Rina Sawayama is on a mission to change the music business for good, and the next phase of her masterplan is upon us. Already a pandemic breakout star and industry innovator, she is aiming for new heights with bombastic second album Hold The Girl. Music Week ventures into the eye of the storm with pop’s most provocative new voice, alongside label Dirty Hit and management team House Of Us, to tell a story of identity, growth and rebellion…
WORDS: CHARLOTTE GUNN COVER/PHOTO: CHARLOTTE RUTHERFORD
The first time Rina Sawayama played her music to Dirty Hit label boss, Jamie Oborne, he laughed.
“I took a meeting with him and he just burst out laughing to [single] STFU!,” Sawayama recalls. “He found the music so funny. And I just knew that was the right reaction.”
The British-Japanese pop star’s debut album, 2020’s Sawayama, was certainly a riot, a record that spanned nu-metal, big balladry and ’00s pop all with a knowing wink. It was clear from the off that Rina Sawayama had an uncompromising rebellious streak and was on a mission to shake things up, to celebrate life and all forms of pop culture. With follow-up, Hold The Girl due on September 16, it’s astonishing to think how much life has changed for Sawayama in two short years.
“When you first meet Rina, she has a real presence. She’s a force of nature and I felt that energy as soon as she stepped into my office,” says Oborne now of that first meeting. “When she played STFU!, I found it hilarious. We bonded over that. It was the first time someone had got the joke, I think.”
Sawayama had brought an almost fully-formed album to Dirty Hit: clear in her vision, it was a bold record that not everybody would – and didn’t – get. Indeed, product manager Tom Connick remembers hearing STFU! blasting out of Oborne’s office and thinking they “were about to sign Korn or Slipknot”. Suffice to say, the album needed the right home.
There had been talks with major labels that were pretty advanced, but Sawayama kept hitting brick walls. Be it genre, lyrics or just the fact that the industry wasn’t ready for a proudly pansexual, Asian artist – with as much of a penchant for Bloc Party as Britney Spears – to be a “main pop girl”.
“I knew if I signed to a major, I wouldn’t be able to release the singles and write the songs that I wanted,” explains Sawayama. “I know albums, good albums, that have been shelved, because [the songs] don’t stream well. I knew that if I’d signed Sawayama on a major, it wouldn’t have been released in the same way, STFU! would not have been a single and I would have felt like a failure.”
Sawayama may not have impacted the charts but, two years on from its release, the fact that it has established its maker as a force to be reckoned with is undeniable. Today, Sawayama boasts almost five million monthly listeners on Spotify, 2.3m likes on TikTok and more than 1m combined followers on Twitter and Instagram. The BPI recently highlighted Sawayama as one of a group of UK acts to amass more than 100 million global streams in 2021. Her army of fans, known as ‘Pixels’, is growing all the time, drawn to her energy, slick music videos and the music’s confident messaging about being yourself.
With her debut released during the early horrors of the pandemic, Sawayama was one of a handful of artists who became famous without leaving the house. But as more and more people started discovering Sawayama’s work, lockdowns rumbled on and she was faced with the prospect of writing a new album before she’d had the opportunity to tour the first. Personally, Sawayama had been affected profoundly by the pandemic, feeling intense anxiety about both getting the virus and its consequences. It’s a world away from the artist we talk to today, who is being primped and preened for a video shoot on a London industrial estate by a three-person glam squad.
“The nature of what I do means I have a lot of people touching me and hugging me,” she laughs, as someone yanks at her tresses. “I’m in rooms with thousands of people, it’s a lot of people’s breaths and stuff. But I just had to get over that anxiety. I feel much better, now things are getting better. I care a bit less.”
“She is having to do a lot of firsts,” says her manager Will Frost at House Of Us. “Her first festivals with a band, first time on promo trips, first time on a tour bus, which is gruelling. It seems crazy, but that’s because the album’s success happened over the pandemic. Rina came back to regular artist life having had her fanbase explode in isolation, so we’ve been really aware of how strange that must be. We just make sure we’re listening and that she’s coping and enjoying it.”
