“I kind of like making really uncool things cool,” says Rina Sawayama, the genre-splicing alt-pop mastermind behind the upcoming ‘SAWAYAMA’, a buzzing collection of megawatt avant garde pop songs that blend R&B, country and noughties chart music à la JoJo or Britney. Oh, yeah – and body-shaking riffs Evanescence would be jealous of and pounding guitar lines straight outta the Korn songbook. Nu-metal: it’s back!
We’re in the living room of Rina’s south London flat a few months before the album’s release. It’s super tidy (aside from a pair of socks tucked down the side of the sofa), with photos of her and pals and hardback cookery books lining the bookshelves. Her rescue dog Kaya is curled up on the sofa beside her, gazing longingly out of the window.
“The first Number One I remember is Holly Valance’s ‘Kiss Kiss’,” Rina recalls with a laugh, “but the second I really remember being on the telly is Limp Bizkit’s ‘Rollin’’. I was like, ‘What is this genre?!'”
It may be a diverse album, but one constant on ‘SAWAYAMA’ is how the musician uses nu-metal to channel dizzying rage. Take the album’s blistering lead single, ‘STFU!’, on which the British-Japanese singer rails against the racial micro-aggressions she’s had to put up with in life. And then there’s ‘XS’, a takedown of the Insta-ready lifestyles of the rich and famous, which blends slinky R&B production with explosive metal guitar stabs.
“Basically the genre of each song just reflects what the lyrics and the melody want to say,” Rina explains, stroking Kaya, who’s calmly snuggled beside her. This is an artist who makes genre work for her, and not the other way around.
She’s been fiercely independent since the release of her first solo song – 2013’s woozy, electronic ‘Sleeping in Waking’ – self-funding her music through part-time jobs and modelling deals with the likes of Uniqlo and Nike. Now, though, she’s signed to Dirty Hit, the ultra-cool record label that’s home to the likes of The 1975 and Wolf Alice.
Rina describes the deal with Dirty Hit as a two-way partnership and says of the decision to sign to a label, rather than go it alone: “As an independent artist, you’re essentially a business owner. You have to do everything. And it’s kind of like any business – unless you get investment, you can’t grow. I kind of felt I was hitting a wall [without a deal]. Things were going well, but I need the album to just be like – boom!”
She’d already made “80 per cent” of the album when the label came onboard, the deal offering her coups such as The 1975’s Adam Hann playing guitar on ‘Dynasty’. Despite the label’s input, which included assistance from hotshot producer Jonathan Gilmore, Rina retained creative control throughout it all. “They were never like, ‘You should change this’,” she explains. “Never at any point in the process.”
“A lot of people on social media want to be noticed by saying hateful things”
The album is something of a musical self-portrait. It’s Rina at her most personal, discussing her fractured relationships with family and friends, her parents’ experiences of life in the UK and her relationship with her heritage.
‘SAWAYAMA’ deals with a lot of personal issues. On the emotive, gospel-inspired electro-ballad ‘Bad Friend’, she apologises to a pal she fell out with and admits to getting wrapped up in her own life (“I was going through Facebook,” she says, “and was like, ‘Oh my gosh – she’s had a baby!’ It made me like think about all our amazing memories and I felt like I was a bad friend”). And country-tinged ballad ‘Chosen Family’, produced by PC Music’s Danny L Harle, pays tribute to the queer community Rina now considers family.
Born in Niigata, Japan, Rina moved to London when she was five. “I remember feeling frustrated that I couldn’t speak English,” she says of the move, “and I was frustrated that my mum couldn’t speak English. I thought it was my mum’s fault. Like, ‘Oh, why does she have an accent? Why does she not speak English?’ And I think I put a lot of blame on her. When actually it’s just the outside world that’s not accepting [of her].”
Her parents would play Japanese music at home, and Rina would discover new music through her older sister, who introduced her to Japanese-American pop star Utada Hikaru. She credits Hikaru’s first three albums for shaping the way she writes songs. Thrillingly, her hero was in the audience at a show in Stockholm when Rina supported Charli XCX on tour last year. “She was like, ‘I love your music!’” says Rina. “That was actually insane.”
After her parents’ divorce, she was raised primarily by her mother, with whom she shared a room until she was 15. Album opener ‘Dynasty’ was inspired by the divorce, of which Rina says: “I wanted to make intergenerational pain into a pop song.” Musically the heavy subject is conveyed through dramatic, crashing instrumentals. Or, as Rina puts it: “I wanted it to sound like a church.”
She struggled at her state secondary school. “I remember just not understanding how to read books,” she says. “I’d never read an English book in my life at that point. Everyone’s reading Harry Potter and [American young adult author] Judy Blume. And I was like, ‘I don’t even know how to read this’.”
This sense of alienation from her adopted home made everyday situations more complicated: “There was one thing where the teacher said, ‘Oh, take a copy of this’ book. And I literally didn’t understand that that meant physically take on. I thought it meant to take a physical copy, like a photocopy. I said to my mum, ‘We need to photocopy this because they said take a copy’, she couldn’t understand either. I was like, ‘Mum, why don’t you know this?’”
