Rina Sawayama: “I want to make live moments and memories that last forever”

The creative polymath’s spectacular second album – and an upcoming Hollywood acting gig – tees up one of pop’s most rewarding eras

Rina Sawayama is on fire right now. A live powerhouse, musical innovator, structural system challenger and soon-to-be A-list actor, she’s booked, busy, and about to release the best British pop album of the year.

Her second record, ‘Hold the Girl’ – released today – is a total triumph, one where she expands on the winning formula of massive hooks and powerful lyricism she demonstrated on her 2020 debut ‘SAWAYAMA’. The second album’s lead single, ‘This Hell’, is dynamite pop: a slinky, Shania Twain-indebted anthem filled with tongue-in-cheek lyrics (“God hates us? Alright then/Buckle up, at dawn, we’re riding“) that, as Sawayama explained on Twitter before it dropped, “celebrate community and love in a time where the world seemed hellish”.

Zooming in from her south London home a week before the record drops, Sawayama is winding down a jam-packed summer of international festival dates that’ve seen her zip across Europe and Japan. A live smash, the power of Sawayama’s on-stage performance saw her take home the trophy for Best Live Act at the BandLab NME Awards 2022 earlier this year. This run of festival dates have been interspersed with preparations for the album – interviews, television performances – and her diary has been constantly full. “I’d love to say once the record comes out I can chill, but it’s kind of when the tour work starts so it gets really busy again,” she laughs.

Rina Sawayama
Credit: Thurstan Redding

October sees her embark on a huge UK tour (including a night at the 5000-capacity Brixton Academy), and in November she takes the show to the US. Then, in early 2023, she’ll make her feature film debut in blockbuster John Wick: Chapter 4, the latest instalment of the Keanu Reeves-led action series. Her role in the film is still kept under wraps.

It’s set to be a huge six months for the British-Japanese artist, all starting with the release of ‘Hold The Girl’, but as Sawayama tells NME, she wasn’t initially convinced she wanted to start work on her second album just months after her debut’s release. Given the landscape she was writing in during early 2020, and having not toured ‘SAWAYAMA’ live yet and seen reactions from fans IRL, she succinctly sums up how she was feeling at that time: “I’ve said this before, but I didn’t want to write a second album [when I did]. I just wasn’t ready.”

Born in Japan in 1990, Sawayama moved to London when she was five. Raised by her single mother, she rebelled in her adolescence, sneaking out of the house to go to indie gigs. “Landfill indie was literally my entire identity for a couple years,” she says, recounting these heady teenage years. “I’d wear some white skinny jeans and Converse and go to gigs on my own underage. It was honestly the best time of my life.” She went on to study at Cambridge University, dropping her first track in 2013 (‘Sleeping in Waking’) after graduating, and hustling as an independent artist for several years.

2017 saw the self-release of mini-album ‘Rina’, a glittering collection of avant-garde production meshed with hooks Britney Spears would pine for. A string of singles followed, including fan-favourite ‘Cherry’, a searingly honest tune that sees Sawayama reflect on her own sexuality (“Even though I’m satisfied/I lead my life within a lie“). With these early releases Sawayama carved out a clear sonic world, and saw her fanbase grow into a dedicated community dubbed ‘Pixels’.

Rina Sawayama on the cover of NME
Rina Sawayama on the cover of NME

Signing to Dirty Hit to 2019 (home of The 1975 and Beabadoobee), her debut album, the critical smash ‘SAWAYAMA’, landed the following year. A savvy, smart collection of future-facing pop songs, it received the five-star treatment here at NME, hailed as a “deeply personal self-portrait [that] lays waste to genre constraints”.

Sawayama’s disregard for genre on her debut was fresh and exciting, particularly the use of nu-metal on the phenomenal single ‘STFU!’. The ferocious track saw her rage against racist microagressions, reintroducing a once-maligned sound back into the mainstream. Artists like Wargasm and Cassyette now fearlessly embrace the scene, but Sawayama is humble about the impact she’s had today, name-checking artists like Poppy who’ve also embraced and revolutionised nu-metal in recent years.

Work began on the follow-up to ‘SAWAYAMA’ during the early days of the pandemic in 2020; Sawayama is still coming to terms with the juxtaposition. “What I was experiencing during that time was…” she pauses. “On one hand it was the shared experience of everyone being under this very traumatic period in time where we were kept in our house.” On the flipside though, “nothing happened, every day was the same.”

