids and silver assless chaps from Chinese designer Di Du, looking like a space-age Christina Aguilera in her ‘Dirrty’ phase. She came on stage to cheers so loud they almost knocked the pint of lukewarm Coke out of my hand. It was her last live gig before ‘Sawayama’ came out. ‘I had to do a filmed thing a couple of weeks ago’ – she lets out an incredulous laugh – ‘and I was like: Fuck, I’m so out of practice!’ I’m almost fooled into believing her.

A week after our chat, Sawayama makes her debut on ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’, complete with custom dollar bills with her face on them. The performance trends on Twitter in the US, Brazil, the Philippines and Singapore; less than 24 hours later, there’s already fan art of her outfit. Going from rebellious stan to fully-fledged pop star during a pandemic – it’s one way of getting to the front of the queue. Now, barely a week after that, the UK is looking down the barrel of a second lockdown. It’s a heartbreaking moment for so many people in the music industry, for artists, fans and venues. For Sawayama, though, 2020, with its high highs and super-low lows will always have a special resonance.

‘The records that came out during [the first] lockdown mean so many different things now,’ she says. ‘It’s not background music. It’s such an important line of optimism for people now, you know?’

Rina Sawayama’s album ‘Sawayama’ is out now. She plays the Roundhouse on Nov 17 2021.

Photography Andy Parsons, styling Kate Iorga, make up Hayley Mason, hair Tomi Roppongi. Photographed at Barbican Centre.

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