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Rina Sawayama: “We can’t just normalise using Japanese culture in the way that we’ve been doing”

The latest Dirty Hit signee rages against microaggresions on brilliant new single ‘STFU!’

London-based singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama is stood on stage at Manchester’s Albert Hall, performing at one of a string of shows supporting Charli XCX, and she’s got something to say.

“So, my name is Rina Sawayama, and I found out one label exec jokingly called me Rina Wagamama,” she tells the crowd, who duly boo the exec’s racist joke. “I was pursuing a deal with them, but you know, that’s gone,” she finishes breezily.

Growing up as a Japanese woman in England, Rina has had to deal with her fair share of racial microaggressions like this one, and it was these that inspired her new tune ‘STFU!’. Over thrashing nu-metal riffs fused with sugary pop hooks, Rina gives a massive fuck you to everyone that’s who’s made a comment like this to her, with a chorus that sees her sing: “Have you ever thought about/taping your big fat mouth shut/’cause I have many times”

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It comes with a brilliant accompanying video. Conceived and co-directed by Rina, it draws on her past experiences. Starting with Rina on a terrible first date, her companion tells her: “So you’re a singer…I was quite surprised you sang in English!”

His comments get worse and worse, “Have you been to that Japanese place Wagamama’s?” he questions, then telling her: “You know what, I’m currently writing a fan-fiction piece but from the perspective of a little Japanese woman.” Finally Rina’s had enough of his comments, raging against him and fantasising about shutting him up. So what was it like writing the song?

‘STFU!’ sees you raging against racist stereotypes and comments you’ve experienced. What was it like writing the song for you?

“It was super cathartic. I found the whole process amazing because the song came out really naturally, I wrote it at like 11am at home with [long-time collaborator] Clarence Clarity and the top line was pretty much finished in like two hours. It started as an interlude because we were like, ‘this is way too crazy, way too heavy’; but then we were like, ‘no – let’s just try to make this into proper song’.”

When did the video idea start formulating?

“This was a special one for me, definitely. I think there’s some songs where it really evokes a very strong visual when I’m writing it, so then I’m like ‘OK, let me just get this done as a storyboard [for the video]’. I drew the storyboards for the music video on a plane journey on the way to some festival I was playing. The video was a co-direct so I was really hands on with bringing it to life and I’m so happy with how that song has played out from start to finish actually. It’s like literally exactly what I imagined, and better?”

You’ve said ‘STFU!’ is about “releasing the RAGE against microaggressions”, including this incident where a senior record executive referred to you as “Rina Wagamama”, how did you find out about that?

“Basically that was like second-hand information – one of my team members heard that that went on behind the scenes, and it was someone on the board of directors that was telling that joke. And I’m pretty sure that whoever has unusual surnames in the music industry get taken the piss out of like that, I mean, I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, and maybe worse things have been said about me. But that was just an example of what we can’t normalise. We can’t just normalise using Japan or Japanese culture in the way that we’ve been doing. We don’t have any respect for the people whether they’re living here or there. And that’s kind of like the broader message behind my album.”

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rina sawayama
Rina Sawayama. Credit: Press

Why were Dirty Hit [home of The 1975 and Wolf Alice] the label you settled on?

“I guess mainly to do with the team. I started from a very small team of just me and my manager. And then it grew into publicists and then tour managers and this crew grew organically, and we picked the team together and made sure that they believe in us and we believe in them, we’ve always seen as partnership.

“And I think Dirty Hit out of all the labels really felt like they were already on our team and they completely got what we were about. And it was the first time that I showed ‘STFU!’ to a label and they laughed. That was the best feeling. That first meeting with Jamie [Oborne] that I had and I showed him ‘STFU!’, and he just couldn’t stop laughing. And he was ‘send that to me immediately’.”

It always seems like such community as well, have other Dirty Hit artists got in touch to kind of congratulate you after it’s happened?

“Matty [Healy, The 1975] had already heard the new single – he heard it maybe two months ago or something and he was just was texting me loads of stuff being like ‘Fuck! This is amazing’ just being super supportive. So that’s been incredible. And weirdly, I used to be in a band with the bassist Theo [Ellis] from Wolf Alice, and I asked him what he thought of the label and he only had good things to say, which is really rare for an artist. And so that’s nice, but I really am so looking forward to seeing all the other artists because I think they’re awesome, especially that Beabadoobee.”

‘STFU!’ sounds quite different to your previous releases like ‘Cherry’ and the ‘RINA’ EP, what inspired it musically?

“When I was younger, I was listening to pop-rock and the pop-metal stuff that was happening, and so I was really itching to do something that was inspired by like N.E.R.D. or Evanescence or like t.A.T.u., or some of the heavier Britney [Spears] stuff. That’s the kind of sound I want to hear in the mainstream right now, and I feel like it wasn’t really there.”

There’s a new album coming out next year – what influences are there on it?

“It’s basically my teenage years all shoved into one record. The topic for me this time is about Japan, and the way I grew up looking at Japan from a Western angle, and how I perceive it now, and kind of understanding that relationship through the context of my family. I was raised by a single mum and there’s like a lot family drama. And ultimately, it’s about finding the truth, or my truth, within all that kind of chaos.”

“And what I’ve kind of discovered about Japan is that there’s a lot of shit going on that’s very neatly wrapped into this gift that people then want to come and willingly receive, and not think about the implications or anything bad that’s going on behind the scenes, and my how it is for people living their daily life. And yeah, I guess it’s kind of like the unpacking of that what I want to do with my music so that’s kind of the topic of music .”

‘STFU!’ is out now

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