Mitski makes the songs we scream and cry to

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Japanese-American singer-songwriter Mitski Miyawaki shares insights on her music, astrology, touring with Lorde, and telling stories in tumultuous times. Photo by APA AGBAYANI

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — If you’ve ever been to a Mitski Miyawaki show, it’s an experience that’s at once massive and intimate.

The songs are loud in a way that fills a living room, rather than a stadium. I say this not to downplay the songs’ power, but to speak of their concision and intimacy. These are songs that, beneath raucous guitars and drums, tell stories that are deeply personal.

Part of it, too, is Mitski's stage presence, at once blasé, tongue-in-cheek, yet absolutely forthright. The whole thing feels like a post-party conversation with an old friend that suddenly becomes too searing, too real, but you can’t help but carry on with the truth.

Since the release of the “Your Best American Girl” (a heartbreaking three-and-a-half-minute song) together with her fourth album “Puberty 2” in 2016, the 27-year-old’s profile has increased dramatically. She toured through North America and Europe for most of 2016 and 2017, playing a handful of festivals along the way. Next year, she'll be opening for the North American dates of Lorde’s Melodrama tour together with Run the Jewels and Tove Styrke.

We caught Mitski after a 45-minute set at the Clockenflap Music and Arts Festival in Hong Kong for a short chat on her music, astrology, and living in 2017, and where she goes from here as an artist. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Great set! I kinda cried a little bit.

Oh, good! That’s the goal. [Laughs] Yeah, more people than I thought would show up showed up and that’s crazy.

I wanted to ask what you’ve been up to in the last year?

I’ve been on tour. It’s been great. I mean, it’s my job and the fact that I get to tour means that I’m probably doing something right, so that’s nice.

Mitski-6.jpg Mitski during her 45-minute set at the Clockenflap Music and Arts Festival in Hong Kong. Photo by APA AGBAYANI

How does the music change for you on tour?

The songs are no longer new for me. They’ve become kind of like family to me. I’m so familiar with them, I can almost play them on automatic. I try not to. And in order to not play them on automatic, I found new meaning in them that I didn’t have when I was writing it. So I no longer conjure up the emotions that I had when I wrote the songs but they mean something new to me now.

As a Japanese-American songwriter, you’re constantly negotiating this Venn diagram between those identities. Do you find that Asian audiences grasp some things more than American audiences and vice versa?

I do think so — I’m being specific here — Asian-American audiences, I think get a lot more out of my songs maybe than other people. Not even [just] the songs themselves, I think. I’m realizing how much representation is important — just seeing my face onstage seems to mean something.

I remember when I was growing up I didn’t see anyone doing what I want to do, so I almost couldn’t imagine myself doing it and so it took me a while to figure out how to get where I wanted to go ‘cause I didn’t see any examples. So just the visibility of someone with a similar background doing something creative actually means something.

I think “Your Best American Girl” was my entry point to your music and I think it was the moment that this bigger audience found you. Could you tell us more about writing that song? Did you think it would resonate so strongly with people?

It was a very personal song. I wrote about a really specific situation for me. I wrote it because I was in love with somebody who I felt like, at the end of the day, our relationship could never work because our backgrounds and our lives and our families and everything was so different and, you know, when kind of the flirtation period ends and you have to establish a real relationship with someone, it means you have to put your lives together and our lives just didn’t fit together. So that’s what I was writing about.

 

I didn’t think it would resonate with so many people. I almost didn’t make it my single ‘cause I didn’t think it was such a universal song. And, you know, after it came out and it got received so well and people started to tell me their stories about how they related to the song, that’s when I was like, “Ohh.” I didn’t realize how many people were in a similar situation as I was.

I saw your tweet earlier about Scorpio season. I just wanted to ask about astrology because you’re into it. I saw your natal chart earlier so I feel like I know so much about you.

[Laughs]

Astrology’s sort of gained this critical mass over the last couple of years. I saw this BuzzFeed story that said it’s because people are clinging to something in uncertain times. I just wanted to ask how you fell down that rabbit hole of astrology and what role it plays in your life?

Well, my Venus is in Virgo. A lot of parts of my chart is in Virgo and I think I tend to like to organize my feelings. I tend to want to put all of my feelings into little boxes. And so astrology and also tarot cards and that kind of stuff helps me — it gives me those boxes for me to put those feelings into.

I just love categories. It’s the same reason I loved biology when in school, just ‘cause everything has a name and you can put everything in categories, so I think that’s why I’m drawn to it. But I do think, like you said and like the article said, there’s something about now that makes astrology so appealing to people. I think it’s because it’s so chaotic and disorganized, maybe everyone wants to organize their feelings.