These tensions with her mum came to head when Rina was a teenager, and she addresses their arguments on the jangling videogame bop ‘Paradisin’’. When Rina was AWOL, her mum would log into her MSN Messenger account and interrogate pals into revealing where she was. “I was just trying to live my best life,” she says, “but my mum was constantly chasing me. It felt like a game, which is why that song sounds a bit like a game.” With Rina Sawayama, the medium is always the message.
“I like making really uncool things cool”
Despite being an adolescent rebel, she attended The University of Cambridge, about which she has mixed feelings. Although she feels lucky to have studied Politics, Psychology and Sociology, she acknowledges it was in some ways a stifling place: “It’s male and stale, and it’s very private school. It was a world I wasn’t part of at all. People just assumed I was an international student because I’m Asian.
“Cambridge is the formative version of the upper echelons of the UK,” she says thoughtfully. “And that was so interesting, just seeing future politicians and huge bankers and the people who will control the economy, and then seeing them as 19-year-olds who are still like…” She pauses, and then adds with a laugh: “Tossers, basically.”
She made music at Cambridge, though her peers were, predictably enough, more inclined towards orchestral music than nu-metal-infused pop. “Weirdly, though, I was there at the same time as Clean Bandit,” she says. “They were just an instrumental band – they’d be playing May Balls [swish end of term parties] – and they exploded a couple years after that.”
And they weren’t only budding musicians in Rina’s circle who later found indie fame. At school and during her early university years she was in a hip-hop group called Lazy Lion with Theo Ellis, who became the bassist in Wolf Alice. Was she ever jealous watching Theo’s new band take off?
“Oh no,” she says firmly, “We didn’t split up during uni, but everybody went to different places. Theo was just grinding it out. I remember while we were in Lazy Lion he was just joining Wolf Alice, and they must have done literally 300 gigs that year. So I was just like, ‘Thank God they’re getting big!’” The Dirty Hit labelmates stay in touch, and although they haven’t seen each other for a while, she texted him to get advice when she first started considering the record deal.
She spent those formative years hustling to make as much money as possible to support her music, but her mum wasn’t initially supportive of her career, worrying about Rina’s future: “She was just like, ‘Why are you broke and doing music? This is so stupid. You’ve got a Cambridge degree – what are you doing?’”
This all changed with Rina’s first live gig at the 150-capacity London venue The Pickle Factory in 2017. “My mum came to that show,” she says, “and for her that was like, ‘OK – this is real, you have fans.” Watching punters sing along and dance wildly at the sold-out show convinced her mum that this could work out.
Over the past few years Rina has also won over a small army of fans – or Pixels, as she calls them. ‘Cherry’, in particular, inspired scores of fans to message her about how they connected to the song. At the time the singer hadn’t properly come out to her parents. “It isn’t like a celebration of being bi,” she explains. “It’s all about this grey area, the shame and stuff. I was like, ‘Do people want to talk about shame?’”
Of the response she received from fans, she beams: “It was incredible. And there’s been some incredibly personal things that people have written to me. And it was great, especially from the Asian and POC community, I think.”
“I want my music to make people feel something”
Given her fervent fanbase, it’s no surprise that Rina is active on social media, and is one of those musicians where the line between artist and fan is blurred. A few months ago, though, she found herself in the midst of a Twitterstorm due to the visuals for her recent single ‘Comme des Garçons’; some suggested Rina was culturally appropriating braids. She tweeted a response (“the hairstyle I wore is not box braids, and my hair is not in corn rows – this was something I was adamant about… I’m aware these are protective hairstyles that are from a culture I do not belong to”) and apologised.
“I totally got why people were annoyed,” she says today, “but at the same time I was annoyed by the anonymity of the tweets. There were obviously a handful of people who were genuinely offended. But what annoyed me was people who perhaps just wanted to be noticed by saying hateful things. And that is really sad. On Instagram people will say mean things and when you reply to them like, ‘What the hell?’, they will reply, ‘Hey, Queen! You noticed me!’ I just block them.
“That’s bad energy. It’s hard on a spiritual level, because that’s not the world I want to see. It’s kind of sad that people think that’s how you get attention.”
It was her first taste of controversy, to which The 1975’s frontman Matty Healy is no stranger. An icon of political pop, he’s both supported her music (he texted Rina weeks before ‘STFU’ came out to tell her how good he thought it was) and become a mouthpiece for social issues that range from climate change to gender equality on festival line-ups. Would Rina like to be known as a similarly outspoken artist?
“I don’t know…” she replies with a smile. “Maybe when there’ll come a time where I don’t feel compelled to check my Twitter replies and my Instagram comments. I need to get some rock’n’roll lessons from him! He just is so like, ‘Yeah, cool. I’ll just put out.’ I prefer making statements through music, because it’s way less stressful.”
Rina Sawayama has used genre to craft an intimate self-portrait, an honest account of her personal history. “I just want people to feel something,” she says of her modus operandi. Her incredible debut album features ironic R&B to satirise influencers, soulful country to pay homage to her mates and raging nu-metal to put the world rights. For now, ‘SAWAYAMA’ more than does the talking.
Rina Sawayama’s new album ‘SAWAYAMA’ is out April 17 via Dirty Hit.
CREDITS: Make-up by Hayley Mason for MAC Cosmetics UK & Styling by Kate Iorga