It’s the middle of December when I first interview Rina Sawayama, who chats animatedly over the phone from her London flat as she reheats a cup of tea in the microwave. At this point, she’s spent several months on a self-imposed social media hiatus. “I’ve been in the studio every day, and we finally sent everything off to mix,” she tells me, describing a mixture of nerves and excitement. “It’s a pretty big moment, and we’re trying to get it done before Christmas because the deadline for vinyl is crazy, like three or four months.”
Now it’s March, and the album — named SAWAYAMA — has a tracklist, artwork, and a handful of teaser tracks: “STFU,” “Comme des Garçons,” and “XS.” None of them sound remotely similar: the first is a heavy metal riposte to racial microaggressions, the second is described by Sawayama as a “club fashion banger that makes you feel like THAT bitch,” and the third is a deliciously extravagant ode to excess, whose production is pure pop with a few industrial flourishes.
These tracks have been a long time in the making. It was back in 2017 that Sawayama released her debut EP RINA, which skillfully tackled everything from social media reliance to the side effects of anxiety medication. Acclaim rolled in quickly, as did the tour dates — some of her own, some supporting for the likes of Charli XCX — and then a record deal with Dirty Hit, where she signed after another label pulled its offer after hearing “STFU!” for the first time. “I’m always the one that’s like, ‘this could be really good for radio!’” Sawayama says with a laugh. “[Dirty Hit] told me they don’t really care, which is so rare for a modern label, but I think it’s what makes them cutting-edge.” This level of creative control was crucial for Sawayama, who says she resisted pressure to “make a hit” and instead “went back to what broke, carefree 2016-me would write.”
The result is a gloriously eccentric, ambitious album which, as the title suggests, is lyrically bound by themes of family and identity. “It’s about understanding yourself in the context of two opposing cultures — for me, British and Japanese — and [figuring out] what ‘belonging’ means when home is an evolving concept,” she explains.
Anthemic opener “Dynasty” outlines this thesis in brilliantly amped-up fashion: grandiose lyrics about rulers, bloodlines, and hereditary pain combine over production lifted straight from a rock opera, blistering guitar riff and all. “Paradisin,’’ a high-octane sugar rush of a song (there’s even a saxophone solo!), is similarly addressed to her parents — but this time it’s about acting out as a teenager, depicted through a tender anecdote about her mother hacking her MSN Messenger to check on her safety. Sawayama has spoken in the past about grappling to accept her Japanese heritage. As such, “Tokyo Love Hotel” feels like an album epiphany: it’s a high-sheen love song which is literally about falling in love with the city, but which metaphorically feels like winning a battle to embrace the parts of her identity she fought so hard to claim.
The album is scattered with love songs, but none of them — as is always to be expected with Sawayama — are conventional. “I kind of refuse to write about sexual love,” she says of the decision. “It’s been done so many times, and it’s just not interesting. There are lots of other types of love that I think should be written about.”
Even the ballads (“I fucking love a ballad,” she chuckles) steer clear of clichés. “I’m so excited for everyone to hear ‘Bad Friend’, because I’m so proud of the songwriting, and we built the production super meticulously — Kyle Shearer, Jonathan Gilmore, and Clarence [Clarity, a frequent collaborator] all added finishing touches at the end.” It’s one of the album’s more experimental moments, with layered, vocodered vocals and brutally confessional lyrics. “I found a picture of my high school best friend,” she explains of the song’s starting point. “We fell out, but now she has a baby and I was just like, ‘fuck, I wasn’t there for that.’ All these moments of me feeling a bad friend to people just came flooding back.”
It’s a song about feeling overwhelmed and struggling to juggle friendships, but it’s also a celebration of honesty, accountability and forgiveness — which really hits home at the song’s close, when a gospel choir swoops in to chant: “Put your hands up if you’re not good at this stuff!”
Sawayama has spoken openly about mental health in the past, but these more introspective moments shed light on the struggle to keep it together — especially in an age of smartphones and constant engagement. “I guess I always saw the value in writing about my real life,” she says, recalling a handful of her toughest moments. “I remember being bullied hardcore at school, and then I got a [University of] Cambridge offer. There was so much riding on it, so I fell into a super deep depression. I was bullied again at uni — so badly that I had to move dorms — but luckily, in my third year, I met a group of queer friends. I was depressed, suicidal, and about to drop out. They literally saved my life.”
“Chosen Family” is a tender tribute to these friends, who stood by Sawayama when she came out as pansexual. But she also celebrates their ability to create entertaining, impactful art from their hardships; most notably Crystal Rasmussen, who last year released their “fucking incredible memoir” Diary of a Drag Queen. “When you create art, you can’t be too literal — you have to put a satirical spin on it, or bring something that makes it digestible and enjoyable. I’m so inspired by Crystal for that and that bravery in general, so I always look to drag for that inspiration of turning tragedy into humor, or over-emphasizing drama!”
This duality anchors the album, and Sawayama more generally. She’s hilariously camp and tongue-in-cheek when she needs to be, and uses fashion (she name-checks Prada, Chanel, Aries, Eytys, Alexander Wang, and ADER as some of her favorites) to amp up the fierceness of tracks like “Comme des Garçons,” which oozes confidence. But there’s also an endearing, relatable vulnerability behind the melodies, which has earned her an ever-growing fanbase of ‘pixels.’
“I was a bit nervous before ‘STFU!’ came out,” Sawayama admits. “I was like, ‘oh fuck, what if nobody even cares about about this kind of music?’” This, combined with the horror stories she heard of artists being signed and then dropped, encouraged her to take her time when signing a deal and thinking about where she sat within the pop landscape. “The internet can just feel like people tweeting each other or whatever, but then I meet these people at my shows and get messages from them, and it’s super genuine. I don’t necessarily want to worry about streaming numbers — I just want to know that the people listening are actually taking something from it rather than just playing it in the background.” In other words, despite swirling expectations, the ultimate aim is simple: “All I can really do is create a song that’s lasting.”