In the wake of her debut’s release, she had also started “a new intense form of therapy” to help deal with undisclosed trauma from her youth.
“The writing was hard,” she says of Hold The Girl’s creation. “Emotions were heightened and on the whole, everyone was quite depressed. I was going to therapy and then straight into sessions. That was pretty intense. You feel like a different person after every [therapy] session, in a good and bad way. You never know what you’re going to get that day.”
The fact that Hold The Girl’s gestation was free from external input (“The label did not tell me what to do the whole time I was recording”) turned out to be a blessing.
“I felt pressure that I actually had to write something at a time when I really didn’t want to, I just wasn’t inspired at all,” she explains. “But I put expectation on myself to write better songs and I think good pop music can often be objective, like, there are formulas, mathematical equations and ways to make a pop song really good. So that was useful to have as a barometer.”
Sawayama moved to the UK from Japan aged five with her parents. The plan was never to stay for longer than a few years, but when they were granted an Indefinite Leave Visa and her parents’ marriage broke down, she and her mother decided to stay. Until then, Sawayama had remained in Japanese school and was immersed in the culture of her homeland. Then, aged 10 and fluent in English, she transferred to a western school and went on to study at Cambridge. Her work explores issues of identity caused by this shift. Being raised by a single mother, money was tight and they shared a room until the singer was 15. Her mum now lives in Japan, but she insists their bond is stronger than ever.
“We’ve had some really important conversations and our relationship has definitely been better since we’ve lived apart,” she says. “We were just too close. And I think she genuinely did do everything in her power to make sure I was alive and eating.”
Sawayama has Right To Remain status in the UK, but despite living in London for over 25 years, she still isn’t a British Citizen. This meant that, although she received a grant from the BPI’s Music Export Growth Scheme (MEGS) in 2018, she wasn’t eligible for either a BRIT Award or the Mercury Prize. But that changed after she spoke out about the ruling in February 2021. #SawayamaIsBritish trended on Twitter and, after dialogue with the BPI, an amend was made to grant eligibility to people who had lived in the UK for five years or longer. Sawayama had prompted a re-examination of the industry’s very understanding of Britishness. Weeks later, she had a BRITs Rising Star nod alongside Griff and Pa Salieu.
“I credit my publicist Tom Mehrtens for helping me tell the story about the Mercurys and getting that changed,” she explains. “If it was up to me, I probably would have gone on Twitter and been like, ‘Mercurys, you suck!’ or whatever. But they were like, ‘No, there’s a better way to do this, let’s connect you with a writer [Vice’s Zing Tsjeng] who can tell your story.’”
“I definitely feel like Rina is impacting the music industry in a positive way,” says Jamie Oborne. “I was on that journey with her. We both spoke to the BPI and [chief executive] Geoff Taylor and [former chairman] Ged Doherty, when he was still there, who was so generous with his time. They listened and they made changes because, fundamentally, what she was saying was correct. I think she’s pretty courageous, you know? I hope that the music industry sees her as a positive force for change.”
To have made such an impact on the industry already is quite remarkable. In 2021, Berwyn was able to be nominated for the Mercury Prize because of Sawayama’s rule change (all eyes will be on whether Hold The Girl makes next year’s list). Also in 2021, she won the New Artist Award at Music Week’s Women In Music Awards, as Dirty Hit’s Perdi Higgs presented the trophy.
“Winning was so surreal because I was surrounded by so many brilliant women and non-binary people in the music industry,” she smiles. “It was great to be celebrated and celebrate all the women and NBs who make everything work behind the scenes.”
Looking out for those that come after you is something Sawayama learned from friend and mentor Sir Elton John after they connected through his Rocket Hour Apple Music radio show during lockdown. He asked to join her on a version of her track Chosen Family, a song about queer togetherness and familial rejection that is a fan favourite with 2m YouTube views and counting.
