Cover story

Owning It

With

Rina Sawayama

She released her debut album in lockdown – and immediately went stellar. Now, with her second genre-defying EP slated for release this summer, RINA SAWAYAMA is refreshingly uncompromising when it comes to taking ownership of her identity, sound and brand. Here, she talks to EMMA HOPE ALLWOOD about the power of authenticity, reclaiming the narrative, and tackling “othering” within the industry

Photography Jon ErvinStyling Natasha Royt
Cover Stories
This image: shirt, A.W.A.K.E. Mode; jeans, Maison Margiela; bra, The Row; necklace, Marie Lichtenberg; red enamel and diamond ring (on index finger), Yvonne Léon; other rings (on wedding finger), Spinelli Kilcollin. Opening image: top, Alix NYC; pants, The Row; rings, Spinelli Kilcollin; single earring, Eéra

‘Rina is going to hell’, according to the devil-red posters plastered across London the day I speak to Sawayama. She is across the Atlantic, in the back of a car in New York. The previous night, she line-danced past hay bales on the stage of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, performing new single This Hell in a Dion Lee cowgirl look, complete with a wide-brimmed hat, snakeskin-trimmed boots and an XL nameplate belt buckle slung around a leather micro-mini.

Sawayama, whose second album, Hold the Girl, is slated for release at the end of this summer, was born in Japan and raised in London from the age of five. Now 31 and signed to Dirty Hit (the label that represents best-of-British artists like The 1975 and Beabadoobee), the musician has established herself as one of pop’s most future-facing figures – especially since dropping her critically acclaimed debut album, Sawayama, during the first lockdown.

Despite an early love for Britney Spears (“I was so obsessed”), fame wasn’t her end goal. “I’ve definitely met people who love being famous,” she says. “And I don’t identify with that at all.” Instead, it’s performing that Sawayama’s always craved, ever since discovering the rush of singing in the choir at her school masses. “When I perform, it’s just that feeling of complete focus and meditation on stage, and that’s something that I’m constantly thinking about and looking for; it’s the thing that really is the highlight of what I do,” she says. “I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since I was, like, seven. It’s just all I remember.”

“It’s really NICE that maybe I was able to make people feel BETTER… and to give them time off in their brain, just by LISTENING to my music”

Top, Gauge81; skirt, A.W.A.K.E. Mode; platform shoes, Cult Gaia; earring (just seen), Maria Tash

As proved by her experimental, genre-hopping debut album – which careened between shimmering, aughts earworm pop, nu-metal and everything in between – Sawayama has range: she’s covered Metallica and collaborated with both Elton John and Charli XCX; she’s also set to star in the new John Wick film alongside Keanu Reeves (“the absolute dream, [he’s] just so lovely”), out in 2023. Then, of course, there’s the Balmain SS22 runway appearance, and the small fact that she graduated with a degree in politics, psychology and sociology from the University of Cambridge.

Given her penchant for performing, though, lockdown wasn’t an ideal time to release her first album (Rina, an EP inspired by living life largely online, was self-released in 2017). So, for Sawayama, the artist took inspiration from closer to home, covering everything from music-industry rejection (STFU!) to family dynamics (Dynasty). The album was a critical success and resonated with fans in isolation. “It’s really nice that maybe I was able to make people feel better about the situation, and to kind of give them time off in their brain just by listening to my music,” she says, while acknowledging the challenges restrictions posed when it came to working on Hold The Girl. “I really missed being with people and collaborating in person – the absence of that was really difficult when writing the record.”

“To me, it’s a question of, ‘How do I want to REPRESENT myself and my community?’ It’s making sure that I’m HONORING those stories and actually telling them in a really SMART way”

Jumpsuit, Saint Laurent; earring, Ananya
Jumpsuit, and shoes (just seen), both Saint Laurent; earring, Ananya

So much so that she found herself unable to write. “I was in a serious creative block because I hadn’t toured the first album and I just had to crack on with making the second,” she recalls. “Second albums are great when you've toured a lot with your first. You know what people enjoy dancing to. By performing it, you understand what you want to do with music. And when that’s gone, it’s like there’s no compass…”

She pushed through it with the help of Taylor Swift’s character- and fiction-driven album Folklore (“The fact that she was literally able to construct an entire album out of stories… it just showed me that, as a songwriter, you need to get better”) and Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling creativity manual Big Magic. “[It] sounds really Eat Pray Love, but it was so important in unblocking me – incorporating the fear of creating into the creating.” She wrote half of Hold The Girl in the space of a month. “It kind of flowed out.”

