Rina Sawayama: “Being iconic is daring to be different, and daring to be political”
Japanese-British pop chameleon Rina Sawayama celebrates community and winks at '90s country music in “This Hell,” a new single from her hotly anticipated album, Hold the Girl, due in September. “I was thinking about the rights being taken away from the LBGQT community when I wrote this song,” Sawayama said in a statement. “When the world tells us we don’t deserve love and protection, we have no choice but to give love and protection to each other.” Embarking on a new chapter, she spoke about making history in the U.K. and what it actually means to become iconic.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re in New York right now for a run of sold out shows, and in April you played Coachella, which returned this year with a more global lineup and more global YouTube livestream tune-in than ever. What’s it like to be back in front of crowds, in real life and online?
Rina Sawayama: Me and my crew, we just love to put on a good show. If the sound is good, the stage is stable, and the backstage area has space for us all to chill, that’s what matters to me. We’re having so much fun. I was on the original Coachella 2020 lineup. So two years later, being able to do it, there was a moment of wow. Singing at Coachella is tricky because it’s very dry; as soon as you get on that stage, there’s a waft of sand. Between every set, machines have to be cleaned because of the dust that accumulates. It’s kind of crazy doing a show in that climate, and the first weekend, like, technically, so much went wrong. The electronic part of the drums didn’t work. But we just had to carry on
By the second weekend, we were able to change things that didn’t go right. I was more aware of the livestream cameras, we got to play when the sun was setting, and we had an even bigger audience, spilling out of the tent. I hadn’t played a festival since 2019, and the energy was just incredible. I'm probably gonna have a cry in a couple of weeks to process everything.
Before music, you studied politics, psychology and sociology at Cambridge. Has your life as an artist allowed you to continue exploring those big ideas?
Rina Sawayama: University was a very important experience for me, and it helped me understand that I didn’t want to go into the fields I was studying, and that music was something I wanted to do, even if I didn’t know how. My parents didn’t have a guide and I wasn’t connected, but was living in London and started asking friends, and I was able to start learning the things that are so important to a young artist, like how to upload videos on YouTube. A couple of years later I realized that, using my background, I could say something political within my songwriting, and do it in a clever way. I’m so proud of songs like “XS”, where I've been able to input some subtle messages about capitalism or consumerism, while making a song that's reminiscent of the Pussycat Dolls and Britney Spears.
My music encompasses all my life’s influences and experiences, and I’m so happy that I started when I did. I was quite chaotic in my twenties, caring so much about what other people thought. I’m 31 now, and I have this feeling of confidence, strength, and power. I’ve had the chance to try lots of things, and learn from mistakes that I didn’t have to make in public. And now I have so much gratitude that I’m able to experience this career.
Your music videos are pretty major. What goes into envisioning and actually producing them, and are there any that you’re particularly proud of?
Rina Sawayama: To me, a video is an opportunity to make a short film. It really depends, but I find it hard to just look really snatched and hot in a video. I love getting into character for my music videos. Actually, a fun fact is that the director of John Wick decided to cast me in the movie after he saw my videos for “Bad Friend” and “XS,” so thank you YouTube for getting me booked!
I’ve made many of my videos with Ali Kurr, who is a serious filmmaker and a friend. Ali and I did a video called ”Where U Are,” and we've continued to grow together, always keeping in mind what a song is about, the story surrounding that, and how we can work it. I also have a creative director, Chester Lockhart, who’s one of my best friends in the world, and incredible at understanding the purpose of my music and how that can be expressed visually. To see a video come to life, with the help of artists and directors and your team, when it’s something you’ve worked hard to plan, and you’ve been involved in every step? It’s a rush of a feeling I can’t explain, kind of similar to coming off stage.
My first video that I was very much proud of was “Cherry,” which YouTube’s Foundry program helped us make. That video was so important to me because I was an independent artist, but I was able to make a striking video that was a collaboration with a fashion director. YouTube let us utilize space in London and highlighted my work when not a lot of people cared, and it still feels like we’re on a journey together. I honestly don’t think I would be here today without the people who supported me in the beginning, and I genuinely don’t think I would know half of the things I do now without YouTube. How I do my makeup for stage every single night, how to write songs, interviews with great artists, backstage footage of music videos. So many points of my whole life, I learned through YouTube. Thank you for supporting my knowledge and the things I’m able to do.