“Elton has given me so much advice, but mainly just that it’s always so important to support younger artists, there’s always someone newer than you,” Sawayama says, reflecting on their friendship, which saw them holidaying together last year in his “stunning” house in Nice with husband David Furnish and their children.
“His belief in my music has always just made me feel, ‘Wow, OK,’” she adds. “It’s given me so much self-belief. If literally the most famous musician in the world likes your stuff, then I guess you’re doing something right!”
“Phoebe’s jokes,” she says. “And Maggie’s new stuff is so good. We were both fangirling.”
It helps to have a few famous friends on speed dial for when the shit hits the fan. The current single from Hold The Girl is the fantastically camp, Shania Twain-referencing This Hell, which imagines eternal damnation looking like the mother of all parties. ‘Cause the devil’s wearing Prada and loves a little drama, ooh-ooh/This hell is better with you’, Sawayama sings, as she two-steps around in white cowboy boots. But the song’s melody was nearly canned altogether.
“This Hell was about to drop and I had a full meltdown because I was like, ‘Shit, the riff sounds so much like Gimme Gimme Gimme by ABBA,’” she says. “I contacted so many people and they were like, ‘Oh no, they’re not gonna say yes to you using it.’”
She recorded a new version, but was sad to lose the original.
“I was thinking, ‘There must be someone who can help me with this,’” she says. “Then I remembered: Elton! So I called him and said, ‘This hook is so important to the song’ and he just said, ‘No problem, I’ll contact [Universal Music UK CEO and chairman] David Joseph.’ Next thing I know, I’m getting an email from Benny Andersson that just says, ‘No problem, good luck with the song’ with a kiss on the end [ABBA are now co-credited]. Elton is not only a friend, he helps me so much.”
Charli XCX is another pal who offers advice. There’s a synergy between their maximalist sound and they share “joint custody” of more than a few fans. The pair teamed up last year for XCX’s Beg For You (200,360 sales, according to the Official Charts Company).
“We have business chats,” Sawayama says of the union. “People always forget that pop girls are also business owners in their own right, whether it’s touring, merch, records, so I ask questions like, ‘Is this normal?’ or even stupid questions. I’ll send a voicenote and she’ll reply. It’s super-sweet.”
The phenomenon of women being pitted against each other is something that Sawayama would like to change.
“Within the fanbases there’s a comparison of women that’s so toxic,” she says. “I get it with my peers a lot and I think they get it with every other pop star who’s out there. It’s always female to female. I never see two male artists being compared. It’s kinda boring. Like, I might wear something for an album shoot and then the next week it gets loaned out to another pop artist, but that shoot comes out earlier. And then people pull up the photo, like, ‘Who copied who?’ I would love for that to end because in the background all the female musicians are so kind to each other and so supportive. We all understand that there’s space for everyone.”
Hold The Girl draws from influences stretching from The Corrs to Radiohead, Shania Twain to Bon Jovi. With production from Paul Epworth [Adele, Florence + The Machine], Stuart Price [Madonna, Dua Lipa, The Killers] and written with long-term collaborators Clarence Clarity and Lauren Aquilina, the album is a richly diverse listen. Sawayama also enlisted vocal producer Cameron Gower Poole and, after regretting “not speaking up” while making her debut, took charge of every detail.
The through line is a feeling of acceptance and forgiveness: of yourself and of parents who might not have the words to say sorry.
On Send My Love To John, a dreamy, twanging ballad, Sawayama draws from the story of a queer non-binary friend and their mother who, at the end of a phone call, offered a glimmer of hope by uttering the titular phrase to acknowledge their partner for the first time. It was the closest thing Sawayama’s friend would ever get to acknowledgement or an apology for the lack of acceptance they’d felt over the years.