“I didn’t feel ready to write my second album when I did”

On top of the universal dread and confusion, Sawayama was also faced with the strange experience of watching her debut album take-off from behind a screen. She reflects: “It was just this crazy, constant, absolute sensory overload on my screen, and then not being able to switch off from it whatsoever because there’s nothing else to do, and it really made me forget a lot of things. That whole time is a bit of a blur for me.”

The creation of its follow-up ‘Hold The Girl’ wasn’t initially her plan. “I hadn’t performed the first album at all, in any way,” she says. “And I think that’s such an important process for a songwriter to understand how their music translates on stage.”

The record was also written at the same time Sawayama was undertaking intensive therapy to address a series of incidents from her youth. She doesn’t disclose details about these events, and explains today: “I always knew from the start that this particular incident that I’m kind of addressing is just very, very painful still. So even in the interviews, I’ve skirted around it, but it’s definitely been triggering me a little bit. In terms of the album, I’m really glad that I decided not to say exactly what it was because I think that would have been quite hellish in terms of talking about it.”

Rina Sawayama
Credit: Thurstan Redding

Feeling “really numb” in the period around releasing her debut album, Sawayama says she was struggling. “In response to what was going on I was really shutting down internally. Things that used to give me joy, just no longer gave me joy. And things that would make me sad no longer made me sad. I was in this weird emotional purgatory.”

“In addressing that, it was basically going back to where that started, and why your brain might be going into a bit of an emotional shutdown, and what was that protecting you from?” she says. Being taken back to that specific time, she adds, “was basically what allowed me to understand how I felt now.” Working through these feelings in the isolation that lockdown brought meant that Sawayama was “able to break through enough to write the record.”

Given the huge success of her debut, was there any pressure when creating another album? “Yeah, in a way I knew that if I tried to recreate what I’d done, what I’d written two to three years ago [on ‘SAWAYAMA’], I don’t think it would make me happy.” Instead, she focussed on specific targets: “My technical goal with this one was I really wanted to fulfil some of the production dreams that I wanted to in my first record,” she says, explaining she worked with a vocal producer this time around and learned more about the mixing process.

For songwriting there was just one key aspiration: “I just wanted to write big songs,” Sawayama explains. The subjective nature of this goal was one of the reasons it worked as an aim, and adds that this aspiration summed up: “That’s exactly what I wanted in terms of the skill of a songwriter.”

‘Hold The Girl’, then, is mission accomplished. This is a record of beguiling songs that sees Sawayama, once again, draw from a pick-and-mix bag of genres: garage, country, British indie, house and ‘00s pop-rock. While there’s no nu-metal this time around à la ‘STFU!’, it still makes for innovative pop at its best, a record made by an artist that’s never sacrificed their masterful creative vision.

Take the title track ‘Hold The Girl’, the first song that was written for the project. Opening with a country melody inspired by Madonna’s 2000 album ‘Music’, the track embraces a killer garage moment, one made for pits when Sawayama takes the album on the road later this year. ‘Forgiveness’, meanwhile, is inspired by ‘90s-era Radiohead, boasting slithering guitar licks coupled with country songwriting akin to Kacey Musgraves.

“Landfill indie was my entire identity for a couple of years”

Then there’s ‘Frankenstein’, a beast of a tune inspired by British indie bangers, one which saw Sawayama work with some of the veterans of the genre. Produced by Paul Epworth, she went into her sessions with the production whizz with a clear aim in mind for the tune. “I was like ‘I know you [Paul] can do amazing pop, and that you’ve done Adele and Florence + the Machine; but can we please go back to your roots of doing Bloc Party? Because I’m obsessed with ‘Banquet’ and I’m so obsessed with ‘Helicopter’”. Epworth, who produced Bloc Party’s debut album ‘Silent Alarm’, obliged, even texting the band’s former drummer Matt Tong to get him to lay down the drum parts for the songs.

Several other artists had a helping hand on the record, including Dublin artist and producer For Those I Love (real name David Balfe), whose self-titled 2021 debut was among the year’s most poignant. Several producers were approached to contribute to ‘Holy’ and Sawayama listened to the results without knowing who’d worked on each version: the result is as a hulking slab of industrial dance. “I instantly knew which one was by him [Balfe], and I instantly loved that version.” For Those I Love infused Sawayama’s sound with elements of trance and European house, hitting the right notes of the cavernous warehouse she had in mind.

Rina Sawayama
Credit: Thurstan Redding

Her good pal Elton John also played a crucial role in pulling the album together. The two have struck up a friendship in recent years, with Elton shouting out Sawayama’s debut album on his Apple Music radio show, Rocket Hour in 2020. Sawayama soon became one of a handful of rising artists he champions and supports, alongside the likes of Leeds band Yard Act and Geordie rocker Sam Fender.

