I often meet artists for interviews in coffee shops, but Mitski Miyawaki opts for a tea room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "My personality's very obsessive compulsive," she explains. "I tend to fixate a lot. Right now, I can't drink coffee. If I drank one, I'd have to drink five. I'm trying not to be restricted by obsession."
Unhealthy fixations are a recurring theme in Mitski’s work, as are using adaptability and single-minded drive to overcome them—survival skills that she explains stem from a life spent as an outsider. From a nomadic childhood spent in 13 countries to a career that focuses on making a place for herself in typically patriarchal, white music spaces, the singer-songwriter has continuously carved a path from the margins.
While Mitski's first releases employed her conservatory training with lush orchestral arrangements, her upcoming fourth album, Puberty 2, capitalizes on the lyrical indie-rock style she developed on her 2014 breakout record, Bury Me at Makeout Creek. Finding affirmation and resiliency in vulnerability and alienation, the new album is an expansive effort, winding through moments of weariness—"I'll go to work and I'll go to sleep, and I'll love the littler things" goes the album's final line—and ecstatic climax—"you're all I've ever wanted," she cries on the single "Your Best American Girl" before diving into gut-punching walls of guitar distortion. Her Bowery Ballroom concert in NYC on June 20 sold out three whole months in advance—evidence that the cult fan base that's come together over such overwhelmingly poignant moments might be just as obsessive as she is.
In relation to the single, "Your Best American Girl," you've discussed "difference": not fitting into the All-American life of a white lover. But what issues of power and exclusion reside in those desires for us as minorities?
Well for me to properly answer that, I would need a better understanding of the complexities of my desires and where they come from. To be honest, it's just such a rush to desire and be desired by something that's considered institutionally acceptable and normal. The feeling of being loved back by a healthy minded white person. I think I have a fetish for being accepted by institutions. There's a feeling of chase in that, I think.
It's kind of a sick relief.
Yeah, and on the flip side of that, I also in a really unhealthy way desire not being loved because there's that ingrained feeling that I don't deserve it. I haven't done this in a while, but I noticed sometimes I would go for someone specifically because I knew they would not want me, and I'd seek that out.
“You just have to accept the fact that you are many many hundreds of people within one body—you‘re not just one person. And you have to satisfy all of those people within you.”
Photograph: Ebru Yildiz
Speaking of falling in love in a larger sense—you've warned wariness against falling in love or identifying too strongly with any particular subculture or community. What exactly did you mean by that?
I have a tendency to want to revere and believe in something. But as a kid, I grew up in a different cultural environment every single year with a whole new set of rules. I never knew what to follow—and I'm someone who really needs to follow. So for me, there's always a danger of immediately latching onto something seductive, and then realizing it's not for me—but by then it's too late.
So moving around so much gave you perspective?
Yeah, and it taught me that "right" and "wrong" are really complex—it's more than following any regional moral codes, you have to interrogate it through your culture, yourself, and other people. Being an outsider at all times is both unhealthy and useful, because you become much more objective about things.
How has it been navigating musical community in New York with that kind of personality?
Whenever I've tried to ingratiate myself to an existing community, I tend to give too much, to become whatever it is they want me to be. It's something I do automatically—I've learnt to immediately adapt. But you can only hide certain parts of yourself for so long. What's worked for me is getting to know individuals.
I guess that's the nature of being marginalized artists, learning to cater to the needs of others or the spaces we're in.
Yeah, and it's the same with romantic and intimate relationships, right? Often I've had problems automatically bending to a lover's will, becoming what I know they want me to be. Immediately, I learn all the music they love, listen to it, study it, instead of being like, "this is what I love!"
How does that outsider history play into your music?
I just grew up not being able to rely on anything, so I trained myself not to get stuck on anything. I can't be stuck on needing a guitar in my song because what if there's no guitar? The need to be adaptable really shaped the way I write songs.
That seems to contextualize how you've changed styles throughout your four albums.
For some bands, the music blossoms from writing guitar chords and bass lines first, but for me, my music is based on the vocal melody—everything else comes last. Whatever surrounds the vocals, just depends on my environment at the time. At conservatory, I had orchestral instruments. In Brooklyn, I employed all the surrounding indie band instruments and aesthetics. I'm not much of a production-based artist. That's why I flip flop between moods and genres and sounds: They don't really matter to me.
Was it hard to pursue those shifts in your technical composition? For me, I've noticed musical communities sometimes split between bros who fetishize technical skill and spaces that fetishize amateur aesthetics to combat that.
I've dealt with navigating both of those different value systems, and both are dangerous. Spaces which value amateur music are really critical for offering creative freedom to people who don't have particular kinds of access or technical experience. But at some point, if you play an instrument long enough, you can't help but gain technical ability. So then you can graduate from that, if you want. But if you're in an environment that fetishizes specific surface things like a specific kind of amateurism, technical ability or aesthetic, then you can't explore how to express yourself. That's what it comes down to: A lot of these musical communities that reduce music to a single aesthetic or style really hinder musicians from pursuing expression.
It's what you were saying about not restricting yourself to a particular space?
You just have to accept the fact that you are many many hundreds of people within one body—you're not just one person. And you have to satisfy all of those people within you.
People have called your new indie-rock style "raw"—how do you feel about that designation?
It's so gendered in how people use that to take away my agency, this image of the "fevered chosen girl." It just baffles me how so many men can't imagine that I own my brain, or that the things I make come from me. It's not that some light from God shines through me and I don't understand what's going on. "It just pours out of her, it's just her being honest." But I'm like "I worked on this, this is what I study!" How can you take everything that I've painstakingly crafted and say, "it's just her diary."
What gendered dynamics did you navigate while writing more "technical" or "compositional" music?
Asking for any help while learning to arrange music signified to men a total lack of qualification on my part, like I had no right to the studio or to compose. So I became obsessed with learning everything, every piece of theory, every technical skill. As a woman, you have to be the smartest person in the room just to be regarded as acceptable.
“It just baffles me how so many men can‘t imagine that I own my brain, or that the things I make come from me.”
Photograph: Ebru Yildiz
On Puberty 2, there's a draw toward morbid imagery, much like previous albums. Where does that come from?
Yeah, I wonder why I'm obsessed with death [laughs] I think about it everyday. I think it comes from how I've always questioned why I should exist, what's keeping me here. I've never really valued myself.
Like "what is my entitlement to life" or "why do I even want to live"?
Both, I think. There's the feeling that I can't do this anymore. And then there's the feeling that I take more than I give. I can't just spend my life sitting around and chilling with beers with my friends—I just get this feeling that I'm taking up space and life from others. That feels like my one drive in why I need to make music and put it out—I feel some kind of need to justify my existence.
One artist you've voiced a lot of love for is Drake. What do you like about him?
His sound. He has a really great knack with melodies, a great curatorial ear, a good way of finding producers and putting them together and bringing out their strengths. Part of my attraction there is also very institutionalized—the part of me that hates myself as a woman really loves the misogynistic things Drake says to me, you know?
Recognizing those patterns within ourselves is difficult.
Instead of shutting those feelings out, you have to allow yourself to be problematic to grow. Repressing things only makes them worse, and investigating why I like what I do demystified a lot for me. And you'd rather you were the person who let your troublesome parts out, rather than them pushing themselves out in a nasty way. You have to make room for your ugliness, or it's going to make room for itself.
Mitski plays Bowery Ballroom June 20 and Music Hall of Williamsburg July 27.