Since the release of your celebrated debut album, Sawayama, in 2020, you’ve done collabs with pop legends like Elton John and Pabllo Vittar. Looking ahead, what does becoming iconic mean to you?
Rina Sawayama: I've been so incredibly fortunate in the last two years. Not a single day goes by without me feeling insanely grateful and just quite flabbergasted about what's happened. I would never have thought that I’d count Elton as a friend. I was able to do a remix for Lady Gaga, for “Free Woman,” one of my favorite songs from her record.
There’s so much to be mad and sad about right now. At my shows, I want to acknowledge that, and convert that energy into love and happiness.”
After Coachella, my tour bus broke down outside of Vegas and my whole team was able to see Gaga’s jazz show there. I was able to meet her for the first time, and it was just the best show I’ve ever seen. She read a letter from a trans boy that was so beautiful and heartfelt, and then she said “Stand up if you’re LGBT+,” and then, “Stand up if you’re an ally of the LGBT+ community.” It’s a 5,000 capacity room, and most people stood up. But there was definitely a group of people who were not standing, and some of those people left. To me, that moment was inspiring, and iconic. Gaga knows that the fans who love and adore her understand her core message of empowerment and love.
Through watching that Gaga show, and getting to know legends like Elton, I’ve come to think that being iconic is daring to be different, and daring to be political. Icons put themselves out there to be scrutinized. I can see how as an artist, when you get bigger, you might not want to rock the boat. You don’t want to do anything that could jeopardize your team’s jobs and livelihoods. There’s so much to be mad and sad about right now. At my shows, I want to acknowledge that, and convert that energy into love and happiness. I want to be strong in my message of community and empowerment, and try to help people feel good and enact positive change.
You created historic change in the UK music industry, persuading the BPI, who runs the BRITs and the Mercury Prize, to expand eligibility for those awards and include people who, like you, are permanent residents, even if they weren’t born in the UK, or hold a different passport.
Rina Sawayama: To see change happen, timing and the way you speak to people is important. There is a place to be angry about things, but it’s important to remember that someone’s misunderstanding or lack of awareness doesn’t necessarily come from malice. When I was excluded from the Mercury Prize nominations in 2020, instead of getting upset on Twitter or quietly suffering, I just wanted to tell my story, and I was able to do that with Zing, an incredible journalist and writer who has the same type of visa as me. We discussed the restrictions of that visa category, our decisions to keep our passports from other countries, and finding a sense of belonging as an immigrant. And thanks to my community and fans, the article went viral, and I was able to have a meaningful conversation with the head of the BPI, which governs the Mercurys and BRITs. They said, “Thanks for highlighting this, it was an arbitrary rule,” and it changed. Hopefully it doesn’t change back! Recently, things I never thought would change back have been threatening to change back.
Someone’s misunderstanding or lack of awareness doesn’t necessarily come from malice.”
Only a year later, Berwyn, an artist who was living in the UK and wouldn't have been eligible previously, got nominated for a Mercury because of that change, and that makes me so happy. It's surreal that people’s lives are already affected because I’m lucky to have the platform that I do. If I hadn’t said anything, I wonder how long it would’ve been until the rules evolved. Awards might seem frivolous, but recognition is important to an artist’s career. It’s important that the path to representation is clear for everyone.
You’ve spoken about your earlier career goals, to create representation for Asian artists, and create things that would make you and your family proud. As you enter this next chapter, what’s driving you? What do you want to be recognized for?
Rina Sawayama: I don't think you can be iconic without great songs. I want to be recognized for the quality of my music and the improvement in my songwriting. Writing songs during a pandemic is hard; it’s quite challenging when you can’t physically be with the person you’re collaborating with. And now, with how busy things can get, it’s easy to feel like, My life has changed so much, woo, I’m floating and everything’s fun. I have to remember that many people out there in the world, including fans of mine, are really suffering right now. It’s my number one goal now to not lose perspective, stand my ground, and have my message carried by good music.
Awards might seem frivolous, but recognition is important to an artist’s career.”
I don't want to say that the fight for representation is over. When I was starting out I only saw a handful of east Asian artists. But there are lots more now, and I’m so happy about that. I just went to see the movie Everything Everywhere All At Once. I was on my own and sobbing, like, I cannot believe this movie exists, and I can’t believe these great actors haven’t had main roles like this before. The indie studio A24 created that movie and I’m signed to Dirty Hit, an independent label. It means a lot to see projects from smaller teams with strong storytelling succeed. Art with a purpose is important. Telling the stories that matter is important.