Opening with a Shania Twain-inspired “Let’s go, girls!”, lead single This Hell is first and foremost an absolute bop – but it’s also a song that takes aim at religious trauma, misogyny and LGBTQ+ persecution. “Turns out, I’m going to hell if I keep on being myself,” Sawayama sings in the opening verse, before namechecking “Britney, Lady Di and Whitney” as targets of a frenzied media culture that revels in female vulnerability. It’s a dance-floor filler with a political punch; an anthemic clapback against bigotry that flips a traumatic subject on its head and reclaims the narrative. If hell is where we’re going, Sawayama says, then the devil is definitely wearing Prada.

Exploring issues relevant both to her own intersection of identities and those who can relate to her experiences – without being lazily put into boxes – is something the singer has clearly given a lot of thought to. “To me, it’s a question of, ‘How do I want to represent myself and my community?’ It’s making sure that I’m honoring those stories and actually telling them in a really smart way, [so] that people singing it might not even know that that’s what [a song is] about. On first listen, This Hell just sounds like a fun time.”

Sexuality in Sawayama’s universe isn’t something to be gawked over: there are no sleazy male record executives choosing schoolgirl outfits and pulling strings – just a queer woman writing about queer acceptance, love and pride. It’s a clear sign of how things in the industry are moving forward. “I think the influence of Lil Nas X has been so important,” Sawayama acknowledges. “And being close to someone like Elton [John] as well, and hearing about his story.”

“It’s kind of AWESOME that the people who are the most popular in pop culture are the most AUTHENTIC and have the most ownership over their music and IDENTITY and brand”

Dress, Magda Butrym; sunglasses, Gucci; necklace, Lauren Rubinski; earrings, Maria Tash; rings, Spinelli Kilcollin
Dress, Gauge81; bracelet, Yvonne Léon; earrings, Maria Tash
Dress, and top, both Loewe; platform shoes, D'Accori; necklace, Lauren Rubinski; rings, Spinelli Kilcollin; earrings, Maria Tash

John publicly backed Sawayama when, in June 2020, she spoke out about her debut album’s ineligibility for both the Brit Awards and Mercury Prize due to the fact she holds a Japanese passport. “It’s up to the award bodies to decide what Britishness really encompasses – it’s the very things that they celebrate, which are diversity and opportunity,” she said in an interview with Vice at the time, calling the experience “othering”. The hashtag #sawayamaisbritish soon began trending; the following February, the British Phonographic Industry announced it would change its rules.

It’s proof of the way Sawayama is pushing away from industry control and towards artist ownership and autonomy. “I think [music is] changing in a very positive way,” she affirms. “Britney was the blueprint of pop, but it’s interesting that the narratives have completely changed. Now she’s sharing her story, it’s horrifying what the cost was to her personally.”

Instead, thanks to streaming and social media, people want artists they can connect to – not totemic, untouchable icons who are never permitted to be human. “It’s kind of awesome that the people who are the most popular in pop culture are the most authentic and have the most ownership over their music and identity and brand,” she says, pointing to Billie Eilish as an example. “It’s about how you speak to people, you know? How people want to connect with you. I think that’s more of the focus, rather than, like, whether you get to the chorus before 45 seconds.”

Authenticity and making certified bangers are certainly not mutually exclusive, though. Beg For You, the noughties club-inspired Charli XCX hit she features on, is a case in point: it’s currently on 41m streams and counting. “The more I work, and the more I meet other artists, I realize that they are so in control of what they do,” she explains. “When I meet people like Charli, and we chat about music – Charli makes every single decision; she really does. And that’s allowed me to be more in control of what I do, and to have my own boundaries.”

“I want to put out INTENTIONAL things into the WORLD. So, if it doesn’t feel RIGHT to me, I’m not going to do it”

Dress, Mônot; earrings, Ananya
Dress, Mônot; shirt, Bottega Veneta; earrings, Ananya

Thanks to therapy (“we love therapy”), boundaries are something Sawayama has been practicing. They’re in place when it comes to the new album, too, which she’s resisting the urge to overexplain. “With this record, there’s a lot of personal things [explored in it]. But what’s beautiful about music and art is that there’s space for people to create their own perceptions and connect to it in their own way. And I don’t want to fill the narrative around the album so much that people can’t listen to it any other way.”

How much she keeps for herself and how much she shares publicly is “a constant thought in progress… I want to put out intentional things into the world,” she says. “So, if it doesn’t feel right to me, I’m not going to do it.” In this way, she embodies both an auterish avant-garde sensibility and the potential for mega-pop stardom; as much living proof as a driver of a rapidly and thankfully changing music landscape. Although she didn’t dream of fame, Sawayama’s aspirations are clear – and don’t expect her to compromise. “I don't want to be a niche artist,” she says. “I want to write huge songs. But I don’t want to lose what’s important to me.”

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