“The person that I wrote this about was just so grateful, and obviously very shocked and emotional because their parents would never say sorry,” she says. “The whole record is about the parent-child [relationship] and re-parenting yourself. So much of that is getting that apology and being able to give that forgiveness without it being explicitly said. I’ve struggled with that in my family as well, a lot of things are left unsaid. I just thought it’d be interesting to show the parent’s perspective, because there’s no parent who doesn’t go into it wanting the absolute best for their kids. But life happens and people make bad decisions. I wanted to tell that side of the story in order to help people heal.”
Continuing, Sawayama points towards forgiveness as resolution.
“It’s not helpful to villainise someone,” she reasons. “Hate does dig really deep into your soul and makes you quite hateful. What does help is a bit of empathy. If there’s people who are going through something similar – a parental rejection or some sort of conflict in their life – and if they can hear someone else say sorry on their behalf, then that could be healing. I’m so grateful that I can tell these stories in songs, even if it just helps to heal that one person I wrote about.”
The healing has been personal too, helping reforge the bonds between Sawayama and her own mother.
“I don’t tell her what a song is about until it’s out, and then she can listen to it herself,” Sawayama admits. “But she will always ask about the lyrics. We have such important conversations around that. She actually cried listening to Send My Love To John. She said, ‘I have so many things I want to say sorry about, too!’ I was like, ‘Oh, bless you!’ I think all parents do. You can’t be perfect.”
Another big moment on the album is Frankenstein, a frenzied indie anthem that drew on Epworth’s work on Bloc Party’s noughties debut Silent Alarm. They even hired their former drummer Matt Tong, another of Sawayama’s contacts.
“I had two sessions with Paul, we wrote This Hell on the first day and Frankenstein on the second,” she says. “It’s about it not being OK to expect someone else, a lover or a friend, to put you back together. So maybe it’s a pro-therapy song!”
The range of references runs deep on Hold The Girl, Sawayama explains.
“I always come to the sessions with a bunch of ideas, mainly in my Notes app, and with Frankenstein I had a reference,” she says. “I used to really love this band called White Rose Movement. They’re a really cool synth-pop band from [the same era as Bloc Party] and they have this song called Love Is A Number, which has a very similar intro to Frankenstein. So we shot Matt a text. He was in New York at the time but said, ‘Absolutely, I’ll do it, I love Rina!’ He gave it this frantic energy which is incredible.”
Elsewhere, Hold The Girl explores themes of cultural identity, consent and forgiveness. The storytelling is as rich as the country music and literature that influenced the creative process.
“It started with Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour,” Sawayama reveals. “That’s such an insane record. As a songwriter, that was some of the most refined writing I’ve heard. Then I got into Dolly [Parton] from this film called Dumplin’. I was just fascinated by American songwriting.”
Through her process of healing and self discovery, Sawayama was also reading a lot. She cites Michelle Zauner’s (aka Japanese Breakfast) Crying in H Mart as an influence: a book that explores conflicting cultural identity and mother-daughter relationships. There was also Vanessa Springora’s memoir, Consent, about the relationship she had with a much older man in her teens. And, to help the creative block, books including Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and Eckhart Tolle’s The Power Of Now.
With an artist who draws from so many disparate spheres, was there a concern that the songs wouldn’t connect?
“Honestly, no,” says Jamie Oborne. “I can’t think of anything more embarrassing than colouring an artist’s vision and Rina felt like a perfect fit. It had its own momentum before we were involved, Rina and Will [Frost] had done some amazing work, so we’ve just helped them build on that. I feel like if you affect culture, then everything falls into place. And I have no doubt that Rina is affecting culture.”
“Press and the fans have been screaming about her for years,” says Frost. “And the traditional industry is now catching up because the screaming is deafening at this point. But you have to be realistic. Rina’s music is political, complex and she pulls from places not heard as much, so the production can be quite full-on or the arrangements aren’t the norm.”
“We’re all aware it’s not basic pop,” echoes Tom Connick. “But if you look at how many people are coming along for the ride now, it’s proof that people are happy to be challenged by pop. There is a lot of basic stuff, but it isn’t doing what Rina is doing.”