The two later met IRL for the first time to record a collaborative version of Sawayama’s ‘Chosen Family’. A poignant tribute to the LGBTQ+ community Sawayama considers family (“We don’t need to be related to relate / We don’t need to share genes or a surname”), it’s become a live highlight since she took it on tour.

He came to the rescue when Sawayama noticed that lead single ‘This Hell’s spiralling guitar riff had similarities to the melody of ABBA’s ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’. “I was stressed as fuck because I was like: ‘this is our first single, this is our lead single, and I can’t use the guitar riff that I want’”. Trying out different ideas, nothing worked as well, so Sawayama rang Elton to help her out.

“Elton John is always willing to help me. He’s just amazing”

“He literally was just like: ‘OK, no problem’, off the phone in five minutes. And then called me back saying: ‘OK, I’ve emailed this person, who’s gonna email this person and I will let you know ASAP’.” The musical icon was able to set up correspondence between Sawayama and ABBA, with the band’s Benny Andersson signing off on the use of the riff, so that it could remain in the song.

“Elton is always willing to help. He’s just amazing,” Sawayama says of the legend, who has in the past also offered the musician guidance on some of her unreleased tunes. “I trust him so much with songwriting. I’m literally like: ‘You are one of the best songwriters in the whole world, if not the best’. I always ask him, ‘What do you think?’ and he gave me such great advice as well.”

Rina Sawayama
Credit: Thurstan Redding

Another superstar Sawayama has worked with recently is Lady Gaga, collaborating with producer Clarence Clarity on a rendition of ‘Free Woman’ for Gaga’s 2021 remix album ‘Dawn of Chromatica’. Both Sawayama and Gaga are ground-breaking artists, forging their own sounds without compromise, and both dominating when they’re on stage, it’s not hard to see why Sawayama has received comparisons to the pop juggernaut. Is this a career trajectory she’d aspire to at all?

“Definitely,” Sawayama says. “I love Gaga. I loved Gaga the most, and I respected her the most, when she did [2016 album] ‘Joanne’ because it was so not what people expected. It’s one of my favourite albums by her, which I know is a controversial opinion, but I think ‘Joanne’ is so emotionally in tune and so incredible and the way she played those tiny gigs was amazing. I think that she likes to keep it fresh. Definitely that’s something I want to pursue.”

Like Gaga, Sawayama is also making steps in other creative realms, including an acting gig in 2023’s John Wick: Chapter 4 alongside Keanu Reeves; the sort of acting role that could see Sawayama add Hollywood A-lister to her resume. “My team are all just so shook by the idea that we even got offered John Wick, so I think… none of us really know what’s gonna happen,” she says honestly, considering the right words to describe how she feels about her next adventure. “We’re just like, ‘What does happen to people in movies?’”

“I’m so excited for people to see John Wick: Chapter 4. It’s the best one yet”

“I will say that the movie is amazing,” she adds of the flick. “I’m so excited for people to see it in the cinema, because it’s definitely, 100 per cent the best John Wick that’s ever been, and I’m not being biassed, like honestly, the scale is insane this time.” Sawayama confirms she’d “definitely” take on further acting roles in the future, enjoying the alternative creative practice. “It’s such a different process to music, and even though you have control over your character, it is someone else’s movie so you have to really work in a team. It’s nice to not have that responsibility sometimes,” she says.

For now, though, she’s gearing up for her upcoming tour. Working with a huge team that includes costume designers, tour and musical directors, and her band on “the most insanely big production”, with natural performer Sawayama at helming the show it’s sure to be a spectacle. Her 2021 shows received rave reviews, paving the way for her Best Live Act win at the BandLab NME Awards 2022 earlier this year.

“I used to post on the back of NME to recruit for band members. So it’s so surreal to even get an award from NME. It was really, really weird…one of the things I haven’t fully processed, but it makes me want to keep working on my live shows. I’m really, really passionate about it, the audience experience most of all.”

This excitement for the tour, and aspirations for these upcoming shows, is something that’s abundantly clear when talking to Sawayama. As she explains: “You can remember a gig you went to when you were 15 forever, and I always want to make that moment for people.” Time to strap on those Converse and skinny jeans and launch yourself into the pits, as Rina once did: these memories, after all, will last a lifetime.

Rina Sawayama’s ‘Hold The Girl’ is out now on Dirty Hit