READ: Why zodiac signs and personality types say more about humans than we think

You’re touring with Lorde next year. What are you looking forward to there?

I’ve never played in arenas before, so I’m actually trying not to psych myself out too much about it, ‘cause it’s with Lorde, who’s amazing. It’s a huge tour; it’s in arenas. I’ve played large venues and I’ve played festivals but never, like, domes and I don’t know how I will sound in an arena ‘cause I’ve never played in an arena and it’s just, it’s big, so I’m almost trying not to feel things about it because if I actually face the fact that I’m going on tour with Lorde, I might freak out about it.

I feel like between you, Lorde, Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and everyone, we’re having this big generational moment for female singer-songwriters. I just wanted to ask about that — where you feel your place is in that.

It’s interesting, it seems to all happen at once. It’s not like I went into it thinking, “Oh, I’m gonna be a female singer-songwriter. Now’s the time.” I was already doing what I’m doing and it kind of worked out.

I don’t know where I fit in. I think the beautiful thing about it is that we’re all so different from each other and I think that’s really important, especially because “female singer-songwriter” tends to be seen as one genre, but now that we’re all out here and we’re all making such different music, I think it’s an opportunity for that perception to change and for that to no longer be a narrow genre.

When I heard “A Burning Hill,” there was something about it that just captured depression in this really incisive way, especially that bit where you go, “I am the fire and I am the forest and I am a witness watching it” — just that feeling of being outside yourself as you destroy yourself. I wanted to ask what role music plays for you, mental health-wise.

You know, I don’t think I’ll ever know because music was always part of my mental health, part of my coping mechanisms, so I will never know for sure who I would be or how I would cope if I didn’t have music. But I do feel fortunate, very fortunate that I have some sort of outlet. Music plays such a role in giving me a voice, in giving my feelings a voice and I can’t imagine who I would be and what my life would be like if I didn’t have that voice.

Being understood by strangers I’ve never met — it gives me hope. It gives me hope to live, honestly.

Fans of singer-songwriters can form these very intimate connections with the music. What sort of connections have you formed over the course of your time in music?

Well, people have had tattoos of my lyrics and stuff, which is wild to me — especially ‘cause I don’t have any tattoos. I’m always surprised by how much I’m understood and I think that’s what really drives me and keeps me doing this. I think the original reason I started making music and writing my own songs and performing them was to feel like I’m part of something, that I’m connected with people.

I’ve always felt isolated but when people say they relate to whatever I experienced, there’s this feeling of “Oh, like, I’m human, too, and I’m normal, and it’s not such a weird thing for me to be feeling this.” So I think that’s the main connection, just being understood by strangers I’ve never met — it gives me hope. It gives me hope to live, honestly.

When we were growing up, we listened to all these older artists and we found connections there, but what I’ve noticed recently, having artists around my age, like you, like Lorde, who’s younger than us—

Yeah, she just turned 20, or something!

21, yeah.

Oh my God! Yeah.

Mitski Lead.jpg "I’m always surprised by how much I’m understood and I think that’s what really drives me and keeps me doing this," says Mitski of the human connections she has formed because of her music. Photo by APA AGBAYANI

So have you ever had a moment like that where you sort of felt a song differently because of that generational connection?

I think now, when I listen to music, I see other artists as human beings. I think when I was younger, these artists were such faraway figures and they were older. It was almost as if they weren’t real. I was looking up to them but I wasn’t really connecting the fact that what they were saying related to my life, but now when I listen to music, I think the way I listen to music has fundamentally changed ‘cause now I listen to music as if it’s from another person and there’s life in there and I have my life and somehow our lives are connected or our humanity is connected. I think that’s the difference.

We live in really tumultuous times. The news cycle gets insane, like, you have a crazy president, I have a crazy president—

[Laughs] Oh, that’s so quotable.

In the last month, we’ve opened up a broader conversation on sexual assault. We talk more and more every day about representation and about all these things we didn’t think about when we were younger. What do you feel are the stories you want to tell moving forward in that kind of world?

You know, I’m still trying to figure it out. It almost feels like now’s the time for me to listen and listen closely. There’s so many more stories out there. It’s like the world is a giant pimple that’s just being popped and it’s all coming out.

And so I think, now, I don’t even have an urge to be like, “This is my story.” I’m almost like, “Wow, this is a time for me to listen.” ‘Cause there’s so much I don’t know. I’m learning so much about the world and I don’t know what to do, honestly. I don’t know what’s next and I don’t know how to act, so the first step for me to figure that out, I think, is for me to listen.