What does success look like to Sawayama herself?
“I try to focus on input goals,” she explains. “An input goal would be, ‘I’m going to create a great album, I’m going to create an amazing art piece’ and the output goal would be, ‘I hope it charts, I hope it wins awards.’ You can’t control the output goals so I’m trying to not worry about it. I’d be lying if I said chart positions didn’t matter, but there are so many extraneous circumstances that affect whether something charts. To be honest, I’ve realised that the most amazing thing about music is when people who you don’t know at all connect to it.”
Those connections are set to continue when Sawayama embarks on her biggest UK tour yet in October, including a stop at O2 Academy Brixton in London. Frost highlights the level of production that has gone into the shows since day one.
“Touring has been massive since 2017,” he attests. “The first ever show to 200 people was designed to be at a venue 10 times that size and we’ve carried that through. The production we brought into the Roundhouse [in 2021], in hindsight, was actually kind of ridiculous, but we love putting on a spectacle. The reaction from fans is worth it and then word of mouth spreads. Rina is one of the best live performers in the world and she understands how to make shows feel special with the lighting, production, choreography and the ‘wow’ moments. That’s palpable and fans want to come back for more.”
But while there’s a strong sense that Sawayama is building up a head of steam, there’s still an elephant in the room.
“The truth of it is, she hasn’t had a hit song,” Oborne admits. “She hasn’t had huge mainstream media looks. She hasn’t had all those things that we associate with an artist breaking. And yet, I went to three shows in New York a few months ago where she had sold 8,000 tickets in two minutes, that’s like two-thirds of Madison Square Garden. My point being, we will hopefully get all those media moments you associate with being a pop star but, regardless, she’s building this juggernaut. I think she’s going to be huge. Next year, she’s one of the lead parts in a John Wick movie. It blows my mind. She’s got incredible ambition.”
After a tough time, Sawayama is positive about the future and how her new album might elevate her artistry.
“Fame has never driven me,” she admits, considering how Hold The Girl may impact herself and those around her. “I was so bewildered when people started recognising me.”
She pauses for a moment before continuing.
“I think that I’m a serious musician,” she posits. “Not only in writing the music, but I’m also so involved in the production, the mixing, the music videos and performances. I’ve just started doing tour rehearsals and it’s so vocally intensive, I’ve realised that if I’m able to pull this off, then it means I’m a good musician. That’s what I want. People can say, ‘Oh, this is different to the first record, I don’t like it,’ but if people can undeniably say, ‘Her writing has improved, her performance has improved,’ then that’s good enough. For the people listening to the record, if it heals anyone or if it touches anyone, then that’s amazing. It’s just an MP3 at the end of the day. But if that changes your life in some way or changes your day, then that’s magic. It’s all I can hope for.”
“We’d all love her to be a main pop girl,” says Connick. “But it’s about making sure we do that on her terms. She’s redefining that herself. In five years I can see her being a household name. And for a queer, Asian woman to achieve that, will be really important.”
Now in her thirties, Sawayama feels she’s helping to transform industry attitudes to women in pop.
“I feel like I’ve managed to be a part of that change,” she says. “I really think that the years spent outside of this industry in my 20s were so invaluable to knowing what I wanted.”
After we leave her, Sawayama will finish her shoot before heading to Lady Gaga’s Chromatica Ball in full fan mode, ready to let loose.
“I am going to try and not take notes because I get compared to Gaga so much, I worry it’ll inadvertently come out in a song,” she laughs. “So I’ll be watching and also not watching. Mainly just screaming.”
Mention of Gaga prompts Sawayama to offer a final thought about the idea of realism vs idealism, the former telling her that people want the next young thing and the latter saying that attitudes are changing.
“Because of streaming and social media, there are just so many more people who want to hear different perspectives,” she says. “People are able to access lots of different albums and not just be committed to one artist. Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I’m encouraged by that. And I’m just going to continue doing what I do until my knees don’t work anymore!”