Rina Sawayama, whose second album, Hold the Girl, is slated for release at the end of this summer, was born in Japan and raised in London from the age of five. Now 31 and signed to Dirty Hit (the label that represents best-of-British artists like The 1975 and Beabadoobee), the musician has established herself as one of pop’s most future-facing figures
Sawayama is refreshingly uncompromising when it comes to taking ownership of her identity, music and brand. In June 2020, she spoke out about her debut album’s ineligibility for both the Brit Awards and Mercury Prize, due to the fact she holds a Japanese passport – calling the experience “othering”.
The hashtag #sawayamaisbritish soon began trending; the following February, the British Phonographic Industry announced it would change its rules. It’s proof of how Sawayama is pushing away from industry control and towards artist ownership and autonomy.
“I think [music is] changing in a very positive way. Britney was the blueprint of pop, but it’s interesting that the narratives have completely changed. Now she’s sharing her story, it’s horrifying what the cost was to her personally,” she says.
Instead, thanks to streaming and social media, people want artists they can connect to – not totemic, untouchable icons who are never permitted to be human.
“It’s kind of awesome that the people who are the most popular in pop culture are the most authentic and have the most ownership over their music and identity and brand,” she shares. “It’s about how you speak to people, you know? How people want to connect with you. I think that’s more of the focus, rather than, like, whether you get to the chorus before 45 seconds.”
Exploring issues relevant both to her own intersection of identities and those who can relate to her experiences – without being lazily put into boxes – is something the singer has given a lot of thought to. “To me, it’s a question of, ‘How do I want to represent myself and my community?’ It’s making sure that I’m honouring those stories and actually telling them in a really smart way, [so] that people singing it might not even know that that’s what [a song is] about. On first listen, This Hell just sounds like a fun time.”
Sexuality in Sawayama’s universe isn’t something to be gawked over: there are no skeezy male record executives choosing schoolgirl outfits and pulling strings – just a queer woman writing about queer acceptance, love, and pride. It’s a clear sign of how things in the industry are moving forward.
“I think the influence of Lil Nas X has been so important. And being close to someone like Elton [John] as well, and hearing about his story.”
Authenticity and making certified bangers are certainly not mutually exclusive, though. Beg For You, the noughties club-inspired Charli XCX hit she features on, is a case in point. “The more I work, and the more I meet other artists, I realize that they are so in control of what they do. When I meet people like Charli, and we chat about music – Charli makes every single decision, she really does. And that’s allowed me to be more in control of what I do, and to have my own boundaries.”
Thanks to therapy, boundaries are something Sawayama has been practising. They’re in place when it comes to the new album too. “With this record, there’s a lot of personal things [explored in it]. But what’s beautiful about music and art is that there’s space for people to create their own perceptions and connect to it in their own way. And I don’t want to fill the narrative around the album so much that people can’t listen to it any other way.”
Although she didn’t dream of fame, Sawayama’s aspirations are clear, “I don’t want to be a niche artist. I want to write huge songs. But I don’t want to lose what’s important to me.”
This is an excerpt from Porter’s cover feature. To see the full interview follow this link to Porter.